Right out of the gate, our trip took an unexpected turn when the plane to Santiago was full, but lucky for us there were seats on the flight to Lima, Peru a few gates over, so to Lima we went! Initially we figured we could jump on an inexpensive regional flight from Lima to Santiago as soon as we arrived in Lima, but once we were in the Lima airport we figured, “hey, we have no real obligations, why don’t we explore Lima for a day or two.” As you can imagine, not ten minutes had passed before we were manically googling to see if a last minute visit to Machu Picchu could be managed, and alas, it could be! Our voyage took a new course and, after a day wandering Lima, we flew to Cusco, Peru, inching nearer to the Incan holy site. Two days, two buses, and a train ride later we were looking down at the ruins of Machu Picchu from the summit of Mount Machu Picchu. We had a fantastic guide who told us the history of the site and pointed out the unparalleled stonework of the Quechua people as demonstrated in its Sun Temple. It was a drizzly, overcast day when we arrived but a persistent sun eventually broke through and gave us some glorious photo opportunities. While in the region we also visited other Incan ruins like Moray and the Maras salt mines. Over a day and half we made our way back to Cusco, then to Lima, down to Santiago, and finally to our original destination, Puerto Montt, Chile, where we could bus the final hundred kilometers to our trailhead in Cochamó.
The Maras Salt Mines have been in use for well over one thousand years and remain in use today.
Isabelle and I had Machu Picchu nearly to ourselves thanks to visiting during the rainy season.
After stocking up on some backpacking gear that wasn’t carry-on friendly, like stove fuel and a knife, we boarded a local bus and began the three hour ride that took us to our trailhead. For the past week we had been carrying eight days of dehydrated meals with us, as well as a tent, sleeping bags and pads, and safety gear, little of which felt very useful when exploring the front country. It was finally time to put our preparation and gear to use, and boy were we ready!
When we planned the backpacking portion of the trip from the comfort of our Utah home, we outlined a 65 mile trip from Cochamó, Chile to Rio Villegas, Argentina, expecting to move at least 1.5 mph on the trail. As we trudged down the muck-filled, ill maintained horse trail that was our course, we realized that we were moving just under half of our estimated speed and that our ambitious route was a stretch given the limited food and time we had. On our third day, while waiting out some rain in a windowless refugio (one of several deserted public shelters) we wrestled with how to address the implications of our slowed pace. We both wanted desperately to complete the trip as planned and to cross the border into Argentina, but we were aware that as we pressed further along our trail, the planned days got longer and the likelihood of running into other humans dropped. If we couldn’t improve our pace or compensate for it with 15-20 hour hiking days, we would run out of food with nowhere to restock.
Occasionally we had the privilege of using a hand-powered cable car for river crossings.
Our packs ready for adventure at the trailhead.
Oh look, we get to walk through a swamp, and the planks we are supposed to walk on are literally untethered and freely floating! When I step on it, will it sink one inch or twelve? Who knows!
Isabelle climbing up the rutted out and muddy horse trail that characterized the majority of our route.
A welcome dry section of trail.
One of many knee deep river crossings.
Reflecting on my time leading trips at Mondamin and Voyageur Outward Bound School, I realized that our pace change meaningfully raised the risk of our trip. As we discussed, I told Isabelle that though I wasn’t totally clear whether I was personally comfortable taking on this new risk, I knew for a fact that I would never put students or campers in this degree of uncertainty - this was decidedly not an institutionally acceptable level of risk. That gut sense ultimately made the decision so much clearer - we were out here to enjoy the wilderness and to push our comfort zones, but not at the expense of our safety. We decided we would convert our trip to an out and back adventure from a point-to-point. Despite the rough trail conditions, this still allowed us to hit some of the more important landmarks while minimizing our exposure to risk.
Isabelle and I grab a quick selfie at our turn around point, Lago Grande.
A brief encounter with some of the ranchers in the area.
On our eighth and final day of backpacking, December 20th, we woke up at 4am to ensure we could catch the first bus out of Cochamó, which we’d been told came at 11am. Once we completed the last seven miles and reached the village right on time, we were informed that the bus wouldn’t arrive until 3pm, so we opted to hitchhike back to Puerto Montt. Likely thanks to Isabelle’s demeanor and Spanish skills, we had no trouble hitching rides and actually made it to Puerto Montt in less time than the bus would have taken. We raced to Santiago in hopes of catching the last US-bound plane that had open seats, which departed that night, but were declined due to weight and balance constraints. We spent that evening in the airport and took a flight to Buenos Aires the next day, as it was our only hope of flying standby back to the US if we wanted to make it home for Christmas. We arrived back to Salt Lake City via Houston on December 22nd, having been on the trail just two days prior. All told, we’d been away from home for two and half weeks, taken 10 flights, visited many new places, and backpacked 47 miles and 13,500 vertical feet. We were absolutely wiped and I was recovering from a fever that set in on our last day of hiking. We were grateful to be home, if only for a day. On Christmas Eve, we set off for Colorado to spend the holidays with Isabelle’s family.
I would recommend this trip exactly as we did it for anyone who gets a thrill from uncertainty, loves an interdisciplinary trip, and doesn’t mind being very weight conscious when travel in the front country precedes a backcountry expedition! I would highly recommend a visit to Machu Picchu to those who enjoy learning about history and other cultures, and especially enjoyed visiting during their shoulder season when the crowds were low. I would recommend backpacking in the less established parts of Patagonia (namely the Cochamó Valley) to people who prefer solitude and isolation to the crowds and infrastructure of well known destinations like Torres del Paine. It’s also an incredible climbing destination, known as the Yosemite of Patagonia. If you are comfortable managing your own safety and route finding, this area has very few visitors once you get more than a day in and it boasts absolutely stunning surroundings. Please reach out to me by email or phone if you’re interested in learning more about this trip - I’d love to share more about my experience!