A daytime flight anywhere in Chile offers spectacular views. After sojourning in the cities of Santiago and Valparaíso we were ready for a dose of nature, so our next destination was the beautiful island of Chiloé, some 600 miles south. Naturally, the flight presented dramatic mountain vistas.
But Chiloé is a much “softer” place.
Next to Tierra del Fuego itself, Chiloé is Chile’s largest island, at 3,241 square miles. Known for its national parks, historic wooden churches, picturesque palafitos (harborside houses on stilts), and sizable population of penguins, as well as a wide variety of flying birds – “Chiloé” means “place of the seagulls” – it’s a popular vacation destination for Chileans and Argentines. But it’s not overwhelmed with tourists. That made it a wonderfully peaceful interregnum, though an active one, in the middle of our two weeks in Chile.
The flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt just north of Chiloé was an early one, so instead of taking the bus back to Santiago and then a taxi to the airport, we had arranged for a private car from our Valparaíso hotel. Prices in Chile are low enough that it’s affordable to splurge like that now and then; also, our travel schedule was crazy enough that we didn’t want to take too many chances.
From Puerto Montt it was another very short flight, half an hour or so, to Chiloé’s small central city of Castro. But when we arrived at our “hotel” we thought we had the address wrong. It appeared to be nothing more than a restaurant in a little house, near the beginning of the classic row of palafitos along the street called Ernesto Riquelme. Many of these old fishermen’s houses have been redeveloped as inns and restaurants, but Mi Palafito’s website had been confusing when we booked it, suggesting that the room was its own building, but how could that be?
Turns out it could. Our room, really a studio apartment, was the whole upstairs of the palafito, with the restaurant downstairs. And it was Christmas Eve, so the restaurant was closing and remaining shut all the next day, which meant we really did have the house to ourselves.
Over the next few days we observed from our room the tide coming in and out, revealing and then submerging sandy expanses – a humble yet sublime viewpoint on the eternal clockwork of nature.
We had arranged to take a penguin tour on Christmas Day. Fortunately a cruise ship was in town for the day making it worth the tour company’s while to work on the holiday. Our tour van was full of cruise ship people. One exception was a writer for the Italian edition of National Geographic, touring the island to write an article about it. (He reappeared on our national park tour the following day – more on that below.)
The penguin tour took us to the northern part of the island. We stopped first in the island’s other big town, Ancud, to see the Fuerte San Antonio-Ancud, a seaside fort built in 1770 by the Spanish to protect the region from uncooperative natives who, the Spanish thought, might try to attack by sea.
Then it was on to the penguin tour at Bahia Puñihuil, a happy adventure. There’s no dock, so, arriving at the rustic headquarters on the beach, we climbed onto a wheeled platform and were pushed by tour workers out to where our boat awaited offshore.
It was a gorgeous warm day. Anticipation grew. Cameras were deployed, hats held onto. We had no idea what to expect. Scanning the rocks for an occasional furtive penguin? Squinting to see them from a distance? But the trip turned out to be a magnificent close-up cornucopia of wildlife: penguins (two types, Magellanic and Humboldt), red-footed cormorants, seagulls of course, and numerous other species of bird, with the mammalian order represented by several marine otters, sightings of which we had been told were rare (though I suspected that was just to make us feel special).
The rocky islets teemed with penguins, and the boat got us very close. Sensibly, people aren’t allowed on these protected grounds. Not that it would be at all easy to get around them on foot, as you can see from the photos below. Scrambling would be the operative word.
The penguins do plenty of scrambling, doggedly hopping up the slopes, falling back down, uncomplainingly trying again. But for the most part they seemed to be just hanging out with their friends at what look like penguin cocktail parties.
The tour included a very good and very sizable lunch – fish, of course – served at the on-site restaurant.
The churches of Chiloé were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000. The biggest is the Iglesia de San Francisco in Castro, which serves as the town’s architectural focal point as well as its primary Catholic church.
Our adventures in the town of Castro itself included a trip to the supermarket for prepared foods for dinner on Christmas Eve when everything was closed; discovering, the next night, the only restaurant in town open on Christmas night, a diner-like place where we indulged in the Chilean passion for the hot dog completo with mayonnaise, sauerkraut, chilis, green sauce, and I can’t even remember what else.
We walked up and down the very steep hill to the waterfront more times than we needed to, sometimes aided by stairs, sometimes not, nervously avoiding the homeless dogs that nest up and down the streets. We spotted a number of houses decorated with Santa Clauses dangling under the windows, which we eventually realized must reflect a different tradition than that of the North: How does he sneak into houses that don’t have chimneys? Through the window, of course.
Colorful and fancifully-shaped shingles are typical of houses in Chiloé. Constructing these wooden sidings is a time-honored local tradition, but newer examples are made of lower-maintenance plastic designed to look like the old wooden surfaces.
Other colorful if less well-maintained sights await at the waterfront.
The next day we took a day trip to the Parque Nacional de Chiloé on the island’s west coast. With the cruise ship gone, it was just us, the Italian National Geographic writer we’d met the day before, and a well-traveled local tour guide who also sang with a reggae band. The sort of person who makes friends right away with everyone he meets, he led us first to an overlook of Lago Huillinco, a lake between the two sections of the big national park.
Traveling onward to the northern “Chepu” section of the park, we stopped at the visitors’ center and a small museum devoted to traditional local culture, cooking, and farming, then plunged into the park’s varied landscapes. Mist and on-and-off sprinkles of rain served only to deepen our sense of being in the vibrantly alive wild.
The muddy trails and raised wood-plank paths took us through grassy dunes and Valdivian temperate rain forest.
In some areas, the root systems coalesce into a whole second level of what appears to be forest floor. Step onto it at your peril, though.
After the park, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of clam empanadas (surprisingly great!), cheese empanadas, dense potato dumplings, and fresh-made juice at a farmhouse whose kind and enterprising owner, a wonderful cook, has an arrangement with the tour company. Then we walked out back.
After lunch we headed back towards Castro along Route 5, which also happens to be a stretch of the Panamericana Sur, part of the Pan-American Highway…
…and stopped in the town of Chonchi to see its colorful church.
Our final stop was the tiny lakeside village of Vilupulli to look at its church. Inside, we got to climb up into the bell tower.
Just down the dirt road from the church was the shore of the Golfo de Corcovado. Thanks to the miracle of the modern digital zoom, we got a decent look at these beautiful black-necked swans, South America’s largest species of waterfowl (according to Wikipedia).
Back in Castro, we couldn’t stop birdwatching. I’m not sure what to call either of the birds below. If you happen to be an expert on South American birds and can identify them, please leave a comment!
What with Christmas and the cruise ship schedule, it had been hard to find time to get to Castro’s well-known waterside market with its many vendors of hand-knitted alpaca goods. That evening, our last in Chiloé, we got our chance. Here is the magnificent result.
That was also our night for experiencing curanto, Chiloé’s signature dish of sausage, potatoes, and whatever seafood’s been caught that day, traditionally cooked in a pit in the ground. This restaurant-kitchen version wasn’t terribly authentic, but it did the trick and then some – we couldn’t even come close to finishing. One would have been enough for the two of us.
Early the next morning we headed back north to begin the final leg of our journey, this time heading all the way to the north end of Chile, to the Atacama Desert. Because of the flight schedule, we had to catch a plane from Puerto Montt instead of flying out of the Castro airport. The van ride north included a long stretch of the Panamericana Sur and then a ferry ride to the mainland.
From there the road to the Puerto Montt airport snaked and seemed to dwindle through so many kilometers of quiet farmland that we doubted there could actually be an airport out here. But the helpful women of the transport company seemed to know what they were doing, and sure enough, after awhile the airport appeared, complete with airplanes and a view of a stunning snowy mountain. Chiloé already seemed a long way away.
Check back soon for the conclusion in Part 4: San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00RWSVWYQ][amazon template=iframe image&asin=9568481079][amazon template=iframe image&asin=140538980X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00Q6DCXKA][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0822353601]