Cascada de las Animas (Sat., 3/14/09) – Fueling the Spirit

A solo excursion leads to insights on sustainable energy sourcing

View of Casada de las Animas from below
View of Casada de las Animas from below

Four days into my stay at Cascada de las Animas, I finally see the waterfalls.  Before our visit I had assumed, incorrectly, that the name referred to the powerful whitewater on Rio Maipo.  I am delighted and surprised!   For me, waterfalls have always been a source of great mystery and enlightenment.  No matter what frame of mind I am in, I am sure to be reminded of the powerful forces of nature when I visit a waterfall.  I decided yesterday morning that, rather than being joined by a guide, I would prefer to go on a solo hike to the falls.  In keeping with his ongoing hospitality, Sebastian, family member and property manager extraordinaire, procures a map and entrusts me with a key to the gate that secures the bridge across Rio Maipo.  Once I am out of range of the powerful music of the Maipo, every step affords a little more excitement.  I am curious.  How long until I can hear the sounds of the falls?

Just before I cross a third footbridge over a tributary channel, the falls come into view.  I see them before I hear them.  This surprises me, given the short distance and extreme vertical drop.  They are fantastico!  I scramble to the base of the lower drop and plant myself in the lotus position on a boulder.  The spray is just barely glancing off the left side of my body.  I am in heaven, absorbing drops of the powerful flow that descends this sheer face of the Andes.  I begin to meditate and time becomes fluid.

Suddenly, my mind draws me from my blissful state, and begins to weave threads of information.  The Astorga-Moreno family is clearly committed to sustainability.  Sebastian and I even had a conversation the previous evening about society’s need to move to smaller scales and invest in long-term returns when it comes to energy sourcing. In fact, most of the families’ homes are fueled by solar power.  However, the power required to operate the entire facility is significant enough that it is currently bought from the grid.

Hydro-power has a pretty ugly history in Chile.  The threats to systems in this region are fresh; AES Gener is driving the train on a plan to reroute upper tributaries and send electricity to the sprawling metropolis of Santiago.   It is a controversial and ugly proposition.  Yet micro hydro systems, when designed in the proper way, can provide a low cost, sustainable alternative that leaves a very light footprint.  Even if the tributary’s flow regimes oppose the facility’s peak needs, excess power generated during the off season could be sold back to the grid and balance its net consumption. Particularly given the unsustainable path of growth and energy use in Santiago, it seems that micro hydro is a viable alternative for Cascada de las Animas.