Chiloé – islands of churches and myths

So my magical two weeks in the south of Chile did not only consist of admiring volcanoes… I also got to leave continental Chile for a few days to explore the archipelago of islands that is Chiloé. The ferry crossing was only 30 minutes from Puerto Montt, but it felt like we had entered another world. The land of myths and legends…where the Trauco is famous for luring young women into the forest and having his way with them, where there is a constant battle between Cai-Cai and Ten-Ten – the spirits of land and water and the Invunche who is a child stolen at birth who now lives with the witches in a secret cavern. But even without knowing much about the legends of the islands, there is definitely a magic to Chiloé, the people, architecture, food and way of life is something unique.

Our first stop was Ancud, which is not exactly an attractive city, but the rain and grey clouds probably didn’t help give us a good impression. To me it felt like I could have been in the Irish countrside…The main reason why people visit Ancud is that nearby there is a penguin colony which is unique in that it is the only place in the world where Magellan and Humbolt penguins live side by side. I am lucky enough to have had fairly close encounters with penguins in South Africa, where you can sit on the beach near Simon’s Town and have a penguin or two just chilling beside you. But I wanted to see this colony for the highly endangered Humbolt penguin. It is still very early in the summer and so there weren’t alot of penguins on the islands yet, but it was still nice to go out on a boat and see them. But even more incredible than the penguins

This small island off the northwest coast of Chiloé separated into two parts after the earthquake in 1960

was seeing a small island that had literally been split in two during the world’s strongest recorded earthquake which happened here in 1960. It lasted ten minutes and sheared this small island in two. Again, it demonstrated to me just how active the land is here.

Our next stop was Castro, the capital of Chiloé. Again, it is not exactly an attractive city, but is famous for it’s palafito houses which are unique houses built on stilts over the ocean. These type of houses used to occur all over the island, but now only exist in the capital. The one thing that I did like about Castro was the colourfulness of the houses – yellow, green, blue, pink etc. If you can think of a colour, there is probably a house there painted in it. So even with the grey, rainy weather which is so typical here, the place still has quite a cheerful character. We arrived in Castro on a Sunday afternoon which is never a good time to try and see a town or city in Chile as it is usually quite dead. But we explored the famous wooden church, the handicraft market which unfortunately had more cheap imports from Bolivia and Peru than authentic local artesania and had a very tasty fish dinner in what was probably the only restaurant actually open.

Palafito houses in Castro

But Patricia and I were keen to get out of the city and into the countryside and so the next day we headed to a smaller island called Quinchao which numerous people had told us to visit. We took a short ferry ride and a bus to Achoa at the far eastern end of the island. Achao is a tiny town, but despite its’ size it was rather busy since it was market day and there were boats being loaded with all sorts of provisions to take to the surrounding smaller islands. Chiloé is famous for its old wooden churches which are found all over the island. A few of the churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the one in Achao because it is the oldest in the archipelago and also was made with no nails, only wooden pegs. From the outside it looks like a nice enough church, but it is one of the less colourful ones in Chiloé – until you get inside that is… ornate and intricate decorations and bright blue.

Church in Achao

After exploring the two main streets of the town and seeing the church we weren’t too sure what else there was to do and there didn’t seem to be any tourist information or anything. But luckily we wandered down a street where we came across a sign saying Turismo Achao – perfect! There we met Cristian who offered to take us on a driving tour of the island that afternoon. We then asked him for suggestions for lunch and he asked if we wanted to go to a normal restaurant or something of a secret. Naturally we went for the secret spot and he took us to a family that run a micro business catching and selling fish and mariscos and in addition they also have a kind of ‘restaurant’ in their home. Literally, it is just two tables outside the kitchen and when you need the toilet, you actually go through their house and use their bathroom. There were only two options for lunch, smoked salmon and paila marisco, so the choice was easy. I ordered the paila and was not sure what to expect except that it is a kind of soup with all sorts of mariscos (mussels, oysters, clams, sea snails etc). It turned out to be incredibly delicious and HUGE.

Enjoying my paila marisco lunch in an unusual restaurant in Achao

During lunch the family came and chatted to us and it was really great and super informal. Certainly very different to your average restaurant on the main street. The tour with Cristian was supposed to be about 1.5 hours, but we ended up spending nearly double that with him. He took us to some great view points from where we could see many of the other smaller islands, as well as all the mussel farms in the ocean and also a salmon farm, complete with it’s floating house. Being a marine biologist by trade he gave us so much information about the ocean and the salmon industry and how it collapsed a few years ago due to a disease that stopped the salmon growing to a commercially viable, export size. We also visited another UNESCO church, this one being famous for being the biggest in Chiloé. But the best part of the afternoon was that we got chatting about tourism and how we want to experience more of real chiloe instead of a hostel in the capital city. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do a trip with him to another smaller island where we could stay in a traditional Chilote house etc, but he did offer us a night in Achoa the next day and time spent exploring the countryside and searching for mariscos at low tide and then cooking them. We decided it was a great idea and so the next day headed back to Achoa and ended up spending the night with his mother-in-law and her 89 year old mother who are local Chilote people. It was an interesting experience, mostly from the point of view of just sitting chatting to people and hearing about how the abuela (grandmother) remembers seeing flashes of lights going between the islands when she was a child which were apparently witches and other unexpainable stories she had, plus chatting with the mom about life on the island during Pinochet when she was part of the resistance and all sorts of interesting stories about Chiloé and growing up there and how things are changing now. It was certainly great for my spanish since no one spoke any english, but I must admit I missed alot of what the mother said as she not only spoke at warp speed, but also with a very thick Chilote accent.

The highlight of the day was definitely searching for mariscos during low tide. We had to use picks to dig in the sand and around the rocks for the clams etc, but I must admit that I am not a great mariscador as I only managed to find 5 mariscos, while Patricia who was right next to me found 22. I found loads of open shells already, so decided that she had found the town and I had found the cemetery.

Searching for mariscos

Cristian also showed us all sorts of other sea creatures, some of which are apparently prehistoric and to be honest, fairly disgsusting. After collecting all we could and since the tide had started coming in, we decided to head home and cook our catch. Cristian’s mother-in-law showed us how to open and clean out the mariscos and I must admit they were fairly disgusting looking and I was feeling rather queasy. But we made a soup with them, that in the end tasted surprisingly good.

Sadly the next day we had to say goodbye to Chiloé as I had to head back to Santiago and get ready for my trip to Brazil and Patricia had to head back to Curacautin. Luckily for us, Cristian was heading to Temuco for work and so he offered to take us with and we shared the costs. This was a much better way to travel than in a bus and we had a great day driving along and chatting with him about Chile and travelling and tourism and all sorts of things, including a debate as to whether he should be learning english if he wants to be in the tourism industry. In the evening when we got to Temuco I had a few hours before my bus and so the two of us went for dinner and watched a football game. Sadly then my trip in the magical south of Chile was definitely over and I boarded the bus for my 9 hour journey back to the big city…thankfully for me I was only in Santiago for 24 hours before heading off to tropical Brazil. What an amazing end to 2010!!!


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One Response to Chiloé – islands of churches and myths

  1. Pingback: A “quick” summer getaway – Part I | Tales of a girl & her bright red backpack

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