The Cochamó Valley is a beautiful valley in the Lakes Region of Chile that is known for its granite domes and old-growth forests. It attracts serious hikers with trails ranging from easy to challenging, and a myriad of rare bird and plant life, and a stunning landscape.
The valley is known as the Yosemite of Chile, a comparison and term first made in 1996, in an article in the Chile News Review, and later amplified by Seattle Times reporter Bill Dietrich, who wrote about his horseback trek and visit in 1997—see Seattle Times.
With its remote location, far removed from modern, urban living, Cochamó is like stepping back in time. The U-shaped valley, lined with 1000-meter granite walls and peaks, was originally carved by a glacier millions of years ago. Lush, green pasture land gives way to dense, deep-green rainforest, and thence to bamboo forests and, eventually, bare, granite peaks that rise more than 900 m (3,000 ft) from the upper valley floor. As for the waterfalls, there are more than you can count. And the water is clear, pure and drinkable.
Flora and fauna
The lush, virgin temperate rainforest - one of only three such natural treasures in the world - is a highlight of the valley. Towering native trees, hundreds and even thousands of years old, are entwined with ferns, vines, and the bell-like, bright-pink copihue flower. The Alerce trees (fitsroya cupressoides) are one of nature's wonders, living for up to 3,000 years.
The fauna is perhaps on a smaller, less-dramatic scale but still very unique, and often threatened. Lucky visitors often glimpse pudu (the world's smallest deer), or the flash of a wild boar racing through the trees. Puma do prowl the upper reaches, but are shy and rarely seen. The Darwin's Frog, a very rare and endangered species, is to be found in this valley - as are nesting condors, caranchos, and a variety of migratory birds (ibises, humming birds, swallows, etc.) Occaionally, at the mouth of the Rio Cochamo a small family of black-necked swans makes a graceful appearance.
Although trout are not native to the area, they were introduced more than a century ago - and now the Cochamo abounds with brown and rainbow trout.
A pleasant season to visit the area is from October through April, although September and May can often be pleasantly clear and crisp, too. The months that usually have the best weather are December through March. Between May and August, the climate is generally cold and very rainy (90% of the area's rain falls in these southern-hemisphere winter months.)
The weather in Patagonia is difficult to predict, but locals have followed one general rule that helps forecast stormy weather. Clouds moving north to south generally bring rain.
If you are heading to Valle Cochamó from Santiago (Chile) or Bariloche (Argentina), you must get to Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas as a starting point.
There are inexpensive buses from Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt to the town of Cochamó for about 3,000-5,000 pesos. Four buses daily leave from Puerto Montt and pass through Puerto Varas to pick up more passengers on route to Cochamó but will not stop in Puerto Varas when full. Make sure to ask the bus driver to drop you in Pueblo Hundido part of Cochamó to hire a car to take you to the trail head or simply get dropped off at the north side of the Cochamó River bridge and hike the 6 km to the trailhead. If you arrive late, you can camp at Campo Aventura's Riverside Lodge or at the trailhead's Camping Los Pozones.
The trailhead is 6 km up river following a gravel road, that meanders through pastures and woods. It's possible to hire a car in town to drop you off at road's end where the trail begins.
Fees and permits
There are no entry fees or permits needed. Most of the valley is owned, however, by private individuals. Access into and through the valley is open along mostly a well-eroded trail. Its right-to-access is protected by Chilean law. Visitors are urged to respect boundaries, fences, and be careful with gates. Close a closed gate; leave an open one open. And be sure to pack out all your refuse.
At the end of the road or trailhead, cross a small bridge and pass through a gate. From that point, hiking into the valley takes 4 to 5 hours. The trail is well marked and never crosses the Cochamó River. The hiking is relatively easy except for crossing through some trenches, pools and streams, which can become harder to cross - when it rains heavily. Wate proof hiking boots are strongly recommended. Gaitors help significantly on rainy days. Continue to La Junta River, the center of activities and accommodation in the valley.
Riding up the valley trail a great alternative to walking and much less strenuous. There are guides and horse rentals of all variety, so choose a reputable provider.
Many visitors choose to visit the valley by horse or using packhorses. All horses are (or should be) accompanied by guides. Cochamó offers numerous different guides but tracking them down is not a formal task. Ask around town and expect to pay 18,000-25,000 pesos per horse and be sure to find out if the guide charges for the horse he/she uses. If starting the ride from the village of Cochamo, expect to ride for at least 5-6 hours, with a local resident who only speaks Spanish (and to carry your own food.)
If riding on a program with Campo Aventura, the ride is an hour shorter; there is often an international guide; and meals and refreshments are provided along the way and upon arrival in the upper valley. Campo Aventura is supposedly the oldest and best-established provider of guided horseback treks, known for its commitment to the community. They also offer all-inclusive hiking and trekking programs throughout the valley, and up to the border with Argentina.
Thousand-meter granite walls, waterfalls, rivers, granite arches, Alerce forests, caves, pools - basically some of Patagonia´s most amazing landscape. And experience traditional Andean mountain life as it has been lived for generations - self-sufficient, low impact, and viable.
The Cochamo Valley is one of the most pristine places in northern Patagonia, with its historic Cochamo Trail, up to the border with Argentina, having been in use for more than 100 years. Once traversed only by gauchos, missionaries and the occasional bandit (Butch and Sundance being the best-known of the latter), the trail is today being explored and used by travellers from all parts of the world. This is, in large part, due to the 'discovery' of this hidden gem by maverick traveler and journalist Clark Stede, was one of the early European visitors to this remote valley, in the waning years of the Pinochet regime. He was just 'passing by' in his aluminium yacht, but once he glimpsed the valley and his peaks; he decided to stay. Working with young local huasos, he explored the Cochamo Trail and other long-unused byways, and decided to lead and guide horseback explorations of this magnificent valley, thus bringing international tourism to little-known Cochamo.
Today, the Cochamo Valley, specifically the upper La Junta section, is a famous rock climbing destination with many granite walls and domes ranging around 1000 m. New routes are opened every year and thousands of new long lines are waiting to be done. For most other types of outdoor travelers, the multi-day horseback trekking and hiking activities remain the most popular and common way to access this natural treasure trove.
In addition to rock-climbing, the Cochamo and La Junta valleys offer visitors a rich feast of nature - crystal-clear pools and streams; towering ancient trees; scattered, occasional encounters with traditional mountain homesteaders; and dozens of hikes - ranging from easy to moderate to challenging.
It used to be not well known to travellers, but the valley receives more and more hikers and climbers each year, which brings its own set of challenges: ill-prepared or ill-equipped visitors; littering and trash; unauthorised camping and fires. Whether the growing number of local and international visitors will respect the fragile environment and local inhabitants and their property, and do what they can to keep this "Yosemite of Chile" clean and unspoiled, remains to be seen.
- Rock Climbing. Thousand-meter granite walls border the valley along the Cochamó River. Valle Cochamó's rock provides route potential beyond the imagination. The area has already become a world class climbing destination, with first ascents from people from almost every continent on the globe. If you're into long routes, sport routes, bouldering, establishing new routes or just hanging in a gorgeous landscape, Valle Cochamó is one of South America's best. Sport climbing and cragging exist throughout the valley's basen, including the overhanging Pared Seca which stays dry when it rains.
- Hiking. Many visitors come to Cochamo to trek the 4-6 hours into La Junta, the heart of Valle Cochamo. From there, many day hikes reach spectacular peaks, waterfalls and 3000-year-old alerce trees. The main trail continues all the way to Argentina passing a rock arch, lakes and mountain passes.
- Horseback treks Numerous visitors also choose to travel through the Cochamo Valley's native rainforest up to magnificent La Junta valley on horseback: a traditional way of accessing this hard-to-reach natural gem. Day rides and multi-day trips, combined with hiking, lodge stays, or camping, provide an unsurpassed opportunity to experience the "huaso" traditions and culture along the centuries-old [https://cochamo.com/cochamo-valley-trail/ Cochamo Valley Trail.
- Natural waterslide. La Junta River offers an amazing natural waterslide. In early 2010, there were a couple of serious mishaps when overzealous (and, perhaps, underprepared) campers took the plunge.
- Nature Trail. On the southeast bank of the Rio Cochamo, winding through Campo Aventura's Mountainside Lodge property, there is a well-marked Nature Trail, pointing out the local trees, and going past two beautiful waterfalls. More information on this trail, along with a booklet, is available from the hosts at Mountainside Lodge.
- Arco Iris. The 'arc of the rainbow' is one of the more popular trails. It is a vigorous hike, with a small section requiring ropes and the reward is well worth it. Stunning, 360-degree views of a lush valley and imposing peaks are your reward.
- El Arco The "arch" is a destination approximately 10-15 km up river from the La Junta basin and valley. It gets its name from a lone Alerce tree growing atop a natural rock archway, through which a waterfall courses. In the higher reaches of El Arco are hundreds of millenarian Alerces, the second-longest living tree in the world, renowned for its ability to remain strong and usable in home-building, boat-building and other uses for decades, even in an intensely wet and cold climate. A "ride & trek" program is the ideal way to explore this reserve.
- The Gaucho Trail - a circle route between the Cochamo and Puelo river valleys, pioneered by Campo Aventura. This is an unforgettable journey, in the words of a Chicago Tribune article, it is "a chance not just to see mountain scenery far removed from the well-trampled tourist track and romp through a bit of history; but also to ride back to an earlier age, a time of hand-hewn log cabins and crystal streams and partnership with a horse to whom you trust your life."
Eat & drink
Refugio Cochamó provides home-cooked meals with ingredients from their organic garden, oven-baked pizzas, whole wheat bread, home-made beer and Tabano Pale Ale. Breakfasts are included for guests.
At Campo Aventura's lodges, guests are provided with all meals as part of their stay - starting with a hearty breakfast, picnic or hot lunches, the famous afternoon tea (or once) with cake and home-made bread, and substantial dinners. They specialise in catering to vegetarians, and even provide gluten-free options with advance warning. Drinks, snacks, and full meals are also available to visitors just stopping by at Riverside Lodge for a day visit.
Restaurants have been springing up in Cochamo village, most of them offering the standard empanada and french fries menu. But there is at least one good seafood place, and a couple of places to buy the ubiquitous pancitos.
Within the Cochamo Valley proper, there are three main accommodation options.
- Refugio Cochamó (deep in the valley, in La Junta sector). This spacious lodge offers private rooms, bunk room, home-made meals, refugio-brewed beer, oven-baked pizzas, empenadas and wholewheat bread. Or you can cook your own meal in their shared kitchen, all in the company of a friendly staff, climbers and hikers.
- Campo Aventura's Mountainside Lodge (deep in the valley, in La Junta sector).
- Campo Aventura's Riverside Lodge (just off the River Cochamo bridge in the lower end of the valley). Offers comfortable rooms, with private baths, and excelelnt meals included in the price. Its Mountainside Lodge lies approximately 20 km upstream, in the La Junta valley, and offers traditional Chilean hospitality, with private and dorm accommodation, and delicious local cuisine.
You can camp at Camping La Junta across the river from Refugio Cochamó or at Campo Aventura's Riverside Lodge.
Campo Aventura provides camping facilities at the mouth of the Rio Cochamó and in the La Junta valley with hot showers, indoor plumbing, & firewood. It limits the number of tents or campers at any one time, to ensure a more private experience.
Camping La Junta provides ample space for sites, running water, hot showers, indoor fire ring, pots, pans, and utensils.
With the influx of visitors, hikers, and climbers, local landowners have faced the challenge of unauthorized and uninformed camping. This results in litter, possible damage or misuse of water sources and random fires. Please use and pay for these camping facilities, charges that are nothing, compared to the cost of damage and ruination of this fragile and pristine environment.
There are plenty of hikes in the valley. Recommended is the Cerro Arco Iris peak hike.
- Many visitors have had continuous problems with one guide in particular (https://cabalgatascochamo.wixsite.com/chile), located in front of the police station in town. There are many other guides so ask around.
- Due to the continued travel by horse into the value, the trail up to La Junta can be terrible during wet and rainy day, and you might reconsider making the effort to save the stress or if you do not want to hike in 20-cm-deep mud.
- San Carlos de Bariloche – It is possible to hike from Cochamó to Bariloche (Argentina), passing by the small police checkpoint at 1 Paso El León where you will receive a small note with which you have to go to the police station once you arrive in the next big city to complete your registration and entrance into Argentina.