The land of trout and gauchos

A boat on the lake Image copyright Rex Bryngelson

In the remote valley of the Cisnes there is no phone signal and no wi-fi. Even people are few and far between. But there is one thing that draws in tourists - the trout, as Tom Fort found on a fly-fishing trip to Patagonia.

The oldest gaucho came by as I was sitting on the veranda outside the lodge disposing of a much-needed cold beer. His name, they told me, was Tito. He was in his 80s, had a mother presumed to be over a hundred in the local village, 13 children and Lord knows how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren distributed through Patagonia.

He rode his horse at a slow pace - it seems that the notion of hurry in anything other than the direst emergency is anathema to the gaucho - and he was as upright and straight in the saddle as a flagpole.

He wore jeans and a checked shirt with a kind of misshapen beret on his head. He stopped outside one of the homesteads near the lodge, swung himself down easily, tethered the horse and went inside to pay his social call.

The gaucho way of life clings on with surprising tenacity in this remote valley in Chile - perhaps because no other way of life is available or indeed is easily imaginable.

Image copyright Rex Bryngelson

Electricity did arrive a few years back - and some of the wooden and tin cabins now sport satellite dishes. But to reach Chile's seething capital, Santiago, requires a three-and-a-half hour drive on mainly unmade roads to the nearest airport, followed by a three-hour flight north. There is no phone signal, no wi-fi.

In fact until the late 1940s there was almost no one here at all - here being the valley of the Cisnes, which cuts east to west through the central section of Patagonia, flowing a hundred miles through the Andes to the Pacific at Puerto Cisnes.

The Chilean government - fearful of Argentine infiltration from over the nearby border - dispatched settlers into the Cisnes valley with promises of land.

They found it cloaked in temperate rainforest, and to clear it they lit fires which got out of hand and burned on-and-off for 10 years, leaving great swathes still littered with bleached trunks and branches like giant splintered toothpicks.

In time the valley was divided into estancias mostly owned by absentee landlords. Cattle and sheep roam the meadows and through the new-grown forest, very lightly supervised by the gauchos. I have never been to a place where the touch of human occupation seemed so light.

Image copyright Rex Bryngelson
Image copyright Rex Bryngelson

To the east of the Andes, towards the Argentine border, the landscape flattens into one of tawny grass, low trees and bare ridges of rock. Downstream there is a great canyon, 10 miles long, formed when a vast glacial lake burst through the rock at the end of the Ice Age.

Below the canyon, rainforest sweeps across the lower slopes of the mountains, with meadows where the valley is flat. And through it, swinging from side to side of the flood plain, is this glorious river, the Cisnes, to which I had come from a long way away in order to enjoy its extraordinary fly-fishing for trout.

Image copyright Rex Bryngelson
Image copyright Rex Bryngelson

Trout fry were imported to Chile from the US and Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, but were not planted in the Cisnes until the 1970s. They were intended as a food source for the campesinos, the country people.

The fish found a perfect ecological niche - cool, abundant water, perfect gravel for spawning, ample food, absence of predators - and they thrived and spread prodigiously, so much so that Chilean Patagonia now boasts some of the finest fly-fishing in the world.

As it happens, the locals hardly bother, and when they do, it is with a home-made spinner thrown out by hand with a line wrapped around an old tin can. The accidental dividend is that the trout supposed to provide them with protein now attract discerning anglers from all over the world, who catch them, admire them, and tenderly return them to the water.

One day, on our way to fish a remote lake hidden in the forest, far from the road along the valley, we passed a gaucho's cabin, guarded by dog like an outsize foxhound. The gaucho came out for a chat, eager for human contact - not surprisingly, as he spends six months of the year up here with horse, dog and radio for company, before returning to the village for the winter.

By the lake was another cabin, wooden with a shingled roof in the traditional style. But this one was abandoned - a reminder that, even here, the old way of life is in retreat and will not last for ever.

Image copyright Rex Bryngelson

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