The city of Santiago sits in a deep valley sandwiched between the snow-capped Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range. After spending a few days in the city it was time for Guil and I to get a feel for what the Andes — the longest continental mountain range in the world — have to offer.
We were lucky to find ourselves in one of the seven South American countries the mountains cross.
You can reach the cordillera, as the range is called in Spanish, in as little as an hour from Santiago, but it can be difficult to get around without a car. Fortunately AndoAndes provided an easy solution for car-less travelers like us.
The Chilean tour company focuses on connecting tourists to the natural beauty found in the Andes (think glaciers, waterfalls, ancient forests… etc.) with day trips leaving from Santiago.
Guil and I were determined to tackle a 16-kilometer hike through a national park in Cajon del Maipo; however, the trek was canceled because there weren’t enough people. Instead we opted for a scenic tour to Embalse el Yeso, an emerald-green reservoir surrounded by white-tipped mountains.
Day Trip to Embalse el Yeso
We met AndoAndes at 6:30 a.m. in Santiago and soon began the exhilarating drive toward Cajon del Maipo, one of Chile’s largest natural areas.
The tour guides, Gonzalo and Felipe, were nice enough to stop at a convenient store before heading up the mountains so we could pick up water, snacks and whatever else we needed for the day.
Cajon del Maipo is one of 52 communes that make up the Santiago Metropolitan Region, Gonzalo explained. It was interesting to learn how the country is geographically organized. Chile is a conjunction of 15 regions; regions are divided into provinces; which are themselves divided into communes.
Our first stop included breakfast at the small mountain town of San Jose del Maipo. Guil and I grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant and walked around the town’s main square. After 45 minutes of free time we were on our way again.
Our second stop was an abandoned railway tunnel that is supposedly haunted. Yes, you read that right!
A young student named Willy committed suicide within the tunnel years ago, and to this day, many people cross it to reach his memorial on the other side. There people leave gifts thanking the young man’s ghost for helping them in one way or another. Our driver Felipe dropped us off at the mouth of the Ferroviario del Tinoco tunnel, and Gonzalo instructed us to walk the length of the creepy passageway as it holds a special place in many Chilean hearts.
We accepted the challenge!
Five minutes later we emerged on the other side feeling slightly spooked.
Our journey to Embalse el Yeso continued, the tiny, winding road leading us deeper into the mountain range. The longer we drove, the higher the peaks became. Soon the paved road would end, and a ragged, dirt one would take its place.
I couldn’t peel my eyes off the giants surrounding us; their pastel-colored skin now exposed in the summer sun. The beauty must multiply in the winter.
We had a quick bathroom break before arriving at the Yeso dam, where we drove to three different viewpoints to escape the large crowd of tourists picnicking at the first stop. Like AndoAndes many companies offer a wine and cheese picnic as part of the tour package, and most of them set up tables at the first viewpoint of the reservoir.
Because it is actually illegal to drink alcohol in public in Chile, Gonzalo explained that AndoAndes holds their picnic at a local restaurant instead.
Guil and I were both amazed at our driver’s expertise driving on the narrow dirt road that led to each viewpoint. Nothing separated the van from the steep drop toward the lagoon below. Several construction trucks were using the same road prompting Felipe to carefully maneuver around them (with little to no space to spare).
The El Yeso lagoon is a spectacular backdrop for photos. The surrounding Andes and the turquoise waters quite literally take your breath away. Although the rocky terrain was beautiful, we imagine the scenery must look even more spectacular when the mountains are covered in snow.
We were given 45 minutes of free time where the reservoir ends, an area aptly called “The Beach.”
After a couple of more stops at other attractions (we saw a glacier from a distance!) we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. AndoAndes provided us with a gourmet sandwich, which was quite tasty, as well as an abundant spread of cheese, nuts, salami and olives accompanied with two bottles of Chilean wine.
The picnic truly complemented the tour and was the cherry on top of a beautiful day spent in the Andes.
Note: We were provided with a discount for a day tour with AndoAndes. However, all thoughts and opinions are our own.