In which we were planning to head north, but in chatting with some rock climbers at our hostel one night, we decide to change those plans and instead check out Cochamo Valley. And boy are we glad we did.
Cochamo Valley has been called the Yosemite of South America. It is a lush jungle valley surrounded by rocky peaks and cliffs – it is a rock climber’s paradise. We pack enough food for three nights and take off.
Day 1: Hike In
The hike in from where the bus drops us off is 13 km of relatively flat terrain, winding up the valley next to the Rio Cochamo. It is expected to take 2-6 hours. Wait, what? 2-6 hours? There’s a big difference between a 2-hour hike and a 6-hour hike. . . And soon we find out what it is.
It’s rained on and off the last couple of days, and picks up again as soon as we exit the bus. We start up the trail and soon find ourselves on a knee-deep slog through dense, disgusting mud. The trail is slippery at best, and incredibly difficult with a full pack on. It is an exhausting 5 hours before we arrive at camp and walk directly into the river, still wearing all of our clothing, to wash off. No photos were taken this day due to the deluge. Instead, here’s a photo of J making friends with the camp kitty:
The man at registration loans us a huge tarp, which we string above the Turtle for an incredibly homey (and waterproof!) effect.
Day 2: Cochamo Valley
The next morning, we awake to find the clouds have lifted to reveal a spectacular scene. Blue sky, big sun, and big granite walls everywhere you look. We spend the morning resting and drying out before taking off to explore in the afternoon. Starting with this small contraption, to pull yourself across the river:
And we soon discover the other problem with trails here. Each trail branches infinite times with side trails made to avoid large muddy sections. There are also animal trails which crisscross the valley and climber’s trails to each of the nearby crags. The actual hiking trails which wind between all of these are largely unmarked, except for a few large junctions. We set off for El Anfiteatro, but several hours of wandering and bushwhacking later give up and head back down to the river to catch the last remaining sunlight.
Day 3: Arco Iris
Today, we tackle Arco Iris. We’ve heard rumors that it is incredibly difficult, but that from the top you can see Argentina in one direction and the ocean in the other. We’re sold.
The trail quickly becomes what we’ve coined a Class 4 Jungle Scramble with vertical sections assisted by roots, vines, and ropes. Sometimes it’s just bare rock with a wet, muddy rope hanging down and you are expected to grasp this rope with both hands (not knowing how long its been there) and haul yourself up while bracing with your feet against the rock. Sometimes there are perilous ledges below you. Sometimes, Chile is not known for its safety-consciousness.
The trails here are not the most direct, easiest, or most scenic routes, but seem to meander around because someone with a machete deemed that that’s where the trail should go. Having learned our lesson yesterday, we encounter several groups of lost hikers along the way, bushwhacking in the distance until J calls out, “¡Hola chicos! ¿Estan perdidos o bien?” “. . . ¡Un poco perdidos!” We soon adopt one of these lost hikers, Pascal, who joins us for the rest of the day.
The end of the hike is a rock scramble and the views are gigantic – peaks and nearby lagoons and the bases of nearby snowy volcanoes beneath drifting clouds. It’s magnificent.
As promised, that’s Argentina in the background.
And as promised, there’s the ocean.
The descent takes almost as long as the ascent, due to the tricky terrain. We make a small detour to an isolated waterfall where we sit and relax in the cool oasis of moss and aquamarine pools. It’s a fantastic day.
That evening, we chat with a couple of guys from the camp who convince us to stay another day, mostly by telling us that there’s ample free food available because people leave behind their extras when they hike out. Done.
Day 4: La Paloma
Instead of hiking out today, we pull together our extra food and take off on a recommendation from one of our friends: La Paloma.
The trail takes us first past El Tobogan area. This is a waterfall with wide flat rock people use as waterslides. There have been several major accidents here, including a death earlier this year. We opt not to slide, but watch some kids doing it and it does look fun.
Second, we hike up past La Pared Seca, a climbing wall (literally, Dry Wall). Here, we come across a group of young Chileno climbers who strike up a conversation and pretty soon offer us a turn on their rope while they cook up some lunch. Yes, please!
One of them leads what he calls a super-fun 6A for us and then hands over the rope. The climb rises diagonally along a bomb crack with solid jugs the whole way. It’s overhanging enough that we both struggle and our out-of-shape arms tire by the third move. But after J climbs, then C leads, we decide with our feet back on the ground that it’s graded a bit high, in our opinion.
We thank the chicos and do another long, pinchy, fun traverse before getting back to our original plan for the day – La Paloma. It’s another ridiculous jungle gym climb up to a stunning rock valley. What are these trails??
We paddle about in a shallow pool at the top before descending back to camp. We join our friends at camp who share some food for dinner on our last night in the valley.
Day 5: Trinidad
We wake up and are packing our things to leave when one of our friends comes running up: There’s been an accident up at Trinidad – a climber has fallen and broken both legs. Any chance we could stick around to join the rescue party? Um. Yes.
This same friend had been telling us over dinner the night before that they’d done a rescue the previous night – their second of the season. A hiker had broken his ankle and they hadn’t received the call until 7 or 8 pm. The rescue had been up La Poloma (remember those trails?), in the dark, and there were only 6 of them. They hadn’t gotten back to camp until 6:00 am. We grab our first aid kit and join the rescue party expecting the worst.
It turns out that Pablo, an experienced Chilean rock climber, had gotten way off route two pitches up a multi-pitch climb. He had fallen from a full 15 meters above his last protection down a cliff face and landed on a class 4 rock scramble below, and had a fractured femur on one leg and a compound fracture of both his shin bones on the other. However, he was incredibly lucky in that after a fall of over 30 meters, his head, neck, and back were all fine. The fall was in the morning, in a valley with other climbing groups around – a total of about 10 people had gotten to the scene fairly quickly, including one with extensive medical knowledge who had taken control. One person had rappelled and then run all the way down to camp, and our group had hiked immediately up at top speed. We arrived around 1:30 pm at the base of the cliff to find Pablo already on a stretcher and being lowered down the last of the steep rock.
The rescue procession was about 20 people strong, and proceeded as organized chaos. Six people bore the stretcher down the trail, while someone ran ahead with a machete, cutting back low branches and stands of kila (Chilean bamboo) that narrowed the trail. When we reached a steep section, we lined the trail, shoulder to shoulder, and passed the stretcher between us. After the stretcher passed you, you bushwhacked around the group at a run (down the steep section) to be ready at the front again. When we reached manageable terrain, the last six could begin walking again. We are joined over the course of the afternoon by several groups of day-hikers who come upon us on the trail and join in the hoard. With several breaks because Pablo was shifting on the stretcher or bleeding through the bandages, we reached the campsite about 7 hours after we’d left.
We don’t know how Pablo is doing now, but he was conscious and gritting through the pain with the aid of someone’s cell phone tucked into one of the swathes of climbing slings strapping him into the stretcher, playing swinging reggae tunes the whole way down. Once at camp, he was picked up by a Chilean Navy helicopter. We learned that the army and navy do all the emergency rescuing in Chile – this is how they occupy their time and keep in practice during times of peace, and that it is completely free. Damn it, United States.
That evening, we joined a group of rock climbers from the rescue team for dinner, who also gifted us some food for the next day’s hike out. It’s a physically and emotionally exhausting day, but it’s nice to see the community of strangers come together in a time of need.
No photos were taken today, so here’s another photo of J’s new best friend:
Day 6: Hike Out
On day 6, we finally leave Cochamo Valley. After this many days of sun, the trail is almost completely transformed. There is still mud, but it’s either easily avoidable or shallow enough to tromp on through. We take the time to marvel at the stunning trenches constant trekking has created, and picture the native tribes, traders, missionaries, and conquistadors who have been using this valley as the pathway from Chile to Argentina for hundreds of years.
The hike that took us 5 hours on the way in takes only 3 on the return. We hop to public bus back to Puerto Varas, slightly ashamed of our mud and stench. A fantastic adventure of a week!
We now find ourselves 6 km from Pucon, on the north end of the Lake District, at Campo El Laurel, a stunning homestead on the slopes of Volcán Villarica. We are working here for 2 weeks weeding, pruning, and picking plums and apples. More in the next post!
Lots of love,
C & J