Puerto Varas and the La Junta Valley

Out of Patagonia I embraced the long lost comforts of modern development and the tourism hub of Puerto Varas had all the fixings. Beyond comfortable beds and hot water on demand, delicious sweets were readily available along with the best coffee I had encountered in all of South America. A not too shabby brewery on the outskirts of town was a welcomed treat to a parched palate and I quickly became a regular at a young, former boutique chef’s, gourmet empanada outpost. A local farmer’s market and butcher shop rounded out my rapidly developing daily routine, as my disdain for the rain encountered upon arrival eased. I was happy to stay put here for a while. On day three in town the rain cleared and clouds finally lifted, immediately blown away by what I saw, the reason this town is a must see became abundantly clear.

Sunset over Osorno Volcano

There are specific class leading natural features that define their category of nature. The Amazon Jungle, Grand Canyon, or Sahara Desert act as the metric all others must measure up against, and Osorno Volcano might just be the leader in its field. This mega, active stratovolcano is the picture perfect cone and has recent enough lava flows around it to show its still boss in this land. Surrounded by a picture perfect lake and forest, the snowcapped peak defines the Chilean Lakes District.

Resting below Osorno

There is no question Osorno is the showstopper for most in this region, but if you keep an ear to the ground, whispers can be heard of something lingering, waiting in valley beyond. The small town of Cochamo acts as gatekeeper to the La Junta Valley, a lightly traveled and only recently (2008) pioneered climbing mecca. I didn’t quite know what was out there, but trustworthy sources vouched that it was worth a visit and a little research started to confirm this sentiment. Billed as the ‘Yosemite of South America’ big granite domes line the valley, hence its recent burst in popularity in the climbing community. The lack of fame in guidebooks combined with some pretty inspiring pictures buried deep in others’ travel blogs confirmed that it was worth checking out. I hopped in the back of a pickup truck heading the same direction and was on my way to discovering my South American Holy Grail.

The end of a dirt road leaves you 15km from the campgrounds of La Junta, and thus the rest of the trip must be made on foot. At the trailhead I thought back to the blog I had read which warned of potentially muddy conditions on the way in. Muddy trail would be the appropriate description if you consider a category 5 hurricane a windy day. For five hours every single step needed careful planning and consideration to avoid a dip in DEEP, ankle to knee, mud pits. Horse and cattle traffic had ripped the main trail to shreds, carving head high slot canyons into the terrain which conveniently corralled muddy waste filled slop into vile, difficult to avoid sinkholes. One wrong step could lead to anything from soaked socks to lost boots and I imagine, in the worst of scenarios quicksand type mud engulfment that one might never be able to escape. This was the nastiest, worst maintained, most miserable hike I have ever participated in and that was before I got lost.

General vibe for the day...

The La Junta valley is not part of a national park, nor is it protected land. It’s simply some serious rock walls that diehard climbers felt had to be explored. Though the private landowners have made deals with the climbing community to set up camp grounds and small structures, very little is maintained and animal usage is high in the region with limited regulation. The combination leads to devastatingly bad trail conditions, poor signage, and one of the least pleasant outdoor experiences I could imagine. And as I neared the end of my schlep into the valley my map began to fail me. The trail as marked and what I found were in no way the same, and I was slowly heading away from my desired destination. I plowed along through the muck continuing to divert from the published route. Eventually, things felt completely wrong and I doubled back through the mud and piles of poo... I found another group of hikers, they too were confused and began to head backwards as well. An unmarked gate back a couple of kilometers seemed like the way to go but it was shut, permanently. I debated the merits of jumping it, but the trail appeared no better on the other side. The group decided to plow forth, back where we had returned from and eventually, over a kilometer off the mapped route, the trail began to head back towards the camp ground. I made it to the valley utterly beaten by the single worst hike of my travels, but a short glimpse of my now visible surroundings gave a slight inkling of hope that there could be something out here that would justify such a miserable journey.

Looking out from La Junta camp ground

The hikes in La Junta are all intended as access routes, built by climbers in an effort to reach distant rock faces. They range in difficulty from challenging to downright dangerous and as such I wanted to ease into things. My first adventure was up to a natural granite amphitheater and rapidly the horrendous trip in was forgiven. A steep, nonstop assent brought me through dense bamboo forest, across too-high-for-comfort single log river crossings, and eventually into a rocky clearing. Bleached white granite surrounded me. 300 degrees of rock wall wrapped me up, created a humbling, intensely majestic natural structure. I sat on a large boulder in the middle for hours, unsure where to look, struggling to take it all in. It was a spectacular display of natural grandeur, and this was the warmup walk. I returned to camp where the small collection of other serious (and everyone out here was serious) hikers and climbers prepped food. Taking in the views, I listened to recaps of the journey to the main draw of the valley, for climbers and non-climbers alike, Cerro ArcoIris. 

Taking in the amplitheater

The hike to the top of ArcoIris is unlike anything else I have ever encountered. On the spectrum of day hikes this is as intense and rewarding as it gets. The good news is there are many opportunities to decide this hike is not for you and turn back, the bad news is if you make it to the top, going back down is even more terrifying. Step one on this menacing walk is a river crossing, testing your faith in the infrastructure rigged up by some unknown creator. A rickety wooden box, suspended by cables zips to and fro across rocky waters. Once loaded with a passenger’s weight it is almost impossible to control the ride, letting go and trusting the system is the first test in a day of mental and physical hurdles. Halfway across, potential energy depleted, it’s a forearm burn to drag yourself plus cart up to the opposite landing. Safely across, and not without some hesitation, it was clear this was going to be anything but a gentle stroll. Stage two of the journey is a relentless two hour climb through dense woods. Scrambling up roots and over downed trees acts as a good warm up for the less ‘traditional’ sections up ahead.

Approaching the tree line, the altitude level where larger foliage ceases to exist, a small landing provides a resting point. It’s a good enough view, and one might decide to call it a day as the next phase may look unwelcoming. The landing was about a meter wide and three to four long, enough standing space for a few people comfortably. Looking out the view is unobstructed because there is no flora in the way, just a sheer cliff, high enough that a numerical distance to the ground is not needed to confirm the fate of someone who went over. On the other side of the landing is a nearly vertical rock wall, decorated with a rope. This was the first of many ropes, again secured and maintained by some unknown coalition of climbers, and going up it was the only way to move on. This is not the first time I have encountered ropes to assist on a hike, nor was it the first time that a rope failure would be very bad, but this was without a doubt the first time where any error, human or equipment, of any kind, would with certainty be devastating. With nothing to break a fall if it occurred and only an arm’s length of terrain in between the bottom of the rock face and certain death off the cliff, every single movement had to be calculated and precise. For the first time I hiked with a true sense of fear; it was exhilarating.

Not for the faint of heart

Up and over the first few rope segments, turning back becomes less appealing. Going up might be scary but repelling back down the damp ropes, staring at your demise though each pensive step is a proper fright...best keep going. Across the river, up the steep wooded trail, atop the rope maze, and over some small rock scrambles awaits the first true vista of the hike; and it’s incredible. The mighty granite domes viewed the day before now rest at eye level and early autumn leaves paint a Technicolor gradient across the valley.  Waterfalls peak out of tree cover as they drain off the last of the glacial melt before winter begins again and new snowpack forms atop the peaks. A perfect place for lunch, I sat a while taking in the view, embracing the tranquil breeze and clear sky.

As good as it gets.....almost

But this adventure was not over, not even close. With no dirt remaining the last leg of the hike was a rock scramble. Small cairns (stacks of rocks left by hikers in the past) mark the way to the ultimate peak of Arcoíris. With no formal trail, this type of hiking requires a much more tactical approach. Markers can often have a large distance between one another, or more frustratingly there may be markers in multiple directions. It’s important to scout possible options and take what seems to be the most traveled and/or stable route. Often, an obvious looking path would not be marked and something more precarious had markers, it was a quick lesson up an unmarked route when loose rock began to fall and what appeared to be easy steps turned into impossible hurdles. The markers became law, and for good reason once I found myself faced with snow fields. Harmless enough in appearance, relatively small patches of snow cover began to appear and beg to be crossed as opposed to circumvented. At first, concern was fairly low, until a different vantage point revealed massive caves carved by the melt water running under the friendly white surface. One misplaced step could cause the entire structure to collapse almost certainly resulting in a horrific scenario. Stick to the markers, avoid the snow, don’t slip on wet rocks pointing down to the valley floor, and by the way you have been at it for a while, the sun is on its way down. The absolute final challenge laid in the form of the most proper ‘climb’ I have ever done. With no more ropes and a final rock face to overcome I carefully scaled up a 30 foot wall, with limited footing or hand holds it was my first foray into the world of what is considered bouldering. Though this remote, hard to access, mountain top was likely not the best place to start, what I saw atop the peak was beyond comprehension.

A fairly nice place to have a look about

Standing at the top of Arcoíris I couldn’t focus, there was simply too much to take in. I stood in awe, knowing this was the single most remarkable thing I had ever seen. Reflecting on this moment I look at photos with frustration as they understate every aspect of this overwhelming piece of Earth. The 360 panorama here is unrivaled to the best of my knowledge. In one direction the deep, green valley twists and dips, bobs and weaves towards Argentina. From the valley floor the granite faces rise and wrap around the river bends, slowly morphing into more jagged snow capped peaks. Continuing clockwise the granite gives way to black volcanic rock, organic in form, a still shot of its once violent flow. Nestled into the porous stone rests a midnight blue lake, the color of which is so deep and striking it's both camouflaged within its surroundings and lashing out for attention at the same time. Further off in the distance, just to make this place too good to be true, Volcano Osorno photobombs the already surreal landscape. I could have, and would have spent days atop this peak of peaks, but after an hour of trying to make sense of the sensory overload I was becoming pressed for time to get back to camp. No photos exist from the journey back down, it was honestly too terrifying to consider futzing with a camera. Back at camp I relished in the accomplishment of such a demanding journey. This was a true test of my hiking metal, and passing without issue felt like a true phase change in my skill level. 

Same place more views, more minds blown

Off topic, but certainly important, was a little tidbit of information I picked up from another hiker. Supposedly, a different campsite not far from where my tent resided sold fresh baked bread daily, I was told it was delicious, and later found out the purveyor of this information was a professional baker himself. On what seemed like very trustworthy information I ventured over to acquire a loaf or two. Though not ready on my first attempt, the confirmation that bread was indeed being made at that very moment only heightened my anticipation for the fresh, steamy, delight to come. As sun set came around so did two loaves of absolutely delicious fresh bread. If the hikes hadn't already, this sealed the deal; the La Junta Valley is the hidden gem of South America. I will forever guide other travelers to this place, and will watch with both joy and envy as they embark on that journey.