With credit card in hand and our rental car dropped off at the hostel we’re ready for our trip to Chiloe. It’s a sheer joy to load our back packs into the boot and drive. For a brief moment we imagine how different our travel would be if only we had a car for the rest of the year. Hmm that ain’t gonna happen so enjoy the moment.
We befriend a young guy called Austin from Tennessee at the hostel who is heading in our direction so we offer him a lift. Of course we warn him to come at your own risk as this will be Ben’s first time driving on the other side of the road! Austin is a welcomed back seat driver giving us clear instructions when roundabouts are confusing, and once on the freeway we begin our drive south to the ferry terminal at Pargua, about 45 minutes away.
The ferry is a smooth and a simple 30 minute crossing. These ferries operate regularly taking the buses, trucks and holiday makers across the Chacao channel. Until 2012 before Lan airlines started direct routes here, ferries were Chiloe’s only means of transport to the mainland. Already noticing the amount of 4wd’s and cars lining up to cross shows an increase of tourism to the area and although great for the island and it’s residents, I hope it doesn’t place a negative impact that tourism can so often do to small places. We had read the government has future plans for a bridge but they are constantly pushed back with rising costs. There are many opinions on this link to the mainland considering the locals need to travel 3 hours to the closest shopping centre but for now Chiloe retains its unique mystic heritage and indigenous culture.
Sighting the undulating hills and green pastures of Chiloe across the horizon, it seems vastly different from the mountainous regions we leave behind. We are also hoping that our luck with the sunny warm weather continues considering Chiloe’s fog, mist and high annual rainfall of 2500mm. No wonder the island is filled with folk myths. After exiting the ferry we drive to a small fishing village on the northwest called Ancud, where Austin is based for a few days. I read in the Lonely Planet of a restaurant in this town famous for Chiloe’s traditional cuisine called Curanto. With rumbling tummies we drop Austin’s bags at the hostel and the three of us seek out a challenge to settle in a long lunch and embrace the food this island has to offer.
The Curranto lunch challenge begins. The largest plates of tastiest mussels, clams, fish, chorizo sausage, chicken, potatoes and milcao (potato bread) are served as we woo and wow over our new discovery. The cooking preparation has similar methods to a Maori hangi. Food is wrapped in Chilean rhubarb leaves and put into a hole in the ground with hot rocks and then covered with wet hesham bags. Not sure how the restaurant cooked ours but we don’t waste time with details and begin the first mouthful in a meticulous order instructed by our chef. We can’t believe how tasty this simple dish is without any condiments and spices, and with a few cervazas to wash it down with it becomes a meal embedded into our memories. Luckily for Austin he could curl up in his hostel bed and have a curanto siesta as for Ben and I we still have another 88km to drive down to Castro.
Arriving at our hostel in Castro early evening, taking a quick glance of the town, we realise we have made a mistake basing ourselves here for 2 days. We had booked a hospedaje (budget B&B) and they don’t appear to have our booking. We are offered an available spare room for one night and consider this a fortunate incidence and decide to head to the west coast for the next night. Still full from the Curanto we take a walk into Castro and spend the remainder of the evening exploring Castro’s fishing harbour and its quirky shops. As the night air turns nippy, we conveniently stumble upon a craft market for me to buy a beanie. I do resist the temptation of buying a handmade Miss Piggy (which I felt after eating the curranto earlier) or a Spiderman beanie but settle for a traditional colourful one instead.
It’s not a happening capital in terms of sightseeing but one of the few attractions are the protected heritage Palafitos – traditional wooden houses most with brightly painted exterior shingles built on stilts along the waterfront. Many of these were destroyed in the earthquake in 1960, but there are still enough of them around which are being carefully restored as homes whilst others becoming boutique accommodation. They were designed for the fisherman to moor his boat at the foot of the palifito and then climb up the ladder to his family home. Of course these make perfect photography subjects and we increase the megabytes on our cameras memory card.
Chiloe is also famous for the UNESCO protected Jesuit wooden churches and I strike up an interest in seeing these. They are scattered on the mainland and throughout the archipelago and one can spend weeks just visiting them all. With Ben’s limited love of church sightseeing and only 3 days here, I make a compromise to narrow the 25 churches to a just few of the important ones. On my list is the main cathedral in Castro, Iglesia San Franscisco. Sitting across from the main plaza it can’t be missed with its bright yellow and purple exterior colour scheme and it looks like it belongs in Disney Land. Once inside we are in awe of the extraordinary craftsmanship built entirely of native timber including the dome vault. Ben remarks that this is “pretty awesome for a church”.
Making the most of the car we get up early and drive to Cucao, a small coastal place adjacent to the Parque National on the west coast of Chiloe. We pass grazing dairy cows, sheep and potato farms. Evidently Chiloe has a plethora of indigenous varieties but are only grown for the locals. The introduced varieties like desiree are grown for export. Driving through the lush green countryside by tranquil inlets and bays, with quaint traditional cottages or more affluent rural mansions, I constantly remark “Oh doesn’t this look like Akaroa in New Zealand” or “wow this is the same as the southern highlands)” . Ben is bemused at my constant need to find similarities to scenery back home. In fact Charles Darwin made similar remarks on his visit to Chiloe – The Voyage of The Beagle “At Chonchi we struck across the island, following intricate winding paths, sometimes passing through magnificent forests, and sometimes through pretty cleared spots, abounding with corn and potato crops. This undulating woody country, partially cultivated, reminded me of the wilder parts of England…” The turnoff sign to “Chonchi” appears and we head here to tick another Jesuit church off my list. Iglesia San Carlos, which took 90 years to build, is beautifully restored keeping its rudimentary design. Given the amount of timber buildings in this region I can’t help but wonder whether termites exist here and if so I hope they have a Mr Flick franchise close by.
We reach Cucao by mid afternoon and the clouds have cleared to a gorgeous sunny day. With just a couple of shops and a petrol station this as remote as we have seen so far with dusty dirt roads along with some rustic batches and basic campgrounds. Adjacent to the wild beaches is a stunning lake called Lago Huillinco. Our hostel is built on the edge of this lake in a beautiful setting with a wrap-around timber deck. Ben and I now wish we had more than one night here. Having plenty of time left in the day we walk a 3 hour trek into the National park and site some of the almost extinct trees of the wetlands. The trek continues aross the road through a coastal woodland and then to an incredible mirador (view) of this vast grey sandy beach of 20 plus kilometres stretching out to the Pacific Ocean.
Returning to the hostel to plonk our tired bodies on the deck chairs, we spend the rest of the day simply chilling with our books taking in the serenity and beauty of the surrounding area. Not a cloud in the sky, we won’t be seeing any drops of the 2500mm of rain today.
We start chatting to our room mate Mark who Ben had met previously at the hostel in Puerto Varas. Later the three of us head over for dinner to Parador Darwin, a rustic restaurant only 50 metres up the dirt road. The food matches the simplicity of Cucao and as seafood is a specialty on this island Ben and I decide to have the fish. I don’t often write about food but tasting the islands produce at its freshest makes for memorable meals. It was similar to a blue eye cod lightly fried in egg and olive oil along with local salad and a delicious red vino recommended by Mark, a sommelier back in Baltimore.
The owner of the hostel is also staying here along with his Santiago friends and take over the kitchen and living area preparing for a large parrilla (bbq) so we find solutide sitting on the timber deck on the reclining deck chairs. Mark introduces Ben to Piscolas (Pisco with cola) and I grab our left over red to sit star gazing at the most incredible celestial southern sky. The southern cross is much further in the sky and we have bets whether we are at this moment further south than Tasmania. The boys even spot a couple of shooting stars. Though not sure if that was the Piscolas talking. Truly magnificent, especially the milky way at it’s brightest. The night cools down close to 3 degC and we rug up in beanies and our winter gear (this is the coldest we have felt in Chile so far) to witness the brightest yellow almost full moon rise at 1am. This is as good as it gets and we wonder what everyone is doing back home.
After a good night sleep in our dorm beds, we are sad to leave the hostel. Three days goes by fast and this is our last day. Mark, Ben and I take a drive to explore a view along the rugged coast south of the hostel. It gets to a point when the dirt road turns to a steep track and our car tyres start to spin. Ben decides the rental Nissan is not cut out for this and reverses the car back down the hill. We get out and walk for a while in search for this lookout whom the hostel owner advised “oh it’s just down the road, maybe 30 minutes”. Not soon out of the car we are swamped with horse flies called Tabanos. These are not your everyday horseflies these are blood sucking biters! After an hour of walking whilst whipping ourselves free of these flies, we decide that without a map or destination to calculate how much further we need, we return to the car and head back to the hostel to drop Mark back. As we drive back to the flats of this wild coast we come across the sound of revving engines. Of all the places miles from anywhere we stumble across a dirt car rally adjacent to the beach and pull over to watch. Still bemused and fascinated we stay longer drinking a cold beer left over from last night and I always have a spare block of chocolate for the occasion. There are no safety barriers but a few sand hills and a couple of spare tyres thrown on them. Something like this would never happen back at home especially on a beach. This has to be the strangest encounter on our journey so far and suddenly churches and landscape are swapped for the smell of petrol, dust and reeving engines. Ben and I are thrilled at the chance to pretend to be action sports photographers and can’t stop laughing at the amount of photos we take of the rally.
Moving on before we turn into petrol heads, we drop Mark back to the hostel, swap email addresses promising we will send him photos and drive back to the ferry terminal via a beautiful fishing village, Dalcahue. We eat the local grande oysters, visit the Sunday craft markets and make the most of a warm afternoon. Of course I talk Ben into visiting another Jesuit church. Our day finishes with another smooth ferry crossing with the ocean breeze clearing the dust from our lungs and the views of Isle de Chiloe fade on the horizon. It feels like we have been away for a week and facing the northern views of Volcano Osorno ahead reminds us we’re returning to the mainland and back to our hostel in Puerto Varas. After 3 days of driving we realise that tomorrow we swap a car for a horse for a 3 day trek to Cochamo. Our adventures are starting for sure.