Tom Fort, The Daily Telegraph, April 2, 2015
A fishing holiday in the remote crystal clear waters of Chilean Patagonia leaves a lasting impression on Tom Fort.
One version of paradise on Earth: sitting in the wooden hot tub at Posada de los Farios in a remote valley of Chilean Patagonia easing aching limbs after a day of amazing trout fishing, eating crisp empanadas filled with melted cheese, letting the piquant liquid pleasure of the pisco sour spread its healing influence.
Another version: lunch beside the blue rippled waters of Lago las Quemas, chicken, avocado, tomato and a dab of chilli sauce wrapped in tortilla and accompanied by a cool beer, on a shore shaded by ancient lenga trees after a couple of hours stalking (and catching) the big trout that cruise along the reed beds and nose into bays under rock cliffs.
And here’s one more version: lying on my back in a long, deep, crystal-clear pool on the Cisnes river, staring up into a flawless blue Patagonian sky, rod, waders and clothes left on the bank, in sure and certain knowledge that nobody would appear on the skyline to be appalled by the spectacle of my unclothed sixtysomething body because there was no one – literally no one – for miles around.
This – the almost non-existent human touch on a pristine landscape – is the chief impression left by my extended stay on the Cisnes, which runs 100 miles through the central part of Chilean Patagonia to the sea. Hardly anyone lives there, and those that do are campesinos (country people), gauchos and their families, men on horseback in abbreviated flat caps and jeans or sheepskin leggings who ride out to keep an eye on the cattle and sheep that graze the uplands and the meadows by the river.
The Cisnes valley is a thumb of Chilean territory thrust through the Andes into the pampas grasslands east of the mountains, with Argentine territory either side. The gaucho way of life still prevails there, notable for the slowness of its pace.
I never saw a man on horseback moving faster than a walk, usually with an ox and a couple of cows ambling ahead and a dog or dogs of dubious parentage trotting at his heels. One evening, nursing my beer on the veranda outside the lodge, I watched the oldest gaucho, Tito, pass by, as erect in the saddle as a marshal of the French army taking the salute. He is in his 80s, the father of 13 children, with a mother still going in the local village at more than 100.
The exception in this very basic mode of existence is Rex Bryngelson, who runs Posada de los Farios, which is a lodge for fly fishermen. Bryngelson is a man of Minnesota, softly spoken, courteous, the very embodiment of American laid-back. He came to Chile 20 years ago, driven by his own passion for fishing, found the Cisnes and was seduced by its trout, its setting, its history and culture.
The lodge he has created is unlike any other I have stayed at (and there have been a few). Bryngelson found it when he was searching for a way to make a living from Chile’s incomparable wealth and diversity of trout fishing – a rundown ranch house unconsidered by the absent owners of the surrounding estancia. It is a low, square house, built mainly of wood, the roof shingled in the old traditional way, standing in a grove of poplars within sight and sound of the glorious Cisnes. Rex and his Chilean wife, Maike, sleep in a yurt with a wooden veranda. There are wooden cabins around, for the fishing guides and for Rex and Maike’s son when he is home from school.
The three guest rooms – en suite, simple and extremely comfortable – are inside the house. There is a big central room for eating and lounging around, with deep leather sofas. The theme is unashamedly piscatorial – there are models of trout, pictures of trout, books about trout, a cabinet full of fly-tying gear. The veranda, cluttered with waders, boots, rods and tackle, is where the fishing day begins.
The hot tub, looking out through the trees to the river, is the place where it ends.
Ah, that hot tub! Deep, wide, circular, ingeniously heated by a wood-burning stove, it is the perfect arena in which to allow the triumphs, trials and tribulations of the day to assume their proper proportions.
I had been to Posada de los Farios 13 years previously. I had superb fishing, but was not there long enough to explore the place and its possibilities properly. This time I and my two companions fished for nine days, which was probably too much fishing even for us. But it gave us the chance to get beyond mere acquaintance with Bryngelson and his two first-rate young guides – Seth from Montana and David from Michigan – and to be awed by the epic grandeur and diversity of this landscape.
I won’t go on about the fishing. Just take my word for it: it was superlative. Admittedly we were lucky with the weather, which began cool and rainy and became sunnier and hotter the longer we were there – exactly the conditions these fat, muscular, hard-fighting trout respond to best. But even if we hadn’t caught a fish, it would have been worth it just to experience the place.
The Cisnes rises in the grasslands east of the Andes and flows out into the Pacific at Puerto Cisnes. The valley is mostly temperate rainforest, evergreen coihue and deciduous lenga trees enfolded by masses of the thorny and berried calafate bush. Nearly 70 years ago the Chilean government, anxious to forestall threatened Argentine expansion, dispatched settlers into the valley with promises of land. To clear it, they lit fires which swiftly got out of control and burned for 10 years. Huge swathes of the valley were consumed, and even now the dead, scorched trunks and branches litter the floodplain like discarded, mangled giant toothpicks.
Posada de los Farios stands on the middle Cisnes, where the river sweeps back and forth between wide shingle beaches and high wooded bluffs. A few miles upstream is the downstream end of a canyon known as The Throat, created when a vast glacial lake melted at the end of the Ice Age and burst through the rock. The canyon is 10 miles long, mostly inaccessible and full of rapids – Bryngelson once floated it in an inflatable and only just got out to
tell the tale. Above, on the eastern side of the mountains, the land flattens and the climate is sunnier and drier. The grass and bushes are full of grasshoppers, and the wind – which blows from the west pretty much every day – propels the insects on to the river, where their life expectancy among the waiting trout is minimal.
But the river – whether floated, or fished from the banks, or just watched – is only the half of it. We hunted the fringes of the Lago las Torres, periodically distracted from waiting for the take of a fish by the toothy, fractured pinnacles of rock shooting up from the southern shore, and the snowy heights of Mount Picacho beyond.
The lurching drive to Lago las Quemas, through old-growth lenga forest spared by the great fire, was extraordinary – the one dwelling we passed was a gaucho’s cabin in a clearing. He spends six months there, alone but for his horse and his hound. “Squash horseflies, drink beer, eat lamb” was the laconic answer from our guide, Seth, to my question as to how he passed his time.
On our last day we floated down the clear, bottle-green waters of the Manihuales, another blue-riband trout river south of the Cisnes.
By then we were pretty much fished out, but the trout still came to the fly from the gaps between the sunken tree trunks left lining the banks after the fire. That evening we subsided into the tub for the last time, to review what had been the most memorably action-packed fishing foray we had ever had. All that remained the next day was the drive to the airport, the flight to Santiago, a night at the classy, friendly Lastarria Hotel and a visit to the capital’s unmissable fish market, and the 14-hour flight home.
It’s a very long way to Patagonia; there is no disguising it. But there is no place like it, so if you go, do not hurry it. Take a leaf out of the gaucho’s book.
Tom Fort stayed at Posada de los Farios ( chilepatagonia.com ), where a week’s fishing costs £2,820 all-inclusive, based on two people sharing a room. His travel – including one night at the Lastarria Hotel in Santiago – was organised by Cazenove+Loyd (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com ), which can arrange tailor-made trips throughout Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina.
10-day/nine-night trip costs from £4,460 per person based on two people sharing. The price includes international and internal flights, seven nights in Patagonia on an all-inclusive basis, two nights in Santiago at the Lastarria Hotel with breakfast, and return airport transfers.
This article was written by Tom Fort from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.