San Alfonso: 65km (40 miles) E of Santiago

Cajón de Maipo is part huaso (a cowboy from the Central Valley), part artists' colony, part small-town charm tucked into a valley in the foothills of the Andes. From Santiago, it's less than 1 hour to the heart of the Cajón, the reason so many city denizens come to exchange the city smog and cement for the area's rugged, pastoral setting of towering peaks, freshly scented forest slopes, and the roar of the Maipo River as it descends along its route to the sea. If you have a day and would like to get a feel for the Andes and its rugged beauty, I highly recommend a visit here.

The highlight of this area is El Morado National Park, which offers ideal opportunities for day hiking, but it is certainly not a requisite destination. Cajón de Maipo boasts a wide array of outdoor activities, such as rafting, horseback riding, hiking, climbing, and more, but it also offers a chance to linger over a hearty lunch or picnic, stroll around the area, and maybe even lay your head down for the night in one of the charming little hotels or cabañas that line the valley.

The well-paved road through this valley follows the path of the Maipo River. Along the way you'll pass dozens of stalls set up by locals who sell fresh bread, honey, küchen (a dense cake), empanadas, chicha (cider), and chocolate to passersby.

Then you'll pass the tiny hamlets of Vertientes and San José de Maipo, the principal city of the area, founded in 1792 when silver was discovered in the foothills. Colonial adobe homes and an 18th-century church still stand at the traditional plaza in the center of town. Continuing southeast, the road curves past San Alfonso and eventually reaches a police checkpoint where drivers register before continuing on the dirt road to El Morado. About a half-hour farther (due to the condition of the road), there are fabulous clay-pool hot springs surrounded by soaring alpine peaks. Note: The weekends are packed with day-trippers, the hot springs are overflowing with people, and traffic on the way back is horrible. Plan to come on a weekday, if you can.