El Morado: Hummingbirds, Bacon-Eating Finches, and Glaciers on a Day Hike from Santiago
Adventure-seekers and nature-lovers headed to Chile to hike and enjoy the outdoors usually focus on the spectacular national parks in the south of Chile, and for good reason: Chile’s largest and wildest national parks are in the south. Torres del Paine National Park, for example, which covers 927 square miles of southern Patagonia (about three times the area of Badlands National Park in South Dakota), is home to some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world. With well-maintained hiking trails and a few world-class adventure lodges right in and around the park, plus a network of simpler mountain lodges called “refugios” placed strategically along the trails throughout the park, there’s really no place better to do a multi-day trekking adventure than Torres del Paine. Even further south, the expansive (5,637 square miles – about 5 times larger than Yosemite National Park) Alberto de Agostini National Park is so remote that there are no roads there, so travelers exploring this southern extreme board Patagonia cruises and take zodiacs out to spot penguins and hike in the Cordillera Darwin mountain range.
Visiting these remote southern parks gives travelers the opportunity to spot unique wildlife, contemplate glaciers, and hike rugged terrain in a far-flung, scarcely populated area. However, unless crossing over from Argentina, getting down to these remote nature destinations in southern Chile almost always involves stopping in Santiago, the largest city in Chile, with over 7 million people in its metropolitan area and a population density about 400 times that of Patagonia. Fortunately for those stopping in Santiago and those living here, like myself, even within day trip distance of the city one can find beautiful protected areas to hike, enjoy nature and spot some interesting wildlife.
The same government body that manages Chile’s internationally renowned national parks, CONAF (La Corporación Nacional Forestal), also controls smaller protected areas they call Natural Monuments. Recently, I visited one of these Natural Monuments near Santiago: Monumento Natural El Morado. While it’s just a speck on the map compared to the mammoth parks of the south (the whole protected area of El Morado is just about 12 square miles), once you are past the CONAF checkpoint and on the trail, El Morado really is an oasis of nature in an otherwise very urban region of Chile.
After about a two-hour drive southeast from Santiago out of the city and up into the Andes, the El Morado hiking trail begins outside of Baños Morales, a tiny mountain village at 6,154 feet above sea level, then ascends through a valley made green by natural spring water. Around the springs we spotted an Andean Hummingbird feeding busily and stopped for a snack ourselves, watching a White-sided Hillstar and gazing up at the glaciated peak of El Morado, towering above us at 16,595 feet.
We continued to small lagoon called Laguna Morales at 7,828 feet, where we had lunch and were joined by a few bright yellow finches with grey heads, hungry and looking for handouts. I had heard of these birds before, but had never seen them in action up close. Their English name, Grey-hooded Sierra Finch, describes them just fine, but it is not nearly as fun as their Chilean Spanish name Cometocino, which translates to bacon-eater. They are evidently named for one of their predominant behaviors, as they bravely (and voraciously) swooped in and made off with anything that fell from any of our sandwiches!
The trail continues on to 8,162 feet and ends at a lookout point of the San Francisco glacier. The total hike is about 4 miles up and 4 miles down, with a vertical gain of 2,008 feet, so fairly steep at some parts, but nothing technical or difficult. It takes about 5-6 hours total round trip, depending on how much time you spend watching the birds steal your lunch and taking pictures.
While it’s no substitute for the spectacular wilderness of southern Chile, if your trip includes some extra time in the Santiago area and you want to get up into the Andes and hike a bit, a day trip to El Morado is a day well spent.