Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hiking Across the Divide: Cochamo to El Bolson

March 4, 2013

Our hike from the town of Cochamo, Chile on Feb. 22nd to the town of El Bolson, Argentina on March 2nd was the longest segment of time we spent traveling point-to-point by foot in Patagonia. As with all our experiences here, there is so much more to write about than will fit in this blog post. Here are some of the highlights and memorable moments. And if you are thinking of doing this hike yourself (via the more common Paso El Leon route or via Paso El Bolson, as we did), please feel free to write us for more information. 

A New and Different Place

We traveled from Coyhaique to Puerto Varas by night bus, falling asleep to the reds and oranges of sunset over the unending, sparse steppe and awakening at the border post north of Bariloche in a different world of tall trees and cliffy, grey mountains. Then it was down to the flat Chilean coast and the town of Puerto Varas, where we spent a bright sunny afternoon re-supplying and enjoying the lovely town and views of Volcan Osorno. Next morning, we went by local bus to the little town of Cochamo and then in the back of a pick-up truck to the trailhead. Finally, after almost a week sitting in towns and buses, we were hiking into the mountains again.

And what different mountains they were! No longer were we hiking through lenga forests, open alpine meadows, and past glaciers and snowfields. Now the only thing in sight was GREEN. Tall trees, mosses, and vines covered the slopes--an incredible volume of biomass. Our first day we hiked up valley through the temperate rainforest to camp in Valle Cochamo, known as the "Yosemite of Chile" (though we overheard one of the climbers saying "Yosemite is cool but this is way better") . Massive grey cliffs rose out of the rainforest all around us.  The next day we had planned to do some dayhikes, but it was pouring rain so instead we spent the day reading and chatting with American climbers at the campground and nearby refugio.

Camping La Junta in Valle Cochamo, Chile

By Horse Trail through the Forest

Day 3 we set off on a series of horse trails that over the next few days would take us southeast toward the community of Llanada Grande just west of the Argentine border. The terrain was not very rugged, with few big climbs, and yet it was much harder than we expected. Horses and water had carved the trails into deep muddy troughs with big steps up and down over tree roots. Though we didn't climb any peaks, or much less to the top of a single ridge, our legs felt a bit like they had. We slowly got used to being surrounded always by trees. More exciting, this new landscape was full of lakes and we camped by them several nights.

Our favorite camp was on a small patch of flat shoreline along Lago Vidal Gomez, where we had our first real Patagonian swim (i.e. not just a quick dunk and wash in icy water while shrieking). That night the full moon rose and we drank our post-dinner cocoa under a sky full of stars and warm summer air. It didn't feel like we were in the mountains so much as like we were on a summer vacation. The next morning we alternately swam and basked in the sun (and the lizard in the photo below basked with us) before finally hiking on in mid-afternoon.

Our favorite camp on Lago Vidal Gomez

Lizard basking in the morning sun

Along Lago Vidal and for the rest of our route, we passed many remote farmsteads and enjoyed stopping to chat with friendly people and get a glimpse of how they lived out here, far from the roads. We bought homemade bread, butter, and jam along the way too, to supplement the food we'd packed. Blackberries were ripening and we ate handfulls along the way.

With a friendly family living on the south shore of Lago Vidal

Crossing the Border

By Feb. 28th, after walking above the aqua blue Rio Manso for a couple days, we reached the road and caught a bus the 40 km to Llanada Grande, from where we planned to bus another 20kms and then hike over the border and reach the road to El Bolson the next evening. During our brief stop in town, we talked to the bus driver about the place we wanted to be dropped off and showed it to him on the map. But once we got underway, the driver stopped only 6 km. from town and indicated it was time to get off. We quickly realized we were in the wrong place and tried to tell him in my so-so Spanish where we wanted to go but he was so insistent he wouldn't hear it. Meanwhile, the bus conductor unloaded our bags into the street. After 10 minutes of arguing with the bus driver and him urging us to get our bags and go, we finally conceded and watched the bus drive away. At a nearby house we chatted with a man about a potential boat ride to the other side of Lago Azul, where we needed to be, but he didn't have room. So, we started down the road hiking. After an hour or so, we were passed by our bus returning to town, and then it began to thunderstorm. We hiked along quickly, looking for the trailhead to Lago Azul (laughing at ourselves that once again we had no real idea what we were looking for). We passed houses and farms and then saw a boarded up cabin with a dirt road leading up the ridge behind it...maybe this was our trail? A few kilometers on when we reached the top of the ridge, the radiantly blue Lago Azul was below us. We reached the shore of the lake just before sunset, asked permission of the landowner to camp, and set up our tent in a beautiful lakeside spot as another storm rolled in.

Thunderstorm approaching at sunset over Lago Azul

Early the next morning, the lake was flat and calm. We hiked south to Lago Las Rocas and on to the Chilean border post, then above another gorgeously blue lake (the west arm of Lago Puelo) to reach the Argentine border post just before sunset. We had no map of the Argentina side and decided to camp for the night near the border post. Dinner that night was mish-mash of odds and ends because we were nearly out of food and stove fuel. The mixture of instant mashed potatoes, dried mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and a few noodles tasted great.

Heading to Town

We slept restlessly that night, awakened several times by animals walking around our tent (one of which we are pretty sure was a cow!). In the morning, we split a lukewarm thermos full of tea and ate a few crackers with jam, saving the last few crackers and peanut butter for the trail. We had read it was a 15 kilometer hike to town but without a map we had no idea what to expect so we were pleasantly surprised to reach the outlet of the Rio Azul after only 6 km or so. We walked along the beach of the lake, crossing several branches of the Rio Azul that meander in a broad delta to Lago Puelo. When we reached the national park offices at Lago Puelo, we asked a ranger for information about the route to Chile, hoping he would give us a map we could keep as a souvenir. He didn't have one and said, "You can't hike there from here, it's not possible to cross the river!" Markus and I just looked at each other and smiled. One of many instances along this trip that have reminded us it's always worth asking people for information, but it's not always wise to trust their advice is right for us.

We rode the public bus to El Bolson and stepped out straight into the Saturday afternoon market. Vendors decked out in tie-dye sold homemade jam and beer, while the sounds of drumming and the smell of pot smoke hung in the air. After so much time in tiny rural towns and farms with an old-fashioned feel, the hippie-vibe of El Bolson felt like a different planet. We wandered past the stalls with our backpacks on our backs, looking at crafts, and then we smelled it--fried food. Having eaten every single scrap of food in our packs, we were HUNGRY. I thought of a passage from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I read on this trip, when Cheryl has come off-trail to a restaurant and says "I may has well have been a German Shepard". I know exactly what she meant--the smell of food was completely distracting.

Ice cream at Confiteria Jauja in El Bolson

And thus commenced a delightful and disgusting evening of eating. We bought deep fried empanadas, quiche, and a big cone of french fries. Next we walked to confiteria Jauja and each devoured a pint of delicious artesanal ice cream. Momentarily satisfied, we found a campground in town, took showers, and handwashed a few clothes. Then, we were ready for dinner. On our way to find the restaurant, we stopped at the grocery store where Markus bought a chorizo sausage and I bought chocolate...just a little snack for the way. Then we went to a pizza place, where we ordered a large, deep-crust pizza and devoured the whole thing. Finally, we were full. But when we woke up next morning we were, amazingly, starving again and went right away to the bakery for fresh bread and pastries. Though I've experienced wilderness-travel-induced spikes in metabolism many times before, it never ceases to amaze me. And so ended a wonderful trip.

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