Chillin' in Chiloe

The largest and Northernmost island in Chile’s vast Patagonian Archipelago that stretches from Puerto Montt to the Southern tip of the continent, Chiloe is a step back in time. Stefje and I arrived on Monday evening after a mostly dormant bus ride from Argentina; we couldn’t help but compare the quaint streets and languid fisherman lifestyle with the overwhelming touristic vibe of Bariloche. We stepped off the bus in Ancud to find sunny skies and luxurious temperate weather, a fresh breeze blowing in off the Pacific Ocean just a few blocks away. The quiet town doesn’t receive many tourists outside of the peak summer season, so we were greeted by a congenial vibe among the few travelers at our sparsely occupied hostel. 

Due to it’s geographical separation from the rest of the continent by water and the lack of a through route South, centuries of colonization and economic development have refused to alter Chiloe’s cultures and customs. The local market in Ancud is still stocked with piles of fresh fish and mixed seafood, the prices low and the smells of ceviche  and fresh plates of oysters intoxicating. 

The inhabitants aren’t dependent on tourism, just the natural bounties of the Pacific. Life here is calm and peaceful, a far cry from the hubbub of Santiago or the over-priced tourist agencies of Puerto Varas. Although it’s easy to see why some short-term travelers rushing through the region would fly right over the island - there’s a lack of impressive sights and adventure sport outfitters - I feel sorry with anyone who travels through Chile and misses out on this little slice of preserved heritage. 

A late sunset started reflecting the last rays of daylight across Ancud’s well-guarded bay. Stefje and I meandered down to take in the view at the Fuerte San Antonia, the last vestige of Spanish holding during the Chilean war of independence. Antique cannons ringed the battlement walls, which we perched ourselves onto and took in our first incredible view of the islands, coves, and salt water bars that make up this distinct part of Chile’s naturaleza. As the sun set over a new destination and turned the clouds sublime hues of orange and red, it was a clear reminder of why I love traveling and the opportunity to experience new horizons. 

Tuesday Stefje and I set off to explore the tiny town of Ancud, holding our noses through the pungency of the fish market on our way to the center. Ancud’s main plaza featured an overly helpful tourist office that loaded us up with free maps and a cultural museum with a 25 yard long blue whale carcass on display. 

The waters West of Chiloe have started to serve as an increasingly important breeding ground for blue whales as the schools of krill near Antarctica begin to decline; some scientists believe these waters could be one of the species’ last safe harbors in the decades to come. 

We wandered North of town afterwards, criss-crossing through groups of laughing schoolchildren enjoying an outdoor lunch break, eventually coming across the lookout point for the city’s North beach. Perched into the hillside behind us were colorful little houses quirkily constructed and in front of us the sea stretched for miles with morning light shimmering across the surface. Below our feet was a coarse sand beach protected by steep rocky cliffs on either spot, the ideal spot to spend a few lazy hours relaxing in the sun and watching the imperceptible erosion of rocks on the shore. 

When hunger called we retreated to town for a set menu lunch from one of the many highly competitive restaurants that adjoin the fish market. The portions were out of control: I got three entire fish piled on top of each other and a volcano of french fries for just 3000 pesos, easily the best deal yet in Chile. As we walked back to the bus station to work out way out of Ancud, I tried to internalize all the little things which made the little town so endearing: the young lovers finding covert spots to hook up on the outskirts of town; the mid-day drunks posted up on a staircase passing around a big bottle of beer; the ever-present sounds of motorized fishing boats whirring in and out of the harbor. 

A few hours later we were in Castro, having progressed South down the coast with endless views of forests and farm lands passing by us. Immediately upon arrival we were greeted by the town's ornately painted church, a relic dating back to 1771. 

We booked a hostel that looked just outside of town on Google Maps, but the steep hills of the seaside metropolis ensured that by the time we arrived on foot out legs and backs were exceptionally sore. However, on the way we were treated to exceptional views of the Eastern coast of Chiloe and the secluded bay that makes Castro that island’s most well-protected and populous city. We even happened across a backlit view of the palafitos, the city’s famous houses on stilts backing up right into a dry riverbed that fills with water at high tide. 

We were greeted at the hostel by an entire family, invading their dining room with our massive backpacks and sweaty clothing after the long walk. Nevertheless they were friendly and delightfully accommodating, eager to learn about us and hear about our travels in Chile (but not in Argentina, they hate that place).

Wednesday morning we planned to head for an overnight camping and trekking trip to Chiloe National Park but a foreboding weather forecast combined with a fear of hiking through the pouring rain for the second week in a row forced us to postpone the trip. Instead we headed over to the local bus terminal and caught a bus/ferry combination to Achao, a tiny island located off of Chiloe’s East coast. Like the shattering of a plate of glass, islands are scattered across the oceanic gulf between Chiloe and mainland South America. In Achao’s main plaza was one of the oldest churches in all of Chile, a raw wooden clapboard structure from 1730.

We let our imaginations wonder at what it must have taken to build such an austere structure almost three centuries ago, what culture shock those first Spanish visitors must have caused among the indigenous inhabitants. The church was rudimentary in its form and starkly decorated, with the wooden panels decorated by merely slapping an ominous shade of black paint on them, but it was impressive in its steadfast survival against the elements. 

The town itself felt completely dead, as there were few more than a dozen people we encountered the whole time. While strolling the streets we searched in vain for any signs of life, eventually popping to a quiet restaurant for a cazuelo: traditional spicy seafood soup garnished with corn and sweet potatoes. Before heading out of town we climbed a steep hill to grab one last view of the beach and green headlands of Ahcao, but a torrential rain and wind storm rolled through soon after, eliminating any hope of us lingering to enjoy the view. 

Back in Castro that evening, we succumbed to the need for warm surroundings by getting drinks and snacks at a chic and cozy cafe. The following day we took off for the park entrance in the minuscule hamlet of Cucao. The road there was quintessential Chiloe: more sheep and cows than humans, with plenty of luscious green farmland for them to graze on. Upon arrival, we set off for one of the short hikes near the main entrance, traversing up and down over a series of sand dunes covered with grass and bushes. There was even an Arrayanes forest, with clusters of the cinnamon-colored tree trunks that we’ve grown to expect in this area. 

Spring in Chiloe means the dominant presence of blooming flowers: the entire time we were in sight of these bright yellow ones, their leaves snowing down in heaps whenever gusts of wind came through. 

See that dog behind Stefje? He picked up our trail almost immediately when we set off and followed us all the way down to the beach, where cows lounged in the sun and lines of waves crushed ferociously behind them. It was just the first of many wildlife interactions that day, as wild horses grazed by the side of the trail and uncountable different species of birds swept through the lagunas next to the dunes. Once we got past the dunes we recognized how strong the winds were, as we were now without protection between us and the Pacific and could feel the full force of the ocean winds in our faces. 

Eventually it was time to move on, and we began the longer section of our hike by reuniting with the only traversable road and progressing North on the gravel, passing by small farms and their corresponding hovels. Between the rolling green hills, constant threat of rain in the distance, and wind whipping incessantly straight across our faces, it wasn’t hard to imagine we might be walking along the coast of Ireland or Scotland. 

In the distance we spied a creepy abandoned refugio and we holed up in it just as the first downpour hit, thanking our lucky stars for the good timing and poking our heads out the window every 15 minutes to observe the constantly-changing weather conditions. It was in that rustic cabin that the remoteness of Chiloe really hit me for the first time: this place is truly isolated from the connectivity and worries of the rest of the world. 

An hour later we sensed a brief opening in the clouds and made a break for it, getting to the point where the trail veered off onto the beach. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in my travels through South America, yet nothing could compare to this. For a hundred yards across there was nothing but pure sandy beach, so flat across you could play soccer on the surface, yet utterly untouched by humans. Wide seashells and empty crab shells abounded by the thousands, begging to be picked up. At the confluence of the sand and the surf lay the oddest manifestation of the Ocean I’ve ever seen, as the rough sea started breaking into series upon series of waves more than 50 yards from shore. Invigorated by the sight and unable to control my excitement, I bounded like a child and sprinted along the water’s edge. 

The rain came and went the rest of the afternoon, with winds so strong that we could never even see the oncoming precipitation until it was just 15 minutes away. We tried to push on all the way to our original goals of camping in the settlement of Cole Cole, but after encountering an unappeasable river in the middle of the beach, we were both pleased to learn that the other was ready to pack it in a look for a warm and dry place to spend the night. What a great decision that turned out to be! 

Our sights converged on a family-run guesthouse on top of one of the seaside cliffs we had just passed. Backtracking to the spot, we were greeted like family by a venerable grandmother overseeing a three generation household. Inside we found all the amenities we needed to lift our rain-trodden spirits: a warm fireplace, a dry bed, and a steaming cup of tea. The rain ceased to a halt and the family told us the steep path to Cole Cole would have turned into a mudslide by now; we were infinitely happy with our choice to stop there. 

As afternoon turned to evening we got an unfiltered look at their daily life: it was a quiet existence of collecting firewood, making bread, and waiting for the male family members to come home. Most curious to me was the generational gap when it came to technology. The youngest daughter spent the day watching videos on a cell phone and her mother kept a constant stream of soap operas on in the background while cooking, but meanwhile the grandmother’s only source of connectivity seemed to be checking the weather out the window every hour or so. 

Friday dawned as a completely different day. From our hillside perch we head a gorgeous vista of the one thing we desired most for the hike back the trailhead: sunshine, and plenty of it! The wave still crashed on the rocks with reckless abandon, but the wind had ceased its incessant howling and left us with the dawning of a gorgeous day in Chiloe’s remote wilderness. 

Eager to take advantage of the circumstances and wary of the highly fluctuant weather, we started the return trip. The way back along the beach I delightedly held my shoes in my hands, letting the sand dig in between my toes. The rain, wind, and incessant wetness from yesterday was gone: it felt like summer in a remote paradise once more. 

Back at the trailhead, we got one more taste of the area’s natural surroundings by following a guided path through the abundantly mossy and diverse forest. The previous day we had seen trees accompany the shoreline all the way along our path, but we had no idea how many different kinds of trees flourished in the park until we got the chance to walk side by side next to the trunks and leaves, with plenty of variations. 

That afternoon our weary legs were back in Castro, which seemed downright cosmopolitan after all that time surrounded by the solitude of nature’s beauty. The city was downright frenetic that evening, as Friday also marked the opening day of Telethon, a massive country-wide fundraise for people with disabilities. Comparatively the highest-viewed telethon per capita, the country went all out in its support and coverage of the event. The main square was packed with families, children running around and whole families enjoying sweet treats like stuffed churros and caramel popcorn. Firefighters offered rides in their antique truck to young children, riding around the town and blaring their horn. 

Stefje and I were the only tourists in sight and spent plenty of time just reveling in the atmosphere, observing all the little quirks of Chilean culture we’ve grown to love. Just before sunset, which keeps creeping later as we progress South, we made our way to a cliffside viewpoint on the side of town for one last view of the palafitos. Through a thin layer of clouds came the last rays of sunlight, illuminating the empty riverbed like a divine intervention and rendering us speechless at the beautiful sight. 

Saturday was spent most of the morning preparing supplies and cooking two days worth of meals, as that night we had tickets booked for a boat trip through the fjords of Patagonia. But to leave the island we had to get to the Southern port of Quellon, so in the afternoon we decided to try and hitchhike down the coast. Quellon also serves as Chile’s ending point for the mythical and monstrous PanAmericana, so we thought it would be fun to hitch the last section of this road that we’ve been following for almost six entire months! 

Grabbing a ride was easy, as we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes before a French couple brought us half an hour South to Conchi, then a Quellon native bought us all the way to his hometown and we walked the last few hundred meters of that awesome road. Thanks for the memories, La Ruta Cinco Sur! 


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