Beyond San Gabriel, where the Río Yeso joins the Maipo and the paved road ends, it’s 23 kilometers farther to one of the canyon’s finest excursions, a taste of the high Andes at Monumento Natural El Morado. Only 92 kilometers from downtown Santiago, it overlooks the valley of the Río Volcán, a Maipo tributary that joins the main river a few kilometers south of San Gabriel.
Despite its modest size—only 3,009 hectares—El Morado gets hikers into the high country fast, with easy access to Andean lakes and glaciers. Though it’s a feasible day trip from the capital, the camping and accommodations make it a good overnight option as well.
Geography and Climate
At altitudes ranging from about 1,750 meters in the Río Morales Valley to the 5,060-meter summit of Cerro El Morado, this is an alpine environment shaped by flowing ice and running water. It’s also been shaped by tectonics—over 100 million years, the rising Andes have lifted marine fossils upward of 3,500 meters at Cerro Rubillar.
El Morado’s climate is Mediterranean, with a pronounced dry summer and temperatures ranging up to 25°C, but more than two meters of snow can accumulate in winter. Because of the altitude, even summer nights are cool.
Flora and Fauna
Vegetation covers only about 20 percent of the park’s otherwise rocky and icy surface, mostly in the form of Andean steppe. There are few shrubs and almost no trees, but where water accumulates the vegetation is more diverse.
Mammals are few, though foxes and skunks are occasionally seen, along with hares introduced from Europe. Waterfowl inhabit parts of the marshes, hummingbirds flit amongst the Andean scrub, and the occasional raptor or condor soars overhead.
Sights and Recreation
From the visitors center at the Baños Morales hot springs, the Sendero El Ventisquero is a six-kilometer trail that climbs steeply at the outset before leveling off at Aguas Panimávida, a series of small thermal springs. It continues to Laguna El Morado, a small lake at 2,400 meters, and on to the tongue of the Ventisquero San Francisco, where the trail ends. From here, all further travel is off-trail. Visitors disinclined to walk can rent horses cheaply at Baños Morales.
Rangers collect an admission charge at Conaf’s Centro de Información (US$4 adults, US$2 children). As of early 2012, camping was suspended at Laguna El Morado because of landslide risk following heavy rains; at Baños Morales, there is the inexpensive Camping del Valle and simple accommodations as well in summer.
The best option, though, is across the valley at the Refugio Alemán (Camino El Volcán s/n, tel. 09/9220-8525, US$48 pp). Also known as Refugio Lo Valdés, this popular poplar-studded hillside hotel is no luxury lodging, but it’s had a loyal public for both accommodations and food since the 1930s. There is also budget backpacker space in the attic (US$30 pp, sleeping bag essential, and bring your own towel). Both guests and nonguests can also take breakfast, lunch, dinner, or onces (afternoon tea) at the restaurant.
At 7:30 a.m. on weekends, more frequently in summer, Turismo Montaña (tel. 02/8500555) buses leave for El Morado and Baños Morales (three hours, US$16 pp roundtrip) from Parque Bustamante, Providencia, alongside the CTC telephone headquarters; they return at 3 p.m., arriving in town at 6 p.m.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.