There may be other rivers in Patagonia that are mightier than the Rio Cochamó.
There may be other valleys in southern Chile that are longer than the Cochamó Valley.
And there may be other little towns that attract tourists in much larger numbers.
But – ask any of the few hundred annual visitors who do make it out here — there is no place quite as spectacular, lush, and unique as the Cochamó Valley.
With its remote location, far removed from modern, urban conveniences, the communa of Cochamó is home to a flourishing rural culture of huasos and horsemanship, self-sufficiency and survival – as well as to some of the most picturesque granite peaks south of Yosemite National Park; one of the world’s three remaining virgin temperate rainforests; and more waterfalls than you can count.
Cochamó now …
A partly-paved-partly-gravel “road” from Puerto Varas, the nearest large town, was built only about 20 years ago. Yet, the seaside village of Cochamó has been linked to Argentina for more than 200 years by its very own Cochamó Road – a steep, rock-strewn cattle and horse trail that follows the river, and clambers up through the Andean passes.
So it’s not surprising that Cochamó seems more connected to history than to modern-day life! Here, you will see cowboys in goat-skin chaps, wool ponchos, and jagged spurs herding their cattle and tilling their lands by ox-ploughs, as they have for decades.
The population is approximately 4,000 people – having swelled in the past 10 years due to salmon farming and its demand for labour, but now again shrinking as the farms close down, and jobs are lost. For many families, this is proving quite a hardship, as their young adults had made the transition away from an agricultural lifestyle to one of industrial employment.
The decades-old, wood-shingled church is still the centre of village life – and the starting point for many a festive and religious parade. The local school is one of the only ones in the communa – and has many children from the mountains boarding there during the year.
The village of Cochamó was reportedly first founded in 1740, but settled only in the late 1800s. During the 19th century, Jesuit priests fled persecution by Chilean authorities into Argentina. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a flourishing cross-border trade – beef cattle from Argentina were driven to Cochamó to be slaughtered, packed, and shipped northward to feed the laborers in the nitrate mines of northern Chile and Bolivia; while dried and smoked fish, mussels, and other seafood were carried eastward over the mountain by oxcart and horseback.
It was along this very trail in the early 1900s that the famous outlaw pair – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – drove their cattle down for sale from their hideout in the Argentinean Andes.
At one point, the trade was so strong that the local meat companies expended thousands on dollars on “paving” the often-muddy and boulder strewn track with thousands of logs and planks from ancient Alerce and coigue trees. The remnants of this “road” are still found in many sections of the trail even today.
But, during the 1920s, with the decline of nitrate mining in northern Chile, the demand for Argentinean meat fell, and the trail fell into disuse. For many decades, it was used by only a handful of local settlers, who grazed a few head of cattle in the high mountains for much of the year, bringing them down for sale occasionally.
Cochamó, Campo Aventura, and Conservation
Then, in the mid 1990s, with the establishment of Campo Aventura, the trail once again began to re-live its heyday – this time for use by foreign visitors wanting to explore and experience the Cochamó and the La Junta Valleys. Employing local huasos as guides, and other youth as camp staff, Campo Aventura developed its signature horseback treks and exploration packages along the Cochamó Trail – primarily between its base camp, Riverside Lodge, and its outback Mountain Lodge in the La Junta Valley, 20 kms upstream. It also originated the Gaucho Trail, a 10-day circuit that takes guests through rainforest, high mountains, remote homesteads, raging rivers, and wide pastures, staying with local families along the way.
The Cochamó Valley is home to one of the worlds last remaining temperate rainforests – and to some 60% of plant species that are endemic to Chile. It is a lush and largely unexplored resource of biodiversity, characterized by the towering Alerce trees that live for over 3,000. In addition, sweet flowering Ulmos, wild fuchsias, massive manios and tough coigue trees add to the rich treasures of this forest.
In 2002, the trail caught the eye of logging interests – who lobbied strenuously for a road to be built into the high valleys, so as to improve access to the virgin stands of hard and rare woods. With considerable organization and counter lobbying by the junta de vecinos (neighborhood association) and Campo Aventura, this project was cut short – but not before a dirt “road” had been constructed for the first 8 km into the valley, which can now be used by motorized vehicles.
The rich resources mean that the rainforest is under constant threat – whether from local cutting for firewood, or from more organised large-scale logging interests as well as hydro-power companies.
Today, in 2009, the main challenge is from multi-national utilities companies – which have put in for water rights that would enable them to capture or dam several rivers in the valley, with the aim of generating thousands of megawatts of electricity for transmission to Santiago and northward.
The municipality of Cochamó as well as the majority of residents have already registered their disapproval of this process – but it is still continuing through the government bureaucracy.
Read more about Campo Aventura’s efforts to conserve and preserve the Cochamó Valley on the Conservation page, including our support for Conservacion Cochamó, a local NGO dedicated to protecting this natural paradise.
And, come visit this ‘Yosemite’ of South America – which is still free of the crowds, the cars, and the fast-food outlets!