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A Wild Trip to Chiloé, Chile's Magical Island

In Chiloé, a thousand kilometres south of Santiago, life unfolds to the rhythm of the tides.

Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa

The heavenly view from the Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa.

I am in Chile and I am disoriented. Yesterday, I flew from fall into spring, northern hemisphere to southern. But that’s not why. I’m disoriented because I’m seeing an upside-down boat. In the sky.

I’m gazing at the ceiling of the Church of Nercón in Castro, one of the Chiloé Archipelago’s 16 UNESCO-designated churches. The local people who built this church in the late 19th century were expert boat builders who constructed the ceiling the way they knew – like a ship, but inverse. It’s beautiful and strange, and staring up into it makes me feel a bit upside down myself. Here, the sky’s the sea. Welcome to Chiloé.

If Chile is South America’s sleeve, then Chiloé is a particularly interesting fringe sewn on its seam. Chiloé Island is the largest of 40 or so in an archipelago slung below Chile’s southern coast, 1,000 kilometres south of Santiago. Some 165,000 people live here, largely clustered along the east coast, where you’ll find better seafood and more sunshine. This charming, wild place is becoming a destination, one where you can, all in the same day, touch raging Pacific spray, see penguins sway from toe to toe, ride horseback through woods, then unwind in a Jacuzzi. Chiloé is perfect for those who eschew the easy or the easily explained: If you’re looking to see South America as envisioned by the lovechild of Guillermo del Toro and David Lynch, Chiloé is for you.

Sergio Colivoro Barria; ferry journey from Pargua to Ancud

Left to right: Street music: Sergio Colivoro Barria plays near his accordion museum in Chonchi; the ferry journey from Pargua to Ancud, Chiloé.

I set out from Puerto Montt, on the mainland, with my guide, Vicente Cabezas. He grew up on Chiloé, where, he says, “We have another way to see the world. Life, nature, how we talk, it’s totally different than the mainland.” Life is simpler here, but also slightly weird, touched by superstition. People are physically, and spiritually, separate from the rest of Chile. “Before we say that we are Chilenos, we say we are Chilotes.” “Chilote” was once a slur, a word used by mainlanders to cast aspersion on their isolated, strange neighbours. In the rest of South America it became a derogatory term for all Chileans. But the people of Chiloé have reclaimed it.

As we drive from village to village, wild Chiloé shows itself. We barrel along increasingly narrow roads through tighter, scrubbier foliage, its green bursts grabbing at our van until we break through into a valley dotted with farms and the odd roadside empanada stand. A last bumpy stretch drops us at the Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa. The modern, clean-lined hotel is a nod toward Chiloé’s hopes: designed to highlight the landscape, not obfuscate it, and using bright, beautiful wood with a maritime-meets-forest feel.

Mussels and clams

Mussels and clams fresh out of a pit-steamed curanto.

Weeks later, I will describe Chiloé to friends back home: dreamy. Magical. There is, some say, actual magic afoot, but it’s more than that. People here move slowly, act deliberately, eat from deep within the earth and sea. Wherever there is open shore, people (mainly women) are bent in half on it, seeking mussels. All parts of this place seem to work together, energized by one another.

The Tierra Chiloé is a luxury reinterpretation of these feelings. When my head hits the pillow that first night – okay, every night – I’m wearing alpaca slippers, buzzed on full-bodied Chilean wine and smelling of woodfire from the copper fireplace that dominates the sprawling, inviting main floor.

Fishing boats at low tide in Dalcahue

Beached: fishing boats at low tide in Dalcahue.

I’m walking on a slant in a tiny, hilly village called Chonchi, where green moss fuzzes up the side of every shingled building, like the whole place used to be underwater. Down a side street I see a hand-painted sign propped up against the wall of a building: “Accordion Museum.” Inside a dark, low-ceilinged room I am suddenly among more accordions than I have ever seen in my life. I stand under fluorescent light and clap as several elderly Chilote people sway to polka-esque music played by the owner and chief docent, Sergio Colivoro Barria. He’s invested in the accordion not only as an instrument but as a symbol; at one point, every family in Chiloé had one, and everyone could play. Nowadays, the bright-eyed, alert Sr. Colivoro Barria collects disused accordions to fix, to preserve their delicate bellows and buttons. At the centre of the room, the guts of several accordions lie exposed on a table.

While this is enchanting, it’s also a reminder: Chiloé is changing. Very few young people stay here past school age, when they flock to the cities, Santiago especially. Most of the young people I do meet – staff at the hotel, or on other excursions – are from elsewhere, choosing seasonal work in a beautiful setting but not making their lives here.

Castro; Ramón Octavio Pérez Gallardo

Left to right: Little pink houses in Castro; Artist Ramón Octavio Pérez Gallardo works on a sculpture of a mythical being from Chilote folklore.

On our second day, passing through Ancud, a serene fishing village on the northern shore, I meet Ramón Pérez, a traditional woodcarver working on a squat, ugly-faced creature. He tells us in Spanish that this is el Trauco, a mythological figure whose main responsibilities are tricking women into loving him and impregnating them. El Trauco’s wife is la Fiura. A man lured by la Fiura will do whatever she asks, including get drunk, make mischief and stay out all night. When I tell Cabezas I have an ex-boyfriend who knows la Fiura, he tells me he has several friends who are “sons of el Trauco.”

As we set sail to view the palafitos, a row of colourful stilt houses that perch over the water, I think of el Caleuche, the ghost ship that sometimes appears, ominously, in these waters. We hoist the sail, and the first mate whips the mast with rope. “He’s trying to make the wind,” Cabezas whispers. “But he must have faith. If he has no faith, there will be no wind.”

Moments later, we start the engine.

The Church of Nercón; Chef Conni Saldivia

Left to right: The Church of Nercón, in Castro, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Chef Conni Saldivia of Café Blanco in Ancud.

The palafitos once operated on a principle central to Chilote life: The garden behind your palafito was for veggies, potatoes mostly; the garden in front, the ocean, was for everything else. Clams, fish, but especially mussels, are a central foodstuff here. And nowhere are they more prevalent than in Chiloé’s best-loved and strangest dish, curanto: A mass of seafood, pork and potatoes is placed in a pit over hot rocks, buried under Chilean rhubarb leaves and steamed to perfection. There are no herbs or spices involved. On the Dimter-Maldonado family farm, near Ancud, a massive curanto is already steaming inside an outbuilding when we arrive. A merry family band plays traditional Chilean music, and we’re welcomed with pisco sours by the home’s matriarch, the tiny, cherubic Maria Luisa Maldonado, whose smile could light up even the darkest of steam huts.

Once ready, the curanto is “discovered,” plated and devoured. Potatoes play a large role, and for good reason. Every potato you’ve loved, fried, mashed or scalloped, can be traced back to Chiloé – there are more than 280 varieties here. Most homes have a potato plot; helping your neighbours harvest is a community-wide concern, called a minga. Nary a dish arrives in front of you without at least one potato on it.

So enchanted am I by my curanto experience that I take up a dare to eat a Chilean filter feeder called a piure, which tastes like a haggis full of aromatic herbs and looks like a tiny human heart. When I look up, the all-male band is staring and Sra. Maldonado is laughing. The piure, it turns out, is an aphrodisiac, and a good one: I am fully falling for Chiloé.

Jorge Loaiza; two musicians provide Chilote entertainment

Left to right: All aboard for Conejos Island with captain Jorge Loaiza; two musicians provide Chilote entertainment for a curanto at Tierra Chiloé.

On my fourth morning in Chiloé we board another boat, this time in search of penguins. Here, nestled near the 47th parallel, is a colony where the birds can be found nesting during the summer months. While it’s a bit early in the season, we spot a single pair waddling around Conejos Island. “Like human beings, only one couple forever,” someone says. Someone else, full of an apple moonshine called chicha, makes a snide remark about monogamy. (It’s me.)

Part of Chiloé’s magic is in its natural environment, with swaths of the coastline protected under national-park status. And while our penguin trip is a bit of a bust, we are treated to a magnificent showing of leaping Chilean dolphins – darker and smaller than their bottlenose cousins – as our boat glides back to shore.

The shoreline is a veritable bird paradise. At Refugio Pullao, a bird reserve and hotel a stone’s throw from Tierra Chiloé, we set out on horseback, spotting several seabirds low over the bay. I follow the sensible braid of our no-nonsense guide Catalina through sucking seaside mud and into the woods. My mare, a Chilote female after my own heart, charges ahead, sensing dinner. While she sups on straw, I’m treated to lamb asado, potato bread and a last, best batch of pisco sours.

Catalina Guildemeister, Refugio Pullao

Guide Catalina Guildemeister leads out on horseback at Refugio Pullao.

Back on the mainland, Valparaiso is full of street art, shops and bars, all tumbling down a sharp incline toward the sea. I savour an espresso from Café Astillero, owned by a young man with hip, side-shaved hair who moved from Santiago with his wife for a more relaxed lifestyle. You want relaxed, I almost say, try Chiloé. But how to summarize the accordion museum? There are no mythological beings here, no seafood steaming underfoot, no inverse boat above. Valpo is lovely, and the coffee is fantastic. But it’s not Chiloé.

Glancing at the archipelago on a map, you would be forgiven for picturing something desolate, almost Antarctic-like. In reality, it’s bursting with life. Actually, all of the country is densely alive, squeezed between mountains and sea. Chile is like the accordion, bellows pushed together mid-song. And the weird, lively notes spilling out? That’s Chiloé.