The International Writers Magazine: Travel
Chilling in Chiloe
It was definitely human hair that the old woman was trying, without success, to throw into the sea. The breeze had blown it back inshore and it was now tangled in bushes further down the cliff. Wearing Wellington boots the lady scrambled down with surprising agility to retrieve the hair and complete her odd task while I gazed on from above.
I was in Ancud on the island of Chiloe, the first sizable town encountered after crossing by ferry from mainland southern Chile. Chiloe is famous for its damp climate and resulting lush green landscape, for its myths and superstitions and for its wooden churches.
The town of Ancud is frequently bypassed on the way to the more obviously appealing Castro, the capital of Chiloe further south, but those who linger a little longer may well find their enthusiasm for the town growing with each passing day. Ancud is set magnificently on a wide bay and a great deal of its appeal is due to this setting.
||Good, cheap accommodation is available on the sea front and the views, especially of sunsets over the bay, are magical. The town itself is pleasant without being spectacular. The main square is a relaxed spot to pass the time and indeed simply passing the time becomes a pleasant habit on Chiloe.
Sitting on the sea wall looking out over the shining blue waters of the bay I feel that sense of possibility that one feels near the sea in a remote area, the sense that something strange and unusual could swim past. Although I was not lucky enough to spot the Pincoya, a mermaid-like goddess of the sea that is part of Chiloten mythology I did see dolphins and sea-lions during my short stay.
If the need to be active does return one of the best options is to take the enjoyable excursion to the mixed penguin colony (Magellanic and Humboldt species) at Pumillahue to the west of Ancud. Departures are frequent, cheap and easily arranged in town. The price includes the boat trip around the small rocky islands just off the west coast of the island where the penguins breed. You might also see pelicans, marine otters and if you are extremely lucky, whales.
As an island the sea influences everything in Chiloe, especially the food. Curanto is the dish most associated with Chiloe. Some restaurants offer pale imitations but with a bit of research it is possible to find places that prepare the meal in the traditional hole dug in the ground. Cooked with heated stones, the ingredients of shellfish, sausages, meat cuts, potatoes, potato bread and vegetables combine to filling effect.
|Castro is an hour and a half to the south of Ancud. Bus services on the island are efficient, comfortable and cheap. The scenery on the journey between the towns consists of green and grazed hills with fields separated by hedges. It reminds me of Scotland although the circling vultures and occasional flitting hummingbird detract from this impression.
The atmosphere of Castro is a surprise - it is bustling and quite youthful. The town centre is dominated by the brightly coloured cathedral which stands on the charming Plaza de Armas. The wooden interior has a golden hue well worth seeing.
||For anybody interested in the unique wooden churches of Chiloe (cited by UNESCO as “outstanding examples of the successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions”) dedicated tours are available but anybody spending a reasonable length of time on the island will encounter at least a few in during their stay.
Similarly striking examples of architecture are the palafitos, wooden houses built on stilts over the water below. They look dilapidated but pretty and near the market on the waterfront several have restaurants inside them. The market itself sells a wide variety of woollen goods as well as more contemporary items. Right next to the market is a row of stalls selling fresh seafood. A bowel of cholgas (the large local mussels) served with lemon juice, chopped parsley and a small chopped salad costs about £1 and is a delicious meal in itself.
Quellon is the third of the largish towns on Chiloe and is the end of the road, literally. The Pan-American Highway system which starts in Alaska is claimed to terminate in Quellon although, as seems to be the way here, Argentina makes a similar claim for Ushuaia in the Argentine territory of Tierra del Fuego. Quellon lacks the instant appeal of Castro and also the slow-burn of Ancud. It is not particularly attractive (and the climate in the south of the island seems damper than further north) although the seafood here is as good as anywhere on the island. The reason most people visit is to take a ferry south to Chaiten, the town that functions as a starting point for a journey down the Carretera Austral, the road that heads into the depths of Chilean Patagonia.
Be warned that summer in Chiloe has one major drawback. Not huge numbers of tourists or inflated prices but horse flies from hell. Known locally as Tabanos they are black, big and very enthusiastic.
And as to the human hair? I asked some locals about its significance but they had no idea. Not even all the locals on the island know about some of the traditions here. Such is the nature of the island of Chiloe.
© Tim Robinson August 2010