Rock Steady in South America

Marianne Schwankhart heads for Chile’s Cochamó Valley for some of the best climbing in the world

By (Gallo Images)

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Published: Fri 19 Apr 2013, 12:13 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:35 PM

MY heart beats a different rhythm when I’m in 
remote, untouched and unexplored corners of the world. They’re not easy to find, but with a little effort and a willingness to give up your creature comforts, they are there for the taking.

The Cochamó Valley, at the foot of the Andes in Patagonian Chile, is a true escape and one of the most untouched but accessible places I’ve seen. As I emerged from a four-hour walk through a rainforest to an open valley surrounded by giant, snow-white granite walls, I found my first choice of adventure destinations: a rock climber’s paradise.

The valley is described as the Chilean Yosemite, but without the hordes of tourists, roads, park fees, bureaucratic rangers, and bears wrecking the car as they scavenge for food. The local gauchos, dressed in sheep-skin chaps, will carry your bags (on their horses) to the campsite for a fee while you can take an easy walk through an undisturbed rainforest among some of the oldest trees in the world. Or swim in what must be the clearest water — though cold — I have ever seen.

This piece of utopia is a fairly recent development, driven by American 
Daniel Seeliger and his Argentine wife Silvina. They’ve established a campsite in an open meadow with basic facilities for hikers, nature lovers and climbers.

Across the turquoise Cochamó 
River, they built a quaint refugio where you can find a comfortable bed, hot shower and pizzas. Everything is driven by solar and hydrokinetic power. Daniel is in the process of setting up his own brewery with fresh Cochamó water, an attraction he knows suits his market.

As rock climbers, we’re always looking for the perfect crack on a rock face as high as possible. There were plenty of these to choose from. The climbing crags are as close as a 40-minute walk and as far as eight hours. At 800m, the “Trinidad” is the most prominent wall overlooking the valley. We climbed the “EZ does it” route on this wall of moderate difficulty. My favourite part of climbing on such big walls is the exposure and the access it gives you to a different world. While we were a few hundred metres up, a couple of condors circled around us for a while. These birds, indigenous to the Andes, have wingspans of up to 3m. While they soared almost within touching distance of us, we could see the detail of their eyes watching us.

We climbed a few other routes in the area but we only scratched the surface of all the options. All the routes, short or long, are consistent in their quality and some of the best climbing I’ve done around the world.


Getting There

SAA flies to Buenos Aires from where you can connect to Santiago, then to Puerto Montt. Puerto Varas is 30km further, overlooking a fresh water lake with the big Osorno volcano across the water. I recommend you spend a night here and do shopping for your stay in the valley.

Local buses travel daily to Cochamó village, taking about three hours. From there you can get a 7km ride from the locals to the trailhead. At this point, you can find the horsemen and horses to take your gear up the valley while you walk with a light pack. If you don’t feel like walking, you can ride a horse.

What To Do

The potential of discovery is beyond imagination, with activities for any adventurer or nature lover. If you’re not into climbing or hiking, there are also amazing options for swimming, sliding down waterfalls, tubing, kayaking, or just sun bathing on the river beach.

When To Go

The season is from December to April but, in general, the best month seems to be February. It is also the rainy season, so one relies a bit on luck. Ideally, you want to go for a few weeks to compensate for any rainy days you have to spend sitting in your tent. Up until February, there are a lot of horse flies around (we named them “Felix”). Don’t worry, they are very slow and easy to kill.

Where To Stay

Puerto Varas is a tourist town full of hotels and hostels. We stayed in Casa Margouya with an option of private rooms or bunk beds that sleep up to six people. In the valley, we camped for $4 per night. You could also find a bed in the Cochamó Refugio from $16 to $62 per night. Campers can buy fresh bread and pizzas from the site’s fire oven as long as you give them a little advance warning.

Detour to Cochamó

This was my third visit to Chile and I will return many times. The country is full of nature’s treasures. Visit the Torres del Paine national park in the south for more developed hiking trails, but still remote and majestic landscapes. The Maipu Canyon near Santiago is a desert with more stark but unusual scenery. It’s dry and hot and probably better towards the end of summer.

Chilean Tips

It’s a Spanish-speaking country and not many people speak English, so it will be easier if you travel with a dictionary.

The local tea called mate is bitter, served in a small cup or calabash, and drunk through a straw. If you get given a “cup” you have to finish the contents before you pass it on to the next person, who will refill the cup with hot water.

Copper mining and wine drive the economy. It is the largest producer of wine made from carmenere grape.

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