Cerro Renca: a high point of Santiago.

During my 12 months in Chile, I came to see Cerro Renca, or Renca Hill, as more than just a prominent landmark. Located on the northern side of Santiago, the pointy peak rises sharply out of the ground, separating the municipality of Quilicura, where I lived, from the rest of the city, which lies sprawled out to the south and the east. From the start, the hill dominated my views and my imagination and very quickly, I learned to use it as a reference point. Whenever I saw it, I knew I wasn’t far from home. A few months into my stay, I had already decided that I wanted to climb it.

Cerro Renca stood out for three reasons. The first one was its size. According to Wikipedia, its summit sits at 905 metres above sea level and a good 300 metres above the rest of Santiago, making it the highest point within the city’s limits. It’s big. The kind of big that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and climb to the top.

As well as being large, Cerro Renca is also home to two novelty, Hollywood-style signs, whose gigantic white letters can be seen from miles away. The first is on the southern side of the hill, in the municipality of Renca, and it reads: RENCA LA LLEVA (RENCA RULES, or perhaps more appropriately, RENCA RULZ). Erected in 2010, it has become a source of great pride for half of Renca’s residents, a source of great humiliation for their more sensible neighbours and a source of even greater amusement for everyone else in Santiago. The other sign, on the Quilicura side is much less interesting. It simply says, VALLE LO CAMPINO (LO CAMPINO VALLEY), the name of a small and exclusive neighbourhood, tucked between the hill and the Americo Vespucio motorway.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Cerro Renca was the plain, white cross, perched at its peak. Just like the ridiculous signs, the cross is visible from all over the city, and to me, it signalled something much more important than the hill’s other features; it reminded me that even though I was in a strange land with strange customs and strange new problems, God the creator was still in control.

It also struck a personal chord. Although I didn’t know much about Chile before the trip, I knew it was a mountainous land, whose scenery was dominated by the majestic presence of the Andes and a string of smaller, yet still spectacular, hills and mountain ranges. I was looking forward to being in their presence and enjoying their stark beauty. And then, in the months leading up to my departure, I stumbled upon Psalm 121 a couple of times, and the first two verses really stood out:

I will lift my eyes to the hills–
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

As I read the psalm, I determined that I would use Santiago’s stunning mountain vistas as a constant reminder of this truth. Even if things were difficult or my plans fell through, I would gaze up at the hills and mountains and remember; remember that these mighty landforms are the handiwork of my God and my helper. So I was thrilled when I settled in Quilicura to discover that my local hill, Cerro Renca, had a big, white cross on top of it. What a reminder!

Every time I left Quilicura, whether I was travelling to the other side of Santiago or beyond, I would look up at the hill and remember. I would remember God’s promises. And how much I wanted to climb the hill.

And on my second last day in the country, that wish finally came true. With Leonel and Scott, two of my best friends in Chile, I set out to climb Cerro Renca.

True to local custom, we set off about 50 minutes late in Leonel’s shopping trolley car and headed for the Renca side of the hill. When we arrived at the base, the sun was high in the sky and already beating down fiercely and we consulted briefly with a council ranger about the best paths to take before beginning the ascent.

The first part of the climb was relatively straight forward, following a broad path that was well marked and not too steep. But a third of the way up the hill (which now seemed like a mountain), things started to change. Taking what we thought was a short cut, we found ourselves slipping on the loose gravel in a drainage channel where we had to dig our heels in to just to stop ourselves from falling. After a tense 10 minutes of gravity defying antics, we returned to the path and continued making our way closer to the cross at the top of the hill. Along the way, we paused to take in the view, pose for photos and catch our breath. It was exhausting but exhilirating.

An hour-and-a-half after we set out, we reached the summit where we sat down to eat, drink and search for landmarks.

“Look, there’s the Mapocho Station. See the copper coloured roof.”

“And there’s the Entel Tower.”

“Wait…wait…I think that’s the Santa Isabel supermarket…Yeah it is.”

“Where?”

“See? Over there where I’m pointing.”

“My house must somewhere between those two rows of trees over there.”

The cross was bigger than we had expected, its base was covered in graffiti and a section of the metal cladding on the crossbar had bent and was flapping loosely in the breeze. But that didn’t matter. It was just good to be there, on top of Santiago.

While we stood admiring the views and posing for more photos, I said a silent prayer of thanks as I thought about the ending to the psalm.

The LORD will keep you from all harm–
he will watch over your life;
The LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

After one last photo, we turned and ran down the hill, ignoring the paths. It was a great way to say goodbye. We had reached the pinnacle and now I was ready to go home. Well, almost ready.

Renca Rulz: The sign that divides santiaguinos. Some of them gloat, others cringe and the rest just laugh.

The cross up close.

With Leonel, Scott and Quilicura in the background.

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