Puerto Varas greeted us with the cheapest hostel, 6500 pesos per person (about £8.50) with breakfast! Yippee! The cheapest accommodation by far besides camping and free wild camping. Admittedly it did take us 8 hostel visits to find one with space, but at least we had a base.
Puerta Varas has a heavily German influence from the original settlers. It is located on the southern end of Lago Llanquihue overlooked by the impressive Volco Orsono. There is a walk around the town that passes all the historical German style buildings and houses. It is also famous for it’s German pastries, sweets & chocolates. The first afternoon we wandered in and out of the various tourist businesses to see what was on offer. Volcano hikes, biking, canyoning, kayaking, horse riding, day treks, climbing, canoeing, windsurfing and more. The volcano hikes were rather pricy and one of the routes were already closed due to the melting snow exposing the crevasses on the glaciers. We were almost sold on a 3 day cycle around Lago Llanquihue, but a comment from one of the local guides, mentioning the Valle Cochamó as his favourite part, set our minds on a hike rather, giving our cycling bottoms a much deserved extended break.
As the information we could find was limited, the maps typically Chilean on their detail, we decided to cater for 5 days for the 3 day hike, 2 extra just in case. Whilst the Cochamó Valley is well known, the approach from the east was not a frequent route by all accounts. Most visitors get to Cochamó Valley from Cochamó town itself, a days walk.
It was an early 8am bus ride to Lago Tagua Tagua, a ferry and then a lift from three friendly chilean guys (on holiday from Santiago), we started our hike at 1430 up towards our first stop Torrentoso, around 10 to 12 km according to our ‘trusty’ Chilean map. The first 4/5 km passed through farm land to the left of the Rio Manso, a fast flowing crystal clear river. After a brief snack on a log sitting in the river, we continued straight up a very steep series of hills…mountains, not flat at all, making our way up the main valley. We slogged on and on, dropping down occasionally to cross a few tributaries to the Rio Manso. Then straight back up the other side, a steep and sometimes, rocky and very slippery slope. Eventually we crossed Rio Steffen, and once again headed back up a scree path, only this time we were expecting to find a camping spot. After a further hour of trekking, we decided to choose the first grassy flat slope to camp for the night (8pm).
The next morning we set off after the usual porridge, and in less than 40 minutes we walked past the camping spot that was labelled on the map. What I suggest at this point is that you discard any preconceived ideas of what a camp site should look like. In this part of Chilé, grass or a steep muddy slope is considered a campsite, toilets are a luxury but more likely a discrete bush, and showers non existent. Signs and route marking have not been thought of yet and paths are created by cows, sheep and horses.
We paused briefly to speak to the first sign of human life, a Brazilian couple who had stayed the night at the little house adjacent to the camping stop, having joined our route in reverse from El Leon (the Argentinian side).
We managed to reach the shelter of the forrest just as the rain started at midday. Felipe, a Chilian from Santiago, also on route to Torrentoso, caught up to us at a water stop at the one of the many streams that flows down the wooded hill side. After chatting to him while munching some tasty dried fruit, we discovered that he had previously studied and worked in London. He set off before us as the promise of food and lodging was calling him.
We arrived at a small wooden house, which we then discovered was Torrentoso. Deciding to go in to check on the route, we were warmly greeted by Felipe and the owner of the farm. Six empanadas later and a cup of herbal tea, we carried on towards Lago Vidal Gormaz. It was wet and muddy, but the path was easier as it followed the river course.
We were greeted at the start of the Lagoon, by the local farmer and his wife, Louisa. Having set our tents up on the lago bank in the pouring rain, we were invited into their humble and warm house to dry out and cook. With Felipe acting as our interpreter most of the time, we spent the evening learning about their life on the lagoon, appreciating the simplicity and honesty of what they had.
Cath please add the detail:
On reflection, I just can’t believe how our worries seem so important at home, money, work, stress, what to cook, friends, clothes etc. These humble folk, who don’t have much, have real issues to worry about like where will the next meal come from, is there enough wood for a fire too keep warm…Oh and there is no doctor anywhere near; and we get frustrated because we can’t get an appointment that same day! Louisa and her family have to travel 2 days by horse up a steep uneven pass (which we walked up so we know) to get to the border then a further 113km to the nearest town of Bariloche to get food and provisions. They can only make this trip in Dec, Jan and Feb when the weather is favourable (rainfall here is regularly over 2 metres annual and mainly in March, so they need to plan their meals for 9/10 months in advance… I can’t even plan a week! They have cows which they milk and eat, sheep to eat and wool to make warm ponchos which seem to keep them dry in the rain too, hens for eggs, dogs for protection from the pumas who like to eat the sheep and cats to eat the mice. Sonia explains that they have a mice outbreak every 40 years which correlates with the flowering of a grassy plant that produces seeds that mice love. This story is corroborated later and surprisingly appears to link to volcano eruptions in the region.
After our hearty local breakfast of the yellowest organic eggs I have ever eaten, organic un pasteurised un homogenised milk, the rain had still not let up. Felipe, conscious of his fiancé expecting him to be on time in Puerto Varas, decided to head back to Torrentoso and out of the valley through the Argentinian border instead. As we had more time on our hands to wait out the rain, or soldier on, we accepted a boat rode from the farmer and his nephew and crossed the length of Lago Vidal Gomaz, just edging our way closer to La Junta and promise of warm showers and pizza. Louisa had recommended we stay at her friends Sonia and Miguel and wait the rain out. They greeted us at the shore and we sat agonising over whether to trudge on in the rain, or stay at Sonia & Martinezs’. Our pesos were starting to get thin, and we could be stuck here for a few days with the rain! Both families had advised us not to proceed, as not only will it be very muddy and hard going, but the river crossings will be treacherous from all the rain, some impassable! ‘should I stay or should I go?’. Another wet tented night was likely to greet us anyway, but possibility more wet nights might be over earlier if we proceed. On the other hand we may not get far if we carry on in the rain due to the rivers and mud, or worse yet get trapped between two rivers in the rain with no where to camp or find food!
Under normal circumstances, I would have manned up and soldiered on, cautiously assessing rivers before proceeding, but these are not normal times, it was still raining heavily with no sign of abating. Decision was to stay, dry out our tent and push on early the next morning, rain or shine!
The rain persists during the night, we wake up to rain but during breakfast the rain stops and starts a number times. At about 9 we venture out. The clouds had given away to the west and we could see the pass up ahead, only all the swollen rivers running down the mountains above the pass were easily evident glistening in the morning light. With that the rain started again. A brief while later the rain paused for a moment and we even had a very brief moment of sunshine. We decided to pack up and review again once we were ready to leave. At around 10 the clouds had hidden the sky again and the rivers of water streaming off the mountain were no smaller. It was drizzling again too .
We had no choice. To continue on would have been very unwise. We bid our farewells to Sonia and Martinez, packed our packs and trudged our way back to the other end of Lago Vidal Gomez, this time by foot on the southern bank of the shore. It took a full 3 hours to get back to the other end of the lake compared to 40 minutes by boat the previous day. Louisa and her husband greeted us again and returned my hat which I had left behind. After a brief update on our revised plans we continued on to paso El Leon. It was slow and wet going. Both of us were rather dejected having to retrace our steps. It was now unlikely we would see the Cochamó Valley and the impressive granite walls which we had heard so much about. Just after lunch it became too much. After a couple of tears, a good pep talk to each other and hugs, we filled up on bread, cheese and salami and headed off again, invigorated by the promise of a new and surprise adventure that was just around the corner? We hoped!
The previous couple of hours had been the lowest point of our trip. We have had a few set backs and changes of plan since we left in December, but we have always completed what we started, albeit the camping and hiking have been very challenging some days. We have always been rewarded with spectacular views and have had time to reflect on how fortunate we have been to be so close to nature. This change of plan was not without it’s complications. Not only did we have to cross the border back into Argentina, but we needed to cover the 140 odd kilometres to Bariloche and then get back to Puento Varas, nearly 7 hours by road. Still, logic prevailed, we could stretch our food for two days, a new route meant new scenery (albeit hidden by clouds), and most of all we still had each other.
With all the emotion of the previous couple of hours, we had drifted too far north and were now to far from the Rio Gormaz which we were following per ‘guess-timation’. With the forrest track now running out, we had to back track back down the steep path, not uncommon in Chile..the path just ends, and then headed directly through the undergrowth back down towards the river. Within a few 100 metres we were back on what we thought was the original track.
It’s was a long afternoon of hiking, through very dense forrest track, and up and over a number of mini passes. We some how managed (we think) to find a short cut onto the pass, this becomes evident as the river we thought was Rio Gormaz was actually Rio Manso and was now flowing the opposite way. Good news as it meant Paso El Leon could be the direction we were already heading in. A compass bearing confirmed our thoughts and a local on his horse, who spoke no English, alao confirmed the direction the pass, what a relief for us both. At around 9pm, after 11 hours of trekking, we reached the border village, and rejected an outrageously expensive offer of a room in a house, opting to free camp on the border instead! Little did we know but the patch of lawn we camped on in the poring rain by Rio Leones was actually right next to the Chilean border post. There was no sign of course, so bright and early the next morning we set out along the muddy path again. There were a few paths we could have taken, of course but took a wider one which looked like it could go in the direction of passport control. We saw a school and then a building that looked like it belonged to the government, but it was closed. Happy to use their bathroom which was open, we then carried on and about 45minutes later we were both grinning from ear to ear; we saw a much more official looking building with a sign hooray!!! We had just reached the Argentine border control. A friendly man who spoke very good English greeted us and allowed us to munch our 5 day old sandwiches in his warm office. After checking all our details and passports etc he then saw that we had no exit stamp out of Chile. As if we hadn’t walked far enough we had to turn around and go back to the place we had camped the night before. Luckily for John, he allowed us to leave our back packs behind which meant it only took us an hour 15 to go back in the rain and return feeling rather stupid.
There were no busses or taxi’s from this border post just a 10km walk to the nearest camp site along a dirt road. The friendly border man did say if we waited till the afternoon we MAY be able to get a lift back with one of the tour companies that come to fetch rafting groups that finish their tours at the border. The phrase ‘may give us a lift’ put us off and we decided walking was our only option to reach a warm shower and fulfil our dreams of a 5 star hotel . About 2km away from the campsite we managed to hitch a lift with a Argentinian couple yippee!!! However their car needed some attention as it couldn’t go up hills. We had to reverse a few meters and try again a few times on a number of hills! The couple dropped us off somewhere along the 48km dirt road past the campsite, but closer to the main road. A few nibbles of chocolate got us going again, but within 15 minutes the same couple passed us again and offered us another lift. I am not sure if they felt sorry for us or if they had decided not to stay where they had planned, but they took us all the way to the main road celebrations!!!
Well, we thought this would be good… however we ended up spending and hour and a half trying to hitch a ride to Bariloche the closest town. John even tried dancing for the cars (maybe that’s why it took us so long… But it kept me very entertained!) Eventually a lone drover took pity on us… Wow, what a story of adventure!
Photos to follow shortly!
Stayed tuned to the blog for the next episode of ‘things can only get better’ la la la .