Monday, 5 November 2012

Cochamó Valley & Seakayaking in the Fjords of Northern Patagonia

Admittedly, our spirits were a bit low heading to Puerto Varas, having just left behind our friends at 13 Lunas and the comfort of an amazing hostel. We arrived shortly after dark so we didn't get a chance to see what Puerto Varas was like until the next morning. It's actually a very nice city with positively stellar views of the mountains and the picture-perfect snowcapped cone of Volcan Osorno across Lago Llanquihue. The tourism industry is big business, detracting some of the natural charm from Puerto Varas but I suppose that's to be expected. No different than Banff or Lake Louise back in Alberta.

City of Puerto Varas, Chile.

View across Lago Llanquihue.

We didn't have much time to enjoy the views in Puerto Varas anyway - we had one day to pick up supplies and get organized for a trek into the Cochamó Valley, located about 3 hours from the city. The La Junta region of Cochamó Valley is remote, accessible only by a moderately challenging 12 km hike. Nevertheless, its popularity is growing among climbers and trekkers, attributable in part to ever-increasing comparisons to Yosemite National Park in the US. We were hoping to see it before it really does turn into Yosemite in a few more years. 

Our plan was to take the bus to the town of Cochamó and then hire a local driver to take us the remaining 6 km up a gravel road to the trailhead. Unfortunately both the bus driver and his assistant forgot to let us off at the right spot. I saw a flicker of surprise and recollection on the assistant's face when he saw us still sitting on the bus after we'd left Cochamó. Next thing we knew, the bus stopped and we were unloaded on the side of the road, just after a bridge, with the instruction that we could ask about a "taxi" al frente (in front). The only things al frente were farms and wilderness. The bus pulled away and we stood there, wondering what the heck to do next since we were now far from town and actually didn't really know where we were with respect to the trailhead. We could see someone working on a nearby property so we passed through the gate and made our way towards him. We explained that we were looking for a ride to the trailhead. He sort of laughed and said there were no taxis, only this camioneta (small truck). Next thing we knew, he opened the back gate and told us to put our packs inside. Then we got into the cab and he started driving. We figured he would take us back to town but he turned off the main highway a few minutes later and we suddenly realized that he was actually taking us to the trailhead. So lucky!! 

After driving for several kms he was forced to leave us in front of a section of muddy ruts that the truck wasn't able to pass through. We thanked him for going so much out of his way and gave him the money we'd planned to give the "taxi". Then we shouldered our packs and continued on up the road to the trailhead. The next six hours were spent making our way through the various stages of the trail: 1. to Rio Piedra and crossing, 2. uphill push, 3. logs and marshes, 4. La Junta.

Start of the trail into Cochamo Valley.

Stage 1 of the trail led us past several ranches and then began to climb uphill via a rocky path. I nearly had a heart attack when a dog appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to follow us up the trail. He seemed so excited to have encountered us that we wondered if he was lost. A few minutes later a full-fledged gaucho  on horseback appeared behind us and the dog rejoined his true owner. Eventually we arrived at the river. Scouting along the shoreline lead us to conclude that the water was a bit too high to attempt rock-hopping across (especially unbalanced as we were with our reasonably heavy packs). A little ways upstream there was a small group working on a massive log that spanned the river. They were adding a handrail and some ridges to the log itself to help with traction. I asked if we could pass that way and at first they gave me a hard time, saying I was too short, likening the bridge to a ride at the midway. But they let us pass, saying that we were the first to use the new bridge. That was kind of cool.

Bridge construction at Rio Piedra.

The next stage was the uphill push. It wasn't terribly steep. The more challenging part was navigating through the deep maze of trenches where the ground has been eroded by the thousands of livestock brought through this area annually since the 19th century. Oxcarts filled with seafood went from Chile to Argentina and cows were driven the other direction. Ranchers still use the route but seafood and other goods are now transported by more modern methods. The trench bottoms were a thick, hoof-pocked mud but were fortuitously drier than normal thanks to an absence of rainfall over the past week. We'd heard reports of mud up to your knees! There was some mud ahead, however.

Stage 3, logs and marshes, was just what it sounds like. Rows of logs were laid over the trail to provide a measure of stability as the route traversed a vast, soggy marshland. The surrounding forest was spectacularly verdant though not exactly lush. It was just that all the trees were completely coated with green moss. We stopped for a lunch break to wait out some rain under the trees before continuing on for another few hours of logs and marshes. Finally the forest opened up and were were able to see some of the magnificent granite peaks of La Junta. We also got our first up-close views of the beautiful Rio Cochamó. A little further on the trail entered a huge clearing - we'd reached La Junta and, specifically, the camping area. It was deserted when we passed through but it fills with climbers during summer. We would've liked to camp but were still lacking a stove and cooking equipment so we'd decided on another accommodation option...

"Logs and marshes" portion of the trail

La Junta!
The final challenge of our journey was to cross the river. This was accomplished by zipping across in a wood-frame box attached to a pulley system. I say "zipping" but it was actually a bit of work pulling ourselves to the platform on the opposite shore with our heavy back along for the ride. Pretty cool feature of the trek though!

Crossing Rio Cochamo to get to the Refugio.

Just a few minutes later we arrived at Refugio Cochamó, a gorgeous wood lodge built by an American-Argentinean couple who fell in love with La Junta many years ago. The views from inside and around the lodge are mind-blowing. Even with heavy grey clouds obscuring many of the peaks we were awed by the natural beauty of the place. It's no wonder Silvina and Daniel wanted to make their home there.

Refugio Cochamo.

View from the veranda of Refugio Cochamo.

Cool HDR of the veranda and view.

The next day we set out to explore the circuito de las cascadas (the waterfall circuit) on the advice of Mono, a young guy who'd been working at the lodge for several months (we assume Mono was his nickname as it means monkey in Spanish...). The route was more uphill than our trek into the Refugio the previous day but it was indescribably picturesque. See the photos because words would be inadequate. We found a shelter at the second of 3 waterfalls where we made a fire and hunkered down for a few hours, soaking up the positive energy from all those negative ions. It was a perfect day, even with sprinkling rain and cool temperatures.

Relaxing at Refugio Cochamo after our day-hike.

For our final day at La Junta we decided to attempt part of the route up to Cerro Arco Iris (Rainbow Ridge), the most difficult hike accessible from the Refugio. It was also a beautiful route through a forest of lush green shrubs, lianas, and wispy young trees dwarfed by towering redwoods. We made it up to the first set of ropes but the steep rock slab was slick with water and more water cascading off the overhang had soaked the ropes. We climbed up a little way to see what the top looked like but couldn't get a clear view and just ended up very wet. Weighing our desire to continue the ascent against the risks of climbing in poor conditions we hovered at the bottom of the ropes long enough that a soaring condor took interest in us, flying closer with each pass above the deep valley adjacent to our position. Eventually we decided to turn back and find somewhere to eat our picnic lunch.

Near the start of the Cerro Arco Iris trail was a branch point to another trail so we decided to explore it. We found an incredible place beside a waterfall where we lounged for a few hours. We also braved crossing a bridge suspended over a deep gorge a little further downstream. Another perfect day!

Road back to civilization.
We couldn't escape the feeling that we'd only just scraped the surface of La Junta's treasures but our time in 
Cochamó Valley was up. The next day we packed up and returned the way we'd came, this time enduring slightly more muddy conditions due to the showers that had plagued our time at the Refugio. We also had to walk the gravel road back to the highway since we hadn't made any arrangements for a ride. My muscles and my feet were pretty angry by the end of the 18 km journey but it felt good to know I could do it. Gives me more confidence about our future multi-day hikes with full packs!

Exhausted as we were from our long hikes over the past 4 days, there was no time to rest - we were leaving the following morning for a seakayaking trip with YAK Expediciones. We reorganized our stuff, adding bathing suits and our inflatable mattresses to the same gear we'd taken into Cochamó Valley. This time we used giant garbage bags in place of our packs since Juanfe, our guide, explained the bags would form to the shape of the kayak and be more waterproof than our packs. Seemed like a good plan but man did those poly-something sacks stink like the petrochemicals they were made of! Maybe that was a good thing since it covered up the fact that we didn't have time to wash our clothes after the hiking trip...

Juanfe picked us up from our hostel and we met the other couple that would form our group for the next 4 days - Veronica and Sepp, from Germany and Austria, respectively. They were cycling around North and South America. Yah. Uber-fit. I was nervous. Haha.

From Puerto Varas we passed through Puerto Montt and then south along Route 7, crossing by ferry to continue past Hornopiren and into Parque Nacional Pumalin, a 3,250 square kilometer natural reserve owned by American billionaire Douglas Tompkins (co-founder of The North Face). Yes, a private park owned by a foreigner. Something previously unheard of in Chile. According to Juanfe, many Chileans are suspicious of Tompkins' true intentions in buying so much land and theories range from him selling off all the fresh water in the park to selling parcels of the land to wealthy Americans as a place of refuge should another world war break out in the future. Juanfe also told us how the local people who lived on some properties purchased by Tompkins were pretty surprised to find out that the titles they thought they held were no more than a piece of paper. The titles had never been officially registered. Their land was not their land after all. It was the government's and the government sold it to Tompkins. Despite this, the people have remained. Most are still fisherman and farmers, skeptical about the future of the land, but many have embraced the new wave of ecotourism that came with establishing the park. Others have become stewards of this protected region, deemed a Nature Sanctuary in 2005.

Comau Fjord in Northern Patagonia.

Salmon farm on the fjord.

Juanfe drove us to a little fishing village on remote Comau Fjord where we set up our base camp beside the homestead of Señora Nora - an 83-year-old lady who made our meals when we were at base camp. She was a hilariously feisty host, threatening to bring out her paleta to beat us if we didn't eat everything on the heaping plates she put in front of us. Then she'd burst into giggles and serve dessert.

Senora Nora's homestead on Comau Fjord.
Sunset on the fjord.

Trying to stay dry - on the porch at Senora Nora's.
(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
That afternoon we did an on-shore lesson with our guide (Juanfe). Being onshore didn't mean we stayed dry - it poured almost non-stop the entire 2 hours we were out there. Yes, 2 hours. Juanfe was really thorough! I appreciated it even though I've done lots of canoeing and some kayaking before. After doing our best to eat Señora Nora's dinner of epic proportions, we retired to our tents to rest up for real kayaking the following day.

Our visit to the school.
(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

We had more rain overnight but stayed perfectly dry in our new tent. Hurrah! After breakfast we made a quick visit to the local school where we told the kids (all grandchildren of Señora Nora) a little about ourselves and where we're from. They asked us questions like what sort of animals there are in Canada. Chris and I gave them a new book to add to their little library. Juanfe told us that it won't be long before the school has to close because there aren't enough children in the village to justify paying a teacher. The times are changing....

Practice capsize.
(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
Next it was time for our practice on the water. Luckily it was sunny but still pretty cold. We started with some paddling practice and then had to tip our kayaks so we'd know how to get out of them if we accidentally capsized under bad conditions. I was terrified, thanks to my stupid phobia of underwater things., but there was no avoiding this part of our lesson. At Juanfe's behest, Chris tipped us. My first instinct was to  panic because I was in the water. Then I was panicking because I couldn't find the loop to release my spray skirt. I kept reaching forward, feeling for the fiberglass shell of the kayak but grasping only water. Finally daring to open my eyes, I realized I was already out of the kayak. So I just swam up to the surface. It was super cold in the water even with wetsuits and a sweater on but we got out pretty quick (Veronica and Sepp "rescued" us). Immediately afterwards I made the mistake of telling Juanfe that I hadn't had to release my spray skirt so he staged his own capsize and swam to our kayak to tip us again.... Trying desperately not to succumb to an anxiety attack I scrambled back up to lie prostrate over the kayak while Chris stabilized it from the water. Then Juanfe asked Chris whether he'd remembered the first step - checking to make sure the foot pedals for the rudder were in proper position. Next thing I knew, I was back in the water; Chris had tipped us again while hoisting himself up to look into the kayak's rear seating compartment. Fun fun.

Once everyone had had a proper practice dunk (or three) we paddled around to the far side of an island to see a sea lion colony and then to another tiny island looking for penguins - we didn't see any there but saw some in the water elsewhere. So cute! Then we had to paddle through some big waves and wind to get to hot springs on another, bigger island. We had lunch there and soothed our sore muscles in the steaming pool before heading back to base camp and another of Señora Nora's feasts.

Checking out the sea lion colony on one of the islands. (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

Soothing our muscles and warming up in a hot spring pool on an island.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

The next day we had a rainy morning to pack up and head south towards a secondary fjord called Quintupeu. I found the kayaking way harder than I expected. Physically, I mean. My back and arms were sore pretty quickly, probably in part due to poor technique the day before.... Chris was a machine. Good thing I got to share a kayak with him. And sit in the back where he couldn't see if I was paddling all the time....

Still smiling despite the weather. (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

En route to the secondary fjord we crossed to another part of the same island that had the hot springs. We came around the southern tip, entering a wide channel that lead to the Gulf of Ancud (and ultimately Chiloé island). We went ashore quickly, fighting waves and wind. It was also raining and cold so Juanfe had chosen that spot for a break because he knew the community center just up from the shore would be open and provide us with shelter from the rain. Because we were so wet, we started to get chilled once we weren't moving anymore. It would've been a funny site had a local stumbled upon our group of wetsuit-clad gringos pacing and doing jumping-jacks all over their community center. Despite the wind continuing to blow and the waves getting bigger, Juanfe took us back out on the water where we persevered to make it across to the entrance of the secondary fjord. The opening is really narrow - only a few hundred meters. The problem is that the narrow gap and the steep sides to the fjord concentrate the wind and the waves. Made for hard work!

Approaching the entrance to the secondary fjord, Quintupu.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

Kayaking in Quintupu Fjord.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

 Waterfall (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
There'd been so much rain that we were lucky to see lots of waterfalls inside the fjord but I'll be honest - I was mostly focusing on paddling and staying upright so I didn't enjoy the view as much as I would've had things been calmer and less rainy.

After about an hour of paddling into the fjord we stopped at a small beach for a pee break and to see one of the large waterfalls up close. We then crossed to the other side of the fjord to see another big waterfall emptying right into the ocean. There we had to decide whether to continue to the end of the fjord to camp. Juanfe had received word that the weather was supposed to get really bad later that afternoon and last until the next morning. The option was to kayak back to our original base camp at Señora Nora's (~3 hours away) or continue to the end of the fjord (~ 1 hour). We decided to stay in the fjord. I was glad because I was already very tired. We'd kayaked several hours the day before and at least 4 already that day.

Setting up camp in the rain.      (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones     
It seemed to take forever to reach the end of the fjord. My arms were stiff, my fingers frozen, and fatigue was setting in. Finally Juanfe pulled ashore. I was so relieved! But I couldn't relax just yet - first we had a to portage our fully-loaded kayaks about 200 m inland to the camping area (we had the disadvantage of arriving at low tide). We put up our tents in the rain and did our best to keep our sleeping bags and extra clothes dry. Not an easy task, I assure you. The inside of our tent was wet from being packed up in the rain that morning so I dried out the inside as best I could using the one towel we'd brought along. That worked pretty well so I changed into dry clothes and then set up our sleeping mats and bags. Meanwhile, Juanfe  had prepared a delicious spicy lentil stew for dinner that we all wolfed down hungrily. We also had a cup of wine each! Well, except for Juanfe because he was technically working. Despite the early hour (~8 pm) we all retired to our tents shortly after dinner. There wasn't much else we could do if we wanted to stay dry since the rain refused to let up. I was so exhausted from the day that I fell asleep before the even sun set. It was a really really REALLY wet night but our tent kept us dry and warm!

Our campsite in Quintupu fjord.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
For our final day, the plan was to wait out the bad weather and leave around 11 am instead of the usual 4 am departure for this trip (hurrah!). Juanfe woke us up around 8:30 though because the weather looked alright so he wanted to get going. After a quick breakfast, forcing ourselves back into our sopping wet clothes, and packing up we headed out into the wind and rain.

The only photo Juanfe managed to snap during our attempt to escape the fjord.
(Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)
Conditions got bad right after we left our camp. The waves were big and many were even breaking. I'm not going to lie - I was pretty terrified right off the bat. Things got worse as we moved further toward the entrance of the fjord where we had to go into more exposed areas. The wind gusts were unreal. I could barely move my paddle in the air, let alone the water. Nevertheless, we kept paddling, moving painfully slowly, struggling to follow Juanfe's path in the turmoil, helpless to hear his instructions in the howling wind. Finally we reached another sheltered area a few hundred meters from the entrance. The four of us clung to branches overhanging the water while Juanfe scouted to see whether we could attempt to get out. The waves were getting bigger and the gusts stronger. We were soaked when we started so by now we were getting really cold.

After some discussion we decided to try to make a crossing to the other shore as the first step to approaching the narrow entrance of the fjord. Our first attempt failed because some crazy gusts started as soon as we emerged from behind the sheltered area. We went back and waited for another opportunity. A few minutes later we tried again, desperately fighting against the wind while trying to cut across the waves as perpendicularly as possible. It was terrifying. Everything around us was happening so fast but we were moving barely at all.  Thoughts of the worst case scenario were threatening my resolve but I kept my eyes alternating between Juanfe's kayak ahead of us and the incoming waves, trying to stay on track while avoiding disaster. Every muscle in my body was screaming for a rest but I kept on paddling and Chris did too, salty spray whipping into our faces as the wind howled its protest at our progress. Just when it seemed like we might actually make it to the other side, Juanfe signaled for us to turn back. The other couple was too far behind us and they were struggling to stay perpendicular to the waves.

Turning our kayak to return to the sheltered area was a scary experience but we managed to do it without capsizing. Now the gusts were at our back but I can tell you it wasn't any less terrifying. Just a slight error in keeping the kayak perpendicular to the wind meant we were broadsided and spun off course, putting us in position to be further buffeted by the strong waves. Talk about gaining perspective of just how insignificant we were, there in our tiny boat, at the mercy of a violent sea. Finally we landed at the small beach where we'd had our pee break the previous day. I wanted to kiss the ground. Juanfe decided we needed to call for a rescue boat due to the extreme conditions. I was so relieved! Of course, by the time the little fishing boat showed up conditions had improved and the water was almost flat.... I didn't even care by that point. I was so tired, cold, and exhausted. Overjoyed to be rescued. The best part was that the little fishing boat had a wood stove in the cabin. Warmth!!! We were all so happy to have heat again, sitting there with giant grins on our faces, steam wafting up from our wet suits and jackets.

Awaiting our rescue boat.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

Loading up the rescue boat.  (Photo credit: YAK Expediciones)

So, it was an adventure. But we survived. Both Chris and I figure we aren't really cut out for seakayaking. At least in crazy conditions like that! But we tried and it's definitely something we'll remember forever! Thankfully we had a good guide who knew when and who to call for help when it became clear that we couldn't finish the trip on our own.

After the seakayak expedition we spent a few days regrouping in Puerto Varas before catching a bus to Bariloche, Argentina where we are now, awaiting the arrival of our friends, Tim and Kayla. They will be joining us for about 3 weeks. Chris and I are nearing the end of our time in South America but there is still a lot more to see before we head home. Our next adventure will be a road trip through Patagonia. We can hardly wait to enjoy the freedom of the open road and actually having our own set of wheels for a change! Meanwhile we are relaxing in Bariloche, enjoying local microbrews, artisan chocolates, and Argentine beef. It's a tough life. :)