Discovering Valle Cochamó - Where Jungles Meet Mountains
Fresh from two months exploring in The Southern Patagonian mountain ranges, we touched down in Chile’s Los Lagos region, not entirely sure what we were planning to do there.
From Puerto Varas, we spent a day at a hostel, recuperating and brainstorming about our options in the area. We had a limited window, only one week to both plan and execute a miniature adventure.
We had met a big wall climber while staying in Puerto Natales, Patagonia. His name was Steve "Shipoopoi" Schneider and he had mentioned that he frequented Valle Cochamó for its great climbing over the years. We were certain this was where we wanted to explore. After a quick pit stop at Volcan Osorno, which was without any doubt a tourist trap, we arrived by bus at the small village of Cochamó. It was getting late now, we spoke with a lady at a tourist information point and she arranged a lift for us to the starting point of the Valley. It was only a fifteen minute drive and we were dropped off at a campsite. It was 8pm now and access to the valley was prohibited until the next morning. Our surroundings were blurred by cloud, however we could sense that the landscape around us were as we predicted - these clouds were hiding mountains. We pitched our tent and slept to the sound of the river, birds and other noises of nature.
We awoke to a similar scene as we had left the previous night. The mist was all around us but the sun was fresh and fighting hard to breakthrough. We got ourselves organised and headed to the start of the trail where we had to fill in our details for the rangers before we headed off. The trail was refreshing for us. We had become accustomed to the barren and wind beaten Patagonian lands. Here we could enjoy the pleasant change of scenery. The trail was rich in plant life, we walked almost entirely beneath the tree canopy. I think it would be fair to describe it as walking through a jungle. It had that extra humidity and interesting features such as bamboo trees and thick vines that I did not normally see.
We had expected a quiet trail but there was regular traffic going both ways. This included locals on horseback as it was the only way to transport supplies into the valley. Some people would also pay for their bags to be carried or even travel by horseback themselves. I had heard that Valle Cochomó was once one of the best kept secrets in Chile. It was described by others as “Chiles version of California's Yosemite” or “what you get if you took Yosemite’s big granite walls and added a jungle at the bottom”. The secret may be out but there was still something pleasant about this revelation. The tourists were almost all Chilean! This made us feel like we were still exploring an area that was maybe unknown to most of the world… for the moment.
After four hours of trekking we arrived at our campsite. The kids within us came to life as we realised that access to the camp was literally by basket. A large basket was attached to a pulley system that stretched across from one side of the river to the next, about ten metres high. It was hard work pulling people and bags across but anyone who was around would always help each other out a bit. We had trouble finding information about camping - reservation is required but when searching, the only campsite that ever came up was “La Junta” which is apparently always full in the high season. We eventually found one and it turned out there was plenty of options in the valley, so don't give up too quickly!
We only had two full days in the valley and on our first morning we already knew exactly what we were going to do - the Acro Iris trail. The trail we had read about and knew that it would provide us with great views of the whole valley as well as offer us a challenge with some interesting scrambles up the rocks. What it didn’t mention was how horribly hot it would be! Especially for a pair of Scottish hikers…
The trail started at Camp La Junta and from there it was a consistent steep incline. It was also all in the trees from the start and this meant that the conditions were hot and without even a breeze to keep us cool. The trail was clearly marked by ribbons tied to the branches of trees. It was a sweaty shift at the beginning of this trail and it is definitely worth mentioning that there were not any streams to fill up the water bottle until much further along the trail. There were various obstacles to navigate which became increasingly more difficult the higher we climbed. Fixed ropes helped us climb up muddy banks and cross slabs of rock, which could have led to a fatal fall… There were some notably sketchy areas that wouldn’t be possible for anyone with a half bad heights issue. The ropes were well fixed and we felt comforted by the fact that on the day we climbed, there was someone checking and replacing them.
It might feel like you’re never going to get out of the trees (it did for us at least), but eventually you do and the views of the valley are spectacular! This could be the end of your hike if you want it to, however there is plenty more if you’re still feeling up for it. From then on it is an exciting scramble up the granite rocks. Be sure to follow the cairns/waypoints as I imagine it would be easy to get lost up there without them. From here on there are patches of snow and mountain streams where you can finally clench your thirst! We found this part of the hike way easier but that was mostly down to the cooler conditions.
We reached the summit in good time and the views were incredible! 360 degree view of the whole valley. From here you can see the hike into the valley from the day before, as well as Volcan Osorno in the distance where we were the days prior to here. You can see the shape of the valley from this height and clearly see where the different cliff faces finally summit which were difficult to see from the ground up. The day was clear and the views were fine. We had some lunch then made the much easier decent.
The following day we were conflicted on how to spend it. We did not feel up to a second hike in the heat, especially when you had to climb significantly high before getting any good views. We instead opted to continue the trail a little further into the valley. There are some long distance trails that pass this way and all the way into Argentina. If we were more prepared then we would have definitely considered them, but we lacked both time and resources. We took a small trail that branched away from one of the campsites and stumbled on some climbers. After observing them for a while we realised they were from the U.S. As keen climbers ourselves we became very jealous and had to pull ourselves away and keep walking. We came to the conclusion that Valle Cochamó mainly attracted climbing tourists. Almost all the non Chilean people we saw had a strong climbing vibe about them.
After a walk up the trail and back we went to the Toboganes. Toboganes translates to “slides” from Spanish and the Toboganes is a set of waterfalls that has carved the rock into natural water slides! The water was cold but you can’t resist having a shot. There were different slides, some a little crazier than others - but the freezing cold plunge at the bottom was the same every time! If sliding down a rock isn’t one of your interests, then don’t worry, this is also a beautiful place to relax. We sat up on the top of the falls for a good while, just enjoying the nice weather and tried to take nice photos of the falls.
That is one way to spend a couple of days in Valle Cochamó! Bare in mind however that you will also need a day on either side to trek in and out of the Valley. I cannot recommend this place highly enough, we struck gold with our choice to come here. If we had done some climbing then it would have been even better. The mornings were misty and moody, the days were bright and warm, then the nights were alive with billions of stars shining brightly! This place was apparently a well kept secret for a long time and that secret is starting to get out. You can tell by the growing development in the simple town of Cochamó that it is benefitting from the increased tourism. We came here straight from the stupidly expensive and over crowded trails of Torres del Paine. I would predict that within the next ten years or so, Valle Cochamó may suffer the same fate, I am thoroughly glad I saw it when I did.