Stories from South America: Cajon del Maipo 2.0

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When you have a day off of school, you go somewhere. No exceptions. And when you have half of a day between two things, you use it. No exceptions. So one Friday we went to Valparaiso to explore and take pictures, returning to the apartments by 8pm. Then at 10pm, Lindsay and I went on the adventure of a lifetime.

The week before when the group went to the hot springs in Cajon Del Maipo, there were rumors that the driver came back at midnight every now and then, so with the help of Magda, we secured our spot on the next bus: the following Friday. We hailed a taxi nearby, and learned about our driver’s life through our broken Spanish and his immense patience. He dropped us off at a street corner, where the bus was supposed to be, and very hesitantly looked at our directions and cautioned us on the dangers of the dark streets. We got out and called the bus driver, in our broken Spanish, to figure out what was happening. We succeeded in nothing during that call, but eventually found a large group of people heading to the same place, breathed a sigh of relief, and waited with them.

Finally the bus arrived, and we jumped in the back with 40 Chileans who spoke no English, to drive up into the mountains in the dark. The ride is about 3 hours long, and as we got further from the city you could see the mountains illuminated by the full moon, and Orion begin to show himself above the hills. There was a flashing in the distance, so we spent a good while trying to figure out how to ask about storms in Spanish, to determine if it was safe to camp.

We pulled up around 2am and got off, grabbed our bags, and wandered up to the springs in the cold mountain air. We saw a group around a camp fire, so we walked near them and asked if it was safe to camp, because of the “light in the sky”. They responded with relief, casually telling us that it was just the volcano flashing over the ridge. That was probably the coolest thing I had heard yet. In our bewilderment we set up our little tent and jumped into the hot springs, steaming in the night. We laid there in these natural waters staring up into the Milky Way shining brightly above the perfectly illuminated Andes, with flashes of Volcan San Jose and shooting stars streaking through the night. It was perfect.


We ended up going to sleep in our little tent around 3:45am, after taking pictures of the mountains, stars, fires, and tents. The morning was somehow colder than the night. We woke up to the sun shining, but not yet touching our campsite. The neighbors had fire, so Lindsay went up to ask if we could borrow matches while I gathered small sticks into a fire pit. There is no wood in Cajon Del Maipo, so this was definitely a struggle, but eventually we had a nice little mound ready for flame. Just enough to thaw our fingers. We went through half of the matches before our next door tent neighbor came and offered assistance. He lit our fire, which we then killed, so he just offered us his own little fire. We ate our granola bars and he poured us coffee, as we sat to warm our hands and hear about his family, his job as a doctor, and so many other things (all in Spanish). Lindsay and I left the hour-long conversation dumbfounded, amazed that we were able to actually communicate for so long.

Once the sun began to hit our site, we packed up tents and moved further into the canyon. We walked along the river, moving up to a cliff, and rounding every ridge with the hopes of seeing the volcano. We never did.. but after about 2 or 3 hours of walking, we sat for lunch with our 360 degree view of the Andes. It was breathtaking, and we had the whole place to ourselves. After enjoying a typical salami-cheese-cracker camp lunch, we packed up and headed even further until finally the view broke open into a clear river snaking back into the canyon, past a field of wild horses grazing in the marsh. We walked further, amazed by the stallions, until eventually I saw a small ridge and sprinted up to see what was beyond. There was nothing, and sprinting up a mountain at 10,000 feet isn’t the easiest or smartest thing ever. So I returned to Lindsay, we grabbed our packs, and began to trek back to the bus. The day was perfect. We were able to catch up, wander in the mountains, be dirty, take pictures, and as we crossed back over a small stream, we turned around to see a cowboy leading about fifteen stallions through the valley. We ran to a rock to get out of the way as these majestic creatures galloped up the slopes and ran past us, posing perfectly against the Andes. The cowboy rode by a little bit after, whistling a tune and asking us a question. I have no idea what he said, but he laughed at us when we tried to answer.

We came to a bridge at the river and decided to cross it, even though deep down I knew for a fact there was not a way back over, but for whatever reason, I guess I was ok with that. We walked along rocks and rivers and massive cliff faces, until finally we came to the intersection of the wide river with the rushing flow from the waterfall. I swore I would never encounter these waters again, which had stolen my hat the week before and humbled me to let one of the guys carry my camera gear across a ledge. And here we were. Some Chilean guys were yelling and pointing, telling us to go up to the falls, but I had been there and I knew there was no place to cross. After about 15 minutes of walking back and forth, knowing we were being watched and knowing we couldn’t get across, one of the guys suddenly appeared on our side. He literally crossed a raging river to save two trapped gringas. This man led us hand by hand across the rocks to the places where he had crossed, and one by one we followed his lead into the icy river and to the other side. I nearly lost all of my camera equipment, we all were soaked from the waist down, Lindsay and I were so embarrassed to accept this help, but all we could do was laugh about it. The entire trip was perfect, and God showed himself so clearly in the beauty and the ability to communicate with people, and then he showed himself equally in our desperate need, in the power of the river and the men who dropped everything and risked health and safety to come help us.

After a wet bus ride through the mountains and the crowded city, we made it back to Santiago. I have never and probably will never again experience a weekend adventure like this one, and I’m so glad that I did. When given the chance to hop on a midnight bus into the mountains with a bunch of people who don’t speak your language, do it.

See some photos:

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