When planning our Spring Break trip, I pummeled a sweet friend who’d actually lived in Santiago with question after question, one of which was whether or not to rent a car–specifically for a few day trips, not as our main source of transportation around the city. We felt like we were pretty savvy international drivers; we’d driven around the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica and had cruised around Normandy with zero problems.
My friend basically told us we were certifiably crazy to even consider renting a set of wheels. Lanes change direction based on the time of the day and the severity of the traffic. There are toll roads scattered all over the place, and each of them requires a different (and totally random) amount. The buses in Santiago have a mind of their own. The bicycle is the preferred mode of transit, and bikers will bob and weave their way through traffic; the last thing you want to do is hit one.
We took her kind advice, thought about it, and then threw all caution to the wind and decided to rent a car anyway.
(I did have enough common sense to plan our first day trip out of Santiago for a Sunday in hopes of avoiding the insanity of Santiago rush hour traffic and the infamous lane-direction-switching situation.)
The Embalse el Yeso was a destination that kept popping up on any search I did for day trips out of Santiago, and every suggestion to visit it also included a photo of the unbelievably clear blue water. (El Yeso is actually a reservoir that supplies nearly all of the water for Santiago. I made the mistake of telling my sons this fact, and they all began calling it the “fake lake” as in, “why would we ever want to go to a fake lake?”)
Sunday morning arrived, and Russ set off for the Hertz rental car office while I stayed back at the apartment packing up for our adventure. He made it back in one piece about an hour later, and we loaded up and headed off.
Thank the good Lord above for GoogleMaps, international roaming on cell phones, GPS, and a semi-fluent co-pilot who also had a printed map with her.
First stop: San Jose del Maipo.
The Cajon del Maipo is a canyon in the Andes mountains a bit southeast of Santiago. San Jose is the largest town in the region. We planned on stopping here for lunch and some fresh air before tackling the crazy road leading to the embalse.
San Jose is a tiny place with a population of about 13,000…a solid quarter of which must be stray dogs. Seriously, there were dogs everywhere. Everywhere.
It was a dog party, a big dog party.
After scouring the village square for a decent place to eat, we settled on this place. The interior had a cute little courtyard area where we sat and also had some Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong playing in the background, so it started out strong. Our order was lost in translation, however, which led to some creative lunching that consisted predominantly of bread and french fries.
Then it was back in the car for the drive up what one website described as one of the world’s most dangerous roads. (For the record, I found the write-up a bit doom-and-gloom, but it still served its purpose in making me a little anxious about this part of the journey.)
Just a few minutes outside of San Jose is the Tunel del Tinoco, a purportedly haunted (and abandoned) train tunnel. We didn’t stop because we didn’t really see any place to stop. (It’s the other side of the tunnel that’s the touristy stopping point; we did see that on the way back…)
Once we passed the Tinoco, the drive definitely began to amp up. We were threading our way through the Andes on a paved road with guard rails on one side and steep mountain on the other. Then we took a left turn, and the next 12 miles were unreal.
To say it was slow-going is an understatement. And to say the landslide jokes got old is also an understatement. At one point, we sat in our unmoving car for a solid 10 minutes, trapped on the one-and-a-half lane dirt road that clings to the side of a mountain while we waited for a bus on its way back down to strategically wiggle around the line of cars. Below is a panoramic shot of the situation. People gave up left and right and would put their cars in park and get out and start walking. It was maddening. And a bit terrifying.
The fake lake did live up to its photos, though. It’s hard to explain how bizarre this place is–turquoise clear water and gigantic rocky peaks all around.
The daredevil in the family wanted to hike down to the water’s edge. Jack decided to tag along.
It didn’t look that far to begin with, but once they began the treacherous climb down, they realized they’d been deceived.
Other than stand and stare at the water or marvel at the highly advanced 10-point turnarounds being conducted in dented sedans on the shifty dirt road next to us, there wasn’t too terribly much to do at the old fake lake. Plus, we were nervous about how we were going to make the 10-point turnaround ourselves and get back down to the main road. So we loaded back up and called it a day.
The initial plan was to leave the embalse and head down the road a bit to Cascada de las Animas for zip-lining, but once we arrived, they told us we’d have to wait nearly an hour to zip-line and because the boys were under 18, they could only do the two lines that cross the river, not the entire canopy course (which was fine by me as zip-lining sort of freaks me out). Because it was starting to get late, we made an executive decision to skip this.
We did make one pit stop at La Casa de Chocolate for ice cream. The marketing for this place is pretty spectacular (see the video in the link), but it was your basic run-of-the-mill ice cream parlor albeit an ice cream parlor smack dab in the middle of nowhere. And with myriad stray dogs.
We made our way back to Santiago, along with about a million other folks coming home from their last hurrah of the summer. (School was set to begin the next day.)
The drive home was just as curvy and bendy and twisty and bumpy as the drive there, and poor Tucker fell victim to a bout of violent carsickness.
You can’t imagine how happy we all were to see this sight once again:
…which meant, of course, another dinner underneath it (to be fair, the thought of moving anywhere on wheels in order to eat dinner did make everyone turn a little green…)
In the end, our road trip out to Cajon del Maipo involved well over five hours in the car. While parts of the drive were indeed spectacular, if pushed, I don’t think we’d make the haul again, at least not without a driver well-versed in the crazy road up to the fake lake and who also had suggestions for what else to do in the area. (I’d eyeballed a stop at a winery in a little town called Pirque, but realized that was absolutely not going to happen once we were outside of Santiago and starting the climb upwards.) Pretty sure the Embalse el Yeso is a one-and-done/check-it-off sort of destination.
Live and learn, right?