Just to the South of Santiago, directly east of the community they call “La Florida” the road turns east and heads straight up into the Andes. One hour climb from the level terrain of the city and you have come upon what is called the “Cajon de Maipu” and the “Baños Morales”. Climb another hour and you reach what is called “Baños Colina”.
The road from La Florida inclines for the whole journey but is not to steep. The pavement runs out about half way up but the slope is such that you can make it in an ordinary passenger vehicle. A 4×4 is not required. You can also take a bus there as you can in most places in Chile although the bus goes no further than the Cajon de Maipo.
The Cajon de Maipo is really just a little village with 5 or 6 full-time residents one full-time resident named “Luis” told me. Luis lives there with his wife in a soundly built wooden house heated with firewood but with no electricity nor telephone. In the winter the passage there is completely cutoff and it would be impossible to descend from heights to Santiago. So it would be a long and cold winter up there were one to run short of fuel or food. And loney were one to lose one’s wife.
But in the spring and summer the Cajon de Maipu is overrun with tourists who have come to bathe in the thermal waters. The water comes bubbling out of the ground and for 2,000 pesos you can bath there in the relatively temperate 20 degree Celcius water. The water is the mud colour of sulfur but without the noxious smell of sulfur dioxide. As with most hot water springs you find around the world this one boasts a sign which tells you the chemical composition of this mineral water bath: sodium, potassium, chloride, and so forth. As if to highlight the orange color of the water men and women who have covered themselves in wet mud walk around the pool as if some kind of high Andes ghosts. They are waiting for the mud to dry which will then tighten and exfoliate the skin.
Twenty degrees celcius is fine for the air temperature but it is chilly for swimming. So if you want some really hot water to swim in climb up 1 hour more by car to the Baños Colina. There the water is 36 hot degrees. It is best to go at night when the sun is not so overbearing and the romance and thrill is greatest. The stars at this high elevation seem so close you can indulge yourself by counting falling ones as they zip by. Here even in the hot weather of spring and summer the air temperature falls to about 5 degrees at night so it is cold and a parka is required. It costs $6,000 pesos per person to float about in the hot water pools and people are allowed to camp there as well. It is quite magical to be so high in the Andes enjoying this swim in total darkness with your girlfriend or boyfriend. On a long weekend the pools can be crowded so it is best to go when it is not a holiday. When the pools are crowded the hottest water pools fill up and you might have to splash over to one not quite so balmy. Hold your breath as you exit the water to put back on your clothes before violent shivering sets. The key is to dress quickly.
Back down at the Cajon de Maipu there the terrain is not so bleak and there are cabañas you can rent. There is no grocery store so bringt enough food for the weekend and bring blankets because at this elevation it gets cold at night. A good day trip is to rent a house and go for a ride or to hike the 8 kilometers each way up to and back down from the glacier Morales. At the bottom a park ranger will take your name so that if you disappear en route someone might know where you have been lost. The walk up is sort of steep for the first kilometer or so then levels of nicely until you reach a small lake there. Continue 30 minutes more and you come to the foot of a glacier which runs straight up the mountain with towering mounds of snow twisted into odd shapes by the forces of gravity and melting. The higher your climb the younger the trekkers for the difficulty of the hike requires a sound physical stature. On the glacier itself a few daring souls might be found camping on the snow. There are signs that say no camping allowed but people apparently ignore this as many of the people on the trail up and back were equipped with more than just day packs.
The elevation here is only 1,800 meters so it is not difficult to breathe. Up at Baños Colina is is 2,500 meteres which is stilll very high but not so high you will find yourself grasping for breath. The sun in so brillant that sun blocker is required. The air is noticeably dry. When it is not a holiday weekend you could probably just show up and find a cabaña to rent but otherwise it would be best to arrange accomodations in advance. It is best to go when it is not holiday too so that the thermales are not overfilled with loud and vulgar speaking people.