Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Chiloé Island

En route to Chiloé island, we arrived in Puerto Montt, our final stop on the mainland. I wouldn't call it a particularly pretty city; despite an oceanfront locale, Puerto Montt is more industrial than touristy. A gloomy gray sky and scattered showers did nothing to enhance the appeal. We didn't realize how easy it was to go directly from Pucon to Chiloé island or we wouldn't have booked a stopover there. On the other hand, we'd read about Puerto Montt's fancy new mall and thought it might be a good opportunity to pick up a few items that wouldn't be available on the island.

The road in front of Casa Perla (the yellow house).
Our accommodation for the night was at Casa Perla - a family home that has been operating as an hospedaje for more than 20 years. Staying with Perla was sort of like staying at your grandma's house. We really liked the homemade jam she served for breakfast!

We didn't have much luck with our trip to the mall. Our goal was to find blister pads of the Second Skin variety (not sold in Chile), polarized sunglasses (way too expensive),  and I wanted some insoles for extra cushion in my shoes (yah, pantomiming that one did not work out so well).

On the ferry to Chiloe.

The next morning we travelled by bus and ferry to Ancud; the biggest city (~50,000 people) in the northern part of Isla Grande de Chiloé. The island has a cool history and is culturally distinct from mainland Chile. Inhabited primarily by fishermen and farmers, the island has a laid-back feel and instantly reminded us of Newfoundland. Tourism is getting bigger there but it's still a fairly new addition to the gringo trail. The island is famous for its architecturally unique churches constructed from wood using special techniques for joining beams without nails. The island is also saturated with mythological lore and superstition, the likes of which rival the Greek's. At least in terms of bizarreness. For your enjoyment, here is an excerpt from the Lonely Planet (Chile & Easter Island, 9th edition, 2012) regarding some Chilote mythology:

  • Brujos (broo-hos) The center of Chiloé’s mythology, brujos are warlocks with black magic powers, bent on corrupting and harming normal Chilote folks. They are based in a secret location (most likely a cave) near Quicavi.
  • Cai-Cai Vilú (kai-kai-vee-loo) The Serpent God of the Water who waged a battle against Ten-Ten Vilú (Serpent God of the Earth) for supremacy over the domain. Cai-Cai Vilú eventually lost but was successful in covering enough territory with water that Chiloé stayed separated from the mainland.
  • El Caleuche (el-ka-le-oo-che) A glowing pirate ship piloted by singing, dancing brujos. Their melodious songs draw commercial vessels into El Caleuche’s trap. It is capable of sailing into the wind and navigating under the water’s surface.
  • Fiura (fee-oo-ra) A short, forest-dwelling hag with a ravenous sexual appetite and breath that causes sciatica in humans and is enough to kill smaller animals.
  • Invunche (een-voon-che) The grotesque guardian of the cave of the brujos. Invunche was born human, but the brujos disfigured him as he grew: turning his head 180 degrees, attaching one leg to his spine and sewing one of his arms under his skin. He eats human flesh and cat’s milk, and is extremely dangerous.
  • Pincoya (peen-koi-a) A naked woman of legendary beauty who personifies the fertility of the coasts of Chiloé and its richness of marine life. On the rocky shores she dances to her husband’s music. The way that she faces determines the abundance of the sea harvest.
  • Trauco (trow-ko) A repugnant, yet powerful, gnome who can kill with a look and fell trees with his stone hatchet. He is irresistible to young virgins, giving them impure erotic dreams and sometimes even a ‘mysterious’ child out of wedlock.
  • Viuda (vee-oo-da) Meaning ‘the widow,’ Viuda is a tall, shadowy woman dressed in black with milk-white bare feet. She appears in solitary places and seduces lonely men. The next day she abandons them where she pleases.
  • La Voladora (la-vo-la-do-ra) A witch messenger, who vomits out her intestines at night so that she is light enough to fly and deliver messages for the brujos. By the next morning, she swallows her intestines and reassumes human female form.

Yah.... Wow.

Statue of Viuda (the Widow) in the main Plaza of Ancud.
There were statues for most of the characters described above.

A pleasant surprise awaited us when we crossed the street from the bus terminal to our hostel, 13 Lunas. It was hands down the best hostel we've stayed in during our entire trip. Owner Claudio has thought of everything and made it the perfect refuge for travelers. He and his cousin Pancho, both young guys originally from Los Angeles (Chile), have done a lot of travelling themselves so they get it. It's the small things that make a place just feel so much more comfortable. Like extra wide beds in the dorms, a plethora of hooks to hang all your things, consistently hot showers with awesome pressure, big open rooms, comfortable common areas, and a spectacularly well-equipped kitchen with two gas ranges! I was in heaven. We'd only booked one night because we'd made arrangements to go to another part of the island the next day but we knew we'd want to come back after that.

Deck at 13 Lunas.

View from the deck at 13 Lunas.
Despite how amazing the hostel was, some things remain out of your control as the hostel owner... A minor crisis was developing as we arrived: apparently the city was doing maintenance on the water supply and had to shut down everyone's water from 6 pm until sometime the next morning. We'd arrived at around 5 pm and the hostel had only just received notice of the imminent shut-down. The staff were hastily filling bottles with water and everyone was rushing to take a last minute shower. Chris and I ran to the grocery store so we could prepare our dinner before the shut-down. I filled one of the bathroom sinks with soapy water so we'd have something to wash in. We also filled our camel and all our water bottles just in case the hostel ran out of the bottles they'd filled. After all that, 6 pm came and went without the water being turned off! Gah. Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

Some sort of parade we came across during our run to the grocery store in Ancud.

The next day we caught a ride with Claudio and Pancho to the village of Chepu where Chris and I had booked a few nights at an Eco Lodge owned by former Santiagans, Amory and Fernando. Their goal is to be entirely self-sufficient in terms of their energy and water usage. Fernando is a retired electrical engineer and has put his training to use designing an incredible system for harvesting both solar and wind energy. They are still on the grid but Fernando feeds energy into it such that they are still net positive for energy consumption (in other words, they contribute more than they use). 

Fernando also designed a water collection system by laying a huge geosynthetic sheet underground on a slope so that rainwater percolates through the ground into a tank at the bottom of the hill. He also collects rainwater from the roofs of their house and reports he gets more volume that way but it's still good to have the extra from the hill set-up. Obtaining fresh water is their greatest challenge at the Eco Lodge; the Rio Puntra that runs in front of their property is salty and digging for wells is not often successful on Chiloé. 

It was neat to visit with Fernando about all the initiatives they've taken to be environmentally conscious and their interest in educating visitors about it. One of his next projects is to install monitors in the solar-heated showers so people can actually watch their energy and water usage live-time while they shower. His idea is that making people acutely aware of their consumption will increase the likelihood of changes to their behaviour. I think people would be even more motivated if he posted a chart showing everyone's consumption, to make it like a competition among groups of guests, past and present.  Might end up with a lot of stinky folks though...

Although there was a sweet camping area next to the river we'd decided to stay in one of their dormis (a tiny cabin with bunk beds) in the hopes of keeping a bit drier. That's the other reason Chiloé reminded us of Newfoundland; the weather. Or at least the way the locals talked about the weather - the day we'd arrived it was brilliantly sunny but our guide book warned of lots of rain, wind, and mud so we thought we'd better err on the side of caution.

After hastily unpacking our things we set out to explore the property a bit and enjoy the marvelous view from the common area of the lodge (which, I should mention, was really basic - mostly just a roof over your head with tables, chairs, and a small area with a 2-burner gas stove for cooking). Amory and Fernando's Eco Lodge is situated on a high bank at the confluence of three rivers, looking out at what is now a sunken forest thanks to an earthquake in 1960 that sank the ground about 2 m. This massive land subsidence allowed salt water to infiltrate the area and kill all the trees. All the trees in 140 km2 of forest. Crazy.

View from the Eco Lodge at Chepu. 

Sunset over the rivers at the Eco Lodge.

I barely survived our first night in the dormi. It was sooooooo cold. I think the only reason I didn't die of hypothermia was that I made Chris come down and sleep beside me on the narrow bottom bunk. Our sleeping bags are rated to -5... I don't think it was actually colder than that but I definitely wasn't warm enough in mine! Makes me a little nervous about camping in Patagonia... Thankfully Amory took pity on me and gave me a big comforter to use the next two nights!

Once I'd thawed out sufficiently we decided to hike the 6 or so km to the ocean. Following a gravel road over gently rolling hills, we passed dozens of quiet homesteads and ranches under the watchful eyes of cows and sheep. Chris wanted to adopt all the adorable newborn lambs that were frolicking around the meadows on their gawky little legs.

We finally reached a point where the ocean came into view from a hilltop at the end of the gravel road. Chepu is on the northwest part of Chiloé so it was the open expanse of the Pacific that we were gazing at. To reach the shore we had to make our way through a bizarre stretch of sand dunes. The sea  breeze whipped sand into our faces and erased our footprints as we walked. We managed to find a sheltered area to have our lunch and then continued toward the beach, slowly navigating through the next impediment in our path; a mucky marshland. Eventually we made it to the frothy shoreline where we walked for a ways before finding a new (but not much easier) route back to the road.

On our way to the ocean from Chepu.

These calves aren't very well camouflaged.
Good thing there aren't really any predators on the island.

Frothy waves of the Pacific Ocean breaking on Chiloe island.

Trying not to blow away.

Swampy area inland from the desert of the beach.

For the next day we'd made plans to partake in the Eco Lodge's feature activity - a kayak trip at dawn. Fernando instructed us to meet in the main lodge at 6am where he would outfit us for the excursion. We did as instructed and arrived to find the lodge dark with no sign of Fernando. A few minutes later he bustled in, commenting that it was early. I responded that it sure was but he rephrased to say that we were early. I said, "No, it's after 6..." but he took out his phone and showed me that it was only a little past 5. Totally confused, I ran back to the dormi to get the iPod (our alarm clock) and found that I hadn't made a mistake setting the alarm and confirmed that the time was after 6. It took a while to figure out that our iPod was an hour ahead because we'd set our timezone to Uruguay and they'd changed off of daylight savings overnight! Bah! Oh well. Better that we were up too early than too late.

Ready for our kayak at dawn experience.
After donning wetsuits, neoprene boots, gloves, lifejackets, etc we followed Fernando through the darkness to the dock where he loaded us into a double kayak and pushed us out over the black water.

It was utterly surreal setting out in the moonlight, depth perception all askew and hypersensitive to the nocturnal noises echoing across the water. The crooked vestiges of long-dead trees protruded from the placid surface like the charred bones of great sea monsters. Waves of dense mist rolled in just as the first hints of light appeared on the horizon, making for an extra eerie experience.

We found a good spot to watch the sunrise, anchoring ourselves to a partially submerged stump. It was so cold that I lost feeling in my feet and fingers but the promise of a gorgeous dawn kept us fixated on the eastern sky, anticipation more or less outweighing the discomfort. Slowly the colors of dawn began to bloom and transmute, paled at times by mist swirling between the riverbanks. We waited, mesmerized. When the fiery edge of the sun finally emerged over the hilltop it was an absolutely stunning moment and worth every bit of the painful wait. 

Once Chris had snapped a sufficient number of photos we disengaged from the stump and paddled further upstream, sliding through gaps in the sunken forest to check out a cluster of huge bird nests affixed to some of the taller dead trees. Eventually it was time to return to the lodge and warm up. Despite the cold and early morning it was a truly magical and memorable experience.

After we'd warmed up a bit!


Black-necked swans with goslings.

Ancud's church under reconstruction.

We returned to 13 Lunas in Ancud the following day, unexpectedly hitching a ride with a friendly old bee farmer who picked us up while we were waiting for the bus. We did our best to make conversation during the drive and had a hilarious moment of confusion when we thought he was telling us that the Queen of Canada had come to Chiloé. It turned out he had imported his original queen bee from Canada. Haha.

Lulled by the comfort of 13 Lunas and the companionship of Claudio and Pancho, we ended up spending the next 5 days chilling in Ancud. It was nice to have a sort of "home" for a while - the last time we'd felt that way was in Buenos Aires, nearly 2 months ago. We didn't go out much aside from trips to the grocery store but we did take one afternoon to wander around town to see the main plaza, the old fort complete with huge cannons directed menacingly out to sea, and we stopped by Ancud's small museum where they had miniature scale versions of some of the famous Chilote churches and other cultural artifacts on display.

Small marina of Ancud.
Miniature scale reproductions of Chiloe's famous churches showing the construction techniques.
Sure, I'll have a hug from a creepy old priest figurine.

At the Fort of Ancud.

Bay near the Fort.
Chris's lunch at the Ancud market - paila marina (a seafood soup)

We made one trip out of the city to visit another fishing village called Quemchi. It's on the east coast of  Chiloé so you can see mainland Chile on a clear day. Quemchi's main claim to fame is having the highest change in tides (7 m) on the island. We went to see all the beached fishing boats but they must've all been out at sea because there weren't very many. Lots of salmon farms though. We had lunch at El Chejo, supposedly one of Chiloé's best restaurants. The set lunch was pretty tasty but I thought we'd had a better meal at the market in Ancud for much cheaper.

Quemchi - one of many small fishing villages on Chiloe island.

Speaking of the market... Chiloé is also famous for the knit goods they produce from all those sheep on the island. We visited the market first and then a store recommended by Pancho and Claudio, coming away with a huge haul of items. Of course that meant we had to send home another box. Hopefully it'll be the last one! Chris also ordered a custom-made sweater that Pancho promised to ship to us at our next destination when it's completed.

I was really enjoying making full use of the fantastic kitchen at 13 Lunas but we had to venture out in order to try Chiloé's most famous traditional dish. Curanto is an enormous bowl of shellfish, pork, chicken, potatoes, and a sort of potato fritter served with jugo de mariscos (broth made from shellfish). The traditional preparation involves cooking it in a hole in the ground using hot rocks and covering the meat and seafood with the giant leaves of a native rhubarb-like plant. Nowadays it's usually just prepared in a pot but you can still get it al hoyo in some places. Chris ordered the curanto since I'm not much of a seafood lover but I did have a taste and it was good. I had salmon with a chorizo sauce, which was also tasty but a bit overpriced.

My salmon with chorizo sauce and potatoes. 
Curanto - Chiloe's traditional dish.

"Curanto. Helping people to have better sex since 1826..."

We finally decided it was time to get off our butts and see some more of the island so we headed south to the city of Castro for a few days. Known for being a bit more cosmopolitan than Ancud, Castro definitely has more big city amenities but retains traditional island charm in the form of palafitos; houses built on stilts over the water. We splurged a bit and stayed in a palafito hostel. It was a pretty neat building but a long walk down a huge hill from the center. And it definitely didn't compare to 13 Lunas back in Ancud!

Palafitos of Castro at low tide. Our hostel was the yellow one.

Low tide in Castro.

Church of Castro.
Our main purpose for visiting Castro was to use it as a base for seeing more of the island since it's basically right in the middle of Chiloé's east coast. For our first daytrip we took the bus to Dalcahue, a village on the eastern shore north of Castro. We wandered around there for a while before catching a ferry to the small island of Quinchao that lies between Chiloé and the mainland. Unfortunately the minibus to the first town on the Quinchao was already full when it arrived at the ferry so we had no choice but to start walking. Curaco de Velez is about 11 km from the port...

The view from the road was quite scenic as it was a clear day and we could see across to the snow-capped peaks of Northern Patagonia on the mainland. We walked for around an hour before one of our attempts to hitchhike was finally successful. Although we'd been enjoying the view and the nice weather, we were happy for the lift. In Curaco we found our way to the Rincon Gastronomico near the modest plaza but were disappointed not to find any of the delicious Chilote foods mentioned in our guide book. We came away with two sort of dry bun things and meandered along the shoreline until we came upon a soccer tournament in a field behind some buildings. We watched for a while and then decided to see if there were any restaurants in town. It being Sunday and low season, nothing was open. We could've gone further southeast on the island to the town of Achao but decided instead to call it a day and head back to Castro where we were certain to find something to eat.

Building in Dalcahue.

Dalcahue market - not open yet for the day.

Dalcahue's church.

Church in Curaco de Velez.

The following day we packed a lunch and took a minibus to Parque Nacional Chiloé about an hour west of Castro. It was kind of a nasty day but we'd decided to hike anyway, figuring we could do at least a portion of the really long hike mentioned in our guide book. When we went to the administrative office to pay our park fee we were disappointed to learn that they didn't have any maps and that there were only short hikes available, none of which actually crossed into the park proper. The administrator told us we'd need a guide to do the longer hike. Sounded like BS to us and to a French guy who'd packed supplies for 3 days, intending to do that hike. A bit disgruntled wondering why we had to pay the park fee if we couldn't even get into the park, we left the admin building and quickly completed the first short circuit through a forest of tepú trees. It wasn't bad but not what we've come to expect from national parks in Chile. Just a little overdeveloped. There was actually a sign along the trail directing us to an artesania - basically a souvenir shop...

View from the mirador in Chiloe's National Park.
Next we did the beach trail, making our way down through some grazing land to the sea. Along the way we came upon a rust colored cow that had lowered herself onto her front knees to graze. It was such a strange sight, her back angled sharply down, muzzle buried in the grass. Every once in a while she would shuffle on her knees to a new spot and continue munching. We didn't know what was wrong with her but she didn't even get up when Chris went very close. I think she might've had an injury... Poor thing.

View from a mirador on the Beach Trail of Chiloe's National Park (technically outside the actual park...)

It started to get really rainy by the time we reached the water so we just turned around and found a sheltered place back up the trail to have our lunch. Then we figured we'd head back to Castro on the next bus, which we thought was at 2. Since it was only about 1, we walked back to the main road and popped across to a little cafe to have a hot chocolate while we waited. There we found out that the bus wouldn't come until 4. It was raining so we loitered at the cafe for about an hour and then decided to walk towards the town of Cucao, en route to Castro. After crossing a bridge we were approached by two young guys who we'd seen drinking with a group near the water. At first I was worried that they were going to be belligerent or at least annoying but we ended up having a really good visit with them (in Spanglish, of course). They were interested to know what we thought of the island and excited suggest more places we should visit. They also told us that there is a proposal to build a bridge between Chiloé and the mainland and that they are strongly opposed to this plan. They complained that the mainlanders don't respect nature and just throw their garbage everywhere, ruining the scenery. They don't want more tourism on the island and a bridge would certainly mean a greater influx of vacationers. It was interesting to hear their thoughts. Plus we managed to use up a lot more of our waiting time so it wasn't long before the bus appeared to shuttle us back to Castro.

We returned to 13 Lunas in Ancud the next day for an exciting reunion with a couple of my friends from Canada. Mandi and Dan were honeymooning in Chile and we finally managed to work out a place where we could meet up with them. They'd gone on an excursion to see a penguin colony so they weren't at the hostel when we arrived. The good news was that Dalca, Claudio's dog, was back. During our initial stay at the hostel she'd followed one of the hostel guests on a long bike ride and hadn't returned. We were very happy that she was home safe.

A few hours later, Mandi and Dan returned with Claudio and Pancho, happy to have seen one penguin along with some dolphins and a whale. We decided to have a barbecue that night and had a great time catching up, swapping travel stories and gossip from home. Claudio and Pancho joined us after the Chile-Argentina futbol match was over and we had a fun little party.

Friends from home - Mandi and Dan.

Barbecue with friends.

Claudio turning up the music under the latest addition to the room's decor.
Pancho (left), Claudio (upper right), and Dalca (lower right)

Just before we had to say goodbye again. Fun times were had!

The next day we toured Dan and Mandi around Ancud a bit, showing them all the great spots that Pancho had showed us before, including a little kiosk where you can buy piping hot churros filled with dulce de leche (like caramel). The two of them loaded up on a ton of knit items just like we did. Wedding thankyous and xmas gifts all in one stop!

All of us were feeling rather tired after our little fiesta the night before so we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the common area of the hostel. Eventually it was time for Chris and I to catch our bus back to the mainland so we said our farewells to everyone and to the best hostel of our trip. Next stop: Puerto Varas.

I'll leave you with the following photo that exemplifies the typical style of election posters we've encountered all over Chile the past few weeks. Photos of candidates are superimposed over a landscape or cityscape, with the candidate extending an friendly "thumbs-up" to encourage voters to choose them. Awesome.


  1. looove the photos in chiloe. what camera do you use?

    1. Thanks for your comment Ignacio!
      Chris uses a Nikon D7000. He loves it!