Up the Cajón del Maipo to Termas de Valle de Colina

Termas Valle de Colina

At first look, the bus that was going to take us up a narrow mountain road into the Andes was not confidence-inspiring. It was an aged, silver Mercedes, a dinged up, dusty rattle-trap with a dented rear side panel and seats that were permanently lodged in a semi-reclined position, neither fully up, nor fully down. Not exactly the sort of South American bus, overladen with paisanos y pollos, that habitually plunge over 3,000-foot cliffs in Bolovia, but close enough to make me worried. Nor was I comforted by the the driver who would pilot this machine. Haggard and thin, with a pock-marked face and a furrowed brow, he had seen a few hard miles himself, and was clearly not the sort to offer false assurance to his passengers.

But, by 8am on Saturday morning, we’d stowed our luggage and lunches, climbed aboard, and juddered off for the Termas Valle de Colina, a famous hot springs at the far end of Cajón del Maipo.

Cajón del Maipo is one of those close-to-the-city places, like Long Island or Malibu, that figures bigger in a nation’s consciousness and culture than it does in its geography. A narrow slice of canyon lancing south-eastward from Santiago into the cordillera, the Maipo’s been a weekend getaway for Santiagueños and a source of fresh fruit and odd legends for more than two centuries.

Because of its ready access to water and a decent climate, the prehistory of the Maipo valley goes back at least 10,000 years, with Indians and Incans, copper smelting and rock art. Its recorded history, begun when Valdavia arrived in Chile in 1542, is mostly stories of prospectors, herbalists, and stockmen running cattle and sheep up into the high meadows in summer. By 1792, the silver mines in the valley were pulling out enough metal to justify the foundation of a town, San Jose del Maipo, at a spot about 30 miles out from Santiago.

Most of the big events in the area happened in the early 19th century. In January of 1817, a tiny detachment of the Army of the Andes crossed the Argentine Paso de Portillo, at 14,200 feet, and the Paso de Piuquenes, (now on the international border) at 13,220 feet, and descended the Maipo so as to divert the attention of the Spanish, allowing the rest of the army to cross further to the north. The ruse worked, and the liberator José de San Martín was able to join up with the other liberator, Bernardo O’Higgins, and win independence for Chile. This high-lonesome route is now popular with people who take a week and do it on foot, mountain bike, or horseback.

Speaking of recreating the trip, in 1835, Charles Darwin left Santiago, went up the Maipo and over the mountains along the same route to Mendoza, Argentina. His observations on the geology of the Andes proved to be, as most of his other observations, ahead of their time and fairly accurate. Here’s a sample of Darwin on the Cajón del Maipo:

“On each side of the ridge we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered with a fresh layer. When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms; the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow; all these together produced a scene no-one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah”

Rattling up the road out of Santiago I didn’t get much of a chance to validate Darwin’s observations, concerned as I was with my own observations of Chilean bus-driving techniques.

On the one hand, the Chileans are the most cautious and responsible drivers in South America. Their police are good, their DUI laws strict, and their paved roads moderately well maintained. Compared to Argentines, for whom every traffic sign is a challenge to their masculinity, every pedestrian a potential hood ornament, Chilean drivers are the proverbial little old ladies.

Compared to American drivers, however, the average Chilean bus driver is Dale Junior’s evil twin, drafting into the sweet spot behind Kia subcompacts, playing the maestro on a symphony of horn. And yet, after an hour of gripping tightly to the broken arm rest of my broken seat, I began to relax.

God was with us, and our driver, a man who had appeared at first glance to be a cough syrup addict, was revealed in truth to be a skilled practitioner of the art of driving over rough terrain. By the time we left the paved road, at the head of the canyon near the village of San Gabriel, it had become clear that his skills were mighty indeed. The weaving back and forth I had taken as a sign that the Robitussin was kicking in, was actually a strategy designed to prevent the bus from bottoming out on the giant boulders that littered the roadbed.

One cultural note: Chileans will drive anything anywhere. They’re not afraid to take a Ford Ka (essentially a Hot Wheels car) or an aging, fully-loaded bus and drive it to a distant hot springs at the end of thirty miles of vicuña track. For example, in 2007, pair of Chileanos took a lightly-modified Suzuki Samurai and drove it nearly to the top of the world’s tallest volcano, 21,942 feet up, a world record. (Undoubtedly, when they got there, they found a old Chilean woman in a tin shack selling pan amasado and roasted goat.)

Parking at Valle de Colina
Parking lot at Termas Valle de Colina. Note the subcompact cars. (Click to see bigger image.)

So, as we were rumbling down the road, passing and being passed by every sort of vehicle known to Chileankind, I began to get into the trip. Even the threat of death, ever present in the Andes, seemed to recede.

When we finally arrived at the termas, at the end of the road, 9,000 feet in the air, there were no trees, just rocks, sun, dirt, and the muddy brown river racing through a half-mile wide valley. A clear stream tumbled down on the other side, directly opposite us, a waterfall visible at the farthest spot. The hot springs, eight pools arranged on a hillside, from hottest to coolest, were fed from a hole in side of the mountain. The water was salty, not sulfurous, and 160 degrees fahrenheit at the source.

The young people I was with raced off the bus and up the hill to change and dive in. I climbed up after them, felt the water, watched them splash about yelping at the heat, and then sat down in the only shade available, on the porch of the plywood hut that served as a changing room.

The hot springs were not pleasant. Pleasant is not a word you can use in the Andes. The temperature was mild in the shade, but the sun was skin-peeling in the open. The Chileans scooped up gray mud from the bottom of the pools and smeared it on their faces and shoulders, the young people followed their lead. The wind whipped across the valley, blowing hats off heads, and throwing dirt into eyes. The atmosphere was thin and dry. Dust covered everything and I could feel the sharpness of the rocks through the soles of my shoes.

I stared out at the valley, and realized it was exactly as Darwin had described: intensely blue skies, a landscape of ancient rubble, and a profound silence betokening God’s presence. Awe is not a pleasant emotion, it’s not comforting or kindly. It’s unsettling.

We ate our lunch inside the bus, or huddled against it, the only shade we had. And as the afternoon grew late, I hiked across the river and up alongside the creek to within earshot of the waterfall, turning back only when the trail narrowed.

When I returned to the bus, Señor Driver was returning from a dip in the termas, toweling his hair. He had changed into a t-shirt and a pair of denim shorts that fell below the knees, like pedal-pushers, or board shorts. I saluted him, and wished him well. I was not unduly worried about the trip down the mountain. Any man who could wrangle a second-hand bus into the distant Andes could surely wrangle it back down again, no matter what he was wearing.