COCHAMO, Chile - Six thousand miles from California, my wife and I found ourselves in a clone of Yosemite Valley.
We couldn't decide which was more surprising: that we had the place to ourselves, or that we had gotten there at all.
Butch Cassidy had ridden the trail we had just negotiated into the Andes. I could see little evidence it had been improved since then.
Yet we tenderfoots - make that tenderbottoms - had made it by horseback to the La Junta Valley. Gringos like us continue to amaze the natives not with our spirit of adventure but by the fact we will actually pay to negotiate such terrain.
Still, my horse, Capitan, and Holly's steed, Platano (Banana), brought us to a refuge of stunning magnificence. We were in a forested valley of lacy beech trees walled by sheer granite cliffs that climbed thousands of feet high. The snowfields above fed plunging waterfalls.
It looked surprisingly like the famous vale in California's Sierras. Except that instead of there being tens of thousands of guests, there were two. Us.
That evening we feasted on roasted goat spit-cooked over a wooden fire, accompanied by salad and Chilean wine. Conversation ran around the fire in English, Spanish and German to reflect the international makeup of our Chilean and Austrian guides. As the day's hard riding caught up with us, we crept into sleeping bags in a wood-paneled cabin and drifted off to sleep.
This, I thought, is what back-country travel must have been like in the American West two or three generations ago: uncrowded, magnificent, and unimproved. I had not just flown to the southern hemisphere, where our winter is their summer. I had traveled back in time.
Our experience is typical of what is drawing increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans to experience the outdoor beauty of Patagonia, that southern part of South America that is like a flip-flopped mirror of the scenery and geography of North America's West Coast.
The similarities are eerie. A ferry ride from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales mimics the Inside Passage trip from Bellingham to southeast Alaska. Mount Osorno looks like Mount St. Helens before the 1980s eruption. The fiords could be in British Columbia, and the big lakes copy some in the Cascades.
This terrain nourishes a fast-flourishing eco-tourism industry of guided climbs, hikes, raft trips and horseback rides.
Still, why go all the way to South America for a geographic facsimile of home?
Several reasons. It is summer there when winter here. Chile is a proud, melting-pot nation of fascinating history and intriguing Spanish culture. And compared to the occasional shopping mall crowding of places like the Cascades' Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it is easy to have a place to yourself.
In 1992, a German adventurer named Clark Stede (who, among his other accomplishments, has navigated his sailboat entirely around the Western Hemisphere including the Northwest Passage across the top of Canada) stumbled onto this secret.
He bought a 200-acre Chilean homestead in the center of his new
He bought a 200-acre Chilean homestead in the center of his new Yosemite, 12 miles from the nearest gravel road, for $30,000. The locals thought he was crazy.
Then Stede went to Argentina and hired on for free at a large hacienda in return for being taught everything the local gauchos knew about horses. He came away knowing how to run horse trips into rugged mountains.
He built an attractive base camp at the foot of the valley on a salt water fiord called Reloncavi and dubbed it Campo Aventura.
At La Junta, a junction of old trails 12 more miles up the Cochamo River, he built a second base camp: an overnight destination in his own private Yosemite.
And he began running pack trips into the Andes, ranging from two days to 13.
Taking a chance during a day when it was pouring rain in Puerto Varas, Holly and I booked a two-day trip to give it a try. Just in time for our outing, the weather cleared.
The road to Cochamo
Chile is a rapidly developing country but getting to Stede's Campo Aventura is a bit of an adventure in itself. We'd flown to Puerto Montt, a city of 85,000 on an inland sea that looks remarkably like Puget Sound or the Straits of Georgia. We were in a part of Chile heavily influenced by German immigrants and reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, with log yards, dairy farms and lovely views.
But there are differences aplenty. The language is Spanish. The churches look German. Off the Pan American Highway, many roads remain gravel. And the trail and tourist network is still being developed.
The road to Cochamo winds east towards the Andes along Lake Llanquihue, the third largest natural lake in South America. At Ensenada the road turns south through beautiful forest and farmland, finally winding down to the estuary of the Petrohue River. There it turns to potholed gravel and after 10 miles comes to Cochamo, a rural village of wooden houses stretched along the inlet.
A footbridge across a river leads to a trail to Stede's place. He uses his four-wheel drive pickup to fetch baggage across the river, water foaming over the hubs. Alternately, he can arrange transportation directly from Puerto Montt.
Once at Campo Aventura, however, there is a feeling of oasis. Guests can simply sleep or eat at Stede's attractive and simple wood complex besides the Cochamo River for a reasonable room and board fee. Horseback trips are also available. There are hot showers, a sauna and laundry facilities.
But to get to your personal Yosemite, an overnight trip is necessary. And getting there is an experience.
Holly and I had been on short trail rides before but made no pretense of really knowing how to ride. Fortunately, the horses were incredibly sure-footed. I didn't know horses could negotiate trails like the one to Stede's valley, let alone that they could carry me while doing it.
It also helped that Stede uses gaucho saddles that are relatively more securing and softer than Western saddles.
Our early-season group included our Austrian-born guide, Manuela Paradeises, her friend Sabina Laschinski of Hawaii, Ewald Koestler, part of a parent company called Aquamotion and who needed to be knowledgeable about the trips in order to sell them, and our Chilean guacho, Eulogio.
Stede supplied a sleeping bag, pad and rain gear in addition to our own, packed in a waterproof bag tied onto the saddle. The first hundred yards took us to a river ford. Then farm road turned to muddy cattle track to trail to . . . trench?
The path we followed was at least 300 years old. It had been used by Indians, Jesuit missionaries crossing from Argentina, outlaw Butch Cassidy on a mission to Argentina, and for the past century by Andean farmers driving sheep or leading oxcarts to the lowlands.
The result was a peek at what "roads" probably looked like in the early decades of the United States. In many places, the centuries of use and resulting water erosion down the pathway have worn trenches as high as a rider's head that crawl steeply up and down mountainsides. We ducked our head under overhanging trees, squeezed our horses' bellies with our legs to keep the stirrups from catching on the embankments, and hung on.
In other places the horses forded streams, picked their way along logs thrown across boggy wallows, or plodded nonchalantly along the edge of precipitous drop-offs to canyons below.
Galloping into paradise
Once I learned to trust Capitan, I loved it. I felt like John Wayne. Or at least like Billy Crystal in "City Slickers."
What saved us, of course, was the patient temperament of our animals. Before our final fording of the Cochamo River, I slung off my horse to take some pictures, our guide Maria holding the reins. Then I swung back on.
Suddenly faithful Capitan, who had no doubt been tiring under my weight after about 2,300 feet of elevation gain, seemed to have gotten an infusion of energy. Instead of waiting patiently for the line to form to cross the river, he pranced to its head and began splashing in the shallows while I tried to slow him down.
Boy, the oats on the other side must really be tempting, I thought.
What had happened was that I had blithely climbed aboard Maria's spirited horse Aroma before she noticed what I was doing. (Some cowboy. Horses all look the same to me.) Wisely, she decided I'd be happier not knowing.
So we galloped into paradise, me doing my best to hang on.
La Junta is a spectacular refuge. Bunkhouse, cook shelter and stables crown a low hill with orchard, pasture and river below. This Eden at a junction of canyons is surrounded by soaring granite cliffs, the peaks of the Andes high overhead.
Wood carving decorates the buildings. In our private room, the bed was a wooden platform with pads and a sleeping bag. Water for washing came from the river. An outhouse completed the creature comforts.
Our schedule prevented us from staying a day in the valley or riding deeper into the Andes, and that was too bad. We missed the chance to hike up the mountainside to a waterfall or ride up valley to a grove of spectacular Alerce trees, which live 3,000 to 4,000 years and are the second-oldest trees on Earth, after California's bristle-cone pines.
Given a week or more, we could have arranged for a loop trip deep into the Andes, visiting remote farms and riding past mountain lakes, before emerging on the coast at Puelo.
But we did get a taste of a spectacular corner of the Earth that is just beginning to be discovered by Europeans and Americans. Go now. If history is any guide, in two generations you will be sharing the scenery with an armada of motorhomes. ----------------------------------------------------------------- IF YOU GO
Visiting Campo Aventura
Clark Stede can arrange almost any length trip up to nearly two weeks for groups up to six or eight. Guides speak English, German and Spanish. Wear clothing suitable for horseback riding and be prepared to lead the horse a few times in wet, muddy areas: boots are advised. The stirrups are wooden and enclosed in the toe in the South American style.
Campo Aventura can be reached by rental car or transportation can be arranged from the airport or hotels at Puerto Montt, a two-hour flight south of Chile's capital of Santiago.
Prices, which include food, depend on the length of the trip. Our two-day journey cost $230 per person; while a 13-day trip cost about $1,900 without any transfers.
For information write Stede at Valle Concha, Casilla 5, Chochamo 10. Provincia Llanquihue, Chile. Or send a fax; the number in Chile is 56-65-232747.