“Frigid winds blow as we turn into the glacier’s gorge. Without foreseeing we begin to step on ice that shines in between the fallen rocks of surrounding towering mountains” – Nicolás Echenique, our guide and the founder of Coigüe Expeditions.
One of my absolute favorite things to do is to hike and there is no one I’d rather hike with than my dad. Growing up, my dad instilled a deep love of hiking and being outdoors. Over the years, we have continued to hike together as much as possible when I visit my parents in Arizona or on one of our annual trips. Together, we have hiked the Andes of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, and there was no way we were going to Chile without doing some hiking on our trip.
I was thrilled to discover that many amazing day hikes are reachable right outside of Santiago. On our first full day in Chile, we did an incredible “warm-up” hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier with our own private guide, Nicolás Echenique (Nico) of Coigüe Expeditions and it was a wonderful adventure. We knew we were in for a special treat when we signed up to hike with Nico again in the pristine Parque Andino Juncal, home of the largest glacier in Central Chile.
On the morning of our hike, we left a half an hour earlier than planned, hoping to make a quick stop at the Portillo Ski Area and see the magnificent snow-covered Andes reflecting on the aquamarine waters of the glacial lake, Laguna del Inca. Nico runs kayak tours there and had shown me his photos of its surreal beauty. If we timed it right, we would arrive just in time to catch the magical reflections dancing across the water.
We left promptly at seven for the two hour drive to Portillo, following Ruta 57 north out of Santiago until we reached the small town of Los Andes and then took Ruta 62 slightly northeast to reach Portillo. I was stunned to see the immense variation in the landscape. We first passed through the dry desert of the Chacapuco Mountain range until we reached the high snow-capped peaks of the Andes in Aconcagua Valley. There, the landscape was velvety green with rivers and waterfalls cutting through the valley from the glacial melt high above.
Portillo is one of Chile’s most popular and luxurious ski resorts and its location couldn’t be more spectacular. Nestled in the heart of the Andes, the resort sits atop a ridge overlooking the stunning Laguna del Inca with the rugged snow-capped peaks looming behind. As a skier, I’d love to someday check it out but I’ve heard it is quite expensive.
To reach the ski area, you have to follow a rather dramatic winding road that zigzags up Ruta 62 and is always packed with cars and trucks as this is the main route to reach Mendoza, Argentina. As we rounded up the hairpin turns, Nico pointed out the hydro electric tunnels going down the mountains transporting freshly melted water down at breakneck speed. I couldn’t look much because I was getting too carsick but did snap a few shots along the way.
Once we arrived at Laguna del Inca, the slight discomfort was entirely worth the effort. The views were absolutely stunning. Unfortunately we weren’t there in time to see the reflection but I still got some lovely shots of kayakers out for a morning paddle.
About a half an hour later we reached the entrance of the Parque Andino Juncal. I was thrilled to finally be there and we couldn’t have asked for a more superb weather. It was a postcard perfect day with comfortable hiking weather, a gentle breeze and not a cloud in the sky. We had timed our hike right.
There are three main trails in the park and two lesser known ones. We chose to follow the most popular route, El Sendero al Glaciar Juncal -a total distance of 18km (11.2 miles) of medium difficulty. The hike would take us about seven hours and we would be traversing through a variety of different landscapes and terrain, all to reach the foot of the mighty Juncal Glacier, the largest glacier in the Central Zone of Chile and the only glacier that faces north.
After signing in with the ranger, we set off on our full-day adventure in one of the most glorious landscapes I’ve ever been fortunate to have hiked in. Every step of the way, I was in absolute awe and wonder at the incredible beauty of the place. It literally took my breath away and brought me so much serenity and peace.
As we hiked, Nico told us about the park’s history and significance. The Parque Andino Juncal was created in 1911 by the Kendrick family, the owners of the property, as an ecological reserve. The mission is to preserve and conserve this treasure of land and all its natural resources. The park is huge and has an area of 13,796 hectares offering remarkable beauty. In May of 2010, the park was designated by Ramsar (an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources) as a wetland area of international importance and enacted conservation measures to protect this vitally important area.
After passing through the Andean Valley alongside the Juncal River, we arrived alongside a large open wetland area of green marshy grass. This mountain oasis is a unique ecosystem that attracts various birds endemic to this area such as the Perirco Cordillerano (parakeet), Pato Cortacorriente (short-legged duck) and the Chorlito Cordillerano (a plover).
Soon after the wetlands, it was time to take our hiking boots off and cross the ice-cold Monos de Agua River. Despite the frigid temperatures, it felt good to ice our tired feet a bit before the last big push to reach the glacier. Also, a huge advantage of having all the rivers in the park is that we only had to carry a liter of water. There were plenty of places along the way to fill up our water bottles with the most delicious fresh water on earth!
By one o’clock, we finally reached the last leg of the hike that would lead us to our reward, the glacier. Here the hiking was much steeper and you had to be mindful of each and every step. Of course without challenge, we’d never see the grand prize!
As we climbed up the glacier moraine, I saw huge fissures in the ice and could hear the rushing river of water below. We had to be sure to use our hiking poles for support so we wouldn’t slip on the black ice below the rock.
Then, finally we reached the end. The wind was blowing insanely fierce and it was cold yet the view was so incredible I could hardly take my eyes off it. We snapped a few pictures and sat down to quickly eat our lunch, bracing ourselves against the roaring, icy wind.
On the long walk back, the afternoon sun was high up in the sky, changing the light and making everything look a little different. I couldn’t believe what a magical place we’d visited and how incredibly fortunate I am to have seen it with my own eyes.
And best of all, Nico had our ice-cold Chilean beers awaiting in the truck of the car. What a way to end an epic day!
We didn’t return back to our hotel until well past eight. We were dirty, tired and ravished, yet all in all it was by far the best day of our week long trip in Chile. I feel blessed to have seen such a treasure and sincerely hope that the glacier is there for generations to come.
About the park:
Welcome to Parque Andino Juncal, a private protected area located in the Aconcagua Valley, in Region V. The property includes heights ranging from 2,500 to over 5,000 meters, with unique natural features, great beauty and easy access to the Juncal Glacier and surrounding mountains. There are numerous estuaries, wetlands, ice and rock glaciers, and a wide range of native and endemic species of flora and fauna, particularly the Mediterranean climate. There are at least 45 species of birds, 68 species of flora, 10 mammals, five species of reptiles, and two toad species which are now thriving thanks to the conservation and protection measures enacted.
The property has been in the Kenrick family since 1911. In 2003 the decision was made not to allow the development of industrial activities such as mining activities or hydropower on the premises and to actively prevent any attempt to do so. In the Juncal Valley, land, water and ice will have the opportunity to rest, recover and flourish.
Want to go?
I highly recommend using Nico of Coigüe Expeditions as your guide. He is amazing, kind, funny, patient and extremely knowledgable about ecotourism and all topics concerning Chile. I also strongly support using local guides. Hiking season is from November to April.