Not many people have heard of Chiloé, the magical, mysterious archipelago that sits off the coast of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lake District. This group of almost 40 islands is quite unlike anywhere else in Chile, and people say that life on Chiloé runs 50 years behind the mainland. Whether you’re a culture vulture, a history buff, a foodie or a lover of untouched countryside, the islands have something for you.
Measuring more than 110 miles long and 30 miles wide, Isla Grande de Chiloé (the main island) is South America’s second-largest island after Tierra del Fuego (also part of Chile). And until this year, the only way to reach its green and rolling shores was by ferry from Puerto Montt. However, late 2012 brought a new development: a commercial airport, making the formerly cut-off part of the country more accessible to the world.
Upon touchdown at Mocopulli Airport in Dalcahue, check in to Hotel Refugia, an all-inclusive luxe refuge high on a hillside with sea views that opened in September 2012. You’ll be welcomed with one of the signature (very good and very strong) pisco sours before a dinner of housemade soup, local seafood and freshly baked cheesecake.
If you want to see a different side of Chiloé, however, choose to stay at Palafito 1326, an original fisherman’s-house-turned-12-room-boutique-hotel, which sits on stilts on the water’s edge in Castro, the capital of Chiloé Province.
Either way, start your morning by exploring the neighboring palafitos, or wooden shingle houses on stilts. Browse the blue-and-yellow Palafito Kaweshkar, a small gift shop selling local artisan crafts, such as woolen hats and wooden carvings. And stop for brunch at Cafe del Puente to try the delicious hot chocolate, croissants and apple cake.
It’s a 20-minute stroll into the center of Castro, where you must stop to see the yellow-and-purple Church of San Francisco, which reigns over the main plaza. This is Chiloé’s only Franciscan Church (all the rest are Jesuit), and it has a beautiful all-wooden interior.
Another great thing about a Chiloé visit is hearing the myths and legends that are woven into island life: From phantom ships to trolls and witches, mythology and religion live side-by-side on these shores, which is a testament to a history molded by both the indigenous Mapuche and Spanish conquistadors. To make the most of your magical trip, it’s well worth booking a guide for the day. Among the very best is Raffaele Di Biase, the knowledgeable owner of BirdsChile. “We show people the hidden corners,” Di Biase says. “More like explorers.”
Forget set itineraries — Di Biase will craft a route based around your interests. One of the most fascinating ways to spend the afternoon is with a trip to Puñihuil Penguin Colony, on the northeast corner of the main island. A protected bird life conservation area, Puñihuil is home to the Magellan and Humboldt penguins that live side-by-side on its rocky islets.
After checking out the flightless birds (plus Peruvian pelicans and marine otters), pause for a snack at Restaurant Bahía Puñihuil, where you can sample the Chilean delicacy locos (a form of abalone). The cheese and locos empanadas are especially good choices as well.
Finally, for some more Chilote cuisine — and the ultimate final flourish — BirdsChile will take you to the house of local character Maria Luisa (who inspired the main character in author Isabel Allende’s latest book, Maya’s Notebook) for a curanto. This traditional Chilote dish consists of shellfish, smoked pork, chicken legs, sausages and potatoes (more than 150 types of the starch grow on the islands), and is cooked in a hole in the ground with turf and leaves on top.
Photos Courtesy of Gabriel O’Rorke