The mysterious island of Chiloe, Chile’s largest island is passed over by many on a visit to this lengthy country. The Pacific Ocean battles its coastline constantly with rainfall and lushness is the side effect. Under its shroud of mist lays a unique culture different from that of the mainland. Strange mythologies, sleepy seafaring towns, emerald green hills and a history unto itself, a few days here is more than justified.
Spending time here was initially an afterthought. Maybe a day trip we thought… if there was time. The boat from the southern tip, Quellon, back to the mainland was booked up for a few days, so we contemplated briefly before taking the turn off to the northern ferry near Puerto Montt. I heard tales of penguins which was my driving force, but what this island beheld was so much more. Unique food, century old architecture, scenic beauty and yes, penguins all there for the taking (not literally). For those that seek these things, here is a relaxed itinerary for 3 days on Chiloe.
A short drive from the ferry, to the northwest corner of the island sits Ancud. A sleepy coastal city and the base of the penguin excursions which is only a short drive away. Instead of staying in town, it would be our first night camping right at the beach where the boats rest as well. There is a small campsite slightly raised off the beach to avoid the tides and a couple restaurants if you’re not cooking camp style.
3 Days on Chiloe
The penguin tours we heard were best in the early morning or evening. That said, first thing in the morning, life jackets on, we were on the boats for a small fee of 7000 CHP. The tour lasted around an hour taking us around the Natural Heritage Site Islotes de Punihuil. An annual breeding ground for a small population of Magdalena and Humboldt penguins, we arrived in perfect time. They waddled around the rocky islands with some difficulty, a few young still bound to the land until they finish their molting. Amongst the penguins we spotted a dozen or so birds, a couple sleepy sea lions and a sea otter skittishly diving around our boat.
Skipping breakfast, it was more than time for lunch. Driving back up the coast to Ancud, there is the tiny town, Quetalmahue. Here, you will find one of the most authentic versions of Curanto. Show up early afternoon to watch the unique cooking process. A glowing pile of coals and stones are the base as mussels, clams, beef, sausage, chicken, potatoes and a glutinous potato bread are piled on top. Covered with nalca (Chilean giant rhubarb), followed by a tarp and sealed with rocks, it is left to cook for an hour or so. Once unveiled, the smell fills the room and everything is mounded onto a plate of unnecessary portions. It’s an experience and meal for the day that you must do if you’re on Chiloe.
With a bloated stomach, we drove to Castro, the largest city on the island located on the central eastern coast. We set up camp and wandered the city. We checked out the Iglesia San Francisco (which happens to be the ugliest of the 16 Unesco churches in the area), before picking up a few camp supplies for the days to come before crawling into the tent for the night.
Stretching out the stiffness of ground sleeps, we jumped in the car and headed down to Dalcahue to start searching for the other Unesco churches dotted around. Here, was the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. This one and most of the churches were very different from the church in Castro. They had a very old wooden structure with a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ meets ‘Wild West’ feel to them. Brought in by the Jesuits missions centuries ago, they’re kind of odd considering their location, but beautifully maintained through the ages.
Before continuing the church scavenger hunt, we grabbed an early lunch at La Cocineria Dalcahue located right beside the handicraft market. Inside what looks like and old ship there are close to a dozen stalls. Number 8 is well known, but ultimately they are all selling the same handful of local dishes. The dish to try from whichever stall you chose is Cazuela de cordero con luche. A lamb soup with large chunks of vegetables and local seaweed (luche). Cazuela is a dish you’ll find throughout the country, but no matter how many I had, none compared to this.
Driving onto another ferry, we crossed over to the small island of Quinchao. We came to a viewpoint overlooking the town of Achao where the first of two churches were located on the island. Looking into Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto while strolling along the sleepy coast, we carried onto the small village of Quinchao. Iglesia de Quinchao was probably my favourite of the churches with something quite sinister about it as if from a horror flick.
Only a short drive from Castro, there is also the Iglesia de Rilan, Iglesia de Nercon, Iglesia de Chonchi and Iglesia de Vilipulli. The others are all reachable, but require a bit more of a drive or ferries to the small islands around Castro. Ultimately, they all look similar. For me, after I saw six of them I didn’t feel fussed about hunting down the rest.
Camp packed up, we headed south from Castro. Not too far along, a fork in the road appears. Left will bring you into Chonchi, while right will lead to the turn off across the island to Chiloe National Park. A narrow road that hugs Lake Huillinco, through the Jurassic like landscape will eventually bring you to the Pacific coast. With the ominous clouds and strong winds whipping across the beach we didn’t spend long on the beach itself, but returned to the park entrance.
Near the entrance is a small museum that describes the indigenous peoples, fauna and flora of the area. From here there is a series of simple hikes. Much of it is along boardwalks and swampy paths with viewpoints along the way. The paths led us through moist, moss covered rainforest and up into more open plains with coniferous trees. The amount of diversity in such a small area is outstanding.
We left with mud crusted boots and pants, but before returning across the island we stopped for an early dinner at El Arrayan. A cozy place with a nice wood fire, it was a perfect place to fuel up. Pulpo (octopus) and Corvina (sea bass), some local seafood seemed a good choice considering where we were. Stomachs full, we retraced our route over the island and headed south to Quellon.
It was the end of the Pan-American Highway and southern port city of Chiloe. We watched the sun set over the island that we would soon be leaving behind. The island of Chiloe was so much more than expected. Natural beauty, historical architecture, wildlife and unforgettable meals, we made the right decision to spend 3 days on Chiloe. Boarding the ferry, the city lights faded in the distance. We were officially bound for the rebuilt town of Chaiten and whatever the Carretera Austral held in store for us.