The aim of travelling is to find amazing places to visit that have not yet been ravaged by the effects of tourism (of course the irony is that we contribute to the ravaging, however lightly we tread). One such place (for now) is the Cochamó Valley, an hour and a half from Puerto Varas.
We were looking for an activity to fill a few days before our 4-day ferry trip to Puerto Natales and someone suggested we do some trekking in Cochamó Valley. After a bit of googling we discovered that it’s possible to ride horses through the valley, something I had wanted to do in Pucón but didn’t have time. We quickly booked ourselves in with the local horse guide for a trip that included a guide, horses, lodging at the settlement of La Junta and all meals. The plan was a six-hour ride into La Junta on the first day, a day of trekking on the second day, and riding out on the third. It took a bit of convincing to get Michelle to agree to get on a horse, but we were assured that pack horses won’t gallop as they are not built for it.
We made our way to the bus station in Puerto Varas early in the morning to catch the bus that leaves at 8ish (depending on the whims of the driver). After waiting for a while, we realised we were in the wrong spot and luckily found the right one before the bus arrived. We crammed onto the old rickety bus, scoring the last 2 seats at the very back. We soon realised why the bus was so old – it’s mostly a narrow dirt road, and I guess they didn’t want to break a shiny new one.
Upon arrival at the town of Cochamó, we followed the instructions to find the house of the guide company (“the blue one just near the police station”) … they must work on a different scale of distance here as it was about 2km away, but after walking a while a local took pity on us and gave us a lift in his ute. When we arrived at the house, we met Kim, our fellow traveller for the trip, and Elsa our guide. We then distilled our massive backpacks into small saddlebags taking just what we would need for 3 days (which is not much really).
Elsa is a 24 year old French girl with a love of horses who discovered Cochamó a few years back. She now works here full time as a guide during the summer. She was an excellent guide, very patient with our lack of experience and fitness! Elsa gave us a quick briefing on how to ride a horse cowboy-style (using the reins held together like a joystick rather than pulling each side). We then hopped onto our horses and started down the dusty dirt road towards the start of the trail. The flat road provided a good opportunity to get used to being on the horse before the trail began.
The horses are very well trained and easy to control. The one I was on was on-loan from elsewhere and didn’t know the other horses, so there was a bit of argy-bargy occasionally as they worked out their pecking order, but on the whole they were very well behaved. Michelle’s fear of a horse reaching an open field and breaking into a gallop proved not to be a problem – the most they would attempt was the occasional trot, and would go back to walking immediately if you pulled back on the reins.
The trail into La Junta is not really a trail; it’s more like a route. It has been in place in some form since the 19th century, used to trade beef from Argentina for seafood from Chile. So the pack horses and their use as working animals go back a long time in the region. Once we got going we realised the incredible ability of these horses. Often we were riding in river beds full of boulders, through muddy pits, over piles of broken timber, and in many cases doing it either up or down a steep slope. In some places we were riding in deep narrow trenches with the walls up to our heads – a product of over a century of foot and hoof prints and erosion. This is why the traditional stirrups we used are closed in like a Dutch clog and made of carved wood – a normal stirrup would catch on a rock or root which could be very nasty.
A few times my horse stumbled and I was certain its legs would buckle beneath it and we would tumble to the ground, but fortunately it never happened. It’s amazing how a horse knows exactly what its back feet are on without being able to see them. We’d help as much as possible, leaning forward when going up a hill and back when going down. At some moments I felt like Tom Burlinson hurtling down the hill after the Colt from old Regret (albeit at a slightly slower speed).
After stopping by the river for a nice lunch that Elsa whipped up from nowhere, we continued through dense forest until finally we arrived at La Junta, the junction of two rivers and the main base for people visiting the area. Our knees and bums were absolutely burning, and despite the fact that the horses had done most of the work we were pretty tired!
The population of La Junta is a mix of trekkers and rock climbers who are attracted by the many unexplored granite cliffs. At the moment there are several groups of climbers putting in new routes up the sheer granite walls. This often involves being suspended from the wall for days at a time (even sleeping there) while they drill in all of the pitches. The common comparison is that it’s like Yosemite National Park in the US was years ago when climbing as a sport was in its infancy.
The enthusiasm of the climbing community is really quite amazing – the region’s increasing popularity is largely down to an American rock climber called Daniel who fell in love with the climbing potential of the area 8 years ago. He and his Argentinian wife bought some land and built Refugio Cochamó over a 2 year period, bringing in everything by horseback. We ate at the Refugio one night, but slept at the only other lodge – Campo Aventura -which is smaller and also a product of hard work and determination. Both the Refugio and lodge have camping areas, and most people choose to camp.
Since then he and other climbers have built access routes through rainforest to several climbing spots, and on our second day we were fortunate to use one of the recently constructed ones to hike to “the lagoon”. When I say constructed I use that term pretty loosely. Some parts take the rough form of a trail, but much of it is scrambling up hills, over fallen logs, and up rock-filled river beds. We were glad to have a Elsa guide us as there are no real markings, just the odd ribbon tied to a tree or pile of stones. It’s the sort of trail that just wouldn’t exist in Australia as it would have been completely safety-ised and signposted, and lose a lot of charm in the process.
Despite doing a lot of city walking on this trip, our trekking fitness was still pretty undeveloped and it was pretty hard going, although more varied than the always-up Volcano climb! The 4 hour effort up was well worth it though – all the way along we were either in splendid rainforest, walking alongside huge granite walls, or scampering through pristine rivers. We barely saw anyone the whole day, and when we finally arrived at the lagoon we couldn’t wait to jump in and have a swim. The water was cold but refreshing, and we swam to the other side and sunned ourselves on the rock before swimming back across for lunch. This kind of splendid isolation is not easy to find anywhere!
The return trip was mostly downhill and therefore faster, but this just means pain in different places and Michelle developed an impressive set of blisters on her heels wearing her new trekking shoes. She was pretty relieved to see the lodge and kissed the grass on our return. We relaxed for the rest of the evening drinking well deserved cervezas and ate a nice dinner before turning in for a very good night’s sleep.
The last day was riding out on the same route we came in on, but with a bit more confidence on the horses it was even more enjoyable. I was pleased to find my horse was a bit more sure-footed on the return journey, probably because she hadn’t been worked for a while and the ride in got her back into practice. On the way we stopped at the camping area, and then crossed the river on foot to visit the beautiful waterfall.
By the time we got back to town the familiar aches and pains were back again, but these quickly receded after we dismounted. We said our farewells to our great riding companions, Elsa and Kim who we shared lots of laughs with and then waited for the return bus to Puerto Varas. At the last minute Kim decided to join us rather than camp, and we headed back to town together.
Michelle and I agreed that this was one of the best experiences we’d had on this trip so far. Although we didn’t exactly discover something new, we felt privileged to find somewhere in its prime – it certainly won’t improve with the inevitable onslaught of tourism in coming years, we only hope it doesn’t change too much.