The Great Island of Chiloé, just north of Chilean Patagonia, is home to fiercely proud locals who identify as chilote more readily than Chilean. The birthplace of 90% of the world’s potatoes, the archipelago is experiencing a surge as a travel destination and should not be left out of a trip to Chile. By day Chiloé is a place of gentle adventure–think kayaking, hiking and camping against the backdrop of inlets, rivers, ports, pebbled beaches and rolling country hills.
A particular quirk of Chiloé is its rich folklore, in which tales of ghostly ships, sirens, warlocks and creatures straddling the divide between human and animal are told. “I don’t believe in magic. But I know it exists,” locals say with a knowing look.
1. El Muelle de las Almas
El Muelle de las Almas (the Dock of Souls) is a poetic wooden pier arching off the green hills of Cucao sector. According to local lore, when a person passes away their spirit must come here and call the mythical “Tempilkawe” to set their soul free. The moderate 2.5 hour / 5 kilometer hike is accessed via Rahue beach and crosses the private Fundo Punta Pirelli, where a small fee is charged (around $1.5 – $3 per person). Don’t have a car? Day programs to Muelle de las Almas depart from Castro.
A quaint port town and the departure point for rural Quinchao island, whose lookouts point to the mainland’s Andes and wetlands, give rest to migratory birds. While in Dalcahue be sure to visit the famous cocinería, where aproned señoras commandeering a series of mini kitchenettes serve up paila marina (a hearty seafood soup) and stews with luche seaweed, as well as roast meats and seafood empanadas.
3. A moving minga
Mingas are a beautiful and now more uncommon home-moving tradition where the local community pitches in to physically move a home over land and sea. This tradition gives new meaning to the expression “move house.” The payment? A sumptuous feast and good wine!
4. Penguin watching
Near Ancud lies the Pinguineras de Puñihuil penguin rookery, where you can find Humboldt and Magallanes penguins. To visit these comical little creatures, book a day’s tour (including boat trip penguin watching) with a local agency, departing from towns Castro and Ancud.
5. Fiestas costumbristas (local cultural festivals)
After the New Year’s fireworks have fizzled out, Chiloé’s principal towns gear up for another round of celebrations with their annual cultural festivals. Held in January and February, the festival features farm animals, sheep shearing and wood-chopping, plus local craft beer, cheese, liquors, clothing and handicrafts.
6. Tantauco National Park
For those who prefer their hiking with a side of quality infrastructure in the form of campsites, refuges and easily to navigate trails,Tantauco National Park delivers. This private park has 130 kilometers of authorized trails, including two multi-day (8-9 day / medium-difficult) routes that take hikers across the entire Park and pass through campsites and cypress wood refugios (forest huts). Before arriving, confirm your dates and party size with the Park’s administrators (www.parquetantauco.cl) to ensure refugio space is available.
7. Chepu wetlands
Meaning “meeting place,” Chepu is a point of connection between the sea, land and rivers. After Chile’s monstrous 1960 earthquake shook great expanses of forest, the landscape became a “sunken forest” whose long-dead branches now stretch out of the water at odd angles. Explore Chepu with dawn kayaking excursions or horseback riding, birdwatching and trekking.
8. Rilán Peninsula
From potatoes to seafood, Rilán’s history is very much written in farming. However, today it’s become the newest unofficial center of Chiloé’s tourism, complete with boutique hotels, large luxury hotels and options for rural tourism (think organic farm-to-plate food, farm-nestled cabins and a chance to see animal feeding and milking) all on the one peninsula. Active families might like to rent a bike and cycle in from Castro (around 27 kilometers to the town of Rilán).
Chiloé’s traditional home is a tejuela (wood shingle) covered house made from native alerce. Stilted houses called palofitos can be found at the shores of Castro, where the weatherbeaten, scale-like appearance of their tejuelas gives an almost melancholy air.
10. Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) from Quellón
Best yet, Chiloé is the gateway to Chilean Patagonia and the iconic Carretera Austral, one of South America’s most noteworthy road trips. Transport your car via ferry from Chiloé’s Quellón to mainland Chaitén and begin your onward adventure! (Check the ferry company’s website at www.navieraustral.cl to confirm departures days, as they are infrequent in the low season.)
Even Chileans themselves agree that Chiloé is another world. So when in Chile, consider taking time to visit this archipelago; whose islands, beaches, coves, wildlife, treks, food, culture and mythology will surely provide a collage of memorable experiences.