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High Fly in Patagonia

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The wine is top notch, the fly fishing’s mellow and the scenery just breathtaking in Chilean Patagonia’s exclusive fishing lodges, writes Neil Geraghty

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[two_third]Scotch on the Rocks is legendary in Chile but its popularity has nothing to do with the whiskey; it’s the ice that makes it just so. Every bar worth its salt has a freezer packed with jagged chunks of translucent ice carved straight from the Patagonian glacier fields. I was sitting at such a bar on board the catamaran Chaitan clutching a tumbler of Johnny Walker and trying to avoid a long spike of ice slicing at my nose every time I took a sip. It was the return leg of my day long cruise to the San Rafael Glacier on Chile’s fractured southern coastline. Early autumn’s April sunshine was streaming through the windows and a saxophonist, working his way through the passengers’ nationalities, had reached the French and was playing a mellow Sous le Ciel de Paris. The air was filled with that animated chit chat you always hear following a great day out and the glacier had been so stunning we were all in need of a few stiff whiskies to bring us back down to earth.

The weather had been generous. I’d arrived a few days earlier in Santiago which was shimmering in golden Mediterranean sunshine. I’d then hopped on a 4 hour flight down to Patagonia, skimming along the Andes past a line of dazzling snow capped volcanoes silhouetted against turquoise blue skies. Then, as we approached Balmaceda on the border with Argentina, the plane slammed into a thick wall of slate grey cloud. Seeing the bedraggled Pampas disappear into a rain swept Argentina, my heart sank. Huddled into a freezing minibus, rain lashing the windscreen, I was truly depressed. 45 minutes later, as we approached the cheerful regional capital Coyhaique, I could sigh with relief. Half formed rainbows were chasing away the last ragged clouds to reveal a bucolic landscape straight out of The Sound of Music.  Alpine mountains, emerald pastures filled with merry-looking Angus cattle and gin clear streams were all sparkling in the sunshine. Capricious weather is typical of Patagonia. The 150km-wide Andean littoral is home to several microclimates, spanning lush temperate rainforests and semi-arid Pampas. Powerful Pacific weather systems swirl over the Andes and chuck absolutely anything at this remote region. In summer you’ll need to pack raincoats, sunscreen, thick sweaters, shorts, T-shirts – the lot – to be properly prepared.

For those in the know, Coyhaique is one of the best fly fishing destinations in the world and has long been a favourite bolthole for stressed out Wall Street bankers. Rainbow as well as brown trout thrive in the glacier lakes and clean swift flowing rivers.  The Coyhaique River Lodge is typical of the comfortable fishing lodges surrounding the town. The architecture is crisp and masculine: cavernous pine bedrooms, slate bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows that maximise the spectacular mountain views. When you return from fishing trips, you’re always welcomed by a Pisco Sour (Chile’s zesty national cocktail) and with no TV there’s little to do in the evenings other than unwind by the roaring log fire, savour Chile’s great wines and dig in to some good conversation.
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Excursions to the region’s most beautiful fishing spots are included in the lodge’s tariffs and are led by multilingual guides who are always delighted to teach novices such as myself the subtle artistry and guile of this much loved sport. Alejandro Trepiana is typical of the guides who work throughout the summer months at the lodges. A resident of Santiago, he started fishing with his grandfather when he was five, fell in love with Patagonia long ago and yearns for the day when he can settle down permanently in this wild and remote corner of his country.

My first fishing lesson in the Coyhaique River was picture perfect. Knee deep in water that was strewn with smooth granite boulders and flanked by meadows of swaying blue lupins, Alejandro patiently took me through the gentle back flick and hammer movement that builds up momentum for a perfect cast. A crested ringed kingfisher with iridescent sapphire and orange plumage was sitting on top of a willow tree. It was intently scrutinizing my progress which, no matter how hard I tried, was as slow as a game of pooh sticks. Upstream Betinho, a master fly fisherman from Brazil, where the sport has a huge following, was effortlessly forming graceful whiplash lines and sent them whistling through the air, gently bouncing the artificial fly on the water’s surface in perfect imitation of a mayfly. The kingfisher knew professionalism when he saw it and promptly flew over to Betinho for richer pickings.

The Carretera Austral, the 1000km highway built the in the 1980s, has opened up some of the most remote regions of Patagonia and the following morning we sped off southwards for a day’s fishing in a beautifully stark glacier lake at the heart of the majestic Cerro Castillo mountain range. Here Alejandro gave me a master class in the weird and whacky world of artificial flies. With a glint in his eye he opened up a box to reveal hundreds of neatly categorised flies, all hand made by himself, sparkling like Christmas decorations. The intricate workmanship was astonishing, as were the names. From the scarlet and red Royal Wolf, a classic design from the 1930s, to the stripy Turk’s Tarantula, they read like a rogues’ gallery of James Bond villains.

That afternoon I took a hike up the sun drenched slopes of the surrounding mountains. The rocky landscape was covered in crimson fire bushes, graceful tussocks of golden grass and exquisite alpine flowers worthy of a prize winning exhibit at the Chelsea Flower show. Half an hour into my hike a curtain of cloud reminiscent of a Dementor’s storm in Harry Potter spilled over the serrated mountain tops. The temperature plunged from 20 to 2 degrees. Before I knew it I was battling like Scott in the Antarctic through a blizzard. Eyes stinging from the snow and struggling to breathe, I arrived back at camp just as the storm blew over. Within another half an hour we were tucking into a picnic around a campfire, basking in warm afternoon sunshine. Exhilarating and unpredictable, I was beginning to love the craziness of Patagonia’s climate.

No trip to southern Chile is complete without a visit to the San Rafael Glacier, part of the largest ice field outside the Poles. The Chaitan leaves at the crack of dawn from the picturesque town of Puerto Chacabuco and takes a full five hours to reach the glacier. Over breakfast, our bleary eyes watched the sun slowly rise over the Andes to reveal a magnificent landscape of precipitous mountains covered in lush temperate rainforest plunging down into azure fjords. The Patagonian coastline has one of the greatest tidal extremes in the world and it’s not uncommon to see marooned mussels dangling from the branches of trees leaning out above the fjords. The coastline also has an active volcanic underbelly and steaming hot springs pour into the icy fjords, creating some of the most sublime swimming spots on the Pacific coast.
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By early afternoon expectations were running high. Someone spotted icebergs floating in the fjord and a buzz of excitement spread over the boat heightened by a flock of honking geese that were migrating in V formation, away from the encroaching Antarctic winter. The build up reached a climax when loud speakers broke into a stirring rendition of Chile’s national anthem. Sandwiched between two mountains, a 4km-wide cliff of fractured ice flows into the lagoon calving ethereal, pale blue icebergs that float out to sea like giant aquamarines. The catamaran has two inflatable dinghies that take small groups of passengers out amongst the icebergs and closer to the cliff face. Not too close – every five minutes or so the glacier let out an explosive roar like cannon fire and great chunks of ice tumbled down sending mini tsunamis across the lagoon. Exhilarating stuff, it had us clutching the sides of the dinghy for dear life.

Returning to Coyhaique, I checked into the Cinco Rios fishing lodge owned by Sebastian and Claude Galilea, the dapper brothers who also own the Estancia del Zorro on the Argentinean border. With thousands of sheep in the surrounding countryside, the area is one of the best in Chile to spot condors who feed on any ovine casualties and the following morning I headed towards the border hoping to catch a glimpse of this giant scavenger.

En route, we passed a Huaso, a Chilean Gaucho, who was carrying a forlorn sheep draped over his sturdy brown horse. Happy to stop for a chat, he explained that the sheep are prone to cramp and occasionally need a lift to keep up with the flock. He’d just been shearing the wool around the sheep’s eyes, which gave the odd impression that the poor creature had spent too much time sunbathing with sunglasses on.

Out on the moorland 30 or so condors were circling low around a sheep carcass, the curious juveniles swooping barely 10 meters above my head. Battered by the wind and awed by my close encounter with these majestic birds, I felt all the freedom and exhilaration that makes Patagonia one of the greatest outdoor adventure destinations in the world.
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