Cajón del Maipo
Probably the most popular quick excursion for Santiaguinos looking to escape into some pastoral calm, this Andean valley was cut by the Maipo river, which cuts a wide swathe from the high mountains to the sea.
Along its way, it gathers water from tributaries that run in cascading series of waterfalls through secluded valleys. The river itself runs over Class III and IV rapids that can be navigated on guided rafting tours arranged in San José de Maipo, the main town in the Cajón, or ‘Canyon’.
Other popular sites in the Cajón are the Baños Morales and Colinas hot springs, and the El Morado National Monument – a spectacular piece of alpine mountain scenery, complete with a glacier. The El Yeso Dam is another great attraction, forming a magnificent lake surrounded by high peaks. Those looking to get away from it all can ask around in any of the small towns scattered along the road for good valleys to camp.
From downtown Santiago, the Cajón can be reached entirely by public transit. Take Metro Line 4 to its final stop, Plaza Puente Alto, then pick up bus MB72 one block over, heading south on Santo Domingo. This will take you as far as San José de Maipo, where you can easily find a colectivo or local bus for further service into the valley. If driving yourself, simply pass through Puente Alto to Route G-25, which follows the river all the way to the Argentine border.
Yerba Loca Sanctuary
Declared a National Sanctuary in 1973, Yerba Loca covers 96,000 acres (39,000 ha.) of Andean foothills and mountains on the fringes of Santiago’s eastern residential district of Lo Barnechea. Just 16 miles (25 km) from Santiago along the same road that leads to the ski resorts at Farellones and El Colorado, Yerba Loca Sanctuary makes an ideal spot for camping amidst Andean forests, and allows trekking to glacial valleys and 19,000 ft (6,000 m) summits like La Paloma.
Located 25 kilometers from Santiago on the road to the ski centers is a curve that has a checkpoint belonging to the Conaf, the institution in charge of Chilean parks. After another four kilometers you reach Villa Paulina, a small Andean forest with campsites, from where you can trek to glacial valleys and summits like La Paloma, approximately 6,000 meters high. Home to much Andean wildlife, Yerba Loca Sanctuary is a good place for spotting eagles, peucos (a bird of prey), and Andean foxes.
La Campana National Park centers on the Cerro La Campana, or La Campana Hill, which would surely be classified as a mountain did it not run alongside the mighty Andes.
The landscape here is among the most characteristic of the central region. Home to many protected, endemic species of plant and animal, the park is an ideal place to see the mild, fertile central valleys of Chile in their natural form, untouched by the agricultural industry that dominates much of the region. Camp grounds, hiking trails and picnic areas are spread throughout the park’s nearly 20,000 acre (8,000 ha) extent.
The nearest access point to the park is the town of Olmue, between Santiago and Valparaíso. Buses are available from Alameda Bus Terminal and take roughly two hours.
This stunning waterfall pours off a cliff-face in the mountains just outside Santiago, and though it is only an easy day hike from the eastern edge of the city in La Reina, it feels worlds away.
On summer weekends the pools below the waterfall and surrounding rocks are a popular spot for many Santiaguinos, so Salto Apoquindo may not be the most isolated natural attraction near Santiago, but it is among the easiest to reach, and its popularity amongst families makes it a great spot to catch a glimpse of Chilean life in action.
Unlike any of the attractions above, Salto Apoquindo can be reached from downtown Santiago entirely by foot, though the hike is not short, and the sun can be quite strong on summer afternoons. For information on reaching the Salto, contact Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), who administer the land surrounding the falls.