Friday, April 4, 2014

Cochamo Valley: The Yosemite of South America

After hiking and eating our way through the Argentina side of the Lakes District, Kate and I decided to head west to the Chile side of the same region to some places that had come very highly recommended to us by friends. Our first stop was the Chilean holiday town of Puerto Varas.

Puerto Varas is a small holiday town on the shore of Lago Llanquihue that is dominated by the sight of two prominent volcanoes which can be seen from the shoreline and town alike.
Osorno and Calbuco in the distance; Llanquihue in the foreground
When we arrived, the town, awash in abnormally high temperatures and sun, had turned into a full fledged beach town. Holiday makers and locals crowded the beach and we couldn't believe how busy it was.

Kate found us a terrific little cabana (Verde Nativo) a 2 minute walk from the beach and a 1 minute walk to the best empanada place in town. It turned out to be the perfect spot to explore town and plan our trip into Cochamo Valley, about a 2 hour drive to the east. While in town, we found some terrific restaurants and had some of the best, most interesting meals in a while. The first was La Gringa, owned by a Seattle transplant which served up delicious Chilean inspired dishes. The second place was La Jardiera, which boasted dishes like succulent salmon with crab and lobster risotto. Amazing. (Check out Kate's food post if you want more mouthwatering food shots and descriptions.)

Turns out I could easily live off of these empanadas.
While the food was great, the real attraction of the area was Cochamo Valley. Cochamo Valley had been described to us as the "Yosemite of South America," and as such, has become an ideal destination for rock climbers, hikers, campers and nature lovers. To get to Cochamo, we hired a taxi and set out early one morning eager to get to the trail head so we could start our 4 hour hike up the valley.
The drive out of Puerto Varas was spectacular on our way to Cochamo.
When we first started out, our great driver, Christian, mentioned that there "might be a road closure ahead." We would just have to wait and see. Turns out Christian was right. After an hour and a half in the car, we arrived to police tape, a local protest and a blocked bridge. The story goes that a local landowner was tired of having a half finished bridge in his front yard for the past 3 years so had decided (that morning) to close the only road into and out of Cochamo until he got the attention of the President of Chile, who he hoped would promise the completion of the road. This of course, was big news in a little town.
The blocked bridge.
Everyone was out. The mayor was there. Local and regional officials came and went. Yelling and protesting ensued. An older women feigned illness in an attempt to speed things along. It was all very entertaining, and educational, to talk to folks about the how's/whats and who's of how Chilean protests happen. (For instance, everyone was very up front about the fact that the regional bureaucrats sent out to deal with the mess "weren't senior enough to matter or make a decision." Yet that didn't stop anyone from yelling at them their frustration at the whole mess.)
Cars lined up; bureaucrats looking frazzled; locals fired up
While entertaining, Kate and I still had a 4 hour hike in front of us so when we had been watching the festivities unfold for 4 hours, we were getting a little anxious to get going. (See? We have learned the art of patience... Sometimes.)

Eventually we skirted past the protest, walked over the 'closed' bridge, hitched a ride in the back of two different pick up trucks, tipped our drivers a few bucks and found out way the final 20 km to the trail head.
Kate hitching a ride - a bit dusty but way better than walking 20 km
The 4 hour hike into the valley quickly alerted us to the fact that this place was as devastatingly beautiful has we had been warned it was. The granite mountains surged through the tree lines, the rushing river provided our soundtrack and we navigated the centuries old tracks worn 6 feet deep in places from countless animal and human traffic. Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used these same trails to move cattle back when they were hiding out down in Argentina and Chile to escape the law in the States.

Cochamo; deserving of the high praise
There's no getting lost in these trails
During the rainy season, we had heard that the trails become largely impassable except on horseback due to the deep mud. Some reviewers even compared the trails to "WWI battle line trenches, only worse with more mud and horseflies." Luckily for us, we only had to navigate the unending line of Chilean University students squeezing in one final holiday before school started again. Some were carrying grocery bags with their belongings, some were looking more ready to go to the disco than to go camping, but all were super friendly and eager.

Kate had, again, found a terrific place for us to stay, the Refugio Cochamo, which is run by an Argentinean and American climbing couple, and their 8 year old son, Zen, and a terrific staff. The couple had stumbled upon the valley 12 years ago and decided to never leave. This place had it all: friendly staff, French press coffee, fresh baked bread and home made jams for breakfast, a huge balcony with unparalleled views, hiking out the front door, pizza and vegetarian food for dinner (simultaneously pleasing both Kate and I), a private room and some super friendly guests.
The setting for Refugio Cochamo

Love front porch sitting with these type of views
We ended up spending 3 nights and absolutely loved our time here. (Truth be told, one more night would've been terrific.) Our days were filled with hiking up the various hanging valleys perched above the Refugio - we hiked Trinidad and the Amphitheater - to get even more ridiculous views before returning to the front porch to do some quality front porch sitting, reading, writing, drinking boxed wine and watching the sunset over the picturesque valley.
Lunch spot from the Amphitheater Valley
Lunch spot from Trinidad Valley
By the time our 4th day rolled around, we were exhausted from the consecutive 15 mile day hikes which gained almost 3,000 ft of elevation each but so thankful we had found our way to this little slice of paradise. Retracing our steps through the labyrinth of centuries old trails to meet up with Christian again for our lift back to town, we couldn't help but think that perhaps Butch Cassidy had been on to something all those years ago. There could be far worse places to retire to.

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