Exploring Chiloe Island by wanderlust Travel Magazine part II
.At Puñihuil Natural Monument, we walked along the beach and onto a wheeled platform that was pushed into the sea, enabling us to step onto a motorboat. The sky was heavy with leaden clouds as we zipped toward a group of rocky islets swarming with life. Pelicans, flightless steamer ducks, sea lions and four types of cormorant inhabited the rocks, while vultures soared overhead.
We marvelled at red-legged cormorants nesting on precariously narrow ledges set into a cliff face. Their nests are at risk of being predated on by gulls, so the cormorants find the most inaccessible spots they can; even their eggs are designed not to roll off. And then there were the penguins. This is the only place in the world where Magellanic and the endangered Humboldt penguin can be found nesting side by side. They were easy to tell apart: the more numerous Magellanics looking dapper in sleek black and white plumage; the Humboldts a grittier grey and white that blended with the rocks.
It was September, early in the season, so there were more of each species still to arrive. But there were enough for us to marvel at how they climbed the steep islets to their burrows.
Call of the wild
The next morning we were out on the water again, but this time kayaking through the Chepu River Valley. We had set out in pre-dawn darkness, slipping onto the confluence of the two rivers that combine to form the Chepu. Following the 1960 earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, the valley sank two metres, flooding a forest with salt water and killing the trees.
Today, the rivers are tidal, and we paddled our way upstream against the current. On higher ground to our left was typical temperate forest, but on our right were trees, bare of any vegetation, silhouetted starkly against the gradually lightening sky. After 40 minutes or so, we reached a sunken forest and paddled in silence through the eerie landscape of ghostly trunks. White egrets added to the ethereal scene; the only sounds were occasional birdcalls.
We were relieved the little native forest bird was on our right-hand side. Legend has it that hearing it call on the right brings good luck; hearing it on the left means you have to turn around. The wind had changed, and now we were going with the current, so it was easy to fly through the water, back to Chepu Ecolodge. Fernando and Amory, owners of the lodge and the kayaking operation, were waiting for us.
Former city folk from Santiago, they now run a unique business that is a model of sustainability. The water comes from rain, and both water and power consumption is monitored by a central computer system. A tree is planted for every guest who stays, within certain targets. As Fernando matter-of-factly stated, “We are not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.”The lodge is set high, with an enviable view over the valley and river confluence. “The light changes day by day, hour by hour,” Amory said. “It’s impossible to get tired of the view.” The couple talked with passion about the local environment, the folklore, the wildlife (their lodge’s lawn is grazed each evening by a pair of pudu, the world’s smallest deer) and the Chilote identity. Yet another pair of adopted Chilotes.
The Spanish did leave a lasting legacy other than churches. When the conquistadors came to South America they brought horses. When they travelled over to Chiloé, they swam their horses alongside their boats. Today, the Chilote horses are believed to be the purest examples of these Spanish steeds left in the world.
Forget the glamorous Andalucían horses that are now associated with Spain. These are small, tough and stocky; practical little horses that could carry conquistadors over any terrain. They are still used as working animals. We had spotted them pulling carts or being ridden by farmers. We had even seen one being ridden after dark, its rider slumped over it in a traditional poncho: “If people get drunk they can just ride them home!”
The Tierra Chiloé Hotel has its own horses, so I arranged a ride. A typical Chilote horse was brought to me and I asked his name. “Trauco,” came the answer. “Isn’t that the name of the ugly little goblin that makes women pregnant?” “Yes, that’s the one.” “Lucky, then, that I’m over child-bearing age!” I quipped. “Ah, but Trauco has magic powers. Anything could happen...”
Following horseman Don Juan (yes, that really was his name), I rode out of the hotel grounds and onto a small silvery beach, passing wetlands that attract migratory waders, including the rare Hudsonian godwit. We waved at a guest kayaking through the bay towards the hotel.
I caught up with him later, over a pisco sour. He was on a high. “We took a boat to Quinchao island, where I met the most amazing people before kayaking back. We saw penguins! And a porpoise!” It was my last night on Chiloé and, as the sun set over the bay and islands outside the picture windows, I cursed that I hadn’t allowed longer to explore the archipelago. But I did give thanks for one thing. Chiloé may have worked its magic on me, but fortunately Trauco had not.