The road to Cochamó valley
Some places the road is almost like a corridor. Steep walls – partly covered in bright green moss – rise on both sides of the narrow path. It has been used to transport cattle and smuggle goods between Argentina and Chile – hoofs digging the path deeper and deeper into the soft ground – for over a century. Some places the forest is so thick only a trickle of light passes through, giving an impression of dusk even though it’s still a couple of hours away. I can only imagine how suppressing the darkness will be when the sun actually sets – it’s something I definitely don’t want to experience, so I hasten my pace, almost running at times, while trying to avoid the deep muddy poodles on my way.
The Yosemite of South America, without the crowds, a climbers paradise, great treks and a path that gets extremely muddy after rain. Cochamó valley was just mentioned with a few sentences in my Lonely Planet, but it triggered my curiosity. It seemed like a place I had to go and now rather than later, before the crowds discover it, or before the whole valley is dammed up for electricity, as some people wants to do. By the time I reached Puerto Varas, a town just a couple of hours away from the trailhead leading into the valley, it had rained constantly for a week and I wasn’t so sure anymore. Extreme amounts of mud and paths turned into rivers didn’t sound very tempting.
Then I started meeting people who had been there, and they all said the same; go to Cochamó, you have to go, it’s amazing. So that’s what I did, I waited a couple of sunny days to let the path dry out a little bit, and then I went to Cochamó!
I had read the description of how to get there, I knew the bus times, I knew how long the bus would take (2 hours), I knew that I would have to walk about 6 km on a gravel road from where the bus dropped me off to where the proper trailhead was, I knew more or less when the sun would set (not so long days anymore) and I knew how many hours the trail was supposed to take (4-6 hours). Still, somehow, I thought it was a good idea to take the midday bus, dropping me off at the beginning of the gravel road a little past 3PM. In my head I had all the time in the world – I stopped for a tiny lunch and fixed my blister prevention tapes (that didn’t work perfectly, I still got some blisters, but not nearly as bad as in Ushuaia) – that was until I was picked up by a friendly beekeeper (the only car that has passed during my time on the road) when I maybe had a kilometer or two left to walk on the gravel road.
– How do you say honey in Norwegian?
– It’s almost the same in German
– I didn’t know that
– It’s honig in German. German and Norwegian is a little bit similar isn’t it?
– A little bit, but I don’t speak or understand any German really
– Your Spanish is perfect though
– I feel like I don’t understand a word here in Chile, but thanks!
– No, it’s good, and you understand a lot, a lot of Gringos don’t speak a word of Spanish.
– You are going to La junta?
– Yes, I’ve heard it’s beautiful!
– Are you staying there or coming back today?
– I’m staying, I’m going to sleep in the Refugio
– Good! You know it takes five hours to walk there right?
– Sure (I was thinking four)
– The forest gets really dark at night
– I can imagine (shit!)
– Really dark
– Uhhuhh (I hope I remembered to bring my flashlight, I think I did, I hope so. Fuck! Why did I think it was a good idea to take the midday bus, and to go all by myself?)
– You should walk really fast
– I will
– What time is it now?
– You’ll probably be fine but you should hurry, walk really fast!
– I will! Thanks a lot for the ride!
– You’re welcome, have a nice trip!
Wait, had I really said it was 4.30? I double check the time, it is true. Even if I walked fast and did the path in four hours I wouldn’t manage to get to the refugio before dark. Bad planning, again. When was I ever going to learn?
I went through the wooden gate at the trailhead, put on some energizing music on my ipod and started walking. Maybe, maybe I’d be able to do it in 3.5 hours if I walked really fast. After all a lot of the people going into the Cochamó valley carry heavy backpacks with climbing equipment, or at least a tent. Since I was going to stay in the Refugio I didn’t carry any of that – I didn’t even have a sleeping bag with me – only a spare change of clothes, my camera equipment and some food. Also, the path didn’t seem too muddy. If worst came to worst and I’d have to spend the night in the woods at least I had food, I had woolen clothes, and the weather forecast said no rain. I’d be fine. Hopefully.
Even though I was walking as fast as I could, my heart racing even in the flat parts, I couldn’t other than notice the beauty of the trek. I knew I would pass through some ancient forests on the way, but the corridors of the path, the green moss, the old trees, the crystal clear water in the rivers and the log roads over some of the worst muddy areas still surprised me. I’d seen pictures of the valley that looked otherworldly, amazing mountains and views which was the reason I went there in the first place, but just the hike in seemed to be worth it on its own. In parts it reminded me a lot of the mossy forest in Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, which I absolutely loved.
After a while the mud got worse, I’d walk into a corridor just to turn around and try to find an alternative route (which there were plenty of, some places there were three different “corridors” and then maybe five different sidetracks that weren’t as deep and well-trodden as the main paths) to make sure I didn’t step in mud that was deeper than my boots. A guy from my hostel in Puerto Varas who had left for Cochamó of couple of days before me had bought tall rubber boots, which now seemed like a brilliant idea.
I still tried to keep up my pace, and suddenly I reached the campground near the refugio and then the little manual cable car to take me over the river. I looked at the time 7.30. Not only had I made it in time before dark, I’d only used three hours from the trailhead, it’s amazing how fast you can walk when you don’t want to get stuck in a dark forest all alone at night. I found some camper to help me with the cable car and then I walked the last bit to the refugio, where they apparently where waiting for what they thought would be a tall Norwegian guy – for some reason – not a short (by Norwegian standards) girl.
From the refugio I could see some of the rounded granite mountains and couldn’t wait to do some hikes up to some of them!