Again, we woke up to cloudy skies. It’s been really difficult to figure out the weather here. Today was our last day in the lakes region. As we wandered to breakfast we still weren’t quite sure what today’s agenda held for us. We knew that we had to return the rental car at the airport tonight and then find a place to stay in Puerto Montt, just until the morning when we would catch our bus. We narrowed our options down to two. One option was to head north to Parque Nacional de Puyehue where we could see the forest and explore some hot springs. The other option was south to Cochamo. Yesterday the owner, Armond, had mentioned a town just before Cochamo that had fjord-like scenery. We didn’t make it there yesterday, so we decided that today we would head that direction.
We packed up all our belongings and loaded up the car. We had a great stay at Zapata Armarillo and would recommend it to anyone staying in the area. We didn’t get very far from the hostel when we came to a complete stop in the road due to a backup of cars. It was unclear what the cause was so Brian got out of the car to check out the situation. He came back a few minutes later to tell me there was a bike race coming up the road. I got out too and we went to watch the racers ride by. We heard that the bike race was headed up Volcan Osorno and back down. Now, that would be a ride! This area seems like a great place for bike riding. After all the racers past, the cars were let through.
On the drive towards Cochamo Brian read through the guidebook sections on the town of Cochamo and the Cochamo Valley. As he read the description in Lonely Planet, we realized we had made a good decision. Lonely Planet really made Cochamo Valley sound like a hidden gem. We were anxious to see what we would find. The paved road ended and we were soon on a dirt road that lasted for about half an hour. Finally, we reached the town of Cochamo and easily found the church. This church was made from Alerce trees in the area and sits right next to the shore of the large estuary. We snapped some photos, took a peak inside, and admired the dramatic scenery of the estuary, tall mountain sides, and Volcan Yates sticking out.
Next, we wanted to find the Cochamo Valley. We headed south out of town for about 5-10 minutes until we saw a sign for it. We stopped to take a look and saw that there was a 10 miles round trip hiking trail through the valley. From the sign, we turned in and took another road until it ended and we entered the parking lot. We spoke with a ranger who showed us a hiking map of the area. With just a quick glance at it, Brian and I both saw that there were a ton of trails back in there! The ranger pointed out the main trail from the parking lot that went in to a campground area called La Junta. He said it was 12km one-way. Hmm… that was very different from the sign we saw. Brian and I were still intrigued by all the trails so we asked about the other ones. He mentioned a 4 day trek and a 7 day trek that you can do from the same starting point we were at. Well, we only had half a day, so we weren’t sure where we’d get to. It was already 1:30pm and I was already calculating in my head our return time if we did hike all the way to La Junta.
Starting out on the trail, it was undefined how far we would go. I think both of us thought we’d just check it out and see what it was like. However, that didn’t end up being quite as easy as we’d thought. Lonely Planet informed us that this trail we were hiking on use to be used as a trade route between Argentina and Chile. The Chileans would take fish into Argentina and the Argentines would bring meat to Chile. It was very apparent that this trail has been used by people, horses, and cattle for many many years. There was terrible erosion. The trail went through the deep forest as it followed a river deeper into the valley. We could hear the rushing of the river, but we could not get any sight of it. It was clear that this trail was not made for hiking because there was no attempt for the hikers and riders to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Brian and I hiked further in thinking we’d get a glimpse of the raging river we continued to hear. Still, no real sight of it. As Brian pushed the pace ahead, I was weighing the pros and cons and continuing. I calculated that if we went all the way to La Junta, we wouldn’t arrive back at the car until after 7:30pm. Then we would drive 1.5-2 hours to Puerto Montt and we still needed to find a place to stay. My head was telling me it was a bad idea to continue, but Brian was determined and I was definitely curious as to what this “Yosemite of Chile” had in store. So, we continued on.
About an hour and a half into the hike we caught a glimpse of the granite mountain tops. It was enough to keep us going and wanting to see more. We caught up to some people and asked them how far it was to La Junta, but they had no idea either. We continued on. The trail started to provide a glimpse into more of the beautiful scenery. The river we had followed for so long, revealed it’s green-blue color to us.
We contemplated stopping, but decided to continue. Finally, after about 2.5 hours, we reached a pulley-cart that hung over the river. We had read about this in Lonely Planet and knew it meant that we were very close to La Junta. We were both stunned by the beauty of this spot. We saw a small sandy beach just across the river. We decided THAT was where we wanted to stop. Individually we took the pulley cart to the other side and rested on the beach below. It was a beautiful spot! Blue-green, crystal clear water and Yosemite-like granite mountaintops surrounding us. THIS is what we hiked 8 miles for and it was worth it.
We had a snack and rehydrated. Brian spotted a good rock jumping spot, so he took the pulley back across in his underwear and dove into the river. Apparently, as he hit the water, his body went into a little bit of shock due to the water temperature. It swam back over to where I was, but said it was difficult to get his body going.
The water was definitely pretty freezing! Brian tried to get me to jump off it, but I preferred to take a little dip just right where we were. When your head goes under that water, it really does shock your whole body. But, the sun was out and we dried out pretty quickly. We wanted to stay longer, but unfortunately we had to get back, so we started on the trail.
We kept up a pretty quick pace on the way back. We were going pretty good for a while. The trail was extremely muddy in a lot of areas. There always seemed to be 5 different trails because people were avoiding the really muddy parts. Did I mention that cattle still take this trail? We have no idea where they were headed or why, but at 2 or 3 different spots we ran into some cattle. Now we really understood why the trail was so crappy. We only had a day pack so it made it easier to maneuver, but it would be slow going if you had a whole backpack. We continued our quick pace through the forest. Brian was good about choosing the best trail options. He said he felt like the lead dog in an Iditarod race, sniffing out the best trail.
A little over an hour into the hike back, we found ourselves off any of the trails. My instinct was that the trail was to our left, more towards the river, so we headed that way as we moved forward. But after about 5 minutes of getting deeper in the forest, we still hadn’t found the trail and it was getting more difficult to climb over all the trees and shrubs. In a moment of frustration we argued over what to do next. Do we continue to forge our own path knowing that we need to keep the river on our left? Or do we try to backtrack the 5 or 10 minutes of walking that we did off the path? We came to a consensus that we should try to backtrack. We followed where we came in, but were still confused as to how we were so far from the trail. We didn’t see it anywhere. Brian continued leading us as we went a little uphill towards the mountain side. There it was! We found the trail! Whew. I was relieved.
The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was getting quite a bit darker in the forest. The thickness of the trees really makes a difference with light. It was only about 6pm, but there was significantly less light on the trail. Nevertheless, we kept up our quick pace and finally made it back to our car around 7:30pm. We drove out of the Cochamo Valley and were on our way to Puerto Montt. We reached the airport around 9:30pm and as we drove in, we both saw that the airport looked pretty dead. Hmmm… how was this rental car return going to work? I ventured inside and found out there was a key drop. Okay, that’s easy, but what about a taxi getting to town? There were just a couple cleaners and security guys around, so I asked the security guy. He said he could maybe call a taxi. I was a bit skeptical that he would actually make it happen, but I went back to the car to let Brian know what was up. We got all our things out and had the guy call for us. 10 minutes later, a taxi showed up! Woohoo! Now we only had to find a hotel at 11pm at night!
We took one of the cheap recommendations from our book and knocked on the door. They had space for us, so we stayed there. It wasn’t really nice and it was a shared bathroom, but no one was up at that time anyways. Still though, there were two problems. One, we hadn’t yet printed out our bus tickets for our 8am departure and tomorrow is Sunday. Nothing will be open in the morning. The second problem was that I had a couple postings due tonight for grad school. There was no wireless. Great. It was midnight and I was exhausted, yet anxious. We decided the only possibility for printing our passes in the morning was to try a business hotel. Fortunately, I was so tired that my worries didn’t keep me up.