It was around mid-January when we stayed at Campo Lindo on Rio Nirehuao. Simon had success with good sized browns and rainbows. And then he spotted some humongous trouts in the deep pools that were the length of his arm and spent the rest of our stay trying to get them to bite. During this time, we were experiencing a HEAT WAVE. Instead of the typical cold rains of Chilean Patagonia, we had unbelievably hot and sunny weather. We weren’t complaining, but it was ironic that we had to use both our Fan-tastic fans again in Southern Patagonia of all places.
Also, it was the height of horseflies season. Anyone who has been to Patagonia in the early summer will attest to the nightmare of these inch-long tábanos that swarm by the dozens and bite through clothing. The only ways to get rid of them is to outrun them, or stand still to let them land and kill them by knocking them out with a strong punch then crushing them with your foot – they are that tough to kill. Since they are very focused biters, you could also wait until they are honed in on their bite then pick them up by their wings and pull the wings off, effectively neutralizing their threat. All of us, including Jamie, killed them by the hundreds every day and could not find in our hearts any mercy. So after three days of this, since Simon didn’t get the big fish to bite, we decided to continue south. But Campo Lindo and the nice family who ran it, and Rio Nirehuao remain one of our favorite places on this trip.
We went to fish one more river in this area, the Rio Simpson which flows from Coyhaique out to sea in Puerto Aysen. We had heard that the chinook might be running in the rivers and that became Simon’s obsession. The heatwave was extreme at this point, and it still feels weird to say that about southern Patagonia. At a popular overlanding campground on the Simpson and we talked to the owner Nacho to find fishing information. When he came out of his house to talk to us, he looked so sweaty and miserable. He did manage to tell us that “no, the salmon do not run until March on this river,” before he escaped back to the shade. Much later we learned that we should never take the advice of a non-fisherman, that chinook were running on the Cisnes and the Simpson, but by then we were on a spectacular drive south to Rio Exploradores.
Rio Exploradores was quite a detour. But we had heard from Chilean fisherman that chinook were definitely running if we took the dirt road along this river to the very end where it converged with two other rivers. The drive was spectacular and a worthy detour in its own right. At the end of the road we found king salmon heads in the trash cans. Yes, they were here! But we could not find a boat to take Simon. There were only two boats that functioned as both boat transfers and fishing guides. They were plenty busy with shoveling the tour groups that also came to visit the San Rafael glacier and they were fully booked for fishing for another two days. Simon left disappointed, especially after staring at the giant salmon heads in the dumpster. We would have definitely booked a tour in town if we had known. The chinook remained elusive.
Our redemption, apart from the scenery, was taking our second glacier hike to see Glaciar Exploradores. An interesting short hike crawling over tree roots and boulders that ended at a fun viewing platform.
Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile and it might be the bluest lake we had come across yet. The main attraction in the western part of the lake is the Marble Caves, Cuevas de Marmol, where water and time have shaped a peninsula of solid marble into natural sculptures.
We were thankful that the boat ride to the caves was only one mile. Knowing that we had no sea legs and noticing the wind swept seas, we opted for a private boat so we could retreat any time. The official tour was one hour – I think we lasted about twenty minutes, just about the shortest tour they had ever given I would guess.
From the Marble Caves, we spent a few nights on the road, camping on Rio Baker, in Cochrane, then making our way to Rio Jamarillo, for another shot at chinook. A local guide from Rio Baker gave us this tip, after seeing how enthusiastic Simon was about catching a king.
Rio Baker (blue) converges with Rio Neff (green).
Not a bad camp spot on Rio Baker. And here was where we met the local guide who told us about Rio Jamarillo.
We have found a second function for our fallen spare tire.
At Rio Jamarillo there was a ranch/campspot on the river. The fishable portion of this river is private property of this 1000-hectare ranch, who charges 8000 pesos (US$12) for fishing access, and 2000 (US$3) more for overnight camping with no facilities. Pretty reasonable for an exclusive spot. The owner, Vicente, was a funny and rugged older gentleman who loved to hang out with the campers, all night. He has one son in Cochrane, the closest town, and the rest of his children in the capital of Santiago or the United States. He lives alone on 1000 beautiful hectares – imagine that.
The river bends and flows from where we camped. Even I spotted salmon jumping not far from camp. Further upstream there were pools and waterfalls where the fish congregated. Simon hooked a chinook in a pool and connected with its power for half an hour before the fish came off silently. He said he kept the tension too strong and the hook eventually just went through the fish mouth. It reminds me of a friend who called sport fishing “torture and release” instead of “catch and release.” We met a couple of anglers from France who camped at the same spot. After three days of working the pools, they also ended up with no fish but a broken rod. The closest chinook we saw was the carcass of one hooked by the owner’s son, who used something like a pitchfork to spear the fish from the pools.
While Simon fished, the kids and I entertained ourselves by killing more horseflies and picking raspberries. We must have harvested about thirty pounds of these raspberries during our stay, enough for making yummy jam and popsicles.
The Carretera Austral ends at Villa O’Higgins, a town that was once accessible on foot or by plane and boat. In 1999, the Austral highway was paved all the way to this small town and introduced a wave of development from “city folks” from Coyhaique. It was a surprise after a long drive of lush mountains, rivers and lakes, to find a town completely flat and almost treeless, after all the lumber were cut to build the town. A place surrounded by innumerable glaciers and forests to explore, but it was hard to find a tree for shade in town. It was a strange sight.
We met up with the French/Spanish anglers Francois and Jorge again, all camping at the El Mosco hostel. Simon really enjoyed fishing with them for a couple days on some beautiful rivers. For the first time, he had a couple of fishing buddies and interesting ones too. Jorge was a technical and skillful fisherman and an artisan baker and teacher in a French eco-village and Francois was an accomplished fly-fisherman and budding guide, knowing exactly what he wanted to do in life at the young age of 18. They were on a month-long fishing expedition with a rental car and camping gear. On the road sometimes we find ourselves too busy or too tired to make new relationships but whenever we do, they are always very rewarding.
Simon got to hike into and fish on some beautiful backcountry waterways. Utterly pristine and untouched.
The El Mosco hostel had the best kitchen and living area we have seen in a hostel on this trip, and bathrooms that were always clean and well stocked. With a comfortable home base and awesome weather, the kids and I went on a couple hikes while Simon fished. The trouble with Villa O’Higgins was that many trailheads were outside town. The two hikes we did both started 1-2 miles outside town and the added mileage was tough for Ty. Since I was carrying Jamie I couldn’t help him at all. On the second day, as we returned to the main road from the trail, he stepped in front of a pickup and spread his arms, a forceful hitchhiker who got us an appreciated 2-mile ride back to the hostel. Still, he did 5 miles on back-to-back days. After that he said I HATE HIKING. I agreed I had pushed him too hard, so I told him he didn’t need to hike anymore until he wanted to again. But we did catch frogs on the hikes, which was pretty cool.
Ty was not happy.
So here we were – we made it to the end of the Carretera Austral at latitude 48, an unforgettable solitary road of profound beauty that we are lucky to have experienced now.