Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Day in the Chilean Andes

Winding road in the Chilean Andes, west of Valle Nevado ski resort
I'm not sure what it was exactly, but something today had me reflecting on a cruise we took to South America back in December, 2012, so for this installment on the blog, I decided to reach back in the record books and write about something from that trip.  At the very end of our cruise, from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Santiago, Chile via the Panama Canal (I will add more installments from that cruise over time), we spent two days in Valparaiso and Santiago to recuperate a bit before the long flight back home.  We had initially planned a shore excursion to the Andes on the cruise itself, but due to the incompetence of the cruise line, that tour got canceled.  Some quick sleuthing on the internet turned up a company called Tours by Locals that 1) offered day tours of the Andes from Santiago, 2) had availability on the day we'd be in Santiago, and 3) wasn't that expensive, at about $110 per person.  And so with that, my wife, my uncle, and I decided to give it a try.

Date of visit:  Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Mayans said the world was supposed to end the day before, but it turned out they were wrong.  In fact, the day dawned crystal clear, without a cloud in the sky - a nearly perfect early summer day in Santiago.  Our driver/guide Leo picked us up at the appointed time a little after 8:00 in the morning, and we were off to the mountains.  Our hotel was on the west end of Santiago by the airport, so we had to pass through the center of the city on our way east to the Andes.  We crossed over the river, which was muddy and running high from snowmelt in the mountains.
Leo wanted to pick up some fresh fruits for snacking and our lunch, so we briefly stopped at a fruit market near the city center.  It was quiet early on a Saturday morning, but this area apparently gets very, very busy later in the day.
We made one more stop in the city, at a monument we most certainly did not expect to see in Chile.  This was a monument to three of the most important historical figures in India - independence leaders Jawarlahal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, and the country's national poet, Ravindranath Tagore.

It didn't take very long at all to get to the mountains.  Within 20 minutes, we were on a narrow, winding 2-lane road heading up through the foothills.  Soon, we caught our first glimpses of the higher peaks and glaciers of the Andes.

As you can see, the climate here is quite dry, similar to what you would find in Southern California.  Hence why Chilean wines are held in such high esteem.

By a little after 10, we reached our first hiking spot in the mountains, at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.  We were in a narrow valley surrounded by higher mountains, which provided a great view of the road winding through the terrain.
My wife and uncle couldn't quite make it up all the way, but I powered on up to a vantage point on top of a hill (the elevation gain wasn't very much, maybe 100-200 feet).  The point provided a stunning view of the Andes.

Meanwhile, we were in for a special treat.  Leo pointed out an Andean eagle sitting at the edge of the cliff.  He sat pretty much perfectly still for a good 5 minutes, allowing for some rare bird of prey photos.  The big guy appeared to be too preoccupied with scanning his territory to notice a couple of nosy humans with a camera.

With summer just having started the day before, some flowers were still in bloom, and a butterfly stopped by for a snack.

As we headed higher into the mountains, we saw several scenic views like this one.
And I was lucky enough to get a good shot of a condor surveying the landscape - not the easiest task from a moving car, let me tell you.
A little before noon, we reached our final destination for the day, the Valle Nevado ski resort, at an elevation of approximately 9,000 feet.  Valle Nevado literally translates to "snowy valley".  Obviously there's not much snow on the ground in early summer, but just like in the U.S., the ski resort is open out of ski season for those who want to take a scenic chairlift ride or hike up what are usually skiing trails.

A short hike uphill from the lodge brings the towering glaciers of the Andes into view.  These mountains in the distance are at an elevation of 15,000-16,000 feet.  That is actually pretty tame for the Andes, which sports peaks as high as 24,000 feet.

Shortly after departing Valle Nevado, on the way back to Santiago, we stopped on the side of the road to enjoy our picnic lunch (included in our tour cost).  Leo had prepared some sandwiches, and also had some granola bars and the fresh fruits we had purchased on the drive up.  More importantly, he brought a few cans of beer.  After eating, I walked across the road to check out a small waterfall.  A bird was also hanging out, and was nice enough to let me take a picture of him.

Further down the road, a couple of sheep apparently weren't particularly pleased about our presence.
Further down the mountain towards Santiago, the hillsides were filled with a bright yellow/orange flower, so I asked Leo to stop for a couple of minutes at a pullout.  The display would have been more brilliant about a month earlier, but it was still very nice, similar to what you might find in the southern Sierra Nevada of California in late spring.

We made one final photo stop before heading back to the city, this one with a good view of a glacier along the Argentina border.

The long day and all of the hiking at altitude had finally caught up with me at this point, and I kept dozing on and off for the hour or so drive back in to the city.  I did ask Leo if he could do us one favor when we were back in Santiago.  Chilean wines have a very high reputation for quality, and so I'd asked if he could take us to a store that sold wines.  Much to my surprise - we pulled in to Wal-Mart!  Known as "Lider" in Chile, they have a surprisingly large selection of both Chilean and Argentine wines.  We were directed to a "quite expensive" Pinot Noir, which much to my delight meant it cost $18!  Four bottles of wine set us back less than $40; can't go wrong with that.  We were also treated to one last look at the gleaming Santiago skyline as we headed back to the hotel.
And with that, we pulled back in to our hotel a little after 5:00, after a long but great day experiencing the Andes.  While it was still disappointing not to have made it to the awe-inspiring Chungara Lake in Lauca National Park during our cruise, I can't complain about our consolation prize.  We still got to see the Andes, the scenery was terrific, and our guide Leo knew his stuff and gave us a very good narrated tour of the area (and helped me pick out some delicious Chilean wines at day's end).  Of course, now I want to make it down to Patagonia that much more...


  1. wow! this post brought me back to my memories of my semester abroad in santiago in fall 2008. i actually skied at valle nevado!

    i absolutely love how well you depict all of the information and details that i think add immense value to the journey. how did you enjoy the chilean wines after all?

    1. Rohan - the wine was indeed very good. I don't know if the pinot noir was really "one of the best in Chile" as we were told, but for $18, I'm not complaining.