Sunday, February 14, 2010

And the excursions begin: El Cajón de Maipo

I laced up my hiking boots, stuffed my big camera into my bag and whipped my hair into a Lara Croft braid at 6:30 a.m. to power walk the 30 minutes to the metro station Saturday. At 8 a.m. I climbed into a rickety van with a spacey Canadian construction student, a Norwegian senior Hydroelectric engineer with some impressive eyebrows, and a teeny Brazilian woman who studies at my school for a one-day trekking excursion into El Cajón de Maipo. "We have to use an old vehicle because the road we're taking would ruin a new car," our guide Alejandro said.

After an hour and a half of driving away from the capital we stopped at the village of San José del Maipo, a world away from modern Santiago. A grocer in a hair net made us jamón y queso sandwiches that we packed for lunch. We continued into the wilderness for two hours, where the road soon dissolved into a dirt trail with the sort of bumps and curves I've only seen on SUV commercials. I felt my organs bouncing inside me and avoided looking down at the steep ledges and thinking about blown out tires and other vehicle malfunctions. The dust our van stirred up was so thick I could taste it. The path is impassable in the winter due to avalanches, so the few goat farmers that live in the area move away during the dangerous season. No one bothers to make a real road because it will inevitably be destroyed every winter.

We stopped at El Embalse del Yeso, a glass-like, deep-turquoise-colored lake with snow capped mountains in the background on our way to El Parque del Valle del Yeso. It's a giant private reserve beside Argentina (it's a three-kilometer, one-day trek over the mountains to the border) lacking any tourist infrastructure or marked trails. We acclimated to the altitude at Las Termas del Plomo, thermal glacial springs fed by a waterfall cascading over an orange rock wall. Our hike took us deep into the valley, so profound that it's name, cajón, is the Spanish word for box. Low green shrubs spotted the desert mountains, where Alejandro stopped to point out lizards, wildflowers, and the rock piles of fossilized oysters and snail shells (one monster mollusk was perfectly intact) from a prehistoric era when ocean covered the valley.

The wind blew and the sun beat on us as we climbed along a waterfall up a mountain. (Despite repeated applications of SPF 30 my nose is now so red that it glows.) I had to use my hands to crawl up at times, and we all stopped every five minutes to adjust to the altitude. Nick the Canadian guy, who periodically paused to chug his liter of Fanta, lagged behind and heaved with exhaustion.

After nearly two hours of climbing we came to a clear, turquoise lake at the summit. It's a secret that Alejandro said his father found as a mountain climber -- I believe him because I couldn't find anything about it (or the park) listed in my guidebooks. The water flows from the glaciers above and is pure enough to drink. "Es el agua de los dioses," Alejandro said. Still, I only had the nerve to take one sip over lunch. (How can it be so clean if it's floating over dirt?) Stein from Norway listened to Pink Floyd on his smart phone as he took in the view, and Nick the Canadian smoked a cigarette while I snapped away on my Nikon. The steep walk down was even trickier than our ascent with the loose dirt and rocks. I couldn't take my eyes off my dirt-encrusted boots.

On the drive home we stopped at a small goat farm. Inside the shanty-like house I bought a kilogram block (one-size-only) of goat cheese made the day before for $5 to share with my host family. And less than four hours later we were back to Santiago, civilization and the world of metros and public bathrooms.

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