Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Undiscovered Patagonia

Greetings Everyone,
We flew from Panama City, Panama to Santiago, Chile on February 15 to start the next leg of our journey.  We booked a trek called "On the Smuggler's Trail in Patagonia" with US-based tour company Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS).  I had been wanting to visit the Aysen region of Patagonia but logistics are difficult to work out and infrastructure is limited.  When I saw that MTS was offering a first-time trip there we took advantage of the opportunity to explore this largely unvisited region.  Our trip began with a 2-hour flight south to Balmaceda where we were met by our local guide, Andres, and driven 45-minutes to Coyhaique.  Andres and his company, Patagonia Huts, have been working hard to develop some trekking opportunities in the area and we were the first tour group to try out his new itinerary.  Coyhaique is a small town but large enough to host Patagonia and The North Face stores.

Downtown Coyhaique

The next day we met our trip leader, André, and the rest of our group all Americans, mostly from the West Coast.  Early the next morning we set off for Chile Chico.  To reach this tiny outpost we drove for 2 hours through the Cerro Castillo National Reserve where we were hoping to see the rare Andean deer, the humuel, but sadly didn't see any.  We boarded a ferry at Puerto Ibáñez to cross Lago General Carrera.

Ferry Crossing of Lago General Carrera

It took 2 hours to cross this second largest lake in South America!  On the other side is the town of Chile Chico where we'd spend the night.  We dropped off our bags at some newly constructed cabins and drove into nearby Lago Jeinimeni (pronounced "hay-nee-may-nee") National Reserve for a short hike to the Lunar Valley to stretch our legs and get geared up for the start of the trek on the next day.

Lunar Valley

After breakfast we drove back into the Reserve to a ranger station and campground where we switched to 4x4 jeeps to drive around Jeinimeni Lake.  The start of our trek was an exciting crossing of the Jeinimeni River.  The river was flowing high and fast with the recent rains and fortunately Andres drove us across in his jeep!  He knew exactly where to cross to avoid water swamping the engine or sweeping us downstream.  Marc sat in front and took this video of our crossing.

Andres had to make 3 crossings to get our entire group to the opposite shore.  Once we were all safely across he had to ford the raging river on foot. Two backpackers were waiting to cross and went with Andres otherwise it would have been more of a harrowing experience for them.

This was not the end of the river crossings.  In fact we had at least 10 more crossings in knee-deep or thigh-deep water before getting to the base of Gloria Pass.  Rather than change into sandals at each crossing we opted to leave our boots on and wear our GORE-TEX pants.  Neither kept the water out but the boots provided stability when crossing the rocky rivers and the pants kept our legs warm.

1st River Crossing

A short 750-foot climb took us to the top of Gloria Pass with spectacular views of Esmeralda Lake and the deep valleys beyond.

Gloria Pass

We took a break for lunch before heading down to our deepest crossing of the Rio Jeinimeni.  The water was waist deep but luckily the current wasn't that swift as we forded the river.   Our assistant guide, Cristian, carried my pack across to keep it dry.

Deep Crossing of the Rio Jeinimeni

The crossings didn't stop here but they were shallower albeit swifter.  We reached a confluence of two valleys and headed up Valle Hermoso toward Glacier Hut our destination for the day.  We arrived 9 hours after the start of our hike, wet, tired but elated to be in this remote and pristine valley.

Heading Up the Valle Hermoso

Glacier Hut was constructed by Andres and his company completely by hand.  All the materials except for the wood were brought in by people as horses aren't allowed in the Reserve.  The trees used to build the hut were felled a short distance away and great care was taken to minimize disturbance to the area.

Glacier Hut

Inside the hut a fire blazed in the wood stove (also carried in by Andres and his team) and we placed our boots next to it to dry out.  After a tasty dinner prepared by our cook, Alvero, we retired to our tent for a well-deserved night's sleep.

Boot Drying in Glacier Hut

The next day we were given two hiking options.  One was to climb to a lake at the base of the hanging Baguales Glacier across the valley and the second was to explore another valley beyond.  We chose the second option along with most of the rest of the group.  As we approached the "Hidden Valley" we could see a herd of 20 or so cattle grazing.  They're not allowed here but the park rangers rarely venture this far into the Reserve.

"Hidden Valley"

After two nights at Glacier Hut Camp it was time to press on.  This meant another wet day of river crossings back down Valle Hermosa to the confluence with the Rio Jeimeneni and up the Ventisquero Valley. We stopped at the base of Aviles Pass for lunch before making the straightforward climb through beech forest to some rockslides which we had to traverse to reach the top.

Pinturas Valley

After the pass we headed down to the Pinturas Valley where a second camp had been set up.  A large Mountain Hardwear dome tent called a Space Station had been set up as a kitchen and dining area.

Inside the "Space Station"

After a scrumptious dinner of pasta complete with Chilean wine we turned in for a restful night's sleep in this tranquil valley.  The next morning we were up ealy to prepare for a long hike out to Casa de Piedra in the Chacabuco Valley.  There were only a few river crossings today so we were able to change into our sandals at each wet crossing to keep our boots dry.  We made our way down the Pinturas Valley passing a few old wooden huts from the days the Reserve was an estancia or ranch.

Old Wooden Hut

Finally after 6 hours of hiking we reached the exciting crossing of the Aviles River on a swaying hanging bridge!

Hanging Bridge Over the Aviles River

After crossing the bridge we had to climb to the side of a ridge where we saw our first guanacos, wild members of the camel family.  A steep knee-crushing descent finally brought us to the Chacabuco Valley where we were hoping to reach the road.  We had to cross the valley where scattered herds of guanacos were grazing to reach Casa de Piedra and our waiting van.  It took us a mere 9 hours and 17 miles to reach our destination!  Our reward was a 2-night stay at the luxurious Chacabuco Lodge, a 45-minute drive away.

Chacabuco Lodge

The next morning we had breakfast at the restaurant and when we returned to the lodge a herd of 50 guanacos had descended upon the lush lawn.

Guanacos on the Lawn

We opted to do another long hike to explore the beautiful Chacabuco Valley.  Today's hike, the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail, involved a 2800-foot climb to a plateau overlooking the valley.  We stopped for lunch above a beautiful turquoise lake.

Lunch View

We descended past more lakes before gradually making our way back to the valley floor and ultimately the lodge.  In the lobby were two women.  One asked "How was the hike?"  I replied "Long but very beautiful!"  Andres whispered to me that the woman I was talking to was Kris Tompkins, the owner of the lodge.  Kris' story is an inspiring one and I was honored to meet and thank her personally for all the conservation work she has done in Patagonia.

Kris and Peggy

That evening we were given a presentation by two of the staff detailing the history of the lodge and the formation of Conservacion Patagonica.  The story began 50 years ago when Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins drove a beat-up van 8000 miles from California to Argentina to climb Mount Fitz Roy.  Both men were so inspired by the area they returned to California and started their own companies.  Yvon founded Patagonia named after the region he had just visited and fell in love with.  Doug was the founder of The North Face and later co-owner of Espirit.  

Doug later met and married his second wife, Kris, who was the CEO of Patagonia.  In 2000 Kris founded Conservacion Patagonica, a non-profit to protect the wilderness of Patagonia.  Throughout the years Doug and Kris have created 6 national parks in Chile and Argentina protecting a whopping 3.4 million acres!  Their latest project was to protect the Chacabuco Valley and in 2004 they purchased the 178,000-acre Estancia Valle Chacabuco and began to convert it back to wilderness.  The 30,000 sheep and cattle were removed, the fences taken down and the vegetation left to naturally recover.  The ultimate goal is to combine Valle Chacabuco, Jeinimeni National Reserve and Tamango National Reserve to form the 650,000-acre Patagonia National Park.  To learn more about Conservacion Patagonica, follow the link below:

Today guanacos roam where sheep once grazed and young beech trees are starting to reclaim the land.  Sadly in December 2015, Doug Tompkins tragically died when his kayak capsized in Lago General Carrera, the same lake we crossed by ferry a few days earlier.  He died doing what he loved and his legacy will live on through the national parks he and Kris created.

The next day we got a little birding in before leaving the Chacabuco Valley.  Our favorite was the male Long-tailed Meadowlark with his bright red breast.

Male Long-tailed Meadowlark

Our next destination was Estancia San Lorenzo, a working sheep and cattle ranch on the Chilean/Argentinian border.  When we arrived we were greeted by Lucy Soto, together with her husband, Luis, they own this 800-hectare ranch.  Although conservation isn't the primary focus, Luis and Lucy are getting more involved with tourism.  They provide a base for climbers and trekkers to explore the area.

Estancia San Lorenzo

The next morning we headed up the valley to a hut that Luis had built at the base of the San Lorenzo Massif.  We were treated to spectacular views of the second highest mountain in Patagonia first climbed in 1943 by Father Agoustini, an Italian missionary as well as a passionate mountaineer, explorer, geographer, photographer and cinematographer.

San Lorenzo Massif

On Feb. 26, the last day of our trek in Patagonia, we were treated to an annular solar eclipse which occurs when the Earth, moon and sun all align, with the moon appearing to block out the sun.  During an annular solar eclipse the moon is too far from Earth to obscure the sun completely, leaving the sun’s edges exposed and producing the "ring of fire" effect.  We were about 100 miles from the center line so we didn't see the complete ring.

Our View of the Annular Solar Eclipse

The day was not over yet.  We still had time to explore the Cordon Cochrane Valley behind Luis and Lucy's house.  We hiked past sheep pastures into the beech forest where we encountered a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers.  The brilliant male posed nicely for Marc to take his photo.

Male Magellanic Woodpecker

We left the forest and hiked along a narrow ridge of glacial moraine hoping to get to a lake.  We were running out of time so had to turn back but not before admiring the glorious view of Cordon Cochrane and the waterfall plunging down the valley.

Hiking Up the Glacial Moraine

That evening Luis and Lucy prepared a lamb barbecue for us complete with potatoes, salad and plenty of wine.

Lamb Barbecue

Luis brought out his guitar and his son an accordion and serenaded us with Chilean folk music.  

Luis and Son

As I listened I couldn't help feeling that we had stepped back in time and were experiencing a way of life that is fast disappearing from this planet.  We were far from civilization without electricity, cell phones, TV and the internet - just fresh air, organic food raised by the Sotos, live music and friendly conservation and laughter.  It was a fitting end to our trek where we were privileged to experience Patagonia the way it was decades ago, unspoiled by hydro projects, uncontrolled tourism or deforestation.

Luis and Lucy Soto

A heartfelt thank you to our trip leader André and local guide Andres for making this trip possible and taking such good care of us on the trail.  Thanks to Cristian who helped with the guiding and logistics and to Alvaro who prepared all our delicious meals.  Thanks to Luis and Lucy Soto for sharing their beautiful estancia with us.  Finally thanks to Danielle for assisting Alvaro and to our porters who carried our gear in Jeinimeni.  Thank you for showing us "Undiscovered Patagonia"!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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