Cold breakers cut white lines through blue tinted waters. Despite the sizeable waves gnawing on the sand, the beach was crowded. Beyond, sun-drenched hills covered in shrub and cacti serrated the horizon. In the city, heavy traffic choked the strained freeway system and, barely discernible in the gray smog, enormous mountains loomed like immovable clouds in the distance, their bases veiled by concrete clutter and fog.
Momentarily one could mistake the scene for southern California, but the illusion would not last long.
The beaches were more crowded, the hills drier and the mountains several thousand feet higher and a magnitude more serious. Also, the avocado drenched hotdogs, called "completos," for sale at every food stand were a clear sign — we were somewhere south of the border, far south in fact.
The traffic is by far worse than anything around Los Angeles. Vehicles packed from curb to curb, 45-minute stretches through half mile tunnels and no signage. Santiago, the capital of Chile, must be one of the few cities in the world with a well-built loop road that lacks all directional information.
Driving in Santiago is a mixture of intuition, guessing, hoping and lots of frustration that makes you clutch the wheel just to keep your hands from shaking. Guessing correct exits and left turns will get you only so far and Santiago is the least forgiving city I have ever driven in. The smallest mistake can cost hours. I should not complain though. As I voiced my frustration, a fellow traveler said I apparently had never driven in Mexico City or China. I don't think I would want to.
The beaches were more crowded, the hills drier and the mountains several thousand feet higher and a magnitude more serious.
Beyond Chile's busy and crowded capital of roughly five million people, the road opened up, the traffic eased and even though signage remained ambiguous, the countryside was more forgiving. After a lengthy flight, stretched to an unreasonable 14 hours by several delays, I landed sleepless in Santiago. A couple of hours throwing my head around on the pillow did not rejuvenate, but we had an appointment with the car rental. I recommend making reservation directly with the rental agency, otherwise things could get interesting. For example, a complete absence of cars could have you walking.
Chile is a long narrow country. More than 2,600 miles stretch south from the border of Peru through the driest desert in the world, along the spine of some of the highest mountains in the world, containing temperate rain forests and lake districts. Enormous volcanoes dot the landscape from north to south and in the far southern reaches of the country empty Patagonian steppe dominates, turning into utterly untouched and inaccessible wilderness on the tip of Tierra del Fuego.
In the mountains
With a country of many superlatives and huge distances, our plan was simple: Start in the middle, take a dip in the south central part of the country for volcanoes and lakes, and then explore the far south with its wide open spaces, winds and wilderness. In typical fashion we started with a place that would not even be found in the penciled section of most itineraries, La Campana National Park.
In 1834, Charles Darwin visited this unique corner of Chile and climbed the now famous Cerro La Campana. Like present day visitors, Darwin was fascinated by the geology, plant and animal life of the region. His visit is commemorated with a plaque near the mountain.
After some minor detours we reached the small town of Olmue, approximately two hours from Santiago, and were amazed to find an actual sign pointing us in the direction of the park.
In typical fashion we started with a place that would not even be found in the penciled section of most itineraries, La Campana National Park.
The park has two entrances on its western border, each with a ranger station and quiet campgrounds. We took a long look at the mountain and its steep slopes that have to be tackled to enjoy the view of the Pacific and Andes from the top and decided to appreciate it from a distance. A number of trails follow the shady canyon floor and lead uphill to historic mines. At sector Cajon Grande we followed the river for many miles, winding past cacti studded slopes and small cascades. Local visitors enjoyed the warm weather with a swim.
Leaving the mild climate of the coast, we headed for the true mountains. The Andes stretch more than 4,000 miles along the western spine of South America and reach their zenith at Aconcagua in Argentina. After wasting an inordinate amount of time trying to navigate the few dozen miles through Santiago, we finally arrived at the road leading into Canon del Maipo and the mountains.
Beyond the last town we stopped at Cascadas de las Animas were we settled for a good (but pricey) dinner and a not-so-good (but even pricier) room. The hotel was designed like an outdoor Disneyland, with rustic tents, cabins, zip lines, horseback riding, guided hikes, rafting and everything else that could be enjoyed beneath open sky.
Unfortunately, a cold snap and belligerent rain had everybody huddled inside. With the rain abating, we tackled a rough dirt road leading into the mountains the next morning. Plenty of rock fall kept us alert as we crept higher into the canyon. The winding road split and turned to gravel as we followed directions to Embalse del Yeso, a huge reservoir of steel blue color hemmed by dark mountains. The previous night had left a dusting of snow on the lower slopes.
We pushed the small rental past muddy holes and tight curves, ascending slowly, with ragged peaks of black and white flanking the steep valley. Near the base of the valley we spotted a herd of horses and a small ranch nearby. Two ruddy-faced children wearing heavy clothes walked along a stream, gathering scattered goats. Less than three hours from the hubbub of Santiago, this scene lay before us as if unchanged for the last hundred years.
The road deteriorated and we didn't want to risk the rental. Two kilometers further the track ended and beyond waited enormous mountains and Argentina.
Once out of the chaos of Santiago, the countryside of central Chile opens up and offers a great variety of landscapes. The rocky coastal strip and beaches to the west are backed by beautiful hills, excellent for hiking. To the east, several large canyons and immense mountains hold many adventures, from climbing, camping, and rafting. One or two weeks can easily be filled in central Chile.