“With even Santiago skyscrapers dwarfed by the high Andean backdrop, nature can’t help but prevail in visitors’ impressions of Chile.” – Carolyn McCarthy, author of Lonely Planet Chile
When most people plan a trip to go hiking in Chile, they immediately head south to the Chilean Lakes District and Patagonia, a landscape lover’s paradise awash with too many stunning national parks to count. While some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Chile are found south of Santiago, I was surprised to discover that equally as divine landscapes exist right outside of the bustling cultural mecca of Santiago, where over half of Chile’s population live.
When my dad planned a week’s getaway to Chile basing ourselves in Santiago, I confess that I was a bit skeptical that we would find any good hiking in Central Chile. As an avid hiker who has trekked in some of the best parks in Patagonian Chile and Argentina, I naively thought that the best hiking would be down south. However, I was proven wrong and was wonderfully surprised with the intense, dynamic beauty of the day hikes we found right outside our base in Santiago.
While the Andes stretch all the way from the southern tip of Chile to their terminus in Tierra del Fuego, it is in Central Chile where the Andes rise to some of their highest elevations. Just east of Santiago near the Chilean border with Argentina lies the mighty Aconcagua which at 22,841 feet (6,962m) is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere.
Perhaps what makes Chile such an exciting destination for hikers is the amazing diversity of its landscape. In the north is the Atacama, the driest desert in the world with its salt flats and open barren stretches of land. In the Center, the Andes rise dramatically high with vast glacial valleys and snow-capped peaks whereas in the South, their appearance is startling different: Craggy, jagged mountains rimmed with glacial lakes and temperate rainforest. Finally, at the southernmost tip in Patagonia it is filled with ice and glaciers and is home to the second largest contiguous ice field in the world, the The Southern Patagonian Ice Field. No wonder Chile is such an amazing place to explore!
For all the amazing landscapes and hiking opportunities, it was surprising how difficult it was to find a good local hiking guide to bring us to see two of Central Chile’s most beautiful glaciers. Apparently most people who visit Santiago don’t plan on hiking and instead spend their time exploring the city or the nearby world-class vineyards. My dad spent hours on the internet searching for hiking companies but nothing really jumped out at him. There only seems to be the large, commercial-style outfitters who brought as many hikers as they could fit inside the van not knowing if they would even make it to the top and complete the hike. Frustrated, my dad asked our hotel who of course had an excellent recommendation for a local guide, Nicolás Echenique the founder of Coigüe Expeditions, an ecotourism company that promotes private guided tours with a focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility.
We scheduled to do two-day hikes with Nicolás (Nico for short) and the first one was deemed the easier “warm-up” hike to the Morado Hanging Glacier, about two hours southeast of Santiago. On the morning of our hike, Nico picked us up bright and early at our hotel. With a warm smile, a fantastic laugh and a passion for the mountains, Nico proved to be the perfect guide and as soon as we met him, we were off to a great friendship.
During the drive, Nico told us all about himself and shared his immense love and passion for showing off his country. He first hiked to the Morado Hanging Glacier as a child and has never stopped hiking since. Nico got a degree in Ecotourism and has been working as a guide ever since. The hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier is one of his favorites he confessed.
After a hour of driving we finally got out of sprawling Santiago and reached the start of the lovely Maipo Valley. It comes as no surprise that Santiago was founded within the heart of the Maipo Valley, a fertile area nestled between two mountain ranges, the Andes and the Coastal Mountains. Known for its mediterranean climate and fed by the vast glacial reserves high up in the Andes, the Maipo Valley is home to some of Chile’s most famous vineyards and is surprisingly lush and green on one side and barren and desert-like on the other.
When we reached the incline up into the high Andes, the road immediately changed from paved to gravel. The only vehicles we saw on the road were huge work trucks moving back and forth to a work site. When we reached the end of the bumpy road, we parked the car, gathered our gear and were on our way. It was an absolutely perfect day with not a single cloud in the sky. It was a little cooler up in the mountains and thankfully not as hot as in the Maipo Valley and the heart of Santiago.
The hike began at a rocky area called “Choriboulder” where we did a steep 20 minute incline up to reach a striking, vast glacial valley. When we reached the top, I was blown away by the scale of the valley and its sheer beauty was breathtaking.
The valley was huge, and I could only imagine what it had looked like millions of years ago when it was covered in snow and ice. A gentle breeze flowed through the air and other than the faint song of birds, it was silent. I was awestruck by the colorful the sides and the sheer edges of the valley. On the return, I would discover that the actual colors of the mountains would change as the day went on and the angle of the sun moved.
After an hour or so of hiking, we reached another incline up through a glacial moraine. Here the hiking got a little harder and was a bit slippery due to the ice and snow. I wished I had my trekking poles that I left in the car! But I managed.
Nico told me about the tragic impact of Chile’s number one export – copper- has done to the environment. Chile has the third largest glacial reserve in the world after Antarctica and Greenland, however, due to global climate change and the impact of copper mining in Chile, Chile’s glaciers are dramatically shrinking causing the oceans to rise and huge problems with supplying the nation’s millions of people and farmlands with water. Sadly, there are no federal laws protecting Chile’s natural resources – its glaciers. With less water, there will be many difficult times ahead. It could be catastrophic.
As we made our final ascent up to the grand prize, the Morado Hanging Glacier, Nico told me to not look up. He wanted my first sight of this amazingly beautiful glacier to be a surprise. I stepped one foot in front of the other, trying my best not to look. And, then we reached the top at 10,700 feet ( 3,260m) there she was in all her glory, the magnificent El Morado Hanging Glacier.
Below the glacier was the frozen lagoon which in the heart of the summer is a surreal aquamarine blue. I marveled at the glacial formations and icebergs and wondered what it must have been like for Nico to see it years ago as a child when the glacier flowed all the way down to where we were standing. As impressive as it was today, I’m sure that it was even more so two decades ago.
As we hiked back down through the glacial moraine and vast valley, I noticed how different it all looked shining in the bright afternoon sun. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to be than being here in this moment. When we finally got to the end of the hike, Nico had a surprise waiting for us. An icy cold beer in the trunk! That was definitely a first. What a treat!
If you go:
I highly recommend hiring Nico at Coigüe Expeditions. When we were doing the hike we ran into another large group of hikers with a big-name outfitter and they never even made it to see the glacier because they were too slow. I can’t imagine traveling all this way and not getting to see the grand prize. Furthermore, using local guides is the sustainable way to go. Not only do you learn a ton, you are supporting local entrepreneurs as opposed to big name corporations.
In case you are interested, here is a link to Nico’s blog post reflecting on his first experience hiking to the Morado glacier. You can see the stark retreat of the glacier in the photos.