This article has been updated on January 6, 2021
Chiloé is Chile’s largest island (8300 km2), with a population of 150 000 people. While some travellers categorise the island as “off the beaten path”, others know it for its typical wooden carpentry-architecture churches as well as buildings and palafitos, AKA wooden houses build off the street-level out into the sea. I’d say that the local seafood restaurants have also earned a well-deserved reputation. Furthermore, for those who are keen on local legends, Isla Chiloé is also known for its rather unique local folklore that involves many legends, strong superstition and a twisted past of practising witchcraft.
It was the witchcraft and the local pagan mythical stories that brought me here during my journey around Latin Americas. Unfortunately, all I could get upon my little investigation was that “it’s a mythology”, “a thing of a past” and so on. I’m not sure if my feeling was correct but it felt like it’s a thing the locals were not so proud of or they just didn’t want to talk about it because they are still superstitious, the latter option making me even more curious.
Legends of Chiloé Island: 300 years of isolation
So what am I talking about? Chilote mythology is based on a mixture of local indigenous religions and beliefs and the legends and superstitions brought by the conquistadors from Spain, pirates and various other sources of sorts. Such mixtures are rather common in Latin Americas, but in Chiloé‘s case, in particular, the beliefs evolved in a unique way due to the island’s long isolation from the mainland.
The thing is that Chiloé‘s close physical proximity to the mainland wasn’t matched politically at all. It is because the archipelago was the only Spain-controlled territory in the region for a significant period of time, during the Grand Araucanian Wars between the Spanish Crown and the impressive indigenous Mapuche warriors who in spite of their inferior technology, have managed to push the colonists away from the southern regions of the country in the late 16th century.
Legends of Chiloé Island: Stories, creatures, ghost ships and so on
The local legends were therefore being cooked for over 300 hundred years, separately as well as in the middle of massive political and cultural changes to the whole broad region. We’re talking about stories of ghost ships, wizards, and many bizarre creatures, out of which some can trick you into having sex with them as Bruce Chatwin once described in his famous book about Patagonia.
A singing, fair-haired beauty similar to the German Lorelei is called la pincoya. It is said that if she dances towards the coast the sea will bring a lot of fish. A ghost ship carrying the souls of wrecked sailors, similar to the Flying Dutchman, is called caleuche. And if someone tells you he or she was seduced in the forest, it might have been the fiura or the trauco, which is often blamed for venereal disease or an awkward pregnancy. A very pitiful figure is the invunche; as a baby, his orifices, including his eyes, were closed and one leg was sewn to his back so that he walks on three legs.Wikitravel
Legends of Chiloé Island: Mythology vs real events
However, there was more to it than just stories and superstitions. In 1880, a real trial took place on the island, when the officials accused a group of people that called themselves La Recta Provincia (the Righteous Province) of multiple crimes. The Righteous Province was a sort of secret society of “wizards”, involved in kidnapping babies, killing loved ones and so on. All sorts of dark stuff.
From my semi extensive reading on this subject, it appears that it was some sort of an underground government of which scarce tactics were witchcraft and all sort of dark shit. In case you wanted to read more about the legends of Chiloé Island, here’s a Compas Cultura article, written by Mike Dash, who did a better job investigating the legends of Chiloé Island than me…
Places to see and things to do on Chiloé Island
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The landscape of the island reminded me of Ireland for some reason. Well, it’s not for some reason. Chiloé is very green, rather plain, grassy, wet, and of course pretty. Compared to the neighbouring hilly Patagonian mainland it is therefore a rather significant change. The island also feels more local AKA less touristy. I mean that while there is still a lot of tourism-related infrastructure but it’s not as dominant.
My personal observation is that the lesser amounts of tourists might be also making the locals a bit more chatty and curious about you as a person, rather than just keeping the conversations to the practical minimum as opposed to some more busy Patagonian hot spots. Overall, Chiloé comes as a pleasant change because, for someone who’s been around tourist places for a while, the island feels like “a normal life”.
The island’s capital is a nice provincial capital city, with a population of around 42 000 people. It’s pretty much walkable on foot, however, expect some steep hills. Most people want to see Castro‘s colourful palafitos upon their visit to the island. Personally, to get the most out of the potential, I recommend doing so during the high tide so you won’t end up with the swamp version of the attraction like me (see the picture above). Please note that this is not the only place to find palafitos but this is certainly the most photographed place in the whole city, if not the whole island 😉
Another popular attraction in the area is the local churches registered as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. There are sixteen of them altogether, all concentrated in or nearby Castro, in the central-eastern zone of the archipelago. Even if this wasn’t your thing, in Castro, you won’t be able to miss out on Iglesia de San Francisco church (see below), as it nearly overshadows the cathedral next to it. More information as well as their exact locations could be found here, on its Wiki page.
Ancud and the penguins
The former capital of the island is a bit smaller (pop. 27000) and therefore more relaxed if compared to Castro. Except strolling around the centre and checking out the quality of gorgeous seafood restaurants around its main square Plaza de Armas.* A wildlife enthusiast should consider a popular day trip from Ancud to the penguin colony Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil, with Magellanic and Humboldt penguins.
Parque Nacional Chiloé
The islands west coast holds a 430 km2 (166 sq mi) national park, with rich wildlife, that includes for instance 110 different types of birds or the world’s smallest deer pudú. There are several great hikes available in the park to take you through its evergreen forests, tunnels of dense vegetation as well as sand dunes and the Pacific coast. More information about the park could be found on its Wikipedia page here.
In the south of the island, there’s Parque Tantauco, Chiloé’s largest natural attraction (1180 km2/456 sq miles). The park is a private natural reserve, dedicated to ecotourism and the protection of its rich biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Tantauco Park offers 150km of well maintained and marked hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty. There are also fully equipped campsites and basic refugios. If you like to have nature “for yourself” and not share it with bigger crowds, this might be just the place for you to check out 😉 Find more information on the park’s website here, in case you were interested.
Other places and activities to explore
The above destinations are what I believe the highlights of what this island has to offer. It should take up about 10-11 days to explore them in a semi-relaxed manner. However, if you have for any reason wanted to go into more depth, there are still more places and activities to be considered. Kayaking around the small islands on the Eastern shore would certainly also qualify as a popular activity among some travellers here.
While you were in the area, you could also check out the Cascadas de Tocoihue waterfall. People also like to visit the small historical town Dalcahue in the area. Another popular attraction is catching the sunset at Muelle de Las Almas (Pier of Souls) nearby the small village called Cucao on the west coast.
Social life and safety
If you’re around, definitely check out the local seafood restaurants. Particularly the local dish curanto that gained popularity outside the archipelago’s boundaries. We’re talking seafood, meat and potatoes that are placed on hot coals in the hole in the ground that’s covered with leaves to steam for 24+ hours but the modern methods also include swapping the ground and coal for the oven.
As for after the dinner kind of activities, I must confess that I was in Castro in February during the Festival costumbrista a celebration of traditional Chilote life, which meant some dancing and singing, a lot of curanto and even more drinks. I mean a lot of drinks. I am therefore not sure if I’m qualified to describe the local social life objectively because I had a blast 🙂
All I can say I that the town had a lot of joints though. With very good beer selections. And everyone wanted to talk to me and I wanted to talk to everyone. I remember that. And then I remember the massive hangover. This also applies to my knowledge of safety in the area. I barely remember getting to my accommodation but in the morning I was only missing the money I’ve spent on drinks.
Apparently, the island is generally safe. Because it’s less touristy, it’s most probably not as safe as the touristy Patagonian locations but the locals told me that using the normal precautions should do the job. You know the drill: don’t flash your valuables, use common sense, don’t be a dick and so on. More general tips, as well as tricks about safety in Latin America, could be found here, in case you were interested.
How to get around and how to get to the island
From Puerto Montt it’s a couple of hours drive, the non-expensive buses leave every hour or so. From the east, you can take a ferry from Chaitén. From the south, you have the option to take the long ferry from Puerto Chacabuco as described in this piece. The nearest airport is in Puerto Montt but you could even get here from Bariloche (Argentina) in a day’s time, that’s if you didn’t stop anywhere. Which you would, because you’d be crossing Andes and there’s like a million views per second…
Both cities Castro and Ancud offer a rather wide range of accommodation. You could even stay in one of the palafitos, if you fancied that. Please make sure that you’ll check both, Airbnb and Booking to get the best deal. As a person who prefers the local vibe to hostels, I’ve stayed in Castro‘s Hospedaje Familiar Magaly via Airbnb. It’s conveniently located about 3 minutes walk to Plaza de Armas, it’s a nice little place at about the best price for a private room in town. For $17.20, the friendly Alicia and her family will welcome you in their family house warmly and make you a decent breakfast with coffee in the morning.
Sort of Epilogue
To decide whether Chiloé‘ is the right place to visit for you, I’d take few things into consideration. Would you find the Ireland-like landscape exciting? Have you explored Patagonia and not you’re looking for something different? Would a large national park with fewer visitors, like Tantauco be something you would consider? I mean that Chiloé is a very nice and friendly place to visit but given the attractions in the region, it must be ticking some boxes for you to outweigh the Patagonian wilderness, landscapes, fjords and glaciers.
Speaking for myself, I can say that I’m glad I’ve decided to visit here. But then again, I’ve been in the mountains and around popular tourist attractions for six weeks. Chiloé was therefore something different for me. Although I wouldn’t call it “off the beaten path”, I admit that it has certain signs that would qualify for such categorisation. It’s certainly more local and less touristy. Your take might however be different to mine…
Useful and interesting links
- National Park Chiloé: CONAF’s (Chile’s National Forest Corporation) page on the Parque Nacional Chiloé (in Spanish) the park’s official site is here (also in Spanish only);
- Parque Tantauco official website
- UNESCO Churches of Chiloé: UNESCO page
- The Righteous Province trail: Mike Dash also wrote a piece on the 1880’s La Recta Provincia trail and their practices for Smithsonian Magazine here;
- Mapuche’s Resistance: In case you were interested in the unique and powerful indigenous resistance against the colonists in Chile, here‘s a paper about The Grand Araucanian Wars: (1541-1883) by Eduardo Agustin Cruz
Other popular destinations in the region
Only a few hours drive north, you’ll end up in the picturesque town of Puerto Varas with stunning views of Volcán Osorno across Lago Llanquihue. The town itself feels very resorty but the area offers a lot of trekking options as well as seasonal winter sports. More details could be found in the joined piece about Puerto Varas and Bariloche in the link below.
A 5hrs stunning ride across Andes would get you to San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina. Like its Chilean counterpart Puerto Varas, Bariloche is also very resorty/touristy, while it offers numerous trekking as well as activity options. Read more about both places here, in case you were interested.
If case you’ve had some spare time, I’d definitely recommend exploring the stunning Carretera Austral, a 1200km stretch of road that starts in the neighbouring Puerto Montt and ends in Villa O’Higgins. The road cuts through the stunning Patagonian landscapes that include multiple national parks with great trekking options around fjords or glaciers as well as activities such as rafting, kayaking and so on. A little detailed guide to exploring Carretera Austral could be found here.
Popular Patagonian destinations further south
Further south on the Argentinian side of Andes, I’d recommend visiting El Chaltén to take upon some spectacular treks in the Los Glaciares Parque Nacional, including the iconic Mt Fitzroy. More details could be found here.
Perito Moreno Glaciar
If you made it this far south, please do not miss out on checking out the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, nearby the city of El Calafate. A little guide on how to visit the glacier could be found here.
Torres del Paine
Hopping back to Chile over the Andes mountains from El Calafate would get you to Puerto Natales, which is a gateway to access the iconic Torres del Paine Parque Nacional. More details could be found here.
End of The World
Further 1/2 day’s ride from Puerto Natales will get you to the southernmost town in the world Ushuaia with plenty of trekking and other touristic activities on offer. More details could be found here.
* Please do not get confused with the name of the square, in case you haven’t worked it out yet, Plaza de Armas is in every larger Latin American city and here‘s why in case you were interested.
Traveller’s Guides to Chile and Argentina
For more complex information that includes basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit in Chile or Argentina, please click here, respectively here.