So after a few days in Santiago, it was time to go up to the Andes.
Above and to the southeast of Santiago is the Cajon del Maipo, which is essentially the canyon carved out by the Maipo river. In 60-90 minutes driving time (most of it spent getting out of the sprawl of Santiago itself), you'll find yourself in a completely different world of cool little towns, ranches, and incredible scenery. Public buses and tour buses run into the canyon with varying frequency on different days. The problem was, I was hoping to check out some different areas and towns with a fairly open-ended schedule, and the only way to do this easily (outside of hitchiking, which is fairly common and reasonably safe, supposedly) would be to rent a car. The main road eventually turns to dirt road of reasonable quality, and then progressively worse quality, as it approaches the Argentina border, and some of the places I wanted to visit (El Parque Nacional del Morado) recommended 4 wheel drive, so I had difficulty determining if they really *meant* that. It's easy for visitors who had $150-$200/day to spend on a truck to retroactively justify their need for it, but that was out of my budget. And since it was summer and the forecast was clear, so I shouldn't have to deal with mud and definitely not snow, but I did have some apprehension about figuring out what car to get.
I've never rented a car in a foreign country (although I've driven my own vehicles in Canada and Mexico), as everywhere we've visited has had sufficient public transportation for the areas we wanted to visit. I checked around a few locations in Santiago on foot and on the internet, and although I stay away from chains on everything else, this is one thing where it felt better to recognize a brand.
1. Hertz, in Providencia: They had economy cars for $100/day. The cars looked great and trustworthy, but it was more than I wanted to spend.
2. United car rental: They had a nice website and better rates. However, in person, the car selection and overall operation seemed so-so. And on the internet, they only had a pickup truck left, but it was around $100, though I couldn't tell if it included insurance or not.
So I visited them in person, and they said they didn't have economy cars, so I asked about the camion I saw on the internet. The two ladies looked at me and laughed, and then asked if I meant a camioneta, or pickup-truck, as opposed to (apparently) a big industrial truck. So sue me if we stared at a picture of a generic truck back in Senora Villa's Spanish class in Mukwonago, Wisconsin and learned the word "camion."
Anyway, the price was a bit higher, though they did have a truck, but I was a little less sure about this place.
3. Alamo: Got a quote online for $65/day on a subcompact (Yaris) with full insurance (which ends up being an $800 deductible, but better than risking even more). I made it early enough in the day that I'd have some time in case there were monkey business, but it was the most I felt comfortable paying.
So the cars aren't in pristine condition by any means, but I'm OK with that, as long as they mark it properly. They were great about proactively marking down every scratch and dent, of which there were many, and the guy was careful to explain and show me every control of the car (windshield wipers, lights, etc.)
She wasn't too sure about riding in a tiny deathtrap in the crazy city traffic, let alone mountain roads. And her other question: "How long has it been since you've driven stickshift?" Well, there was only one way to find out how this was all going to work out.
Here's J in the Yaris:
And driving stick is like riding a bike, just like I told her.
We followed the proper road south out of town, and I just drove conservatively, but no problems. The same road changes names like 4 times, and then was under construction so we took a detour, but the key was just heading south out of town. Eventually it opened up and got much more laid back as we started climbing in the canyon.
Of course, here you have everything from cars to buses and slow rickety trucks, and J didn't want me to pass anyone, but eventually she started getting sleepy and comfortable enough to take a nap...which meant I could pass some people as necessary. Go, Yaris!
We made our way through a few smaller towns. I had made a reservation at Cascada de las Animas in San Alfonso. They had cabins that were all full, but we had a private room in a separate lodge building with a shared bathroom. It was like $50/night with breakfast and beautiful gardens and sheer rock cliffs behind us, well worth it!