The ‘Yosemite of South America’ is an adventure playground in Patagonia

With a central valley dominated by barren granite domes looming over temperate rainforest, Chile’s remote Cochamó district is dubbed by some as the ‘Yosemite of South America’.

This heavily forested frontier on Chile’s border with Argentina is still so unknown that its small mountains and highland lakes appear on maps with speculative markings such as “undiscovered lagoon” or “unnamed hill.”

The region is bordered on all sides by national parks, including Hornopirén, Alerce Andino and Vicente Pérez Rosales, but has none of its own. Therefore, a two-hour detour east is required from the Carretera Austral, Patagonia’s famous southern highway. With new infrastructure in place, Cochamó is in the midst of opening up, luring mountain climbers, kayakers and intrepid backpackers.

What Cochamó doesn’t have is crowds. Only 4,000 residents live in the district, which equates to a ratio of one person for every 225 hectares. There are no traffic lights or gas stations. Traffic jams only occur when sheep cross the road. Here’s how to explore it.

Rock climbing in the “Yosemite of South America”

The mountains of the Cochamó Valley are flanked by towering warning trees, which can reach more than 60 meters in height and can live up to 3,600 years. A fifth of the world’s remaining alert forests are in the Cochamó district, and they received their first protection in January under the new Cochamó Valley Nature Sanctuary.

Tatiana Sandoval, president of the nonprofit organization Organización Valle Cochamó, says that unlike a national park, this designation gives the local community the power to be the key players in protecting their own land. “The objectives are not only natural, but also cultural,” she explains. The valley is also steeped in long-standing gaucho traditions.

In 2017, her organization opened a visitors center with park rangers controlling access, allowing in just 320 overnight campers and 90 day trippers. “The hope is that future generations will come to know this place the same way I have known it in my life.”

The new and likely expanding nature reserve protects 28,170 hectares of wetlands, Andean glaciers and evergreen forests. Access is via a single seven-mile hiking trail to the gaucho outpost of La Junta. From La Junta, trails first carved by mountain climbers to reach the base of 900-meter-high granite walls, such as Anfiteatro and Arcoiris, now also attract hikers.

(This exciting Chilean trek is the world’s southernmost hike.)

Famous American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid visited this mountain pass more than a century ago while hiding from American authorities on South American cattle ranches. Modern trekkers can follow in their footsteps on a moderate four-day hike from La Junta to Paso El León, on the Argentine border, or a three-day horseshoe route to the town of El Manso. Both routes have campsites and hospedajes (simple homestays) along the way.

Rafting and hot springs in the Puelo Valley

Thanks to the rising popularity of the Cochamó Valley, tourism is now spreading south to the adjacent – ​​and much deeper – Puelo Valley. Here, the Termas del Sol hot springs complex, which opened in 2019, can attract up to 700 visitors on cold, rainy days. Steel-gray boardwalks connect ten pools filled with water heated to 68 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit by the nearby Yates Volcano. The last three pools overlook an emerald lake hidden beneath the foothills of the Andes.

There are new bakeries and cafes in the surrounding village of Puelo, plus a stylish eight-room adventure lodge, Tawa Refugio del Puelo, which recently opened on Tagua Tagua, a fjord-like lake on the Puelo River, 10 miles away.

Tawa Refugio del Puelo surrounded by mountains and water.

In Chile’s Cochamó district, the Tawa Refugio del Puelo adventure lodge overlooks Lake Tagua Tagua and offers hiking, horseback riding, and kayaking excursions.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Gildemeister

Regular car ferries cross the Tagua Tagua from a small pier at Tawa to the far end, where a dirt road leads deeper into the Puelo Valley to the newly accessible Primer Corral whitewater station. Here, experienced kayakers can navigate challenging Class 5 rapids in the Puelo Canyon.

From Primer Corral you can also take a fifteen kilometer trip along a tributary of the Puelo, the Ventisquero, to the entry and exit point of Rincón Bonito. There, a large off-grid mountain hut and three small huts provide access to a network of hiking trails in the glacier-filled Ventisquero Valley.

You can walk from here beyond the Cochamó district to the little-explored backside of the Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, named after the late American philanthropist who bought (and donated) large parts of Patagonia for conservation (Tompkins once had a house in Rincón Bonito).

A group of people are rafting down the Ventisquero River.

Visitors to Chile’s remote Rincón Bonito can hike in, stay in an off-grid mountain hut, and then head up the Ventisquero River.

Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Condeza Venturelli

(This Chilean national park protects a beautiful display of rare flowers.)

Like Termas del Sol, Rincón Bonito has a social component, serving as an economic engine for the valley’s isolated residents, who make the house beer, supply free-range lamb and work on site as chefs and guides.

“If we manage tourism responsibly,” says Rodrigo Condeza, director of the conservation organization Puelo Patagonia, “we can help protect these valleys and create an economic engine for the people who live here.”

Mark Johanson is a Chile-based travel writer who regularly contributes to National Geographic. Follow him on Instagram.