El Morado National Park -- This 3,000-hectare (7,410-acre) park is 90km (56 miles) from Santiago. It takes its name from the sooty-colored rock of the Morado mountain (morado means "purple" or "bruised"). At 5,060m (16,596 ft.), the views at El Morado are stunning, and a relaxing spot to take in all this beauty is the Tyrolean mountain lodge Refugio Lo Valdés, San José de Maipo (tel. 9/220-8525; www.refugiolovaldes.com). The refugio (meaning "refuge," but really a rustic lodge made of stone) serves truly delicious food and a fixed-price lunch and dinner. This is hands-down my favorite place for lunch in the Cajón de Maipo, since you can sit out on their stone patio and gaze out at the snowcapped peaks. The refugio is owned by the same people as La Cumbre mountain store in Las Condes, and they offer outdoors activities such as day hiking or overnight climbing trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, visits to the hot springs, nature tours, and even fossil hunting. There are clean, simple accommodations (all bathrooms are shared) should you decide to spend the night, including three doubles with a queen-size bed, four doubles, three triples, and a few bunk rooms, and a cozy dining area warmed by a wood stove. Rates are $24 per adult and $15 per child ages 3 to 12 years old; breakfast is included.
You'll find the Conaf park ranger hut at Baños Morales. The park is open daily October through April from 8:30am to 6pm, and costs $2.50 (£1.70) to enter. There is just one trail, which runs for 8km (5 miles) and varies between easy and intermediate terrain, eventually passing by an alpine lake and a glacier with a profile view of the El Morado mountain. This is a first-rate day hike (about 6 hr. average round-trip), and there is a place to camp near the lake. The reserve provides a haven for an array of bird species, including hummingbirds, austral thrush, and the cometocino. The raggedy little village of Baños Morales has several very hot spring pools open daily from 8:30am to 8pm during the summer and from 10am to 4pm April through September, but they are not particularly inviting, and they're crammed with Santiaguinos during the peak of summer. Better natural hot springs are at Termas de Colina, in the form of clay pools descending a slope. The expansive alpine setting adds a sense of grandeur to the experience. It takes time to get here due to the condition of the road; continue past Lo Valdés for 12km (7 1/2 miles). If you don't have a car, Manzur Expediciones (tel. 2/777-4284) offers round-trip transportation for $18 (£12) per person, which includes the entrance fee, leaving Santiago at 7:30am and returning at 8pm. However, they operate only on weekends (unless you have a group and rent the whole minivan), and that is when the hot springs are at maximum capacity. The entrance fee is $7 (£4.70) per person.
Pomaire: The Clay Village -- Every region in the Central Valley has a specialty good that it produces with pride, and Pomaire's is ceramic pottery. Pomaire is a small, dusty village 65km (40 miles) west of Santiago that was known as a pueblo de indios, a settlement the Spanish created for Indians. The area is rich in brown clay, and the main street (almost the only street here) overflows with shops hawking vases, funny little figurines, decorative pieces, and pots, plates, and other kitchen crockery -- all at reasonable prices. This is also the place to sample homespun, country cooking (try San Antonio or Los Naranjos restaurants) such as the stews cazuela and charquicán, and Pomaire's famous half-kilo empanada; some restaurants even have cueca shows, the national dance of Chile.
Most tour companies offer this excursion, or you can rent a car or take Buses Melipilla (tel. 08/584-6812), which has several daily trips from the San Borja Terminal in Santiago at Alameda O'Higgins 3250. The bus will leave you at the end of the road to Pomaire, where you'll have to take a colectivo, or shared taxi, into town. To get here by car, take the Pan-American Highway to the turnoff for Rte. 78 to San Antonio; follow the highway until you see the sign for Pomaire 3km (1 3/4 miles) before Melipilla. Note that Pomaire is shut down on Monday, and weekends are crowded.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.