Overpopulated Cochamo

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(Photo: Carlos Gutierrez)(Photo: Carlos Gutierrez)
Editors Note: We are republishing this special feature from March of this year. Recently, the tour operators in Cochamo Valley banded together and are now requiring visitors to make prior reservations for camping before entering the area. If you’re planning to go, plan your trip first at www.reservasvallecochamo.cl
By Ignacio Palma
Translation by Ellen Gould
The story is well-known among both national and international outdoor communities. Occupying a privileged position in the Andean foothills of the Los Lagos Region in Chile, the basin of the Cochamó River spans across 30,000 hectares of temperate rainforest. It is surrounded by imposing mountain chains of granite rock with peaks more than one thousand meters high. The crags here have been a paradise for climbers looking for new routes up some of the largest “big walls” of South America.
Yet, Cochamo, oft compared to El Capitán in California’s Yosemite National Park, is now facing a new challenge. In addition to being a climbing mecca, Cochamó boasts countless more natural attractions, including dozens of hiking trails, natural waterslides, and abundant waterfalls. Tourists are traveling to the region in increasing numbers and are putting the environment – and the tourism sector - to the test.
A surge of visitors
La Junta lies at the heart of the Cochamó Valley. To get there means a four to five hour walk along a public trail that has also been used by locals, especially “arrieros” who herd cattle across the Argentina border, for more than a hundred years.
When you arrive in La Junta, it is clear that you are somewhere one of a kind, even for northern Patagonia: the vibrant hues of the tents pitched in the campsites stand out against the grey backdrop of granite rock, which changes color as the sun moves through the sky and sometimes disappears in a blanket of low-hanging clouds. Ancient alerce trees stand tall in the highest areas of vegetation. A variety of zip wires help visitors cross the Cochamó River and access another campsite and more trails.
(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)
Recently, the popularity of the Cochamó valley has been on the rise, especially among young Chileans during summer months. According to figures from the Municipality of Cochamó, three years ago the total number of visitors during summer months was 5,000.  This year, its forecasted the visitors to Cochamo will more than double to 11,000 persons.
While this surge in tourists benefits the local tourism industry, its impact on the environment has been troubling. According to a 2009 study carried out by the Geography Department at the University of Barcelona, the annual carrying capacity for the La Junta trail should not exceed 975 visitors, as the area is “highly vulnerable to erosion and loss of vegetation – a result of the sheer volume of people who use the trail to cross into Argentina, both on foot and on horseback.”
Efforts have been made to remedy the situation this season, but the increasing influx of visitors has been unavoidable given that La Junta is a public trail and under the control of the Chilean Ministry of National Property. There are 400 available spaces for camping across the four private campsites in La Junta. However, according to municipality sources, 150 registered visitors enter the site every day. As a result, it routinely exceeds its capacity, because on average people stay for a minimum of three days. Despite the fact that tourists are strongly advised to book in advance and set off between 8:00 and 16:00, many disregard these instructions and instead arrive at La Junta only to find that there are no spaces left to pitch their tents.
(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)
Although it was possible, until last year, to camp for free in certain sites along the La Junta River (a tributary of the Cochamó River), this season the Ministry of National Property (Ministerio de Bienes Nacionales in Spanish) placed them under municipal control. It is here, beside the trail to the zip wires, that Sebastián Fuentes and Adolfo Macilla, representatives of the municipality, take turns sleeping in a large, white tent in the middle of the forest. Their primary mission is to stop campers from using the overcrowded zone: last season alone, mule drivers had to clear two tons of trash from the area, which mostly consisted of wine bottles and beer cans that visitors had left in the forest and on the riverbanks.
While their aim is to prevent people from camping in that area, both admit that when night falls they have little choice but to gather up those who have not found somewhere to sleep and permit them to spend a single night there in exchange for a day’s volunteer work. Their tasks include collecting trash, making signposts, clearing trails, and getting rid of campfires. Environmental specialists also give informal talks to offer the volunteers advice. “In the end, some of them who came with the intention of partying end up becoming experts on nature and protectors of the environment,” Fuentes is keen to stress.
However, there is still a lot left to improve, especially when it comes to the valley’s Chilean visitors. According to Mancilla, foreigners know how to conduct themselves when they are in places like Cochamó, but “Chilean tourists can be divided into two categories: the 50% who come to enjoy the peace and quiet, and the 50% who are here to party and let loose. Visitors in the former category plan their journey and their stay, but the latter are often camping for the first time. They know that there are glaciers, a river, and zip lines; they want to get a cool picture, have some fun, and then go home,” Mancilla complains.
Tatiana Sandoval, president of the Cochamó Tourist Association shares the views of Fuentes and Mancilla. For nine years she has run a family business called Southern Trips with her brother, Favián, which specializes in excursions to the valley. Sandoval laments the dramatic changes she has seen in Cochamó since her first visit in the summer of 1998: then, she and her group of friends were the only people on the zip wires – something impossible to imagine today.
(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)(Photo: Juan Pablo Contreras)
Despite the campsite having a schedule and placing restrictions on noise levels at night, Sandoval reveals that rowdy celebrations often continue into the early hours of the morning. This creates a problem for her clients, who often return from their excursions dissatisfied, complaining that they were unable to sleep. “Clearly a significant proportion of the people who visit Cochamó have not come to enjoy the natural surroundings. They come up here with a backpack full of alcohol so they can drink, and they come back down after a day or two without having explored the area or done any trekking. If all they want to do is party, why do they walk five hours just to drink a bottle of wine!” exclaims Sandoval.
Planning for next season
For Tatiana, the solution lies in exercising greater control with the assistance of the police: OS-7 (the Chilean police’s specialist drugs unit) has already reported 16 people to the public prosecutor’s office for illegal drug use. At the same time, she admits that they have felt overwhelmed by the number of people this year. The trade unionist hopes that at the end of the season a meeting can take place with all involved parties, both public and private, so that a plan of action to deal with the growing visitor demand can be put in place for next season.
The mayor of Cochamó, Carlos Soto, has not been immune from this problem. He hopes that the Ministry of National Property will authorise the municipality’s continued presence in the area next season, but that “by next summer we can have in place a basic infrastructure so that there can be more public security and police presence in the area. The idea is to educate people who come here and to introduce more regulations than we have today,” he explains.
The Fundación Sendero de Chile (FSC), which builds trails throughout Chile, has stated that a new study about the carrying capacity of Cochamó should be carried out before any new proposal of any kind are made for the area, arguing that the reality on the ground has changed significantly since the findings of the 2009 University of Barcelona study. The organization has previously worked in the region: in 2013, it took part in the “Cochamó Valley: from the Andes to the Sea” development project for the cross-border trail, Paso Rio Manso Villegas-Cochamó, which passes through La Junta.
The head of the FSC in the Los Lagos Region, Gabriela Navarro, explains that a study like this one “is necessary if we want to come up with a plan to manage the sector – and everybody knows that the need for a plan is urgent, so that we can conserve this area now rather than lament the deterioration of some of the sites of greatest natural and cultural significance of our region in the future.” 

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