4WD hot springs day trip from Santiago

by Randy Keck

View of Baños Colina’s terraced pools. Photos: Keck

On my return from the Antarctic, I had the opportunity to stop over in Santiago, Chile, for a few days with friends Scott Jones and Anne Keller, whose large apartment tends to be a haven for a constant stream of globetrotting international visitors.

We decided on a free day to venture southeast of Santiago up the renowned Canyon del Maipo into the Andes in search of two hot springs: Baños Morales and Baños Colina.

The climb on our last leg to Baños Colina would prove to be a fun test for Scott’s newly acquired 1981 four-wheel-drive Mercedes G Wagon, a jeep-type vehicle rarely seen in the USA. Joining Scott, Anne and me were Scott’s Canadian friends Dan and Cynthia, who were stopping over in Santiago en route to Patagonia in southern Chile.

Canyon del Maipo

Blissful soaking<br />
with an Andes backdrop.

The heart of the rugged and unusually green Maipo Valley (Paso de Maipo) lies about 50 kilometers southeast of Santiago. It is a popular day tour excursion for visitors to Santiago and a popular respite for locals desiring an easy escape from the hustle, bustle and smog of the sprawling capital city.

Maipo Valley attractions include several wineries, a few inns and numerous enticing hiking trails. Other attractions include scenic camping areas, swimming holes along the river and popular multiday horseback treks. The valley is also home to numerous Chilean “old-money” mansions, invisible from the main road.

The road into Maipo Valley heads east from Las Vizcachas along the River Maipo. We passed the Restaurant El Calipso, reputed to be one of the best in Chile, en route to San José de Maipo, the main village. We, however, were headed well beyond the usual tourist areas that ended before reaching the end of the paved road near Romeral.

Baños Morales bound

Now following the raging Rio Volcan, we began climbing up the sometimes gravel road, sometimes rocky riverbed, into the Andes. We stopped for a stretch break at a waterfall before arriving at Baños Morales.

The warm (not hot) springs at Baños Morales did not appear particularly inviting and we were advised to travel to the hot springs at Baños Colina some 12 kilometers farther along the challenging four-wheel-drive track.

Before departing, we decided to have lunch on the colorful, flower-laden outdoor dining patio at Hosteria Baños Morales. In this humble yet completely charming setting we dined on fresh palta (avocado) and tomato slices, homemade cheeses and breads, a wonderful salsa and cold cerveza. It was heavenly. The cost was only about $3 apiece.

Basic, inexpensive accommodation is available at the hosteria during the summer months; the local telephone number is 2885380.

On to Baños Colina

On arrival at Baños Colina we paid a small fee for parking and termas (hot springs) entry and walked up a short path to a series of natural hot pools dug into the mud/clay on the side of the mountain. At the top I turned to survey the vista, a magical, 360-degree panorama of the snowcapped Andes. It would only get better.

Group applying mudpacks at Baños Colina.

The natural pools were on different levels, with the highest being the hottest. After testing all the pools, we settled in for world-class soaking. Now late afternoon, the mountain air at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet was quite brisk, making the hot mineral springs all the more alluring. The natural mud bottom of the pools was perfect for use as a detoxifying mudpack, so we made the most of the opportunity top to bottom.

As I floated effortlessly, entranced by the vista before my eyes, I knew this would be an “essence” experience, forever logged in my memory.

Even though we were visiting on a holiday weekend in the summer, the pools were not crowded. I would, however, suggest a weekday visit for those inclined to this type of four-wheel-drive adventure. The hot pools generally are open during the warmer months, November through March.

On our return to Santiago we stopped in Maipo Valley to dine at La Petit Franse, where we experienced a rather ordinary French meal (about $9 apiece) in a Chilean Francophile setting that seemed a bit surreal. My psyche was likely still ensconced in the solitude of the Andes.

Before you go

Public transport can be arranged from Santiago to Baños Morales, but arranging to connect with one of the tour vans that peridically provide continuing service up to Baños Colina is tricky and therefore not recommended. A 4-wheel-drive rental can be arranged with Budget or one of the other main rental companies. Rates are comparable to those in the USA.

Remember to take bathing gear and towels, warm clothes for the chilly afternoons in the high country as well as a cooler with drinks and snacks.