Baños Morales, Chile
Monday morning I was off on another trip with EcoChile. This time it was a hike to San Francisco Glacier fronting the fabulous El Morado, one of the mountain peaks in the Andes near Santiago (elevation (5060 m or 16,600 feet).
I was picked up promptly by Alejandro and found I was being joined by Reece from Australia, but living in Mongolia working for an Australian mining company, and Ruth from London, but working in Berlin as a photographer and web content writer. Turned out to be perfect companions. Smart, well traveled and obviously very, very interesting.
We traveled for about an hour out of Santiago to the little town of San José de Maipo, in the Maipo Valley all the while talking about the various trips each of us had taken, the work we did and our dream trips. It was fabulous company.
The drive itself was also interesting. The road was narrow and took a number of twists and turns through colorful little villages, farms and wineries and one store towns. As we drove towards the Andes and San José de Maipo, clouds started rolling in. Uh oh. Alejandro said it was very unusual for this time of year. In fact, it was the first clouds he had seen in January or February. He said we needed to hope they burn off. (However, he did not sound at all optimistic. Double Uh oh.
Anyway, we reached San José de Maipo by 10:00 a.m. Reese and Ruth had a cup of coffee and I grabbed some water while Alejandro picked up our lunches. Once we were stocked, it was off to Baños Morales a mountain village, which would be our starting point.
Now the road to Baños Morales was something else. The first part of the drive from San José de Maipo was not bad although it was a full of a lot of turns through the lowland mountains. (If you are prone to carsickness this would not be the trip for you.) The second part of the drive, however, added a new twist for our riding enjoyment: very, very rough gravel roads. YIKES. Now this was not just bumpy roads, this was full on child size swimming pool pot holes. Then add on top of that the fact that mining trucks with huge loads were roaring down the road at us and the level of “excitement” was through the roof. After some white knuckles and close calls, we reached Baños Morales at around 11:15, but not before I was certain I needed a new spine and set of teeth. Good God!
We took a quick bathroom break, grabbed our water bottles and packs and set off for the start of the trail. As we stared up (and I mean wayyyyy up) in the distance towards the mountain we were climbing towards, all we could see were clouds. It did not look good and some of the clouds were looking pretty dark. Nevertheless, we headed out.
Before we set out, I knew this was going to be a pretty challenging hike at 16 km (almost 10 miles). However, the real challenge I thought would be the altitude. According to the EcoChile website, the hike was to begin at 1900 meters above sea level (6,234 feet) and continue up to 2500 meters above sea level (8,202 feet). However, nowhere did I read about the fact that the majority of the elevation climb would take place in the first 45 minutes. Holy Sweet Baby Jesus. I thought I was going to keel over. It was literally STRAIGHT UP.
Now Alejandro and Reese climb mountains for sport (both have climbed Anaperna in the Himalayas – thought to be the toughest climb in the world) so this was no big deal for them. And Ruth was a 20 something, in very good shape. Me? I’m in good shape, but I don’t have 20 something legs, feet or back. So by the time we reached the top of the climb where the path flattens out, I wasn’t sure I could make the entire trek. I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. Nevertheless, I pushed on.
As we continued to walk, I was actually thankful it was cloudy. Had the sun been out, I think I would have been in trouble.
The path we trekked was not easy either. No smooth path. This was all stones and rocks left by glaciers and landslides. However, the landscape was beautiful and there were birds and flowers everywhere as well as the trickle of a river, which I suspected was flowing down from the glacier (which proved to be correct).
After the initial 45 minutes hike up, the trail entered a valley where the trail joined up with an old road that continued to zigzag at a much more gradual incline. After about an hour into the hike, the valley narrowed and we stopped at Panimávida Waters, which was comprised of a number of mineral water wells. We each took a turn at tasting the water, and although this was “pure” mineral water, it was far too bitter for my taste.
After the very brief (and I mean VERY brief) respite, we pushed on, chatting all the way, which was an awful lot easier now that I could actually breath.
As we trekked on, Alejandro became increasingly concerned about the weather as the wind had now picked up and we were occasionally feeling a drop of rain. The temperature had also dropped so I was very happy I had (1) worn my hiking pants and (2) had brought along my waterproof Patagonia jacket.
Anyway, after this point in the hike, the incline decreased and the hiking was much, much easier. The path continued up the valley, but the impressive south face of Morado never appeared as a backdrop for our hike.
After another 45 minutes of hiking through pretty easy albeit rocky terrain, we reached Laguna de Morales, a small lake where we were supposed to have lunch before hiking the last half hour to San Francisco Glacier. However, Alejandro did not think we should stop and instead suggested we push towards the Glacier. I deferred to his better judgment, although I REALLY wanted to just rest for a bit. The group voted to push on so off we set. (And still no view of El Morado.)
The last half hour of the hike towards San Francisco Glacier was very cold with the wind really gusting and the rain spitting a little harder. In addition, because we were nearing the primary area of the glacier, the trail became even more rocky making it extremely difficult to walk quickly without turning an ankle or wrenching a knee (which fortunately I did neither).
By 1:30 we reached San Francisco Glacier. YAY, but no El Morado. We sat and had lunch on the rocks looking towards the glacier. Lunch might have been the best food I ever tasted (or maybe it was because I was ravenous and tired). There was a wonderful steak sandwich, an apple, a granola bar and a juice box. Seriously … it was fabulous (or again maybe it was just that I was ravenous and tired).
As we sat there, what was startling to me was how much of the glacier was covered in dirt. Apparently, during the last major earthquake about two years ago (Chile is VERY prone to quakes and fortunately, I have not felt one while here) there was a landslide that covered parts of the glacier making it look like dirt rather than a glacier. (But trust me, I got close enough to see dripping to assure you global warming is still doing its thing.)
Anyway, while we were eating lunch a young woman, Josefine, joined up with us. She was from Munich and had hiked up by herself. She was on a year long trip throughout South America and had been backbacking and camping around the area. She asked if she could join us on the hike down. Why not? So once we spent a bit of time looking at the glacier, it was back the way we had come.
Now the trek back seemed like a walk in the park (literally). While my feet were sore, it was a mental thing to know that it was all downhill (so to speak … you can groan here if you like). Unfortunately, the weather did not want to cooperate for another two and half hours so instead of being able to hike back down without getting wet, the rain started to come down a little harder.
By the time we reached the crest where we had to hike straight down, the rain had turned to a sleet and hail mixture. (And the hail really hurt.) The weird part was that the storm was coming down in squalls. It would pour down, then stop. It would pour down, then stop. It was miserable weather. Meanwhile, in the mountains in the distance, what had been bare rock was now covered in snow. Yikes!
By now I was wet and cold and just wanted to crawl into a warm bed. I was also lagging behind everyone. I was concerned about slipping on the very steep slope (I did not want to ruin the rest of my trip) so I took a bit more time to hike down the mountain. Alejandro stayed reasonably close to me, but Reece, Ruth and Josefine were speed walking to get out of the brutal wind hail and rain. Pretty soon they were just little dots below me.
I finally made it through the last part of the trail and pulled into the cabin as they were finishing off their apples from lunch. Oh well. Ten minutes behind, but I made it.
I grabbed a couple bottles of water. Downed them and hopped in the car. We were going to give Josefina a ride back to Santiago, but first we were headed to Baños Colina hot springs, at the bottom San José volcano (which of course we could not see).
The 45 minute ride to Baños Colina hot springs was perhaps worse than the drive from San José de Maipo to Baños Morales. Huge rocks and huge pot holes as well as rivers running across the “road”. It was something else.
However, it was completely worth it. We reached the hot springs, walked from the car to the changing rooms, pulled on our swimsuits and ran from the changing room into the water. The air was freezing and the wind was brutal, but the hot springs were AWESOME! Hot, hot, hot. It wasn’t long before I was feeling warm and a lot less achy and thoroughly enjoying Reece’s stories about Mongolia (apparently Mongolians are not a very friendly, attractive race), and Ruth’s stories about her work.
After about 45 minutes, we changed back into our semi dry clothes and joined Alejandro at the car for some wine, nuts, chips, cheese and crackers. We “scarfed” it all down in record time. As Reece noted, we were all a “bit peckish”. (Love those Aussies.)
The 2 1/2 hour ride back to Santiago was pretty quiet. (Even Reece admitted he was sore and tired.) As we drove down out of the mountains, we passed by goat herders bringing the goats back in from the fields for the day, and through all the same little villages. We finally reached Santiago just after 9 as the sun was setting. And I know it may not read like it, but It had been an awesome, albeit exhausting day.
My only negative comment extends to the weather gods for cheating me out of the magnificent views to the beautiful glaciers and of course El Morado. I could barely walk, my entire body hurt and I had been denied the entire reason I went on the climb. However, the company had been fabulous, the hike lots of fun and the hot springs the perfect ending. In reflection, that really was enough.