The Chiloé archipelago is considered part of the Northern Patagonia area of Chile as well as the southernmost reaches of the Lake District or Region X, Los Lagos. The Isla Grande, or Big Island, is a verdant, forested island of great natural beauty. It is the second-largest Chilean island and the only one settled.
History and Mystery
The home of the Huilliche Indian tribe, the island was settled by the Spaniards, who thought it a hardship post as supply ships from the Viceroyalty of Peru arrived only once a year. The Indians lived by farming and fishing, as the current residents still do.
The eastern side of the island, facing the mainland of Chile across the Golfo de Ancud in the north and Golfo de Corcovado in the south is broken up into a myriad of coves and inlets. The offshore islands are a haven for wildlife. The western side of the island, facing the Pacific Ocean, is remote, with only two roads leading to it. The interior is heavily forested.
Part of the attraction of Chiloe is the wealth of mystery and folkloric legends and myths that permeate the misty, foggy reaches of the forest and remote beaches. The mythical lore results from the cultural mix of ethnic beliefs and the Catholic faith brought to the island. There are ghost ships, goblins, and witches who dine on recently interred corpses. Two popular legends are the beautiful nude mermaid, La Pincoya who lures men to the sea, and a short, squat, ugly troll, El Trauco, who lures women to the forest and impregnates them.
Isolated for many years, the residents, called Chilotes, developed self-reliance, but many have left the island for a more secure lifestyle. Those remaining continue their traditions and are slowly building up a tourist infrastructure. Chiloe is becoming an increasingly popular destination for walking, biking, fishing, paddling, and birding.
Towns and Landmarks
Chiloe's has three main towns. There is the new capital Ancud in the north, Castro, the former capital, on the east, and Quellón on the southern tip, which offers most of the island's tourism amenities. But a visit to the smaller communities, particularly to visit the islands many churches, built first by the Jesuits and then the Franciscans, is worth your time. There are several hundred wooden churches, using pegs instead of nails, and UNESCO lists many as cultural heritage sites.
- The wooden Iglesia San Francisco de Castro on the Plaza de Armas brightens the day with its colorful exterior.
- The Museo Regional de Castro displays an eclectic mix of Hulliche relics, farming equipment, and modern items.
- See the famous palafitos, or houses on stilts, along the waterfronts and mudflats.
- Many of the buildings on Chiloé are covered with wooden shingles called tejuelas cut from the Alerce tree, to keep out the rain.
- The Feria Artesanal, along the waterfront, offers local handicrafts, particularly woolens and basketry.
- The annual Festival Costumbrista Chilote, in February, celebrates the island's folklore and legends.
- Rent a kayak to paddle about the islands, or take a boat tour to visit the many birds and marine colonies on the islands further from shore. Several tour agencies offer river and sea kayaking adventures.
- Of particular interest in Ancud, founded in 1767 to protect the coastline—the Museo Regional de Aurelio Bórquez Canobra, also called the Museo Chilote or Regional Museum. The museum displays a fine array of ethnographic and historical items, photographs, and folkloric representations. Art, maps, and scale models of the various churches are particularly interesting. The gift shop offers woolens, carvings, and pottery, as do some of the local shops.
Parque Nacional Chiloé
Located on the western side of the island, this area remains a pristine woodland of native and coniferous trees. It looks much like it did at the time of Charles Darwin's visit. In summer, it's a popular spot for hiking and horseriding. You'll see various forms of wildlife, including the Chiloé fox, pudu, and hundreds of species of birds, including the Chiloe Wigeon Anas sibilatrix. Here are the places you'll want to see.
- CONAF Visitor Center for the display of flora and fauna, Hulliche exhibits, early mining industry, and local folklore.
- The Museo Artesanal in a traditional Chilote house exhibits farm implements and household artifacts. Note the fireplace in the middle of the floor. With reed-filled walls, many houses burned.
- The penguin colony is the only place where Humboldt and Magellanic penguins co-exist.
- The Sendero Interpretativo El Tepual is a winding trail through the forest.
- The Sendero Dunes de Cucao is a trail leading to dunes on a white sand beach. The path continues to a Huilliche community at Lago Huelde. There are rustic shacks, refugios, and camping.
When to Go
Chiloé's climate is maritime, damp (wet and rainy), changeable but mild. The west coast is more inclement, with wilder weather. The east coast is more protected and milder.
Charles Darwin said: "In winter the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better. The winds are very boisterous, and the sky almost always clouded; to have a week of fine weather is something wonderful."
Water-resistant footwear is recommended for any walking on the soft and swampy ground. Summer (December to March) visitors are more likely to run into crowds sailing the Patagonia fjords, but Chiloé is an anytime destination. Summer, with the flowers blooming and many of the towns celebrating their local fiestas, is a good time to visit.
By bus and ferry from Puerto Montt to Ancud, via Pargua on the mainland and Chacao on the island. Watch for dolphins, sea lions, cormorants, pelicans, and penguins on the thirty-minute trip. The ferry ride is included in the cost of the bus ticket. There is also a ferry from Chaitén on the Carretera Austral to Quellón and another from Puerto Chacabuco. There are small airports at Castro and Quellón.
Don't miss the abundant seafood and typical curanto. Prepared traditionally in a hole in the ground over hot rocks, the dish includes mussels, clams, beef, pork, chicken, sausage, and potatoes topped off with chewy pancakes called milcaos. You can order a variation in a restaurant where it is cooked in a pot and called pulmay.