Chile: Worry-Free Travels with Fanny

Barbara Klutinis

When traveling, you should always take along a worrier. That way, YOU won’t have to worry. At least, that is Fanny’s philosophy. On our trip to Chile, I was the designated worrier. I started worrying on Day One that I would not be able to connect with Fanny in Bariloche, after her earlier arrival in Argentina to attend a special memorial for Mel.

In spite of my worries, Fanny was there to greet my plane from Buenos Aires, and her friend Gaby immediately transported us to a bus where we traveled three hours to the Argentinean town of Esquel. There we were met by Tom Murphy, owner of the La Patagonia Lodge in Trevelin, our first fishing destination. One would not think logically that there could be a Welsh community in Argentina, but Trevelin is a sleepy but tidy little town of Welsh inhabitants who settled here over a century ago. As further proof, for lunch, we stopped at a Welsh tearoom for high tea, complete with scones and tantalizing cream-filled pastries. A good start for a busy week.

Tom’s lodge overlooks a wonderful view of the valley, with an A+ restaurant across the street, full of mouth-watering Argentinean grilled steaks. The next day, we fished the Futaleufu River with Richard Williams, a local guide. The weather was “iffy,” but only a hint of what was in store for us. We fished down to the border of Argentina and Chile, where we were picked up by a driver Fanny had hired to take us across the border into Chile and on to our next lodge, the Chaiten Lodge. This is where my worries really took off.

First of all, no one had ever heard of Chaiten Lodge. There were rumors that it was run by a young man named Jason, who was trying to keep it afloat. Secondly, the town of Chaiten had been destroyed by a volcano last May, and people looked blankly at us when we said we were going to Chaiten to fish. The next sentence out of their mouths was, “Chaiten? But it no longer exists.” The airport in Chaiten had been closed down and the town was knee-deep in hardened ash. Well, that was enough to really start the worry machine. Nevertheless, Fanny, in her usual fashion, said, “Well, we will have an adventure, then, won’t we!” Not me. I worried about where we would spend the night and, of course, whether the volcano, still active, was going to erupt again.

Our driver, Xavier, was my next worry project. He was a robust man in his 50’s with a hot temper and a lead foot. Our trouble began at the border crossing into Chile. Once you leave Argentina’s border station, there is about ¼ mile of “no man’s land” before you reach the Chilean border patrol station. It is here, we had been told, that people can spend several days if there are problems with their travel documents. At the border station in Chile, Xavier got into a confrontation with the border patrol which ended with our taking all of our luggage out of his van so the patrol could give a thorough search of his vehicle. Xavier’s lame excuse for this search had something to do with his dog having spent the night in the van and that’s why the police dog had been going crazy sniffing in his van. I had visions of us being stranded in no man’s land for the next two weeks due to drug runner charges. Xavier’s dialogue with the police was punctuated with a lot of hand waving and long sighs, with one official’s looks that intimated, “Do you really want to argue with me?” Xavier finally gave up his argument and stormed back into the car. Luckily, we talked him out of having a beer in the next town before we headed for our 4-hour drive to Chaiten Lodge.

Xavier said he knew where the lodge was. This was good news, to be followed by the drive from hell: Xavier racing 70 miles an hour over a dirt road that wound its way through the Andes. I pictured us having a head-on collision, as Xavier didn’t slow down for passing cars or curves. For most of the drive, I was holding on to the window grab bar for some kind of false sense of security. Fanny sat in the front seat, thankfully, much more calmly than I. When the red engine light lit up the dashboard, I thought it might be a sign that Xavier would slow down, but he just kept tapping the dashboard in an effort to make the light go out; after awhile, he simply ignored the light. I was certain the van would break down in the middle of nowhere, and no one would ever find us on this dark, curvy road. Xavier stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, but I didn’t know how to say in Spanish, “If you value your life, don’t get into this van!” Finally, after four excruciating hours, we arrived at side road, where people from the Chaiten Lodge were waiting in a car for us. The lodge really did exist. And we were still alive!

The co-owner of Chaiten Lodge, Enrique Gaete, turned out to be a chatty, friendly, English-speaking host, who joined us every night for dinner, as we were the only guests. He told us that all the other lodges in this area had had a 100% cancellation due to news of the volcano. Lesson number 1: do your homework. Make sure that there are no mudslides, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, or active volcanoes in the area you will be taking your fishing vacation. The weather in Chaiten began on a sunny note, but deteriorated every day thereafter. Most of the rivers were unfishable due to the amount of ash dumped into them from the volcano, turning them into a sickly grey opaque color. However, we were able to fish parts of Rio Yelcho, a big sprawling river that flows from Lago Yelcho, a 35-mile lake crowned by fjords and glaciers, to the Pacific Ocean. Here we were able to fish not only for large rainbows and brown trout, but also for Chinook Salmon (to no avail). Victor, our guide, had managed to catch a 65 lb. Chinook the week before, and there were photos to prove it! On the last day, it was raining so hard that Victor had to pull the motorboat into a quiet cove to avoid the whitecaps on the river and the gusts of rain that kept pushing the boat downstream.

In spite of this, Fanny and I were still fishing, and laughing about how crazy we were to be doing this. All was not lost, however, for at the end of each day, we were greeted in our cabin by a toasty wood burning stove and a heavy comforter, which helped thaw us out from our day in the inclement weather. In spite of the weather, the scenery was spectacular, each turn down the river revealing more of the Andes replete with waterfalls and stunning glacier-capped peaks. After four days of fishing, it was time to move on to our next destination, The Paloma Lodge, further south in Coyhiaque. Oh, and the volcano went off again three days after we left this lodge.

Our plan to reach Coyhiaque involved taking a ferry from Chaiten to Puerto Montt, and a plane from Pt. Montt to Balmaceda airport, where we would be met by someone from Paloma Lodge. From the brochures, I pictured a fjord-lined inland passage with whales and sea life abundant and a leisurely five-hour ride on the local ferry where you could relax, snooze, and look out the window. In reality, the ferry was packed with hundreds of school children with their families (summer vacation), the windows were so high you had to stand up to see out of them, and the wind and rain kept everyone inside, with no visibility in any direction. Oh, and the trip took nine hours. Finally, we arrived in Pt. Montt and a warm hotel. The next day, we had a tour of the city and went on to Puerto Varas, a charming German-influenced town on a huge lake called Llanquihue, pronounced “Jan kee way” if you are Argentinean, and “Yan kee way” if you are Chilean. Upon arriving in Balmaceda airport, we were met by Rene Yefi, our guide from Paloma Lodge.

Our hopes ran very high, as Rene spoke perfect English, was charming, energetic, and had a great sense of humor. We started on the road to Paloma, entering a gorgeous valley with views that became more spectacular with each bend in the road. Then, all of a sudden, Rene came to a screeching halt along the dirt road and, as we looked ahead, we could see that the where the road had been there was now a waterfall. The road had been completely washed out. We had to turn around and go back to Coyhiaque to spend the night. The weather got worse, and apparently so did the road. Not only was the staff at the lodge completely isolated, but also there were reports that the road had washed out in two other places. Rene was worried about his staff, but, in the meantime, he made arrangements for us to move to another lodge. Paloma is owned by Paul Kinney, who also manages two other lodges in Chile: Yan Kee Way (remember the name of the lake, and also a double entendre) and El Patagon, in the south. Paul had generously found a space for us at Yan Kee Way, a very posh, upscale lodge back at Puerto Varas. After much negotiating with Lan Air, Fanny managed to get us on a plane back to where we had come from, on our way to yet another adventure.

Yan Kee Way is a rambling compound of chalets, bungalows, and hotel style rooms that sits at the southern end of the Chilean Lake District. It faces Lake Llanquihue which is adorned by yet another volcano (Chile apparently has about 139 volcanoes, 36 of them active), the 8,400 ft. Osorno, which could be a double for Mt. Fuji. Here, in the safety of this surroundings, my worries came to a rest. All was well in paradise. The restaurant, Latitude 42 degrees, was voted the best restaurant in Chile, outside of Santiago. For several evenings, we dined with owner Michael Darland, who told us many stories of how this sprawling vacationland came to be. It is a place not only for fly fishing, but also for kayaking, white water rafting, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Paul gave us a tour of the kitchen, and proudly showed off their array of mouth-watering desserts, including my favorite, Crème Brule, which I had every night after dinner. Oddly enough, this lodge was also not very populated, perhaps due in part to the downturn in the economy.

Some facts I learned about Chile: There are no snakes, poison ivy or oak, or bears. Hatches on the river are sparse; hence, a lot of streamer fishing is in order. One of my favorite parts about floating down any river is the wildlife: pelicans and bald eagles that dot the scenery. Not so in this country for there are not many birds. Chile and Argentina, somehow, were not in the vicinity when Noah landed his ark. Having grown tired of streamer fishing, Fanny and I begged for a little dry fly action, which Renaldo, our guide, accommodated by taking us to Rio San Antonio, a tributary of the Petrohue River, one of Chile’s most famous rivers. On our way to this small tributary, we also had the opportunity to fish in an exciting salmon hole on the Petrohue and watch huge Chinook pass by us on their way to their spawning grounds. Fanny and I even took a spin at spinning rods in an attempt to land one of these huge fish, but it wasn’t in the cards. This was my favorite day, as we seemed to be back on familiar footing on Rio San Antonio, following the riverbed that wound through the Andes. Fanny found a sweet hole and milked it clean of 6 to 19-inch rainbows. Crossing the stream several times, we were able to see much of the countryside that rambles through the fuchsia and blackberry bushes. It was one of those magical days.

After having “reconciled” ourselves to four days in this little piece of paradise, we headed on to Santiago for a bit of city life. Our time there had been cut short by all our detours, but we managed to find a good restaurant and a tour of the city. On our last day, Fanny ran into about 10 of her fly fishing friends from France (she seems to know everybody!) who happened to be staying at our hotel, so our last few hours were filled with a nice reunion for Fanny and friends.

Alas, all good worries must come to an end, and so did our 2 ½ weeks in Chile. We have lots of nice memories, and, thankfully, none of my worries came to fruition.