The earliest sunrays were just beginning to capture the tops of the sheer white granite walls surrounding our verdant little valley when Senora Anita arrived in our tiny refugio and began to stoke the little woodstove to make our breakfast. No mundane hostel breakfast this – with wondrous economy of motion the Senora proceeded to whip up fresh rolls, an egg casserole, hot coffee and tea, and all without benefit of any heat controls other than her rearrangement of the coals under the stovetop. The group of us sat on a bench in the shared warmth of the stove, sipping coffee and marveling at the culinary performance as the morning light slowly seeped in through the windows to light the corners of the hut.
We six hardy backpackers had made our way across the northern Patagonian Andes over the course of two weeks to Valle Cochamo on the west coast of Chile, known to a few in rock-climbing circles as the ‘Yosemite of Chile’ (and apparently used by Butch and Sundance a century earlier to move rustled cattle across the Andes from Argentina to Chile). The name was well and truly earned, with several seriously challenging multi-pitch walls of sheer granite a fairly easy walk from the lush valley floor and its sweet campsites and refugios.
Dawn rising over the Cochamo valley from the Mountain Lodge
Yet we nearly had the place to ourselves on this morning in the late Austral summer, just one other group of trekkers and a few scruffy rope-bearing vagabonds to be seen as we passed through the campground below the day before. This region, at the southern end of the Lakes District of Chile, is an immense wild expanse of snow-topped volcanoes, ancient endemic forests, sheer granite cliffs and – of course – hundreds of lakes. Yet, despite the drama, most travelers who make it to the Chilean Lakes District stay further north among the crowded hot springs and well-publicized volcano climbing routes around Pucon. We had worked closely with a local Chilean adventure outfitter to devise an off the beaten track hiking and trekking itinerary in the southern Lakes District, and Andres proved to be both an extraordinary guide and an uber-energetic promoter of all things Chilean. We had already stayed at one local guest house on the shore of Lago Todos Santos with stunning views of the Osorno volcano and a lovingly prepared meal of Chilean wine and local specialty dishes, our base for a dramatic dayhike around Osorno. Now we were at Sra Anita’s watching her conjure a miraculous breakfast to fortify us for our climb to Amfiteatro, one of the sweeping cliffs of Cochamo.
Breakfast consumed, Andres led us upward through the towering ‘cathedral forest’ of centuries-old, massive Alerce trees (a local cedar), thick with hanging lichen and moss and dappled with filtered sunlight. After a couple of hours of serious elevation gain on rooty, rocky, barely perceptible trail, the broad white-granite expanse of the Amfiteatro finally revealed itself, and we scaled the boulder fields to explore the cliff wall towering hundreds of feet overhead.
At last we settled at its base where Andre instructed us in the long-standing social ritual around sharing of a gourd-cup of mate, a traditional South American hot drink made from dried and ground Yerba mate leaves. Then it was back down through the forest, back to our cozy refugio and a gourmet meal from Sra Anita, complete with more fine Chilean wine carried up-valley for us by Andres.
These are the experiences that make a life-list adventure. Certainly one ingredient is physical challenge in dramatic, unique landscapes. But this trip had taught us is that extraordinary life-list adventures can also be made up of small, special, authentic experiences in out of the way places.