Chile's Maipo canyon: A rough and tumble playground

Southern California has its wild Santa Ana; northern Africa has its dust-laden Sirocco. In central Chile's Maipo canyon, we have the Raco. A freight train of a wind that pushes off your hat, messes up your hair, and completely befuddles you.

As my local guide Leo and I drive into the rocky canyon, stretching more than 70 kilometres along the foothills of the Chilean Andes, Leo tells me the Raco helped shape this eerily beautiful depression and the surrounding mountains since they emerged from the sea millennia ago. And it's despite this wind, he says, that Maipo canyon has become a weekend playground for Santiaguinos, who travel two hours from the Chilean capital Santiago to camp, hike, climb, cycle, raft and ski in this natural playground that is also home to exotic wildlife, including the Andean condor, foxes and pumas.

We continue driving past cactus-studded stony ridges and glacial springs gushing from fissures in the rock. Soon, we pull over at a roadside cafe in a quiet town called San Alfonso. As our snack of sweet tea and cheese empanadas arrives, we get chatting to two huasos, or cowboys, who proudly show us photos of the horse arena they're building nearby. Like the gauchos of Chile, the huasos in their round-brimmed black hats, knee-high leather boots and striped ponchos are a symbol of the country, and it's quite a kick to see them in the flesh. I would be content to sit and chat to them for hours, but a power cut signals it's time to hit the road again.

Deeper into the valley we go, fields of wild yellow poppies and glossy black horses flashing by the windows, alongside camp grounds, rustic cabins and hot springs. Our next stop is a town called El Volcan, nestled beneath the San Jose volcano near the chocolate milk-coloured river. It's like the set of a western film, complete with dusty tumbleweeds turning down the rammed-earth main street.

"This was a ghost town in the '70s and today there are still only about 10 people living here," Leo says. We make our way past towering poplars and charmingly eroded buildings with rusty iron roofs, to a copper mine that Leo says was abandoned in the early 1900s. The crumbling rocket-shaped building points up into the blue dome of the sky, adding to the town's slightly apocalyptic feeling.

The further into the valley we go, the more apocalyptic it feels. Especially when we stop to take pictures of the El Morado glacier, rising between the cleavage of two mountains, and discover a cowboy's grave. We stand beside the wooden cross decorated with rusty horseshoes, and let the serenity of this strangely seductive place wash over us.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Maipo canyon though, which strikes me as we drive past yet another mine, is that while Chileans consider it a bucolic nook in which to escape Santiago's madness, it is essentially a huge quarry. Here, they are pumping water from the river for a hydro-electric plant; over there the road is lined with mining trucks. And yet when paired with the wild west towns, the small farms scattered along the dusty roads, and the hiking and skiing trails weaving high into the mountains all around, it just seems to work.

The piece de resistance comes at the end of our long drive through the valley. "Close your eyes," Leo says excitedly. "The best part is around this corner. Ready?" I open my eyes to see a glittering turquoise lagoon, with the snow-capped Andes rising above it. It's completely unexpected, and completely breathtaking.

After a few moments, Leo tells me that Embalse el Yeso is not a lagoon at all but rather a man-made dam that is the main source of drinking water for Santiago's 6 million residents. My initial disappointment quickly morphs into appreciation of yet another example of the brutal beauty that abounds in the Maipo canyon.

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FIVE OTHER GREAT DAY TRIPS OUT OF SANTIAGO

1. GETTING ARTY IN VALPARAISO

The hip, hilly port town of Valparaiso, just a 90-minute drive from Santiago, is filled with vibrant street art, ancient elevators, hillside cafes and creative locals.

2. BEACHSIDE AT VINA DEL MAR

A 20-minute drive from Valparaiso, Vina del Mar is where it's at for sun, sand and surf. Nicknamed the Garden City, it's also peppered with palm-lined boulevards and manicured parks.

3. SKIING IN EL COLORADO

Chile boasts South America's best ski slopes (ski season June to August). El Colorado, with its long, groomed runs, is a great place to start. A 90-minute drive from Santiago. elcolorado.cl.

4. WINE TASTING IN CASABLANCA VALLEY

Known for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, the Casablanca Valley is filled with lovely vineyards. If you're into sustainability, head to organic and biodynamic outfit Emiliana. emiliana.cl. 

5. BACK TO NATURE AT INCA LAGOON

Make a day trip out of getting to this picturesque lagoon, travelling through stunning mountain scenery and stopping off at ancient Incan ruins.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

traveller.com.au/chile

chile.travel/en

FLY

LATAM flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago. See latam.com

STAY

Luciano K in Santiago's bohemian Lastarria neighbourhood has a chic art deco design, created by renowned Chilean architect Luciano Kulczewski in the 1920s, and 38 rooms. There is also a rooftop bar, lap pool, and views over the Parque Forestal opposite. From $210 a night; lucianokhotel.com

TOUR

Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures creates tailor-made Chile itineraries including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 873 981;  chimuadventures.com/chile

Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Chimu Adventures.

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