Cajón del Maipo

Exactly one month ago today, I arrived at SCL Airport of Santiago, Chile. It has literally taken me close to an entire month just to gather my bearings and learn my way around my new city. There is just so much to see and do here, that even now, I know I could find some crazy awesome thing to do every day without ever leaving Santiago. But although a part of me is tempted to keep exploring here to find the hidden treasures of Santiago, I know that this is not the way I want to spend my entire semester abroad. I came to Chile not only to live in a big city, study in a fancy university, and experience the museums, parks, and restaurants of Santiago, but also to see the world! I want to travel! I want to go climb mountains, swim in the ocean, surf in the sand! Raft down a river, jump off cliffs, bathe in hot springs! Hike up a glacier, talk with the natives… you get the picture. So anyways, within the past week or so I have really started to feel comfortable in Santiago, so I knew it was time for me to start the rest of my Chilean adventures. I wouldn’t want to make anything too easy, would I? So after lots of planning, my friends Payton, Sarah, and Sara, and I decided to take a day trip to explore the nearby Andes in an area called Cajón del Maipo, which literally translates to Maipo Canyon.

According to all the websites we found about tourism in Cajón del Maipo, the place is easy enough to get to. You can either take a bus or a collectivo (a cheap version of a taxi) from Santiago to a city called San José del Maipo, and from there, another collectivo or bus will take you where you want to go.

We headed off in the morning with no problems. One of my friends’ host moms was pretty paranoid about us heading out on our own, so we took a collectivo on the way there because they are apparently a lot safer than the buses, but they only cost about a dollar more. We paid our driver, got out at San José, and were instantly greeted by a huge mob of 8 or 10 stray dogs. Unfortunately, these were not like the friendly, cute dogs that roam the streets of Santiago and the courtyards of the university. These were more like the dogs that you see in horror movies chasing after little kids during the night and trying to bite them and give them rabies. Yes, they really were that scary. Half of them were missing ears, or had bite marks on part of their faces from the other dogs. One of the dogs literally looked like Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter- he had the creepiest eye I have ever seen in my life. All of these crazy dogs were jumping on each other and ‘playing’, which was more like trying to eat the other dogs alive. We tried walking away from them calmly, but I guess these dogs really like visitors because they refused to leave us alone. I think these dogs had a bit of dementor blood (yes, another Harry Potter reference) because they seemed to be even more encouraged by fear. Sarah and I were both terrified of the beasts, so naturally the two biggest and most aggressive dogs continued to follow us. We literally ran away from them to the tourist office, where we locked ourselves inside, got the information we needed, and sprinted over to the collectivos. Boy was I happy when we got inside that taxi on the way to our final destination: San Alfonso!

Both my host mom and the lady in the tourist office had told us that San Alfonso was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cajón del Maipo, so we expected it to be pretty busy, since we were there on a Saturday. The taxi driver dropped us off in front of a place where you could go hiking up to a waterfall, but we soon found out that in order to hike there, you had to pay almost $20. We figured if San Alfonso was really such a popular tourist destination, there had to be other places to hike, so we went off to explore a little more and see what else we could find.

Walking through the town was the strangest experience ever: there was literally no one out on the streets besides us. If San Alfonso was the popular tourist destination, I can’t even imagine the other cities. Have they ever seen a visitor? So we kept walking in random directions hoping to miraculously come across a nice hiking trail, with no luck. Finally, a man walks by, and since I was thinking at this point that he was the only other living soul in the town, I asked him if he knew of anywhere we could go hiking for free. He was confused at first, but then all of a sudden he was like ‘OHHH you guys want to go trekking!’ As if trekking was a completely different thing from hiking, which I am pretty sure it is not. So the man told us that if we turned at the next road, we would eventually come to a trailhead. We thanked him, went up to the place he had showed us, and started walking up the road. After about 30 seconds of walking on the road, we started hearing some noises getting louder and louder…. And before we realized what was happening, there were 3 or 4 big dogs running straight towards us barking ferociously. My friends and I looked at each other for a split second before sprinting off in the opposite direction- it took us nearly 2 blocks to completely lose the dogs, and by then we had given up any hope of going on that hike.

So we started walking back into town, thinking that maybe the $20 hike wasn’t such a bad option, when all of a sudden a truck drives by, stops, and we saw the driver was the same guy who gave us directions before. Seriously, was he the only person who lives in San Alfonso? He asked us why we weren’t trekking, we told him about the dogs, and before we knew what was happening, he told us to hop into the cargo bed of his truck. Yes, yes, I know it was not a good idea, but trust me, it was not like this guy was trying to lock us in the truck and kidnap us. If anything, we should have been worried about staying IN the truck, because Chileans are crazy drivers. But we made it safely up the street in the back up the pickup, with the dogs frantically running behind us and barking even louder than before!

So anyways, we had to squeeze through a gap in the fence to start the hike, but there was a nice path, so we decided it was worth a try. We hiked for probably 2 hours, uphill, on a path that was relatively easy. There was only one tricky spot we had to cross where the path became ridiculously narrow and was right next to a really steep part of the mountain, but with our incredible mountain climbing skills, we made it through! We decided to break for lunch- trust me, there is nothing quite like a picnic halfway up a mountain in the Andes! We got a little surprise halfway through our meal when another dog came out of nowhere. Let’s just say we all had a moment of panic before we realized that (thankfully) this was one of the nice, non-violent dogs. But either way, we were prepared- Sara had brought a knife with her to peel her kiwi for lunch, and we were ready to use to it to defend ourselves if necessary!

Since the dog looked like she was going to be sticking around for a while, we came up with a name for her using all our creative juices: Mascota, which literally means ‘Pet’. I think our reasoning was that we wanted to convince ourselves she was not going to hurt us by giving her the tamest name we could think of. Turns out Mascota was about as loyal of a dog as you can ask for: she literally led the way for us the entire rest of the way up the mountain and back down again, waiting for us when we fell behind.

We eventually got to a point where the trail stopped, but we were so close to the top of the mountain, we continued on anyways, using Mascota as our guide. After a rough 30 minutes, we finally reached the top, but the view was well worth the trek!

The crazy thing was that literally 5 minutes after we got to the top of the mountain, huge clouds started rolling in from every direction, and before long, we literally could not see any of the mountains around us. It was the craziest feeling to be on a mountain in the middle of the Andes without being able to see anything but cloud around you. We tried waiting out the clouds, but after a while we figured we might as well try making our way back down to the path slowly. It was a steep route down, but we eventually made it back below the clouds, and safe and sound back to the bottom of the mountain! All our little trail markers we had left on the way up paid off big-time because we didn’t get lost at all!

Sorry for the short novel—it was a pretty crazy day, to say the least! I am now working on planning the rest of my adventures, but it is really difficult, because there are so many incredible places in Chile that I would love to see! If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know 🙂

P.S. If you order chicken soup in Chile in a restaurant, this is what you get: soup broth with an entire chicken breast, a whole potato, and a big chunk of corn on the cob… before you can eat it you have to spend a good 10 minutes cutting everything up into pieces that are edible!