The peaceful Isle of Chiloé, Chile’s second largest island, is worlds away from the dramatic landscapes of Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, but by no means is it any less enchanting. This smoother, more subtle Chilean scenery really has something quite different to offer and has been well-preserved over the years on account of its relative inaccessibility. Our Chile expert Eli tells us why this enticing island blew her away…
What actually initially struck me is how the island reminded me of somewhere much closer to home – it is luscious and green due to the amount of rain they receive, and the rolling hills, beautiful forests, and sheep and cattle grazing could easily be Scotland or Ireland! But despite its somewhat familiar aesthetic, the island’s culture is really otherworldly, and certainly nothing like anything you will find anywhere else in Chile. It is the island’s isolation which has enabled it to develop this very unique culture, and certainly this is Chiloé’s main pull. One thing that is particularly intriguing about the island’s culture is the widespread belief that the people of Chiloé still have in witchcraft and mythology. Based on indigenous religions, myths and legends brought by the Spanish conquistadors and tails of creatures that live on the islands, Chilota mythology came to be in the 1500s. Though I had heard about this before I went, I was amazed to see that it really is alive and well, so much so that they are adverse to even speaking about witches just in case one should overhear!
A trip to Chiloé wouldn’t be complete without visiting the capital Castro to photograph the famous houses on stilts known as palafitos, but as a lover of all things South American (in particular the continent’s exquisite woollen goods), one of my highlights was a visit to Dalcahue market. It’s the only market on the island that has banned cheaper, factory-made woollen produce from Peru and Bolivia, and vows to sell just wool from Chiloé (smelling, without fail, rustic and just like the sheep that was recently wearing it!). The items on offer are absolutely gorgeous, from rugs, to jumpers, scarves and even baskets. If you are planning a trip here I recommend going on a Sunday when the market is at its peak, and be sure to leave lots of room in your suitcase! Another must-see is the churches of Chiloé, which were named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000. They are representative of local skills and traditions and are constructed entirely with native wood (just like most of the houses on the island), including even marble-style pillars inside the church. A final worthy stop-off is the town of Ancud and its nearby penguin colony, where you may also be able to observe marine otters, sea lions and numerous sea birds.
My main word of advice with regards to visiting Chiloé would be to stay on the island itself. Rather than a long day trip from the mainland which can leave you feeling rushed and shattered, spending a few days on the island allows you to really get under the island’s skin and enjoy the Chiloé’s untouched beauty, as well as getting to know the people. During my time on Chiloé I stayed at the fantastic Tierra Chiloé, the newest property in Tierra’s impressive portfolio. With just 12 rooms it is a lovely intimate property; I felt at home within five minutes of my arrival, especially after putting on the cosy woollen slippers they leave for each guest! Every room has a full-wall window with panoramic views out over the lake. I could sit and gaze at the lake for hours – much better entertainment than any television could offer! The food is delicious local produce, mostly grown in the hotel’s own garden, and the guides and staff go all out to make your stay extra special. They really treat you like family – so much so that they made avocado ice cream for a member of my group after she mentioned she had not yet had the chance to try any of the famous Chilean avocados! The excursions on offer are plentiful and varied, and the guides are more than happy to adapt them to suit each guest’s preferences. Tierra’s ethos is largely based on responsible tourism, and they work hard to integrate the local community into as many aspects of their business as possible – all guides are local, and excursions include trips to visit and support community projects. During my stay I enjoyed a hike to Muelle del Alma (pier of the souls), visiting a revived primary forest and meeting the amazing lady who had achieved it all by herself, a trip on Williche, the lodge’s wooden boat, and kayaking. It’s a truly unique property and it’s safe to say I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat!
At the moment Chiloé remains relatively un-touristy and quite an off-the-beaten-track destination, with only 5% of the island’s current industry being involved in tourism. It would be nice for this to remain the case as I really do feel that this remoteness and separation plays a significant part in the island’s charm. However, with a relatively new airport open in Castro and a bridge to the mainland in construction (previously the only way to arrive on Chiloé was by ferry), I can see things changing for the island in the not too distant future as it becomes more accessible. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and experience somewhere with a sense of inner peace and a truly unique culture, Chiloé has to be your next stop, but make sure you get there before everyone else does!