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The Charming Mystique of Isla de Chiloé

No matter how much forewarning, your first encounter with Isla de Chiloé is a revelation, one of those pinchable moments during which you are momentarily confused about your location on the planet. By Joe Yogerst.

You expect rainforest and pampas in South America, not a doppelganger of the Puget Sound. And no matter how much forewarning, your first encounter with Isla de Chiloé is a revelation, one of those pinchable moments during which you are momentarily confused about your location on the planet. No, this isn’t the ferry to Seattle, and no, that snowcapped volcanic cone looming across the water isn’t Mt. Rainier. This is the other end of the Western Hemisphere—remote southern Chile—where every so often the fog and rain clears to reveal conifer forests, glistening cold-water coves, glaciers the color of blue cotton candy and landscapes that make you rethink your whole take on South America.

Chiloé is the second largest of hundreds of islands that float off the coast of Chile like giant pieces of driftwood. With 3,500 square miles of forest and farmland, it’s roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park. And parts of it are just as remote. A largely untamed island, Chiloé is still covered in vast tracks of native forest populated by endemic species, such as Darwin’s fox and a tiny deer called the Pudu. Much of the shoreline, especially along the rugged west coast, is inaccessible except by boat or foot.

Most of the 150,000 inhabitants, called Chilotes, live in towns and villages along the more sheltered east coast and small nearby islands like Quinchao and Mechuque, which has a similar culture and lifestyle. The economic hub of Chiloé, Castro is a laid-back town with colorful palafitos (stilt houses) along the waterfront and a cathedral covered in engraved tin panels rather than the wood that epitomizes Chiloé’s trademark churches. The Spanish were here early—Castro was founded in 1567 as only the third European settlement in Chile—but found both the climate and the local Indians inhospitable. They called it “the world’s outer limit of Christianity” and basically ignored the place for hundreds of years. As a result, Chiloé evolved into a culture unique not only in Chile but all of South America.

While the towns are indisputably quaint, Mother Nature is the reason why most people venture this far south. Several outfitters offer guided kayaking tours along the island’s coast and through its rivers. Chiloé National Park on the west coast is the country’s largest preserve, a blend of thick forest and long, empty beaches that are best explored on foot or horseback. But you can take off walking just about anywhere in Chiloé, through the interminable apple groves and potato fields, without encountering a barbed-wire fence, shotgun-lugging farmer or frenzied guard dog. No one in these parts has even the faintest notion of trespassing, thanks to an Amish-like sense of community that continues to hold its own against cynicism, suspicion and other modern vices.

Picturesque though it may be, Chiloé is still rife with ancient myth and legend. Many of the locals still believe that strange things lurk in the Chilote woods. Beware the flying she-devils (voladoras) that achieve immortality by devouring their own bowels, the feathered reptile (basilisco) that feeds on the phlegm of its human victims, the insatiable female dwarf (Fiura) who plays evil tricks on men who reject her and her hairy, tree-dwelling ogre husband (Trauco) who can kill you with a single glance of his creepy little eyes.

Reaching Chiloé can be a bit of a chore for visitors. The nearest airport with scheduled service is in Puerto Montt on the mainland. From there you can catch a public bus or rent your own vehicle for the road and ferry passage to the island. Castro is the only town with a range of accommodations and restaurants serving both international food and Chilote specialties, such as the baked-beneath-the-earth curanto seafood hot pot.

By: Joe Yogerst

  • Jeff Bartlett

    Trauco doesn’t kill. He proliferates. He’s known as irresistible to women, despite his hellish ogre features and he’s used to explain unexpected pregnancies in unmarried women when no father will step forward.

    Oddly, because he’s irresistible, the women are considered blameless despite their surprise pregnancy.