I’ll be honest with you. It was an episode of Canadian travel series ‘Departures’ that influenced me to visit the Chiloé Island in the south of Chile. Just in case you didn’t think those TV shows work…they do! The island seemed so unique, so magical, and with such a distinct culture. So while visiting Chile, when the islands were within what I would consider to be a reasonable reach for travel in Chile, I made the decision to visit. I could not resist heading over to Chiloé Island to experience it for myself. The day I arrived at Chiloé Island was the day it officially became my favourite place in Chile. While I know blogs written as a list are easier to read, I’d love for you to give me the opportunity to write about this destination as a story. I want you to imagine and feel the experience of visiting Chiloé Island as I did.
I sat and stared out the bus window, the topography of Chiloé is reminiscent of the rolling hills of England’s countryside. We passed through small towns with colourful houses stacked one upon another. They ran from the top of the hill to beyond the waters edge. Fisherman’s boats sat on the beach-like ocean floor, the tide being out. Smoke was coming from the chimneys of houses covered in tejuelas (wooden shingles) made famous by Chiloé Island. Tiny coffee shops and restaurants lined the shores.
Unknown and off the beaten track, Chiloé Island is one of South America’s best kept secrets. It is not part of what one would consider to be the typical ‘travellers path’, but this shouldn’t deter anyone from taking a few days to experience the magic that is Chiloé.
Chiloé is an archipelago of Islands only a short ferry ride from Puerto Montt, in central Chile. As the islands have their own special culture, a connecting bridge between Chiloé and the mainland has been turned down repetitively in order to preserve its unique identity. Here it is different from anything else you will experience while visiting Chile. Chiloé is a destination wrapped in its own folklore with tales of witchcraft, ghost ships, and magic; it is a place that just screams mystery. The customs are their own, the art belongs to them, and their version of Chilean Spanish is an unbreakable code of an already incredibly difficult sounding Spanish.
I felt the magic of Chiloé the minute my ferry left the docks. I am not sure if it was the sun setting on the ocean, or the sea lions playing in the water, but whatever it was it put a smile on my face.
Arriving at the bus station in Castro, one of the main cities in the archipelago, I hoisted my pack onto my back and started walking to nowhere. I had no plans nor expectations. While I searched for a place to spend the night, I watched the Chilote people wandering the streets carrying their reed made baskets, a Patagonian art form perfected by them. With nowhere to be, I made my way down to the water in search of a hostel. While on the way I passed a train graveyard…and I thought to myself…what were trains doing on such a small island? Who knows…must be part of the mysteries of Chiloé Island.
The streets by the ocean were quiet. They had an almost eerie feeling, eerie…thats how I would describe this place. Seeing no people, I wandered on, not a place I would want to have a medical emergency abroad. This was a new experience for me when considering travel in Chile, and coming from busy Santiago. By now my pack was feeling heavier. I had been walking alone and in silence for so long. When I saw the words ‘Hostel’ written on a building off in the distance I was pretty pleased. I walked in. It was a beautifully made wooden home with thoughtful style and detail carried throughout… it was also empty. Ah, a relief to see two people enjoying coffee on the porch of this palofito. Finally I wasn’t alone. The Chilote Spanish seemed impossible to decode, but finally I understood that all hostels were closed but one…and this was not it. Chiloé Island was proving itself an off the beaten path destination in regards to visiting Chile. However, by the use of hand signals I was able to understand directions to where I needed to be.
It was a long quiet walk up and down the many hills of the island. I was excited when I stumbled upon a market, partially for the opportunity to purchase my own woven basket, and partially to see human life. I walked through the market which was packed full of individuals selling everything from cozy alpaca socks and sweaters, to handcrafted maté gourds. Chilote woodworking and reed products were also displayed predominantly. I shopped around and truly enjoyed myself as the smiles of fellow shoppers and merchants created a pleasant atmosphere. The basket makers and wood carvers are so special to Chiloé Island, I couldn’t resist taking a look.
Finally, after a lot of walking, I came upon my hostel, located over a bridge and on the other side of town. It was beautiful and everything I could have wanted. Fully decked out in pine, it was a proper Palofito home. Palofitos are homes unique to Chiloé. Covered in wooden tejuelas, painted in bright colours, they sit on stilts above the water. This building was yellow and brown to match the rainbow of buildings around it. I had my own room, apparently being the soul traveler in Chiloé. I made a coffee and sat by the burning fire in the kitchen. Looking out at the ocean, I decided, I liked this place.
The next morning, I walked back into town, without my backpack this time. There are several islands in the Chiloé archipelago, so I opted to go see a few of them by bus. The local buses go from island to island via bridge and ferry. Curaco de Veléz was my choice. I think I chose this place randomly. I found my seat on the bus and drove off once again through rolling hills and past colourful towns.
The first stop on the island of Curaco de Veléz was the small fishing town of Achao. I got off the bus in what was a very desolate looking town square. It was quiet here, only one or two people walking in the streets…and a chicken. It was almost like a scene from a movie. Most of the restaurants and shops were closed. To be fair I was a little off season, but it was still another eerie day in Chiloé. I walked the small streets tightly woven with more colourful tejuela shingled homes. This was one of the more picturesque places I have been while traveling Chile. The unique homes lining the streets make it totally instagrammable.
Chiloé is famous for its architecture. The churches are made from only native timber and shingles so as to function in the humid temperature of the area. Sometimes these churches are built without the use of nails. With over 150 churches churches covering the archipelago, I had a lot to see.
After a quick visit to Achao’s church, I walked back to the bus stop. Along the seawall I could see oyster beds and fishermen a-like; then back on the bus.
I headed towards the biggest city on the island, Quinchao. Off the bus again, this was slightly less desolate. I walked past one of the largest churches in the area, a shade more intricate than the last. After peering in I made my way to the sea. There were children playing on the beach, and merchants selling items in the market along the sea wall. I sat on the stairs for a while, which lead from the sea wall to the beach, staring at the snow capped Andes in the background and watching ships move in and out of the docks. This is a place you could sit and meditate for hours; and I did.
Chiloé Island is famous for its cuisine, so I stopped by a local restaurant for lunch. My first Curanto, a seafood stew traditionally baked in the ground. The ground acts like a natural pressure cooker. A curanto is a stew made with oysters, clams, fish, and what ever else you could find in the sea. Add a few potatoes and corn and it is simply delicious. After lunch I caught a bus back to the main island of Chiloé. It was now time for my nightly Chilote relaxation, a trip to the grocery store, and some homemade pizzas.
After a lazy morning breakfast and way too many coffees on the porch of my temporary Palofito home, I spent the next day walking through the fish markets of Castro. There was a big new building where vendors sold everything from fish to flowers to local crafts. While I was there I was able to spend some time with the local people who explained their crafts and their folklore to me. It is easy to see the pride they have in their special little island. Chiloé Island is loaded with stories of ghost ships that haunt the island. They have their own set of Gods and a hierarchy of mythical creatures. This folklore makes it one of the most unique places to travel in Chile.
The rest of my time on the island was spent drinking warm coffees on the decks of colourful Palofito homes and walking up and down the many hilly streets, popping into shops and art galleries. Chiloé Island has much more to offer than what I was able to experience, which is why I have vowed to return. There are national parks, eerie deforestation, more islands, and even a penguin colony to visit.
I was so caught up with the spirit of the islands that I enjoyed my time relaxing, drinking coffee and wandering the special little streets. Just being there seemed to be enough for me. The magic of Chiloé Island found me, relaxed me, and contained me and for that reason I cannot wait to return. I hope to encourage others to take this off the beaten path adventure when considering travel in Chile.