While riding out the Maipo Canyon in Chile, just southeast of Santiago, the Andes mountain range greets you with a rugged beauty. Sweeping canyon roads meet active volcanoes and raging white waters of the Maipo River. Although some of this canyon has been mined, there is still untamed wild lying just beyond the quarried hills.

Riding on an Indian Scout Sixty through the Maipo Canyon toward the San José stratovolcano range, located in the Central Andes nearing the border of Argentina, 80 kilometers from Santiago.
Riding through the Maipo Canyon toward the active but stable San José stratovolcano range, located in the Central Andes nearing the border of Argentina, 80 kilometers from Santiago.Janelle Kaz
Map of San José de Maipo County in the Central Andes of Chile.
The scenic roads of San José de Maipo County in the Central Andes of Chile do not disappoint.Map courtesy of Benado et al., titled “The geoheritage of the Cajon del Maipo Geopark Project” (2013).

As you make your way through the foothills of the Chilean Andes and enter the canyon, you begin to know the winds that helped shape these walls, a force named "el Raco" It is on these tremendous winds that you may see the likes of a soaring dinosaur. After all, giants still roam these mountains. If you're lucky, perhaps you might catch a glimpse of one while leaning through a turn: the Andean condor, soaring high above on the rising thermals.

The fossil records show that Andean condors have remained nearly unchanged for millions of years.

Andean condor flying.
Andean condor, Vultur gryphus, is the largest bird of flight by combined measurement of wingspan and weight.Photo by Rodrigo Gaviria

Andean condors, one of the largest flying birds in existence, have been an extremely important cultural symbol in the Andes for thousands of years. In the high mountains, the condor represents the upper world, the heavens, one of the three realms of existence, while the puma or jaguar represents the earth, and the snake the underworld.

Condors are important symbols for the United States as well. When their numbers dwindled to a mere 22, all remaining individuals were captured and brought into captivity. It was then that captive female Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) were released into the wild in California. This project has been a success, bringing back California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) from the brink of extinction. The female Andean condors have since been recaptured and reintroduced to their native habitat in South America.

Past conservation concerns focused on the use of lead ammunition for hunting because condors' digestive systems are strong enough to absorb large quantities of the lead when ingested from scavenged gunshot kills. Hunter-killed carcasses often have lead remnants from lead shot or fragments from shotgun slugs, leading to secondary toxicity. Lead poisoning is apparent in the condor’s crop (an enlarged part of the esophagus where the bird stores food before digestion); reportedly it turns bright green. There has been much effort to end the use of lead ammunition within the range of Andean and California condors, but concern still exists.

Here in Chile and just across the Andes mountains into Argentina, toxic agricultural poisons like carbofuran are illegally used by ranchers to combat predators. When these carcasses are scavenged upon by condors, more deaths ensue.

Last year outside of Mendoza, Argentina, 34 Andean condors were found dead next to the corpse of a puma, all due to carbofuran. Such a tragedy is as heartbreaking as it is needless. Further education outreach and enforcement is needed, but carbofuran is extremely inexpensive and regulating such a vast land is difficult.

A poisoned puma and Andean condors.
One target, 35 victims: Ranchers aimed to poison a puma predator resulting in this huge blow to the population of threatened Andean condors.Photo courtesy of the Secretaria de Ambiente y Ordenamiento Territorial de Mendoza

We need condors. Condors serve essential roles for humans as important carrion feeders that help limit the spread of disease, and with their tremendous size, their survival in the native habitat is important for ecotourism in South America.

Author Janelle Kaz with Indian Scout Sixty motorcycle in Chile.
Author, a wildlife protection motorcycle journalist, in the heart of the Cajón del Maipo, Chile.Janelle Kaz

There is no better way to have a sense for the extreme environments that these gigantic birds inhabit than riding on two wheels among the Andes. There are volcanoes to climb and hot springs to soak in, or you could simply make a lunchtime stop at Santuario del Río like I did, where you can take in the sights and sounds of the Maipo River gorge on a back patio. Although the winds of El Raco blow strong, it is the raging Rio Maipo that truly formed the canyon and now serves as the main source of water for the entire capital city of Santiago.

A glass of Chilean Carménère with a view, overlooking the Maipo River and canyon walls.
A glass of Chilean Carménère with a view, overlooking the Maipo River and its impressive canyon walls.Janelle Kaz

With surrounding horses and the huasos who ride them (pronounced "wasos," meaning Chilean cowboys), there is a nostalgic Western feel to these country roads. Settled beneath the San José volcano is El Volcán, an old boom town that supported those working the copper and mineral mines until it was abandoned in the mid-1900s. Now succumbing to dilapidation, a rusted and crumbling tower still stands amid the tumbleweeds, giving the area an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel.

Old silo on side of mountain in Chile.
Once a booming mining center, the pueblo El Volcán is now largely abandoned, just like this old silo where they used to store minerals.Janelle Kaz

Let’s not allow creatures as grand and enigmatic as the condor to become ghosts like the deserted mining village of El Volcán. When we travel with a desire to appreciate the landscape and animals that live within it, we help preserve an ecosystem through our tourist dollars. Let those offering services know what matters to you and ride with respect into these lands, enjoying all that they have to offer, leaving no trace and taking only memories.

Motorcycle in front of Andes Mountains.
These colorful, mineral-rich mountains contain records of about 200 million years of geological history and a vast geodiversity including intense tectonic activity, volcanoes, hot springs, and glaciers.Janelle Kaz