More than two percent of all land in Chile consists of private nature reserves. That’s a lot. By comparison, less than half a percent of US lands are part of such preserves. The two largest private reserves in Chile, Parque Pumalin and Parque Patagonia, are both owned by Americans or American trusts. By contrast, El Valle de Cochamó is owned and maintained by a group of Chilean families who have allowed free access to this stunning piece of creation for decades.
After getting the tips from a couple of Australians, who called it the “Yosemite Valley of Chile” and had enjoyed exceptionally good weather camping there, we decided to depart the depressingly industrial Puerto Montt for a few nights out on the trail. This is how it went down.
Getting to Cochamó
Attempting to arrive in Cochamó in the early afternoon, Noah and I leave Puerto Montt on the $2 local around 10 am. The bus is a shit heap. The oldest collection of any in the fleets passing through Puerto Montt’s station, the buses headed for Cochamó roll over horribly rocky terrain, making frequent stops. We have minor breakdowns three times in the first half of our journey, extending what was supposed to be a two-hour journey to well beyond three. Finally, about two-thirds of the way to our destination, the bus stops for good. Smoke comes out the tail end as the driver calls for another. We throw our bags on the side of the road and join other passengers in relieving ourselves on the surrounding foliage.
A passing pick-up stops and a couple of the locals run up to the window. We look on with envy as they jump into the already-full bed. We plop back down on the roadside. A whistle and shout come from the bed. “Oye! Van para Cochamó? Nos vamos!” A younger Chilean waves us to cram ourselves and our bags in the truck bed with him. Dirt from the road coats everything as the truck takes off down the road but it dosesn’t matter. The Chilean is about our age – 27 he says – and is an electrician. He’s headed home for the weekend. It’s going to rain in Cochamó and it’s too late to start hiking. Two things we knew but didn’t want to admit to ourselves. He knew someone who would let us camp on their property. Great.
The driver let us off at an intersection that was ostensibly the middle of town. He refused our money and went into the bar for a drink. We followed our new friend down the street to a restaurant run by a couple of his family members. The restaurant was cosy in the cool afternoon. The heavy-set Chilean woman in charge – our friend’s aunt – told us that if we wanted french fries, we better give her a heads up because she would need to heat up some oil. We passed for the moment.
We explained that we had hammocks to camp with. That was a problem. While they were happy to have us camp in a sparse yard behind the restaurant, they were fresh out of trees. We looked doubtfully at the patch of dirt and grass when another young woman offered up her yard as an alternative. Protected behind an iron gate and next to stream, the yard was perfect. With the sun already falling in the sky, we began to set up camp. The woman’s husband came home as we finished setting up. To our relief, he had been alerted to our presence. He nodded at the hammocks with amused approval and let us know again, “it’s going to rain tonight.”
We wandered back up to our host’s restaurant as the last light of the sun faded from the horizon. A German tourist is receiving fries he ordered half an hour earlier – she warned him. The daily special is salad and gnocchi with meat sauce. Sold. Bellies full of hot goodness, we get out of there for $7,000 pesos (about $10 total) and walk back to the hammock home.
After our herculean efforts to protect our hammocks from the rain, not a drop falls that night.
Chileans Take Their Census Seriously
We awake with the sun, still dry. The local stray dogs hear us rolling around and come sniffing under the hammocks. I put on a kettle of water for some coffee and walk to the gate. An older man – the next door neighbor – shouts at me to wait. I tell him that we are known guests of his neighbors, not squatters. He knows but today is the census. “I’m not Chilean, I’m American,” I say, stating what is completely obvious. It doesn’t matter he lets me know. Everyone is to be counted.
Entering the man’s dark front room, the kitchen table is splayed out with census forms and stickers. A middle-aged woman in a census t-shirt is waiting for me. She’s never counted a foreigner before but we have fun making up the answers. Role? Head of household. Housing type? Informal. Occupation? Unemployed. Income? none. Education? College graduate.
After a few more questions, she closed what was surely an odd profile and gave me a sticker. “Hold onto this,” she said, “or another volunteer may try to count you again.”
We pack up the tent and thank our hosts then head up to the restaurant to catch a bus the remaining ten kilometers to the Cochamó Valley park entrance. “No buses today,” the woman says, “because of the census – everyone has to stay home.” She recommends we start walking and try to thumb a ride from someone headed that direction. We’re off.
The Cochamó Valley
In those ten kilometers, we saw three cars and got one ride of about two kilometers. It’s nearly noon by the time we get on the trail, leaving us 13 kilometers until our camping spot. The trail is muddy but well-marked for the first few kilometers. We’re the only ones on it. We cross a tributary creek, already swollen, when the rain begins. The canopy protects us for a little while but soon it breaks through. I pull my forest green poncho over me and my backpack but soon I’m sweating enough that the rain seems like a cool and welcome alternative.
The rain turns the already soft ground into a muddier version of quicksand. Horse tracks and backpacker footprints pock-mark the trail. We skirt around the edges, attempting to keep the mud from coming over the edges of our boots. The next creeks, which likely would have been a trickle on a dry day, come up to the edges of our boots with a swiftness that requires some concentration in the crossing. For sections spanning hundreds of meters, the path descends into muddy gorges just wide enough for us to walk in single file. Sometimes there are boards or logs to keep us above the mud. Sometimes not.
After a couple of hours, we come up upon our first fellow hiker – an extra wet Chilean. “How much farther?” I ask. “Twenty-five minutes,” he replies. We move on. Great. With his encouraging words, the final couple of kilometers are easier and feel drier, with pine needles creating a springy carpet for parts of the path.
Finally, the canopy breaks open into several huge fields. There are two campgrounds on either side of a path that feels comically like the red carpet (or walk of shame?) for arriving backpackers. No one is at either campground to charge us our $5,000 pesos (US$7.50), so we find some relatively dry ground under a stand of pine trees and begin to set up our hammocks or rain flies. The main reception area is locked but has a covered area with a table, chairs, and a sink with running water – we’re living like kings.
A few stragglers show up as the afternoon turns to evening – mostly from Santiago. A couple of them trying unsuccessfully to get a fire going. We put some coffee on for warmth then move a dinner of Raman and vegetables before breaking out the rum to fight off the night’s impending cold.
The campground sits in a valley surrounded by massive sheer granite cliffs ascending austerely into the cloud cover. Sitting in the middle of a giant cloud, we got just a few breathtaking glimpses of the enormity of our surroundings. Creeks in the surrounding cliffs had turned into waterfalls as the rain sought its fastest route back to the river. Just a hundred yards away and a few feet below the campsite, the river rushed by louder and louder as the evening wore on.
With nightfall came an unusual increase in winds up the valley. The shelter provided by our shack became smaller and smaller as the rain’s trajectory seemed to run parallel to the soggy field. We retired to our hammocks early. Our rain flies whipped in the wind and struggled (with limited success) to keep our the water that seemed to come from every direction.
Having slept in hammocks camping throughout Central and South America, we had wanted to find the limits of such a setup. We found it. It was a long and cold night. Without the aid of an under quilt, the wind easily took much of the insulation provided by our sleeping bags and showed every fault in the shelter provided by our tarps. We awoke at first light, anxious to get some hot food and coffee.
We drank our coffee and looked out doubtfully as the rain seemed to come down harder with the rising sun. The clouds that had obscured the cliffs the evening before had now overtaken the entire valley. The lookout point, just a few kilometers further up the trail but requiring a near-vertical ascent – seemed an increasingly distant possibility. After an hour or so of holding out hope, we decided we needed to pack it back in before that choice was gone too.
Slogging It Out
Having decided to get out while the getting was good, we exited the campsite around 11AM. Though it was still cloudy in every direction, we were enjoying a respite from the rain and the ground on the trail was firm. Before long, the trail became a muddy extension of the tributaries running from all directions toward the river. I thanked the powers that be for my boots, as each step brought mud past my ankles. The creeks that’d been swollen the day before were even higher. To my chagrin, a false step led to water running over the edges my boots, leaving me to walk with the squish squash I imagine were associated with goloshes back in the good old days.
More than an hour behind schedule, with much slipping and sliding and an extended time of not being able to find each other, we exited the trail back onto the dirt road. Soaking wet, we were ready to pay any fare for a taxi but there was one problem – we couldn’t call one. Zero bars on our phones and all of the houses surrounding the trailhead remained empty from the holiday prior.
On the return trip to Cochamó, we weren’t so lucky to receive even a small life. The only automobile that stopped for us was a bus heading the other direction. The driver had the unenviable honor of letting us know that we were too late for a bus back to Puerto Montt and would be spending another night in town. With the rain coming down in spurts, we opted for the one hostel in town that was still open – a steal at 10,000 pesos (US$15).
We spent a remarkably different night watching NBA basketball as everything we owned dried in front of the wood burning stove. By 7:00 a.m. the next morning, we were riding out of town and back to Puerto Montt.