Cajón de Flores Trek

The Cajón de Flores is a high valley deep in the Central Chilean Andes, only a few kilometres from the Argentine border. It has a particular microclimate, more protected from the sun and moister than surrounding areas, which leads to a spectacular display of wildflowers in late Spring. We knew that we would be too early to see this, but decided to do a 3-day trek into the area, as it was well off the usual trekking path and, from the small amount of information we could find about it, promised to be quite different to the treks that we had already done. Not accessible via public transport, this became our last guided trek in the Andes.

Day 1 - Cajón de Paredones (11km - 300m ascent - 280m descent)

We met our guide Juan, an outdoor education and computing teacher who moonlighted as a mountain guide, at our hotel in Rengo. Together with one of his students, Lisanyell, we headed off in a 4WD for the 2-hour to our starting point, leaving the orchards and vineyards of the flat central valley to pass the world's largest subterranean copper mine and head deep into the mountains. We stopped briefly to register with the carabineros at Pangal and ensure that permits for trekking were in order (needed for border areas), then followed an impressive 100-year old wooden aqueduct up a long valley of the Rio Pangal, before climbing a set of switch backs to finally reach our starting point at Las Callanas (1500m) - near the small abandoned copper mine of La Juanita.


Beyond us lay our path, the broad flat stony bed of the Rio Paredones heading eastward between the tall rock walls of two snow-capped ridges towards the glacier-topped peaks that blocked the valley and formed the frontier between Chile and Argentina. It was an impressive alpine panorama, dominated by the points of Torre de Flores (4980m), Torre Pangal (4550m) and distant Catedral Barroso (4300m).

The Rio Blanco

First glimpse of our trek - Torres de Flores and Pangal

Christian with his horse, Satana, and mule

Waiting for us were the other five members of our party, Christian, a Chilean huaso or cowboy (who turned out to be a cross between the horse-whisperer and the man from Snowy River), his handsome black stallion (Satana) a mule (sin nombre) and two dogs (Solitario and Martillito). We loaded up our gear on the mule and set off in the warm sunshine with a cool wind at our backs. The first obstacle appeared within a few hundred metres as we reached the Rio Blanco rushing down with icy melt-waters from the ranges above. Unperturbed, our Chilean cowboy rode up and, one by one, took us over the river doubled up on the back of Satana - the was already promising to be quite different.

Christian ferrying the trekkers across the Rio Blanco

Heading off into the Cajon de Paredones

Andean doves

Once across the Rio Blanco, the walking was very easy, as we crossed an open pasture, spotted with tiny pink flowers, to reach a vague path that followed the edge of the broad stony river bed. At times we walked on the stones, but mainly kept to edges, lined with spiny branched bushes. Across the river to the south, a large waterfall, dropping 150m in three leaps, slowly appeared from its crevice in the valley wall. We would explore it some more on our way back.

Paredones waterfall

View up the stony bed of the Rio Paredones ......

...... and back down toward the start of the trek

The views to the east of the blocking mountains changed continuously as we progressed and the perspective of nearer and further peaks altered. The snow above was obviously melting fast in the warm spring weather and we passed a sequence of thin more ephemeral waterfalls tumbling down from the cliffs above us.

Ephemeral waterfalls cascading down the cliffs

Waterfall tumbling down from a clifftop gap

Heading towards the Torre de Flores

The narrow entrance of the Cajon de Flores

After only six kilometres we spotted Christian ahead, waiting at a flat open area on the edge of the braided river - it would be our campsite for the next two nights and there were no complaints at such a beautiful setting, with the east dominated by the sheer dark rocks of Torre de Flores, which framed the upper valley of Rio Paredones leading to the white glacier-capped ridge of the frontier. Behind us, the river braided its way across its stony bed between the steep walls of this classic alpine valley.

From our campsite we could see the Cajón de Flores, its narrow entrance guarded by the immense dark shape of the Torre de Flores. Tents set up and a late lunch eaten, we set off to have a closer look. The track soon left the valley floor to traverse steadily up through the scrub of the steep side slope, before zig-zagging up to a flat area from where we could look down on the very narrow and very short canyon through which the Estero Flores flowed out of its valley.

Catedral Barroso (4300m) at the head of the valley

First view into the Cajón de Flores

Mountains at the head of the Cajon

A scattering of flowering herbs

The flat area was scattered with small white star-lilies and curious green-flowering herbs. We could also look up toward the end of the Cajón de Flores, blocked by snow-topped mountain peaks - tomorrow we would head up for a closer look.

Small snake keen to avoid our company

The scale of the mountains surrounding us was reinforced by a flock of 4 condors, soaring high above, tiny silhouettes against the sky and the sheer rock walls. Possibly less welcome were the small snake and large tarantula that decided to use the same path as us, though both were keener to avoid our company than we were theirs.

Close-up of our reptilian friend

A handful of tarantula

Spot the condors

Sunset over the Cajon de Paredones


By now, the afternoon clouds had well and truly built up over these peaks and were spilling out down the valley - we retraced our steps back to the camp, where Christian built an impressive bonfire to sit around in the evening and together with a glass of fine Chilean red, warded off the chill mountain air.

Now that is a camp fire!

Day 2 - Exploring the Cajón de Flores (660m ascent - 660m descent)

We awoke to a fine alpine morning; mists hung around the peaks at either end of the valley and the Torre de Flores looked even more brooding with the sun directly behind its dark mass. After breakfast, we set off to climb up to the entrance of the Cajón once again, high above the numerous silver braids of water where the Rios Flores and Paredones joined.

The many braids of the Rio Paredones

A misty dawn at the Torre de Flores

Breakfast time at the campsite

The Estero de Flores flowing into its narrow gorge

Here Christian left the horse and mule to graze the mountain pastures and all five of us set off on foot, heading deeper into the narrow valley; the clouds swirled around the snowy cirque in the distance ahead. The route traversed the lower western slopes along an often loose and shaly track high above the fast-flowing waters of the Estero Flores. We stopped briefly to watch a rare torrent duck ducking in the rapids of the river.

Cloud hanging over the Cajón de Flores

Can you spot the rare torrent duck?

Low-growing grey-green shrubs covered the slopes, dead flower stems from last season suggesting that these were the stars of any spring flower show, which was limited for the present to clumps of the small green- and white-flowering lilies, and a few scrambling herbs with red tubular bells - pretty nonetheless.

The lower slopes led up to the sheer rock faces of the mountains lining the valley and soon we crossed a series of sidestreams flowing down from waterfalls that cascaded down these rocky walls, carving deep gullies in the soil and exposing large boulders in their loose banks. From the very active erosion going on, the deep valley here was a work in progress.

Looking back down the course of Estero Flores

Waterfall cascading from the valley wall

Erosion at work - boulder strewn streambed

View up to Nevado de Flores


The valley narrowed somewhat and we climbed into a more barren area of loose scree and boulders. The wind had been gradually picking up and was now blowing coldly behind us; with a hot sun and cold wind it became a bit hard to thermoregulate - alternating from "cooking" to "freezing" as layers of clothing were shed or donned - and which, as I was soon to find out, can have interesting consequences.

A little later we reached our first snowdrift as we picked our way across the boulders lining a series of small cascades that dropped the river rapidly from the upper valley.

The solitude of the mountains

Nevada de Flores (4950m) at the head of the Cajon

Shall we cross here?

Heading towards El Gendarme and Nevado de Flores

Above this, the valley widened out into a large snowy basin; we had reached Las Hualtatas, the bowl beneath the immense cirque at the head of the Cajón. We found a large tor to shelter from the wind and enjoy our lunch and the views; a semi-circle of peaks - 4500m El Gendarme guarding the cirque and generating large pillars of cloud above it, the glacier topped ridge leading to 4950m Nevado de Flores and the rocky puntillas of the 4980m Torre de Flores. It was fascinating to watch the clouds forming and dispersing, to frame or hide the peaks and ridges, as the mountains turned on an impressive display in weather creation. As always the clouds won the day and, with the cold wind that funnelled up the valley strengthening, it was a good time to return home.

Arriving at Las Hualtatas

A good spot for lunch

4950m Nevado de Flores in the clouds

Juan, Nello and Lisanyell at Las Hualtatas

The glacier of Nevado de Flores

4500m El Gendarme generating cloud

Here I caused a bit of a hiccup by developing a sudden-onset migrain, mostly likely triggered by body temperature extremes on the way up. I won't go into detail, suffice to say that the dogs and I enjoyed the same lunch, only I ate it first. It was a bit of an effort returning after that, as we headed back higher up the scree slope to cross several large snowdrifts before rejoining our upward track.

The barren upper slopes of the Cajon

Working our way across the snowdrifts ...

.... back toward the mouth of the Cajon

By the time we got back to the campsite, a few drops of rain had begun to fall. I retreated to the tent to recover, while the others retreated to another of Christian's bonfires to have dinner and chat, accompanied by the thunder and lightning, but fortunately not rain, of a passing electrical storm.

Day 3 - The Waterfall (8km - 10m ascent - 30m descent)

Our luck with the weather seemed to hold as, after the night's pyrotechnics, we awoke to no headaches and a cloudless sky for our easy trek out of the valley. After breaking camp and loading the mule, we retraced our steps back along the flat northern edge of the wide stony valley floor, still unable to resist taking more photos of the beautiful alpine panoramas of the mountains about us in the brilliant sunshine.

The head of Cajon Paredones

Looking down the Rio Paredones

The towering black face of Torre de Flores

Looking across the river flats towards the
Paredones Falls

4300m Catedral Barroso on the
Chile-Argentina border
Reaching a point opposite the large waterfall, Christian's services were called on again, as he ferried us on Satana's back across the three deeper braids of the Rio Paredones. We then rock-hopped across the remaining four braids to the southern edge of the stony riverbed, and headed toward the impressive 150m waterfall.

The handsome Chilean cowboy reached down and lifted her onto his
snorting black steed then galloped off into the sunset (well, any girl can dream!)

Heading toward the 150m Paredones Falls

Stream below the waterfall

The trekking team pose for a photo

The last 50m plunge

A few tricky manouevres saw us over the fast-flowing side stream that rushed away from the base of the falls and we reached the splashpool, tucked away in a beautiful mossy green hollow, lined with trees - a strong contrast to the bare rock walls and barren pebble flats that surrounded it.


Landscape of the Central Chilean Andes

Heading home on the stony river bed

One last crossing

The aqueduct winds through the Chilean

100-year old wooden aqueduct bound by iron hoops

Parque Nacional Rio Cipres

We spent a while enjoying the falls and their mists before heading off for two more river crossings on the back of Satana, to arrive back at the vehicle by late morning and head home once again past the impressive wooden aqueduct. It had been a very enjoyable and different trek for us; the first time in the Andes that we had walked up a classic alpine valley where you have a feeling of being surrounded by the mountains.

Thanks to Christian (and Satana) for getting us over the many river crossings with dry feet, to Juan for showing us this beautiful and lesser known part of the Andes and for our quick visit to Rio Cipres National Park on the way home, but mostly, thanks to both and Lisanyell for being such pleasant compañeros.