La Junta Valley

Beautiful, powerful Cerro Arco Iris

It’s known as the Yosemite of Chile, but it’s unheard of and not in the travel guides. Having become popular amongst the rock climbing community about 15 years ago, it is now also a remote hiking destination for the experienced and thrill-seeking hiker.

I was in a terrific mood on the drive in. I got proper goosebumps as I rounded a corner, Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls on max and this volcano rising from the water. I love volcanoes, they’re sort of like mother nature pulling up her pantyhose and giving us a glimpse of what’s underneath the pretty dress.

The trailhead begins a few kilometres down a track, off a terrible ripio road 30km from Puerto Varas, a small town on a lake in the northernmost part of Chilean Patagonia. Leaving the car outside a local’s hut, the 4 hour hike into the valley begins.

La Junta valley is off grid, what you pack in you pack out. The trails date back to the original cowboys who used the valley to bring cattle from Argentina to sell in the village of Cochamo. More recently this was the route for the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to move about Patagonia undetected. Nowadays, supplies are sent several times a week on horseback and it is otherwise self sufficient, ‘it — the valley’ being two campsites, a refugio (simple log cabin), 1,000m granite rock faces and daunting hikes. Prepared to spend up to a week there, weather permitting, I packed a 26kg rucksack with lots of pasta, gummy sweets and tinned peaches and headed off.

Leaving the car at the trailhead. Always time for a selfie.

The hike in isn’t even really a ‘hike’ for La Junta, but it was goddamn beautiful:

Perfectly transparent water, perfectly pure.
A rudimentary cable car is the only way across the river — crossed to reach the Refugio. This hike in is well developed to accommodate the horses and cattle which travel in to supply camp.
Bumped into some real life cowboys. The romance was ruined when I spotted he was wearing Nike air max underneath his spurs.

Daniel and Silviana run the refugio, and are pretty much Mr and Mrs La Junta, raising their 8 year old in the refugio (who whoops everyone’s ass at chess) and Daniel having cut most of the treks himself with a machete over the last decade.

The hikes here are ‘expert’ and some cannot be completed in the wet. The forecast was for rain to start at 5pm which left enough time for the 4–5h ascent (plus 3–4h back) of Cerro Arco Iris which affords the best views across the entire valley but is the toughest. The hike was cut by Daniel over 4 days in 2007 as a way of giving hikers the same views as the rock climbers, i.e at the top of a 1,000m granite wall. I set off early the following morning into energy sapping Alerce Forest (no photos because I was focussing on not passing out). The trails here are ‘marked’, which means you follow a route which has less foliage in the way than the other bits. On the hike in the day before, I had quickly learnt : Cobwebs bad. Disturbed earth good. Horse manure gold. (kind of like Hansel’s crumbs, only a less desirable bake) as a way of staying on the path when it became impossible to tell. Unfortunately no such luxury on Arco Iris (I was the first and only one out, as far as I could tell) which meant getting lost a couple of times, once following a faux-trail which ended on a sheer drop of several hundred metres. There were tiny orange bows tied to trees every few hundred metres to know you were headed in the right direction but easily missed.

After 2 hours of exhausting forest, you reach the first granite section. We’re talking narrow balconies of granite wall on one side and doom on the other. The only infrastructure is rope-line where traversal without it is impossible, such as a vertical climb with shear drops either side. Sensational views of course, spectacular but scary.

More forest, and as I reached the second granite section, it became clear the new gloom was not the canopy of the trees but the early arrival of the rain clouds at 11.30am as an intense downpour commenced. Seeking shelter, it was clear that the rope passes (the bits that mean you don’t climb in the rain) were behind me. No point turning back now, let’s shoot for the summit. The geography of the the three false peaks before summit are almost other-worldly, particularly set against the dense lush forest, the altitude bringing snow in place of wildlife and greenery.

The weather turned in an instant.
Eerily quiet, cold. Visibility starting to deteriorate. You can imagine the views on a clear day.

These photos were at the second false peak, two to go. I’m not entirely sure how close I got to the top. Another 40 minutes of climbing and, with visibility down to 10m I decided that crossing a 15m stretch of snow which was bridging a newly swelling waterfall, the other side only coming into view for fleeting moments as the mist swept clear momentarily, was too much of a risk.

Sheer drops either side, visibility terrible. Time for a selfie and conceding defeat.

Now for the hard part — getting down the mountain in one piece — unable to see the strategically placed rocks that marked the granite sections. (There’s no trail that can be cut into the granite, you just plot a path through the field of razor sharp granite slab and boulders, with Daniel having left little piles of rocks standing at odds with the natural forms telling you you’re headed the right way: a south westerly traverse horizontally initially to find a passable route up the rock) The granite is grippy in the dry, slippy-slide greasy in the wet. The nerve-wracking hour back down the top granite, painstakingly slow, was done with the ominous knowledge that the rope sections remained below, harder to go down than up, and now as good as ice with wet rope.

Taken in the dry, this is a shot looking vertically upwards (look at the trunk angle). In the shadows is a 4 foot horizontal gap with ravine run off below, perpendicular to the face which gets you to the next ledge. It looked a whole lot different in the dark, wet gloom.

This particular section was the most nervy (worse than the 50m section of rock face where you’re hanging over the edge of the exposed granite that you see in all the photos), and in the end I took a leap of faith. With 10kg pack, I was hanging with no foothold from the saturated rope, at the mercy of the gusting wind above the drop which had now become a waterfall off the edge of cliff. Hand-over-hand I swung onto the rock face and slid down — kit ripped and watch broken but body in one piece, just about still on the good side of the adrenaline / shitfuckwhatthehellamidoingheregetmehomeiamabouttocrywheresmymum line. 127 hours probably hadn’t been a good movie choice on the flight to Santiago.

The forest was a rain forest. It was mud, and slippy, but I made it, back in camp 9h after I set off. Within a few minutes my legs had seized up and I took to shuffling everywhere on my bum.

With no respite to the weather, I decided to head back out of the valley the following morning. Back in camp, I learnt a woman had fallen on the hike in as I was battling demons up Arco Iris and needed taking to the hospital in Puerto Varas. As the only person with a vehicle I duly volunteered, her making the trip the following morning on horseback, her partner and I hiking the now almost unrecognisable reverse of the hike in, with new streams and sticky mud that had formed over the last days’ rain.

Trevor, her partner is a 56 year old ambassador to the UK stationed in Santiago who seems to have found love and spirituality in his twilight years. We bonded over the 4 hours. As thanks, they treated me to an incredible seafood dinner in Puerto Varas and then it got a bit weird. Well oiled with painkillers and booze, born into a Mexican culture where one speaks their mind, Mari, the invalid, swung violently from berating Trevor for the idiocy of the trip, to wild confessions and physical displays of her love and need of him (think lovesick teenagers). Mari then explained how tantric sex had transformed their sex life — “the orgasm is 10x a normal one, isn’t it darling.” He concurred. Trevor excused himself, and now absent in the little boy’s room, Mari went on to explain that Trevor doesn’t even need any pills anymore! Thankfully, albeit enjoying the hilarity of it all, time was called on dinner before things could escalate, although Mari did have to sit on my lap for the drive home and felt it appropriate to ask Trevor’s permission…

Next up a 16 day road trip ending in Torres del Paine for Christmas. Re Christmas — the whole decoration thing just really doesn’t work in the Southern hemisphere, looks very weird.

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