The quote of Pablo Neruda in La Junta campsite in beautiful Cochamó valley says: „Quién no conoce el bosque chileno, no conoce este planeta“ (“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forests doesn’t know this planet”).
Southern Chile is covered by beautiful forests with native trees, such as araucaria and alerce. They offer soothing shadow on a hot summer day but at the same time can be tricky and need to be respected. Such are also the forests in Cochamó Valley.
Crossing the Andes through Cochamó valley
My plan was to cross the Andes and arrive to Argentina on foot. The hike would start in Cochamó village near Puerto Varas in southern Chile. From there the trail would follow Rio Cochamó, leading deep into the Cochamó Valley, surrounded by thousand-meter-high granite rocks, green pastures, deep forests and mountain lakes; and finish at a mountain pass called El León that serves as the Chilean/Argentinean border.
Once used by gauchos (local cowboys), missionaries and bandits, this hundred-year-old trail takes about 3 to 4 days to walk. Starting from the beginning of December, when the sun finally feels warm and long, rainy winter finally gives in, there comes the time to prepare for an adventurous hike over the Andes.
It is not a difficult hike, in summer when the path is well-travelled. Just after the winter though, you can’t avoid hiking in mud and constant searching for the way due to the many fallen trees, the river crossing was not that bad, only up to the knees …
La Junta campsite
All the trouble is forgotten when you arrive at La Junta campsite in Cochamó valley! Imagine a green pasture with horses grazing around, Rio Cochamó roaring next to it. It is all surrounded by high rocks with some ice and snow still shining on their tops, creating streams of small waterfalls, spilling over the rock cliffs deep into the valley.
These granite walls are suspiciously too similar to those you can see in profound Yosemite valley and that’s why Cochamó got its name: “Yosemite of Southern Chile”. And yes, it is also a climbers’ paradise! 🙂
If you decide to sleep in La Junta campsite, you can have a first-class tent view of the majestic mountains, grazing horses who bring carry bags for the lazier visitors. The other option is to sleep in Refugio Cochamó (a mountain hut, located on the other side of the Cochamó river. It is both fun and adventure to reach the Refugió, you will have to crawl into a wooden basket, swinging on a metal wire and pull yourself to the other bank.
crossing Cochamó river; Photo source: Refugio Cochamó FB site
Most wanderers end their trip just here and enjoy the pleasant sunny valley, natural rock slides on La Junta river or the climbing itself. The rest of the trail is therefore less walked and at times even hard to find. Perhaps you could follow the horses’ footprints that know how to find their way through the thick forest.
With a bit of luck and despite the blood-sucking flies you may even reach the next mountain hut, built right next to a beautiful waterfall, coming out of a natural stone arch, covered with moss and ferns. That’s how it got its name El Arco.
How does the story end?
Well, ehm, actually … because the horse footprints couldn’t lead me through the thick forest jungle that followed and I spent couple of hours of wandering through the maze of bushes and fallen trees, I will not be able to tell you about the beauties that awaited me on the second half of the trail. In fact, I humbly bow to those who travel over the Andes every year and open the trail by cutting their way through this wild forest, travelling on horseback.
But perhaps there’s someone who knows the rest of the story … ?
Difficulty level: hard, 3 – 4 full days hiking.
To take with: warm and comfortable clothes, good hiking shoes; water purification drops or pills, food for at least 4 days; sleeping bag, tent, passport, map and compass or GPS.
How to get there: bus from Puerto Varas to Cochamó village (ask the driver to stop for you at the beginning of the Cochamó trail).