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Visiting Chiloé Island

by Laurence Roberts and Mary Anne Unrau 8 Mar 16:30 UTC
Fishboats Castro harbour © Laurence Roberts and Mary Anne Unrau

We were lucky to visit Chiloé Island, a prominent Island off the west coast of Chile, in 2007 and again in 2017. We didn't know much about Chiloé, except that it was between Valdivia and Patagonia. We had relished our time in Valdivia, but we eagerly looked forward to Patagonia for two reasons:

1. Scuba diving
2. Seeing Patagonia's fabled lands and vistas (like Torres del Paine and Cape Horn)

When we arrived at Chiloé the first time, it easily captivated us with its quaint old wooden houses on stilts, fishboats, craft markets, hobbit-like farmlands and seafood. Chiloé was the last embattled haven of the Spanish in Chile. Spain had taken possession of the Island in 1567. During colonization, and after the Indigenous population had been decimated in sweeping epidemics of both smallpox and measles, the Island saw a mix of Indigenous and Spanish traits and belief systems.

One particular trait of the inhabitants became even more apparent as time passed; they resisted political change. First, the Indigenous Islanders held out against the Spanish colonizers and forced them back to the north of the mainland. Later, in the 1800's, when the rest of Chile fought for independence from Spain, the Islanders resisted and fought to remain loyal to the Spanish crown. The Island was virtually cut off from the mainland for 8 years and only became part of the Republic of Chile in 1826.

The name Chiloé means, "place of seagulls", in the Huilliche Indigenous language one of the three Indigenous groups on the Island. This unique name points to an inherent difference between the characters of the Island and the mainland. The 'land people' farm, fell trees and search for mineral wealth. The people of Chiloé are 'sea people', who maintain themselves by seafaring and harvesting from the ocean.

The Spanish promoted Christianity on the Island and Jesuit missionaries arrived to evangelize the population. A number of chapels were built throughout the archipelago. More than 150 wooden churches received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1972. The Jesuit influence seems to live in the emotion displayed in the wooden artwork, that is displayed in some churches.

The Islanders identify themselves as, 'Chilotés', and pride themselves on their unique culture and spoken Spanish that is almost incomprehensible and quite different from what one hears in the rest of Chile. Our taxi driver in Castro demonstrated his beautiful tourist-oriented Spanish and his Chiloté on one exciting trip (exciting because of his driving-style on the steep narrow streets).

The wooden items in the local museum are ingenious due to lack of metal on the Island during the period of isolation from European-manufactured products. Old wooden fish boats are kept for generations and scrupulously maintained. They are pulled up for servicing during the low tides. During our visit in 2007, we felt that in many ways the people still lived with the old rhythms and ideas passed down through the generations.

In the early 1970's, the mixed blessing of advanced aquaculture brought Chile to a leading role in world salmon production. Unfortunately, by 2007, when we talked to fish-farm workers in Patagonia, we heard about Infectious Salmon Anemia. This disease lead to a plunge in revenue, mass lay-offs and great hardship. Today, the Lonely Planet is still advising that Chile uses more antibiotics than any other country in its fish farms, and that the best fish are exported out of the country. Chilean salmon served in restaurants is either unfit for export or, if labeled 'wild', means it's a fish-farm escapee, as the species is not indigenous to the region.

In 2007 in Puerto Eden, (a more southerly fishing village in Patagonia) we photographed huge middens of clam shells. By 2017, these middens were depleted, and in their place we photographed large numbers of clams populating the rocky coast. The return of the mollusks was not reassuring, as red tide has caused the Chilean government to ban their consumption. This has pressured the local fishermen to look for a different prey and they have turned to the Santolla crab. These are now shipped live to Paris and New York.

In 2017, we learned that all shellfish sold in supermarkets is safety tested, so we ate it on the Island and in Valdivia where it had gained a following among our Chiloé-loving friends.

The wonderfully delicious local dish of 'Curanto' was devised in Chiloé. We first tasted it in Puerto Eden where our friend, Luisa, who owned a pizzeria, reciprocated with a meal after we invited her family for dinner aboard Traversay III. Luisa, a native of Chiloé, spent a day making Curanto for us in 'the old way'; in a huge pot over a wood fire.

On our first sail towards the Island, we noted the green hills dotted with sheep. It reminded us of the shire in the 'Lord of the Rings'. Farming is a continuing industry and fields are ploughed by oxen. Many varieties of endemic potatoes are grown and eaten with gusto by locals and visitors.

We appear to have had mixed feelings about sailing to Chiloé that first time. An illustrated letter, dated September 27, 2007, reflects that we were sad to leave our friends in Valdivia:

"... However, we expected a life of travel and we needed to push on. Our trip to Chiloé was given added incentive because of meeting fellow sailors, Alfredo and Juan, at Marina Estancilla when they came aboard to see Traversay III in mid-August. They invited us to attend a party at Marina Quinched for Chilean National Day.

We were promised beautiful live music, and we certainly got that. Also some fabulous BBQ, beautiful young people and great food. Many people arrived from Santiago to spend National Day there. We were able to spend a little more time with the Jugo family, who were staying at the Resort facilities on the grounds of the Marina, while working on their boat where their BBQ gave us a chance to talk with their children who speak perfect English as did all the young people we met."

Most South Americans regard sailing as a summer activity (the summer season starts soon after Christmas and ends in March). In Chile, a boat is a highly-taxed luxury item, only purchased after the home and the pastoral cottage. People who have the wealth to own a vessel keep their boats in Puerto Montt, at the northern end of Patagonia, and travel from their homes in Santiago for the sailing season.

We spent two National Days moored outside the city of Castro, the main city of Chiloé. We went into town for the day and saw the quiet pride in the culture of folk dancers, the Volunteer Fire Brigade dressed in brilliant red, and a brass band.

Each National Day we flew a huge Chilean flag and decorated the inside of the boat in case someone stopped by.

We visited the ornate wooden cathedral, a nautical museum with various wooden artifacts from the colonial period, and enjoyed the craftsmanship and hand-knitted articles in the Craft Arcade. We dined in the waterfront restaurant, on its palafito pilings, complete with pelicans waiting to seize on seafood scraps donated by the many restaurateurs.

Adjacent to Chiloé are numerous smaller islands, which share the Chiloté culture and history. During our first visit to nearby tiny Quehui Island, we were impressed by the UNESCO-protected church with its guitarist and the entrepreneurial spirit of Ignacio, a local who led us on a tour. During the second visit, we belatedly realized that we had visited the same church and spent time with Ignacio in 2007. In a silly attempt to save disc space on our computer, all of our photos from 2007 were reduced to low-resolution. We were happy to take new photos of the church, the wooden image of the crucifixion, and of Ignacio, who had not changed in the intervening years. Only I had changed!

Visiting Mechuque Island is a high point of any trip to Chiloé. Although it has changed somewhat due to an influx of mostly Chilean tourists, it was practically deserted when we were there and we had plenty of space in the nearby anchorage. Large restaurants had been readied with immaculate white tablecloths, and caterers were ferrying quantities of fresh lamb into the kitchens from the narrow (unchanged) stone allies. The bridge was still there, the blue wooden church, the wooden hand-crafted sign, the boats hauled out for low tide, and the waterfront with its blue, yellow and red structures and green fish boat. This time we missed the oxen pulling a plough in the middle of town and the teacher leading his students in a vigorous calisthenics display. In leaving the anchorage, I pulled up a vast number of weeds, which had to be harried off the anchor with a sickle.

The town of Quellón, at the southern tip of Chiloé, is the southernmost point of the Panamerica Highway. It hosts numerous fish boats and larger vessels carrying salmon from the vast numbers of fish-farms within Patagonia. When we were there, we found a wonderful wood-working shop with two artisans crafting incredible wooden portraits of the villages, with their UNESCO-protected churches at the center of the life of the surrounding parishes. We bought one for our friend Ed Keeling, for his 85th birthday. Ed is no longer with us, but his wife Kathleen continues to treasure this artwork.

In 2007, we approached Quellón from the south and sat in the cockpit during the passage over the Gulf of Corcovado to Quellón. A friend had told us to keep a sharp watch as Blue whales had started calving in the Gulf. Larry and I both saw some spouting in the distance, but we had forgotten about it when I looked past Larry's left shoulder to see a huge dark form rise, dive back down, and its tiny tail-fluke quickly disappear into the cold blue waters. By the time Larry looked around, only the whirlpool of the whale's escape remained to mark the event.

On this visit, we departed Chiloé heading north to Valdivia by traversing the Canal de Chacao, separating the Island from the mainland. A project to build a bridge from Chiloé Island to the mainland, that was initially proposed in 1972, has finally begun and we were interested to see bridge supports placed in both the north and south ends of the project. The strong tidal current, which allowed us to zoom along much faster than usual, has bedeviled the Ministry of Public Works in formulating plans for building the bridge. Many tourists and foreigners worry that a highway to the mainland will ruin the unique character of the place, but the inhabitants are keen to link up with the mainland.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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