At the beginning of February, over a hundred merry hikers made the two-day trek from Valle Chacabuco, the heart of the Patagonia National Park project, over the hills and through the woods to the town of Cochrane. This year marked the seventh annual Ruta de Huemul, an event that Conservacion Patagonica sponsors in conjunction with the town of Cochrane and the local branch of the Chilean Forest Service.
Valle Chacabuco lies just on the other side of the Tamango/ Tamanguito mountains from the town of Cochrane. With over 3,000 residents, Cochrane is one of the bigger towns around; as the last place to buy gas and supplies on the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), the town serves as a commercial center for the region. Several interesting new ecotourism operations are sprouting up, and participation in kayaking, mountaineering, and climbing is on the rise among local youth. Nonetheless, many community members have had little opportunity to backpack through the world-class natural landscapes that surround their town.
With a big asado at the end, and plenty of new friends, beautiful views, and good food throughout, the hike serves as a challenging but entertaining introduction to backpacking for many participants. Seven-year-old Juanjo, the youngest to hike this year, had never gone hiking before he set out on the 26-km walk. Neither had his mother, who was eager to introduce her son to the nature around their hometown but had little outdoor experience herself. Both of them, along with numerous others, ended the route with sore muscles but newfound interest in exploring the nature reserves out their back door.
For hikers with more experience, the Ruta represents less a physical challenge than a unique chance to make new friends and share stories. We split the hundred hikers into eight groups, which hike together both days. When, at the end of the event, we discussed suggestions for future hikes, many people praised the teamwork and sense of support within each hiking group, to help less experienced hikers stay motivated and encouraged.
Those of us from Conservacion Patagonica who helped guide the hike felt it was an honor to introduce eager new friends to the work underway in the Chacabuco Valley. Walking the connection between the park and Cochrane reinforces the relationship with town and park, which we hope will flourish in years to come. And as the Ruta de Huemul, this event reminds us all that only by working together as a town and conservation project do we have a chance of recovering one of the largest populations of this endangered creature.