Just a 2 hour drive from Santiago takes you right into the heart of the Andes. Be surrounded by deep valleys, high peaks, glaciers and specular striated mountains of colours that give you a taste of the scenery in the Atacama desert.
The drive from Santiago takes you through the sprawling outskirts of Santiago where the houses gradually become smaller, simpler and more traditional, a fascinating glimpse into the average Chilean’s, Santiago reality. It also gives some idea of scale of the size of Santiago.
Having left Santiago at 7am, as we began to leave the city behind as the sun was rising up over the mountains bathing them in glorious shades of pink. After leaving the last, outlying houses of the city you then enter the Maipo Canyon and this is when the scenery really begins to change. The mountains rise up either side of you with cactus clinging to the edges, there are pastures with horses grazing, rural homes, honey and nuts being sold on the sides of the road and as in any rural place, the pace of life suddenly feels slower.
The last 10kms of the 100kms drive out to the National Monument of El Morado is a bumpy gravel road as you head towards the head of the valley with the smokey San Jose Volcano is looming ahead. At 1850 metres you reach the small oasis village of Banos Morales and here the hike begins. After registering with the park rangers you begin the climb up into the Morales canyon.
The name El Morado, meaning deep purple, comes from the colour of the Los Morales mountains that loom in a deep purple colour ahead.
The hike is a 16 km out and back route which takes about 6 hours (including photos and lunch stops) with a gain in altitude of 750 metres. The first part of the hike is a 1 hour ascent, but thankfully because of the early start, we were shaded from the sun by the mountain to our east. The vegetation throughout the hike, although variable, is low bushes and so throughout the hike there isn’t much protection from the blazing sun – high factor sun cream, hat and sunglasses are an absolute must.
After the 1 hour climb you reach a high, flat plateau and the vegetation, trail underfoot and scenery beings to change. The second part of the hikes takes an undulating 1 hour through what feels like a meadow with horses grazing, grass and rosehip buses. After about an hour you reach the Laguna El Morado with the first glimpse of the San Francisco glacier – a great place to stop for a snack. If you are finding the heat a bit too much and don’t fancy the final 1 hour climb up to the look out point, then this would be an excellent place to reach as a turning back point.
The final hour up is a gradual climb up and over moraine so is quite uneven underfoot. As you reach the head of the valley, in front of you rises the pointed peak of the Morado Sur and Morado norte both nearing 5000 metres and the San Frascisco Mountain. The view point that you reach infront of the face of the hanging glacier is at 2,600 metres. The glacier itself is mostly covered in sediment/moraine with a snow cover that depends on the time of year. (The hikes opens in early December once the winter snow recedes).
This is a great place to sit and eat your lunch with the possibility of bathing your feet in the icy glacial melt waters.
As you turn to make your descent, the colours of the mountains on the other side of the valley, which previously had been drowned by the glare of the morning sun take on a life of their own with greens, purples, reds, blues and white. This is a little glimpse of what the mountain scenery of the Atacama is like which is so very different to the vegetated mountains or granite walls of Patagonia.
The size of the mountains is astounding and as the sun moved across the canyon the changes in the look of the mountains was really fascinating.
For me what really made this day special was the variety of birds that we spotted (list included below), most of which aren’t seen further south and the vegetation and mountain scape felt like being in the desert. In just 2 hours from Santiago being able to get out into the mountains makes you really appreciate how close Santiago sits to incredibly stunning scenery.
If you`ve a day to spare in Santiago and fancy getting out into the mountains, this excursion will not disappoint. The heat makes it strenuous but the distance and terrain isn’t particularly challenging and the scenery is truly breathtaking.
If you would like to include this great hike to your itinerary, then ask the Swoop team or view our Santiago page for more inspiration.
Birds spots at the Monumental Natural El Morado
- Crested duck
- Rufous Banded Miner
- Yellow Rumped Siskin
- Grey Hooded Sierra Finch
- White Browed Ground Tyrant
- Plumbeous Sierra Finch
- Correndera Pipit