Mythical charms of Chile’s remote Chiloe island

Chiloe in southern Chile appeals with its untamed beauty and vast wilderness

Only a narrow strip of water - the Chacao Canal - and a 40-minute ferry ride connect the islands of Chiloe to mainland Chile, but for residents living on either side of the channel, they are a world apart.

Forty islands make up the Chiloe (pronounced "Chi-lo-ay") archipelago running down southern Chile's rugged coastline and they are part of Los Lagos Region (Region of the Lakes), with Puerto Montt - gateway to Chile's Lake District on the mainland - as the regional capital.

Viewed by the mainlanders as a curiosity with its myths, legends and wooden churches that look like upside-down boats, sparsely populated Chiloe is pulling in more visitors these days as the isolated splendour, vast wilderness and different lifestyle combine to exude a unique appeal.

The largest island in the group - Isla Grande de Chiloe or Chiloe for short - is Chile's largest, at 8,300 sq km or 12 times the size of Singapore, and the most visited.

Travelling from bustling Puerto Montt to Chiloe, which takes less than two hours, is akin to stepping back in time.


A woodpecker chipping away at a tree in Chiloe National Park. PHOTO: TAN CHUNG LEE

  • GETTING THERE

    Fly to Santiago, capital of Chile, then connect with a domestic LAN Chile flight to Puerto Montt.

    Take a shuttle bus from Puerto Montt airport to the city's main bus station, where buses operated by various companies leave frequently for Ancud. A bus ticket costs about 4,000 (S$8) to 5,000 Chilean pesos and the price includes the ferry crossing to Chiloe.

    Santiago is served by airlines such as Iberia and LAN Airlines from Madrid or Lufthansa from Frankfurt.

    It is also accessible via the Pacific from Sydney, a route operated by LAN and Qantas.

The difference is palpable the moment you arrive in Ancud, the first major town in Chiloe after the ferry crossing.

Here, the pace of life is slower, in keeping with its natural surroundings. The capital of Chiloe for almost 200 years before it was replaced by Castro in the south in 1982, Ancud gives a good insight into what the archipelago has to offer.

Top of the list is the abundant seafood, especially the shellfish that dominates the cuisine.

What strikes you about the bounty of clams, mussels and other weird-looking but wonderfully scrumptious crustaceans are their enormous size.

The bustling municipal market near Ancud's waterfront is the place to marvel at the shellfish hauled in each morning.

However, for most visitors, Ancud's allure lies in its strategic location at the doorstep of some of the island's wildest spots.

Chief among these are the Islotes de Punihuil, a trio of islets in the Pacific Ocean clustered around the Bay of Punihuil about 30km west of Ancud.

These rock outcrops, home to Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, are the only place in the world where the two species are known to share a common breeding ground.

Both species of penguins are related and look similar - the only way to distinguish them is by their neck markings. Magellanic penguins sport two black bands between the head and chest, while their Humboldt cousins have only one.

Considered a natural monument, the area around the islands has been designated a no-fishing zone and penguin-watching boat trips (49,500 Chilean pesos or S$102 a ticket, www.turismopehuen.cl), conducted during the nesting season from September to March, are highly regulated.

They leave from the Penguin Station on Punihuil beach twice daily - at 10am and 3pm - and about half a dozen departures are allowed each time. The boats, which have to keep a certain distance to avoid disturbing the birds while they breed, are given only 20 minutes to spin around the islets.

It may be only a glimpse, but there is plenty to see - penguins, pelicans, cormorants and kelp gulls.

Many of the penguins preen or bask on the rocks in groups, while some nest in burrows and lie on their stomachs.

Another reward of the half-day trip from Ancud to Punihuil Bay comes from the drive along some of Chiloe's northern beaches.

Some of them are unusual, such as Polocue beach, with its shoreline of cliffs studded with volcanic basalt columns, and the long, wild and windy Mar Brava beach on which we drive, looking at oyster catchers and kelp gulls feeding along the shoreline.

Punihuil Bay delights with its walking trails on promontories from which the beauty of the sweeping bay can be best appreciated.

In Ancud, there is much to explore, especially along its waterfront dominated by what remains of the Fort of San Antonio, with its old cannons looking out to sea.

The 19th-century fort is the last Spanish stronghold in the country, which surrendered to independent Chile in 1826.

In its main square, several sculptures of Chiloe's mythical creatures take pride of place - the result of the blending of indigenous superstitions and Catholic beliefs throughout the centuries.

The town, like others in Chiloe, boasts a different architectural style from the rest of Chile.

The distinctive Chilote style that developed here was the result of the Spanish colonialists adapting their construction methods to the local materials when they arrived in the 16th century.

Wood was plentiful, harvested from the magnificent alerce trees that once covered the island, so wood shingles known as tejuelas were used to construct houses and buildings.

Just as characteristically Chilotan are the island's churches. The Jesuit missionaries who came after the Spanish colonialists to convert the pagan indigenous tribes living on the island would try to build a church wherever they settled.

The hilltop San Francisco church in Ancud built in the 1900s is typical of the handiwork of Chiloe's carpenters.

However, for older and more impressive examples, I venture to the picturesque town of Dalcahue, a 90-minute bus ride from Ancud, home to the small but pretty church of Nuestra Senora de los Dolores, built in 1849 with a portico of nine arches.

From Dalcahue, it is a short ferry ride (1,200 Chilean pesos a ticket) across the Dalcahue Channel to Isla Quinchao, one of about 20 islands scattered across the inner sea separating Chiloe from the mainland.

In the middle of Isla Quinchao lies Achao, where the oldest of Chiloe's wooden churches still stands.

The Church of Santa Maria de Loreto overlooking Achao's central Plaza de Armas is immense, boasting a gorgeous decorative ceiling - it is topped by a 25m tower.

It dates back to 1740 and is one of two churches that have survived intact from the time of the Jesuits.

Castro, the capital of Chiloe, is known for its colourful palafitos, which are traditional wooden stilt houses with street-level frontages built out to sea.

Many of the palafitos, which were the homes of fishermen, have been converted into boutique hotels, cafes, restaurants and art galleries.

Although the palafitos are built close together, there is plenty of privacy, as I find out when I gaze out of the balcony of my room in Patio Palafito (www.patiopalafito.com, room rates starting from US$72 or S$98) that overlooks the appropriately named Fiordo (Fiord) of Castro surrounded by a grassy knoll.

Boats tethered to the palafitos provide their owners with another form of getaway.

Like Ancud, Castro has the Chiloe National Park (www.conaf.cl) at its doorstep.

The heavily forested northern sector closer to Ancud is difficult to access, while entry to the middle sector is restricted by Chiloe's National Forest Corporation, known as Conaf.

The third sector that is easily accessible and can be explored without a guide is in the south, 50km from Castro.

It is in this area called Chanquin that Conaf has a visitor's centre with an interpretative display of the park's rich flora and fauna and eight well-mapped hiking trails on mostly wooden walkways.

From Castro, I take a bus to the small settlement of Cucao, from where it is a short walk to the entrance of the national park.

Most of the walking trails can be completed within 11/2 hours and, with a day to explore, I cover four paths that afford a glimpse of the park's natural beauty.

The Sendero Lahuen skirts part of the tranquil, reed-filled Lake Cucao before leading to the Sendero El Tepual that is a walk through native tepu woodland ending abruptly at the edge of a marshy swamp.

The Dunas de Cucao trail ventures inland through coastal dunes, then branches off as the Sendero Playa, which cuts across the dunes and extensive beaches to the roaring Pacific Coast running parallel to the park.

Except for the Lahuen trail, the others penetrate deep into the park's evergreen forest that is a tangle of gnarled trees and hanging vines - a setting so spooky, it is easy to imagine it being the home of a mythical creature called Flura.

The park is abundant with wildlife, but sightings of Darwin's fox (named after Charles Darwin, who spotted the fox and collected it as a specimen during his expedition to Chiloe on the Beagle ship in 1834) and the world's smallest deer - the pudu - are elusive.

More easily spotted are the birds, of which there are 110 species. I observe a female Chiloe woodpecker hammering away at the trunk of a tree, oblivious to my presence.

This serendipitous sighting is a wonderful affirmation of the wild beauty of Chiloe.

•Tan Chung Lee is a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Splendid isolation'. Print Edition | Subscribe