San Alfonso, Chile: Taking on the River Maipo

Foul air, ambulance sirens, traffic jams and the sticky sweat of the metro all seem like they belong to another world when you’re in San Alfonso.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Natasha Young

It’s hard to believe that Santiago is just 60 kilometers away. Boasting magnificent views of the Andes and an enviable position alongside the river, this tiny village in Cajón del Maipo offers the perfect weekend escape from the capital.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Natasha Young

Surrounded on all sides by mountains and forests, newly arrived city folk notice the clean air first, gulping great lungfuls as they climb off the bus. With only a handful of restaurants and convenience stores and no banks or ATMs (locals head to the larger San Jose de Maipo, 15 km down the road), San Alfonso is, for some, simply a quiet place to relax and unwind. However, for outdoor adventure and white-water rafting junkies, it’s also one of the best places near the city to get an adrenaline fix.

Owned by the Astorga Moreno family, the ecotourism center and nature sanctuary Cascada de las Animas offers it all. Located in a park at the far end of the village (ask the bus driver to drop you off at the entrance), day trippers can come for a few hours of rafting, riding or trekking, or simply for a picnic and a swim. Barbecue areas dot the forest trails and the fabulous but chilly outdoor pool offers mountain views and shady places to lounge. For a longer stay, accommodations range from lovely log cabins and camping areas within the complex to a hostel in the center of the village.

Cascada de las Animas' activities wing has been rafting along the River Maipo for more than 30 years and leads the two-hour trip from San Alfonso to San Jose del Maipo twice a day. Any notions of seducing the attractive instructor will quickly disperse once you don unforgiving wetsuits, windbreakers, life jackets and helmets. It’s a look even Kate Moss would struggle to pull off.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Natasha Young

Nervous first-timers will have the fear of God put into them during the safety briefing, but once you’ve been shown the basics in oarmanship and learned how not to kill yourself, fright takes a back seat as the fun starts.

Participants are split into raft-sized groups of 6 or 8, marking the time to put as much distance as possible between you and your wimpiest female friends and stick like glue to the guys built like tanks. The Class 3 to 4 rapids in this part of the Maipo are suitable for all levels, with sections such as El Pinocho (cheekily named after the ex-dictator who had a house nearby) and El Toro wild enough to keep experts happy.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo courtesy Cascada de Las Animas

Amidst the feelings of hurtling to your own imminent death in the devil’s own washing machine, there’s plenty of time in more tranquil sections of the river to sit back and admire the stunning scenery.

After a mini-bus ride back to base, you can take a hot shower and head a few minutes and a right turn up the road to Los Hornos de Rio Seco, a family-run empanada shop, and fill up on what are possibly the lightest, finest and tastiest empanadas in Chile.

With whatever energy you have left, hike the 90-minute organized trek to the waterfalls that give the Cascada de las Animas its name. Vertigo sufferers will need nerves of steel to cross the wobbly bridges over the rapids, but it’s well worth the effort. Cactus- and flower-lined trails pass mountain streams up to the falls, where you’ll have time to cool off and take photos before heading back.

For those who want to burn a hole in their pockets, the complex has a healing center that offers massage, acupuncture and reflexology to pound those tired muscles back into shape. There are also horseback riding trips, a zip-line for fearless adrenaline junkies and a game room and football pitch to keep the kids out of your hair.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Natasha Young

Food options are quite limited in the village and the beautifully situated restaurant-bar in Cascada de Las Animas isn’t cheap. If you’re on a budget and self-catering, it’s well worth stocking up in Santiago before you go. The supermarket in the Bellavista La Florida mall is just a two-minute walk from the bus station.

Nightlife is just what you’d expect from a sleepy backwater. However, if you’re there on a Saturday night, head to the on-site bar to bump and grind with the staff to a sweaty mix of reggaeton and salsa. Otherwise, crack open a bottle of wine and let the sound of the river wash over you as you look up at the night sky and count the stars.

How to get there

Approx. one hour to 90 minutes by car.

90 minutes to 2 hours by bus: From Metro Bellavista La Florida, take the hourly Metrobus 72 (CP$850 each way).

Collective taxis 4010 and 4014 (with roof signs "Cajón del Maipo") leave approximately every 10 minutes. From the Puente Alto Shopping Mall on Avenida Concha y Toro at Metro Las Mercedes, they depart from outside Blockbuster Video across the street from about 7 am to 8 pm.

Cascada de Las Animas (and Cascada Aventura)

Camino Al Volcan 31086, San Alfonso, Cajon del Maipo

Phone: 861 1303, 861 4019


Cascada de Las Animas Accommodations:

Hostal Casa Grande: Double/twin rooms from CP$25,000 (US$41)

(Take a torch if you’re planning on dining out at the complex’s restaurant; it’s a pitch black walk home otherwise.)

Cabins: from CP$44,000 for 3 people to CP$88,000 for 10

Camping: CP$6,000 per person (minimum 2 people) for first night, and CP$4,000 per person each addition night


Rafting: Two hours CP$18,500 per person, CP$16,000 for overnight guests. (Reservations recommended, since trips don’t run with fewer than 6 people. Bring your swimsuit, trainers--not strapless sandals--and a towel.)

Guided horseback riding: from CP$15,000 for one hour

Zip-line: CP$8,000 per person

One-hour massage: CP$21,000

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