Greetings from Patagonia! Our first week in the ‘land of the giants’ has surpassed anything we could’ve imagined. We’ve already begun to understand why ‘Unbounded’ is truly the best word to describe this place. We’ve wandered through ancient forests, floated down pristine rivers, stood beneath great pillars of granite, swam below waterfalls; and that’s only the beginning!
Our first section in Patagonia began from the coastal hamlet of Cochamò. We followed the Cochamò river Northeastward from the small village tucked in the fjords of the Reloncavi Sound, to the Valley above. The trail ascended through the temperate coastal forest over the crystal clear river. The muddy path lead through tight corridors that made for interesting scenarios with the occasional gaucho on horseback headed in the opposite direction. As we got closer to our camp for that night -a place called La Junta- we began to catch the first glimpses of the massive granite towers through breaks in the tree canopy. None of us could seem to watch where we were going as we arrived to La Junta, arching our necks, to gaze up at the incredible rock formations. We knew we were in for an epic section!
Dubbed the “Yosemite of Chile” it felt like taking a step back in time to a place reminiscent of the U.S. park before the introduction of the infrastructure and crowds that exist there today. The encampment was a mostly climber-based community that had an infectious energy of inspiration and passion for the outdoors. The caretakers have a clear objective of sustainability. The small ‘commune’ boasted solar showers, dry composting toilets, greenhouses and a small cabin where they lived. We purchased fresh vegetables and had dinner in the dining hut while sharing stories with the climbers, some of whom had been there for weeks or months scaling the surrounding walls.
That night was the end of a long, beautiful clear-weather window, and the anticipated rain began to fall. Fortunately for us, it was clearing up by late morning the next day and we were on our way to the nearby refugio (climbers refuge) called El Arco. We crossed gushing rivers and streams that flow from each valley the trail passes. Just the small amount of rain had turned the trail into an obstacle course of deep mud and pools of water. We slopped our way along, zig-zagging through dense growth to get around the parts of the trail that had become flooded. We finally arrived to the astonishing waterfall that is the namesake of the refugio about two hours later than we’d expected to. The large, comfortable shelter was probably even more of an incredible sight, since one can never know what to expect with these shelters in the mountains. We dried out by the fire that night and enjoyed some of the lentils and tomato sauce that had been left behind by others.
We got an early start the next day in hopes of reaching the large Lake Vidal Gormaz early enough to spend the afternoon with the settlers around the lake. Unfortunately, it was a similar day to the one prior that had us slowly trudging through the mud for about the same amount of time, with even less distance covered. Upon our arrival to the lake we were treated to clearing skies at a classic Patagonian ranch. We watched the sheep graze and hit the hay early, excited to start our first pack-raft navigation of the section the following morning.
The weather gods were on our side as we began paddling across the perfectly flat, glassy lake. We reached the other side in good time, although upon arrival on the opposite shore, we were in for a very unlucky incident. In the excitement of reaching the other side of the lake and jumping in for a swim, our go-pro camera fell out of the raft, sinking to the thickly vegetated bottom. This is a huge deal since the go-pro is waterproof, and thusly our only safe way of filming from the rafts.
The incredibly kind local settlers that greeted us on the shore assisted in our recovery efforts in every way they could come up with. We began with trying to fashion a pair of goggles out of duct-tape, sunglasses and zip-lock bags. This proved unsuccessful. After a couple hours of brainstorming and experimenting, Aljosha and Anthony took the fishing boat that locals, Mikey and Louisa, kindly let us use and dropped the anchor where we could best figure the camera should be. The floor of the deep lake drops quickly from the shore, but the clear water allowed us to scan the bottom that was nearly 20 feet below. After a long search they thought they might have spotted the camera beneath the plants. Aljoscha and Anthony took turns attempting to dive down and feel around for the small camera, though sadly it was just too deep. Even when they successfully reached the bottom, it was impossible to see anything in the murky lake grass. The rescue team gave it their all in the cold water until the sun fell behind the mountains that surrounded the lake. Sadly, there was nothing left to do but cut our losses.
We didn’t let the accident take us off course though. We woke anew the next morning and continued on down the trail after a delicious breakfast of freshly homemade eggs, bread and jam, provided by our hospitable hosts. Next, we reached the settlement called ‘Torrentoso’, where we met Felicia and her nephew Juan. Felicia was a fountain of information and shared with us as we toured her orchard of fruit and nut trees. We had dinner in her home where she told us of the history of the native Tehuelche artifacts that her family had found when they colonized those mountains. Felicia’s pet chicken, Rosanna, sat and listened intently with us by the fireplace.
The final days of hiking on the section were much smoother than the first had been. A few passing showers didn’t slow us down as we pushed towards ‘El Manso’, where we’d be embarking on more rafting. The point along the Manso River where we were to launch from was home to Oscar Gallardo. Oscar inherited the land that had been used by his father primarily for the ranching typical of the area. However now that the land is his, Oscar is taking advantage of the incredible opportunities for eco-tourism that exist along the river. He’s built cabins and takes visitors for fishing and sight-seeing trips. During our stay at Oscar’s, we witnessed something that could threaten all of that though.
We watched the river turn from a beautiful shade of blue to a cloudy brown in just a matter of an hour or so. He explained that this was normal, as each afternoon the crews begin their work on the road for the proposed hydro-electric dam project further up the Manso. We had many more questions after that, that Oscar answered in an interview. He seemed to be very informed on the environmental issues facing the area.
The river was still cloudy as we began rafting the next morning. There was no time to think about that though, as we encountered a few small patches of rapid water early on. Once the adrenaline wore off, we found ourselves reflecting on how far we’ve come. We hadn’t encountered any water this rough on the trip, and yet we were powering through it like champs! The rest of the float down the Manso was pretty calm, and we watched in awe as flocks of birds flew in front of the spectacular scenery of Patagonian Peaks.
Perhaps the best part of the float was when we reached the confluence of the Manso with the iconic Puelo River. We couldn’t believe how abruptly the water color changed as we merged into the Puelo. We floated over the clear border between the darker waters of the Manso, into the bright, milky blue water of the Puelo. Our time on the Puelo was sadly short-lived and we were soon nearing the massive Lake Tagua Tagua. We’d been warned that Tagua Tagua had notoriously strong winds and rough weather, so it would be best to take the ferry across.
Luckily our timing was perfect and we reached the dock of the ferry just in time to pack up our rafts and hop aboard. We weren’t sure what all the fuss was about though, the lake was just around the next bend, and the weather seemed fine. We joked about a terrible squall that must be waiting just around the corner of the next mountain. Little did we know that’s exactly what we’d find! As the ferry rounded it’s way out of the Puelo and into the lake we were hit with strong winds and could see that we were headed right into a thunderstorm. We took shelter in the passenger cabin and laughed about the irony. Our luck continued until the end of the section, as we were able to catch a lift to the closest town from a couple of gentleman with a pickup truck.
We’re now aboard ferries navigating even further South through the fjords of the Chilean coast towards Futaleufú. With only a few weeks left in our journey, we’re all soaking up every minute in this incredible place, and reflecting on all that’s brought us here! We’ve laughed, cried, become savages at times, and grown as a team over the last few months and thousands of kilometers together.
It’s been one hell of an adventure and we are excited for one final stretch. After we spend a few days in Futaleufú, we will embark on our final trek into Patagonia National Park. We’ve been waiting for eight months to get there and can’t even begin to explain our anticipation to step foot into the park and see the beauty for ourselves! Stay tuned for more updates and as always – thanks for following along!