hot springs

Homar and the Alluvial Cirque

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Hic Sunt Dracones

A tire flattened by the resentful rutted rock strewn road delayed us, but we arrived on a cloudless late summer Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Cristián’s father, who carried part of our gear.   I knocked on the door of the caretaker’s cabin where the tin roof was lashed down against future winter weather by a long 7/8 inch thick plastic rope. It stood near a long trail that wound its way about 100 meters up past a series of seven hot spring pools, each overflowing into the one below. The narrow flat valley floor was populated by several small tents to shelter visitors from the searing high altitude sun. I tried to imagine Winter when the valley would be deserted, reclaimed by white wind and  drifted snow.  But wind and weather are concerns even at the height of summer; an afternoon updraft arose as we set up camp about 50 meters away, so that  raising our bulky tent  required a great deal of  struggle and raucous banter.

The day visitors left before sunset and we found ourselves alone on the flat narrow valley floor. I considered supper, thinking to make hot soup, but found that there were no cooking pots.

“Where are the pots? Did anyone get them out of the trunk”?

“Marmota emptied the trunk.” Felipe’s nickname is ‘marmota’ (marmot); Chileans don’t fear being politically incorrect, and are never shy about nicknames.

“Marmota! “said Sebastián, you left the pots in the trunk!” Ricardo who is devoted to foul language , piled on.

“Huebón!” said Ricardo, who tries never speak without a foul word. In this case he chose a variant of ‘big egg(s)’, that I leave to the reader to interpret. “I told you to check the trunk before the car went!”  And so on to infinity; any parent knows the routine.

So I went back Homar’s cabin to ask for the loan of a pot. He was a local from the town of San José del Maipo, named after the volcano that dominates the Northeast quarter of the valley where an extensive watershed begins at the Andean crest between Chile and Argentina. Mountain people are mountain kin, and without hesitation he rummaged about and pulled out a large cast iron pot, saying, “¿Algo mas?”

“ No, ¡ gracias Homar!”

“ Bueno, avisenme, cualquier cosa. Su casa.”, an abbreviated old saying  ‘My house is your house.’


In the mountains twilight is long and luxurious. A clear moonless night sky slowly rolled down from the surrounding peaks. The wind abated.  As the darkness thickened a myriad stars appeared and to the west, the faint outlines of two galactic clusters, the Magellanic Clouds. The Southern Cross began to tick off the hours as it rotated about the void that is celestial South.   From the east, we began to see intermittent flashes of light.

“¿Que es eso, Tío?”

“Maybe lightening. An electrical storm over the pampas of Argentina.” But there was no distant thunder, and I soon realized: We were seeing light from eruptions of the earth dragon who heated the hot springs; the caldera of San José del Maipo volcano.

A person can get a reputation, may try to live up to it, or live it down, instead of quietly outliving it. Most every year, during more than 30 years, I have taken two or three teenagers, usually relatives, backpacking in the Chilean Andes. These adventures have become greatly exaggerated in the telling and re –telling, morphing into beautiful lies, or rites of passage. New volunteers hope to be tested, and to be accepted into the Order of Tío Jhon.

In the ‘70s most of my Chilean relatives were scandalized by the idea of anyone going into the mountains, let alone their own children.

“What for? And no horse! There’s  the  puna,  and wind that burns, and smugglers. The whole place should be off limits, like the unknown oceans of 15th century maps: Hic Sunt Dracones’”.   But Chile was a different country then, among the poorest in the hemisphere by almost every standard measure.  It has changed radically, even in regard to the way people think of mountains. Now Patagonia and the Andes are encrusted with foreign and native backpackers, as well as Chilean teens. Seeping bags, and back packs, like blue jeans, are part of many active youngster’s standard gear. Now those who want to be introduced to the mountain are no longer only nephews, but nieces. None of them will believe that Tío Jhon is no longer young or strong, even though objectively the packing involves less back and more internal combustion engine.


This year I went again, partly to keep the faith, but also because my own spiritual home is still somewhere in the dry high air under a black cobalt sky. There were ten volunteers, among them my two youngest daughters. Yet I have always limited the group to three, because the Andes can be treacherous; how could I keep more than two or three safe from the mountain and from themselves?  I asked my youngest daughter, Sandi, and her three cousins to wait for another time. She felt terribly abused.

“You took Rodrigo and Álvaro when they were 11 and 12;  and 13 and 14!”

“Yes, but…” No explanation was sufficient. I would be a condemned father. At least until next year. That left five, still too many for a real backpack.  I decided to take them to this  remote natural hot spring, accessible by car. Though there were still six, Pablo, son of a Santiago psychiatrist, and my daughter Lilí were both 18, and reliably mature. That left Cristián, 13, Ricardo and Felipe, 15, and Sebastián, 14. I could almost  meet the standard of three adolescents. Pablo’s parent’s contributed the large Brazilian canvas tent, a  3×4 meter old style external aluminum tube frame affair with three 1×2 meter ‘rooms’ at one end for privacy, and sturdy enough to withstand the high valley summer updrafts.


The hot springs are at about 11,000 ft elevation in the Cajon Del Maipo, to the Southeast of Santiago in a narrow mountain valley on sparsely vegetated private land otherwise occupied in summer mainly by the occasional goatherd family. Translation: Possibly For Sale: day-fresh hot bread, goat cheese and milk, some simple staples, wine,  or  sometimes barbecued kid.


If you have ever organized a camping trip for a group like this, you know the problems: Do they have appropriate clothes, shoes, socks, sleeping bags, rain gear, hats, and personal items for hygiene and protection from the elements? Is the food and equipment adequate? Does any one have health or related limitations? But by the time we left things were triple checked and I was confident we would establish a comfortable and well provisioned base camp from which to explore the surrounding area.  I would be better acclimated to the altitude than my charges, giving  felt the altitude giving me an advantage, at least until  they adapted.

Chile is a several thousand long volcanic land, with the longest north-south length  of any country in the world, yet one of the narrowest.  People live at the battle line in an eon’s long war between continental plates. Off the Chilean coast lies an abyss which is deeper than the Andean Heights. The entire country lies  between the Andes and the Abyss, clinging to an unstable piece of continental shelf.  The Maipo is just one of many fast rivers intent on moving the Andes back down into the Abyss, its icy waters made mud brown by eroded material during spring and early summer snow melts.


The termas, thermal baths, are five open air oval 5×4 meter palisade pools, each cooler than the one above. In the daylight they are milky blue unless muddied by bathers; in the cold night air they are steaming India ink black. The rims of the pools are merely accreted mineral salts, where water has long flowed over a man made rim, gradually building up walls of salt. There is so much mineral in the hot water that after bathing, one must wash off in fresh water, otherwise the skin remains slightly plastered, and swim suits crust so as to almost stand alone.


As dark invaded the valley, much to our surprise, a generator kicked in at the caretaker cabin, and the trail leading to the uppermost hot pool was low voltage lighted.  We labored, short of breath, up to the pools, joining  about six locals, including Homar.

¡Bienvenidos! This is the best time. No tourists. La copucha.” -, tall tales, gossip, lies and news.- “ The early morning is good  too.  Big contrast, cold, hot, steam subrightening  air. Try it. ”

“What time, about?”

“ Oh. Early. 5 AM or so.”

“Liar!  Nice try! You won’t catch me up here all alone at five!”

Despite a prolonged soaking under the cold stars we remained unwrinkled because of  hot spring’s high mineral content,


The next afternoon was devoted to light walking and adapting to the thin air.  After a light snack we headed for a ridge of black where Homar said there were fossils.  In hiking with children I insist that we stay together and that I lead. It was a stunningly perfect afternoon, with light cool updrafts. The area was rocky, dry, and relatively barren, populated only by sedges, chartreuse colonies of woody plants called llareta, low thick leaved alpine shrubs, and low clusters of  flowers.  There was occasionally some light  puna (altitude sickness sometimes called soroche) relieved by rest. We  found some flat shell fossils in black slate, explored a limestone cave, and  a gypsum mine where the entrances were still partly filled with last winter’s snow. In the distance were occasional condors and a lone guanaco, a small camelid like a delicate llama. Though guanacos are herd animals, there is only one male to a herd, and the young live alone until they can whip some dominant male or steal some females.  Late in the afternoon summer cumulus darkened the sky, threatening rain, so we returned to camp, ready for supper and another hot soak.


The third day I pushed our acclimation to the altitude and exercise a bit further. The geologically young Andes are very porous in this area so snowmelt disappears into the ground immediately. Yet I believed there should be stream or a lake or a meadow beneath a large south facing cirque. We were rewarded by a long narrow meadow with five small lakes, a perfect string of crystal blue aquatic pearls threaded on a  tiny silver stream. Arriving back at the tent, I was aware that I was quite tired while my charges were still full of energy.  When youth is physically stressed it quickly becomes stronger while when age is stressed it doesn’t; this third day at altitude had made them guanacos though I was still just an old man.

Six teens in a tent is an unforgettable experience, not limited to mere continuous crudity and farting. You may imagine what the tent looked like on the third day: Cosmic disorder wrapped in 90 to 100 decibels of undecipherable debate punctuated by bouts of uncontrollable mirth. In my adult ignorance I perceived that as noise. I thought of calling for order, but desisted. Wha?  In the end I’d have to make order myself.   After supper and spa, they were sent off into the weeds to brush their teeth, possibly with toothpaste, though soap would have been quite appropriate.


I like to sleep in the open whenever I can, and set up about 20 meters away; but Homar called out  “Vengan a jugar Pimpó”. (Pingpong!)

¡Tío! ¡ Vamos con el Homar! I declined, preferring the peaceful sleep of the innocent under quiet curious southern stars, while the dragon in the caldera, unseen and unheard, spit occasional defiant flashes at the night.


The fourth morning my charges slept late, thanks to the ping pong fest; we breakfasted, went to a late morning hot bath, and lunched in the shade of the big tent until 2 PM.

The summer sunset would be nine or ten hours away, offering plenty of time for an exploration of a nearby waterfall and whitewater stream spilling from the Argentine border.  With a light pack of food, some drinking water, and fruit, we set off. All my teens were enthusiastic, frisky, and competitive. We crossed the steam, and headed toward the sound of the falls.  After only 20 minutes it became necessary to climb a 40 meter rock-fall, consisting chiefly of head sized boulders cascading toward the streambed at the steep angle of repose.  The stream now had more fury, angered by the nearby falls.  Concerned that people might scramble up the rock slide too closely and dislodge a boulder on one another, I decided to send Pablo up first, to wait at the top, while I released each hiker one at a time. This took about 15 minutes.


Arriving at the top of the rock-fall, I found we were at the base of a very large fan-shaped cirque: a 200 meter high seashell like face of fine dirt and small rocks, originating from the eroded earth above,  gradually becoming steepest at the top. The surface, having been punished and polished by wind and rain, was almost like cement. The only safe ascent was to avoid it, and move laterally to find topsoil and brush. Yet all except Pablo had, immediately on arriving, started a race for the top, directly up the cirque.

“¡Bájense imbéciles! Bájenseeeee! ” I gestured frantically and called repeatedly, to no avail because of their intense focus on the race and the noise.


Every mountain lover learns that, as in life itself, the going up is almost always easier than the coming down. My charges had reached a place  of instability and  fear where they could neither safely move farther upward, nor descend without losing control.  Felipe was flattened face to face with the cirque, clutching the mountain. Lilí was perched on a big rock, secure but stuck. Ricardo and Felipe were stranded in between them, in a in a five point attachment to the packed earth, if one includes the butt.   Sebastián was frantic, clinging to a steeper area to my right. Pablo had waited for me. It was about 4 PM with 4 or 5 hours of light left.


¡Oiga  Pablo! Go on up to left,  climb up where there’s topsoil and bush. Take your time.  I have to do something about Sebastián. The rest are ok.”

“When I get to the top, what?”

“I don’t know. Go get Homar. And a rope.”  I climbed up  a way to speak with the children, to prepare them for a few hours there.  As I approached they all responded quite calmly and rationally, excepting Sebastián, who was simply panicked. I felt he could not hold on the way he was; though a fall would not be fatal,  he’d likely be hurt on the rocks below, and I very much feared explaining  how that happened.  Like, Why I was still alive and unhurt.  So felt compelled to try and reach him and inch him to a safer spot.


In short order I was close enough to speak with him.  “Put your whole body belly first,  close to the mountain!  Like you can stick to it. Kick your toes into the dirt until you make  a little niche!”

“¡No, no puedo, tío!”

“Yes, you can!  Take your time. Go slow. ” And he did just that, calming down nicely. But I realized that I myself couldn’t descend safely either.  My only recourse was to reach the top of the fan shaped cirque. “You’re good now. Try to relax as much as you can because… Sorry, you will be there for a couple of hours. But there’s no rain, no snow.”

“What if I have to take a crap?”

“Enjoy! Who gives a shit?!” At least his sense of humor was back.


Slowly, laboriously kicking footholds in the stubborn earth, I made my way upward, and at last reached the overhanging layer of topsoil at the upper lip of the cirque. Dry mouthed, trembling, and exhausted, I pulled myself up over the root bound lip onto level ground, amazed that my life was still mostly my own. Pablo arrived, and I sent him to the caretaker cabin to get a rope, and help, while I stayed with the stranded climbers.


There were still four children trapped on the fan.  They had remained where they were, as instructed. Gradually accepting the absurdity and inevitability of their situation, they began to joke back and forth, to sing songs and tell tall tales under the burning alpine sun. a hot wind, one architect of the cirque, began to blow harder.    In about 40 minutes, Pablo, and a ping pong player arrived with a rawhide lariat about 10 yards long; it was not nearly long enough to reach even the nearest child.  But  they said Homar would bring a better rope, and in another hour Homar and a second man appeared with the long thick rope from the caretaker house roof. Ricardo, the most obstreperous of the teens, shouted up to the rescuers;

¡Si me sacai’[1] primero te chupo el pico!’ promising an explicit sexual favor to  be rescued first.  The newcomer called down to Sebastián.

Chucha Sebastián,¡que te imagináis!” But Sebastián couldn’t hear him.

“You know him? I asked.

Si. I came to visit just for today. He was my brother’s best friend.”

“They quarreled?”

“No. My brother was killed in an auto accident 6 months ago. I wanted to check on Sebastián, I don’t know why, just felt I should. Besides, Felipe’s mom said she’d bring lunch day after tomorrow.”

“Well. I’m glad you are here. He will be too when he realizes it. He’s the one way down to the left.”


Four of us held the rope fast, and four times Homar was let down to rescue each child one by one until they were all safely on top. They had been on the fan clutching the planet desperately for almost four hours. Ricardo was first to be rescued so he will never live down his bribe.

That evening I walked to a nearby goatherd shelter, and arranged for delivery next day of a cabrito asado, (barbecued kid) with all the trimmings. We gathered in honor of Homar, Pablo, and my remarkably cool and collected ‘teens. We were joined by locals, spa employees, the spa owners who provided red wine, and a sixty year old  great grandmother named Ximena claiming first name friendship with every radical leftist in the region. One owner tried to convince my daughter that he was some sort of movie mogul, and another hoped I’d invest in the Spa. (Actually, not a bad idea if I lived there.)  The ping pong tourney started up again at the insistence of Homar and Felipe, who both avoided alcohol in favor of the sport. I didn’t see anyone else make that sacrifice.


When I finally herded my charges to bed, it was early morning. Our hosts continued to celebrate life, the volcano, and perhaps, the numinous. I found myself again under the starry pantheon, listening to the wired children in the tent, and sounds of the party in the distance. The Earth Dragon again spit volcanic flashes intermittently at the dark. I was happy to have followed to my own rule: never take more than three children to the mountains. There are too many dragons lurking there in the earth’s crust.




[1] Language traits in neighboring countries are often comingled. For example, Chilean slang has adapted the preference for honorific grammar (Vos)  from Argentina, as  here in ‘sacai’, suppressing the terminal s ; and in  using an article before a name as in Brazilian  Portuguese.  (El Homar rather than simply  the grammatically correct Homar.)