From Argentina’s Lakes District we popped back over the border to Chile. An adorable white lab inspected the back of the truck for any contraband (i.e. fresh fruit and vegetables) and we headed into the thick jungle-like greenery of Parque Nacional Puyehue and Chile’s Lakes District. The air became fresh and damp, clouds rolled in, and we proceeded to Puerto Varas to stock up on food. The general feel of the trip had suddenly changed. Wood shingled houses appeared, fishing boats were docked in the water, and everything had kind of a quaint seaside feel to it.
The drive from Puerto Varas to the Cochamó Valley was stunning. Volcano Osorno soared overhead (you can ski this bad boy in the winter!), beech trees, eucalyptus and bamboo freshened the air, and wood houses dotted the grassy hills along the roadway.
We skirted around windy Lago Llanquihue and entered a fern-filled forest with little red berry bushes on either side of us. Eventually we arrived at our campsite in the Cochamó Valley, within walking distance to the start of the trail we would be tackling the next morning.
More than 100 years ago Chilean cattlemen made their way by foot through the Cochamó Valley to the Argentinian border to trade dried and smoked fish and shellfish for Argentinian beef cattle. Rumour has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid drove their cattle from their ranch in Argentina for this exact purpose. Until the early 1990s only locals and ranchers used the trail. Then a German photographer, journalist and long-distance sailor named Clark Stede established two lodges in the area, attracting rock climbers and tourists looking to explore the area on foot or horseback. The first three climbing routes were established in 1998 by a Brit named Crispin Waddy who spent days hacking through the thick bamboo forest with a machete, thus creating a trail to the base of Cerro Trinidad. This short essay is a pretty interesting account of the arduous task of creating the path to a virtually untouched climbing utopia. Crispin Waddy and his climbing buddies completed some of Cochamó’s first recorded climbs.
Now that Cochamó is on the international radar, adventure seeking tourists flock to the area during peak season. But they aren’t driving cars or taking busses in. The closest paved road ends well before the trailhead, and from there you must re-trace the steps of the Chilean cattlemen, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Clark Stede and Crispin Waddy through 4 to 6 hours of thick mud. We maneuvered over slippery logs laid on the more than well-trodden trail, while following painted wooden signs to our basecamp called La Junta. The Cochamò website gives a great overview of the camping options, trail information, climbing and hiking details, and is also a good place to make reservations for a campsite in peak season.
Gorgeous magenta and purple hilco flowers grow in the cool, humid rainforest and provide a major source of nectar for hummingbirds.
The best part of the hike was arriving in the valley itself. The view opened up and revealed a large grassy area surrounded by huge granite domes. We hadn’t seen anything similar since Yosemite, and in fact, Cochamó has been referred to as the “Yosemite of Chile” or the “Yosemite of South America.”
After being accosted by an overly aggressive and paranoid manager of an adjacent campsite which will not be named, we continued on to Camping La Junta to set up our tent.
There is a serious gathering of climbers in the Cochamó Valley. The photos below make it look like we were quite isolated, but in reality there were dozens of tents set up in the grass and many friendly faces around. There are some pretty hard core climbers that spend months in high season marking new routes and attempting to check off their bucket list items while down south. Cochamó definitely has an energy of excitement and opportunity, and I feel like the spirit of the place is likely similar to Yosemite back when the first climbers were placing their chalk-dusted hands on the granite and dreaming of tackling lines that no other had done before them. I hope this special place will continue to be protected from development, but word is getting out and I have no doubt that every year it will become more and more crowded.
The next morning we set off on the Arco Iris trail, dubbed as the valley’s most challenging but most beautiful hike. It was established in 2007 as the valley’s first valley-to-peak hiking trail by two Argentine dudes who macheted their way through the thick bamboo and alerce forest to the tree line. From there, bolts and fixed lines went up at various times and formed the current path that stands today.
It did turn out to be the most technical hike we had ever been on, including sections of ropes, free climbing (minus any clips), and shimmying across small footholds with sheer vertical drop-offs that our mothers didn’t need to know about.
We met Molly and Tom from Minnesota on the trail and had a great time chatting while trying to spot the cairns along the way. They have some beautiful photography and videos on their website.
I am terrified of heights so the downhill rope sections were particularly gut-wrenching. At one point I had to put my boot onto Richard’s thigh and be propped up onto a huge boulder which was slick with algae and water. From there I descended backwards down the steep rock to the safe forest floor below. Our hiking buddies Molly and Tom were super encouraging and patient and I really appreciated their high-fives and pats on the back after we reached the safe zone.
Despite the fact that the trail is a relatively short distance of 15 kilometres, it took us almost 11 hours to reach our campsite back at La Junta. That really shows just how much of a vertical climb it was to the summit.
Back at camp that evening Molly and Tom came by for a carbohydrate-rich dinner finished off with some pulls from Tom’s small Ballantines whisky bottle. After a long day of hiking that burn really hit the spot and warmed us up for a good night’s rest. We considered some other hikes in the valley but felt that nothing could top Arco Iris. Rainy weather was on its way and we didn’t want to slosh our way down to the truck in a soup of horse manure and mud, so we packed up late the next morning and headed for home.