The Island Between Mist And Myth
After a month and a bit wandering in the breathtaking sceneries of Patagonia, despite my reluctance, the moment to leave this astounding land behind had arrived. The approaching of winter and with it unsettled weather and frosty winds made the departure less bitter. The impressive length of Chile and my wish to traverse it from bottom to top has somehow put quite a lot of pressure on me and urged me to make a move. However, the 23 hour bus ride from the town of Coyahique took me just on the northern edge of Chilean Patagonia, where it gives way to the much less harsh but no less fascinating landscape of the Los Lagos region. The next destination, the mystical and fabled archipelago of Chiloé.
The main island or Isla Grande de Chiloé is just a stone’s throw away from the mainland. Constantly wrapped in a thick and atmospheric blanket of mist, this land has managed to dazzle me with its exuberant wilderness, the richness of its culture and its fascinating sea-related traditions and folklore.
While I initially planned to spend a couple of weeks discovering the islands, I ended up staying for a month, especially thanks to the people I met and for whom I volunteered. I found myself involved in what, alongside photography, is my greatest passion, cooking. After a month spent in Patagonia, regularly spent dodging and edging away from cazuelas, asados and other meaty friends, having the opportunity to free the chef in me at a vegetarian café seemed like manna from heaven. In exchange, not only could I feast on my daily veggie creations, but also had the chance to stay in a studio flat on the edge of a forest and a hundred metres from a hidden beach and the opportunity to use a red 4x4 Suzuki to drive around. Carolina, as I dubbed this little jewel of a car, took me to the many secret corners of this land and without which I would never have had the chance to visit.
Using as a base the bustling little town of Ancud in the northern bay of the island, I took in all the highlights Chiloé has to offer. The national ruta 5, bisects the main island from north to south, seeming to also divide the landscape you can admire whilst driving it. The western side, almost completely uninhabited, is wild and bleak with barren plains and thick forests. The ruler here is without doubt the Pacific, whose currents, winds and massive waves have shaped the rocky and craggy coast, home to penguins, sea lions and whales. Conversely, the eastern part features a much less harsh landscape with Tuscan-like, colourful and soft-rounded hills, with a group of smaller islands sitting in the peaceful strip of sea between the Isla Grande and the mainland. It is exactly this encounter between the tamed and the unmanageable that makes Chiloé such a fascinating place.
It is exactly this encounter between the tamed and the unmanageable that makes Chiloé such a fascinating place.
But unmanageable is not a word in Carolina’s vocabulary. Once the 4x4 was set, we feared no terrain. Driving along desolate beaches or the unpaved hilly road to Chepu was a unique experience. Chepu is a tiny village at the northern edge of Chiloé National Park. Not really much to do here, if not soak in the beautiful view of the barren forest and the placid river, crossed now and then by Chilean otters. I made sure to get the best spot to do that, staying in a river-view cabaña in an eco-lodge with rationed water and electricity, but I did enjoy the electric blanket they provided.
Another indisputable natural beauty is the National Park itself. Sitting in the middle of the island and accessible from the tiny village of Chacao, a visit to the park definitely topped off my chilote experience. A series of short trails guide you through the incredible scenery letting you discover the local flora through illustrations of how the latter has adapted to the particular conditions and to the vicinity of the wayward Pacific. What made the visit more memorable was definitely the time of year. In fact, visiting the park at the beginning of autumn means you have almost five thousand hectares of pure wilderness and kilometres of empty, misty beaches to yourself and your camera.
Not far from the park, there is also another amazing place, not listed in any guide and recommended to me by a local scout. Situated at the very end of a two kilometre trail that winds its way along the rim of a series of cliffs, El Muelle Del Las Almas is an art installation that pays homage to Mapuche oral tradition which is still very much part of the culture here. In fact, Chiloé is not just untouched nature, but it is also a culturally rich place. Millennia old Mapuche legends, ancient and mysterious sailor tales, stories of mythological figures and heartfelt catholicism credo, all mix up and live every day side by side. This double tendency towards the supernatural and the divine, the sacred and the profane, finds it best expression in what has become one of the icons of the island itself, la Ruta del Las Iglesias.
This UNESCO circuit links together the myriads of pastel coloured, elven-style churches scattered around the archipelago. It is said there are more than 150, all of them made entirely out of wood, from the roofs to the altars, from the columns to the shrines. The stark contrast between the colourful and carnivalesque architecture and the fact that these are places of worship, is what makes these buildings very unique. They represent a quintessential expression of local culture. If put together, they could easily make up a Catholic theme-park!!! Still thanks to Carolina, I had the chance to visit a few, like the meringue-like immaculate white Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Dalcahue; the impossible-to-photograph Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao; the pea green Church Santo Judas Tadeo in Curaco de Velez; the aladdinesque purple and yellow Church of San Francisco in Castro; the fascinating fake-marbled Church of Señora de Garcia in Nercon. A visit to the latter, which coincided with Palm Sunday when the courtyard facing the church became alive with a procession of devotees flapping palm leaves to the rhythm of trombones, drums and flutes. It could not have been a better time to experience the uniqueness of these architectural marvels.
Chiloé is also very often iconically associated to another kind of buildings, the again colourful Palafitos. These buildings that can be found in Castro, the capital of the island, are a further wonder Chilotes are proud of. They liven up the otherwise dull costanera and area around the port. Seen from the road, they seem just like other traditional tin and wood Chilean houses displaying in their windows the weirdest and craziest of gadgets and knick knacks, but at the back, stilts and poles keep these characteristic dwellings afloat, creating a kaleidoscope of colours on the surface of the water. The palafitos are another example of how generations of Chilotes have adapted their lives to the at times unwelcoming hosting land. Given the frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis in the area, I can say they are also a monument to human stubbornness and resilience.
Chiloé, with its simplicity and charm has stolen my adventurous heart. On my way to the centre of Chile, traversing in the narrow strait which divides the island from the mainland, the slow boat I was travelling on was followed by a group of cheery sea lions jumping in and out of the calm gleaming sea and eventually disappearing into the thick mist that never abandons this wonderful island. I could not have imagined a better send off.