The city of Santiago sits in a deep valley sandwiched between the snow-capped Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range. After spending a few days in the hustle and bustle of the city it was time for me to get a feel for what the Andes—the longest continental mountain range in the world—had to offer.
I was lucky to find myself in one of the seven South American countries the mountain range crosses, and I wasn’t going to leave Chile without experiencing these mountains.
You can reach the cordillera, as the range is called in Spanish, in as little as an hour from Santiago, but it can be difficult to get there without a car. After doing some research I found a company called AndoAndes, which offers several day trips from Santiago, Chile for car-less travelers like myself.
The Chilean tour company focuses on connecting tourists to the natural beauty found in the Andes—think glaciers, waterfalls, ancient forests—with a fun roster of nature-filled day trips from Santiago.
The first tour that immediately caught my eye was a 16-kilometer hike through a national park in Cajon del Maipo. But unfortunately the trek was canceled when not enough people signed up. Instead, I opted for a scenic day tour to Embalse el Yeso, an emerald-green reservoir surrounded by white-tipped mountains.
Day Trip From Santiago, Chile: Embalse el Yeso
I met the AndoAndes team at 6:30 a.m. in Santiago. Soon after the exhilarating drive toward Cajon del Maipo, one of Chile’s largest natural areas, began.
The tour guides, Gonzalo and Felipe, were nice enough to stop at a convenient store before heading up the mountains so that our tour group could pick up water, snacks and whatever else we wanted for the day.
San Jose del Maipo: A Quaint Mountain Town
Cajon del Maipo is one of 52 communes that make up the Santiago Metropolitan Region, Gonzalo explained. It was interesting to learn how the country is geographically organized: Chile is a conjunction of 15 regions that are further divided into provinces, which are themselves divided into communes.
Our first stop included breakfast at the small mountain town of San Jose del Maipo. Here I grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant and walked around the town’s main square. After 45 minutes of free time, we were back on the road to our next destination.
Our second stop was an abandoned railway tunnel that is supposedly haunted.
The story goes…
Known as the Ferroviario del Tinoco tunnel, it’s the site of an apparent suicide years ago. A young student named Willy is said to have committed suicide within the tunnel, and to this day, many students walk the pitch-black passageway to reach a memorial on the other side. The memorial is full of gifts from students and others, thanking the young man’s ghost for helping them in school.
Our driver Felipe dropped us off at the mouth of the Ferroviario del Tinoco tunnel, and we were instructed to walk the length of the creepy passage, as it holds a special place in many Chilean hearts.
Five minutes later we emerged on the other side feeling slightly spooked.
Exploring Embalse el Yeso
After this, our journey to Embalse el Yeso continued down a tiny, winding road that led deeper into the mountain range. The longer we drove, the higher the peaks became. Soon the paved road ended, and a ragged dirt path took its place.
I couldn’t peel my eyes off the giants surrounding us; their pastel-colored skin now exposed in the summer sun. I kept thinking that the beauty must multiply in the winter, when their peaks are covered in snow.
We had a quick bathroom break before arriving at the Yeso dam, where we drove to three different viewpoints to escape the large crowd of tourists picnicking at the first stop. Like AndoAndes many companies offer a wine and cheese picnic as part of the tour package, and most of them set up tables at the first viewpoint of the reservoir.
Because it is actually illegal to drink alcohol in public in Chile, my guide Gonzalo explained that AndoAndes hosts their “picnic” at a local restaurant instead.
As we drove deeper into Embalse el Yeso, I became truly amazed at our driver’s expertise in safely guiding our van through the narrow dirt road that connects each viewpoint. Truth is, nothing separated the van from the steep drop toward the lagoon below. Meanwhile, several construction trucks were using the same road prompting the driver to carefully maneuver around them, with little to no space to spare. It was quite the thrilling experience!
The El Yeso lagoon is a spectacular backdrop for photos, and truly worth a day trip from Santiago.
The surrounding Andes and the turquoise waters quite literally take your breath away. Although the rocky terrain was beautiful in the summer, I imagine the scenery must look even more spectacular when the mountains are covered in snow.
Our group was given 45 minutes of free time to roam the area where the reservoir ends, aptly called “The Beach.”
After a couple of more stops at other attractions (at one point we saw a glacier from a distance, as well as a waterfall!), we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. AndoAndes provided us with a tasty gourmet sandwich as well as an abundant spread of cheese, nuts, salami and olives accompanied by two bottles of Chilean wine.
The picnic truly complemented the tour and was the cherry on top of a beautiful day trip from Santiago spent in the Andes.
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