Exploring Chiloe Island by wanderlustTravel Magazine part I
Pushing open the heavy wooden door of the shingled building in the grounds of Centro de Ocio Hotel, I was met by a timeless scene. Smoke rose from a deep fire pit, which was being used to roast meats, fish and potatoes. A family band started playing: charismatic Amigo Alex on vocals; his multi-talented son, William, switching between a variety of wind and stringed instruments; daughter Lucero played drums.
The songs were a mix of traditional Chilote numbers and their own compositions. On finding out that a member of our party was celebrating her birthday, Alex directed a song to her, before asking, “What does it feel like celebrating your birthday in the Republic of Chiloé?”
Chiloé certainly has its own strong identity. It is common to hear the locals say, “I am not Chilean, I am Chilote”. Incomers, whether from mainland Chile or other countries altogether, are even more passionate about it. The manager at the Centro de Ocio was typical. Born in Argentina, Nicholas had married a Chilote and had persuaded her to move back home. “I’m not from here, but it’s my island. I choose to live here. I am Chilote.”
Birds, beliefs and bluster
The Chiloé Archipelago lies a little over halfway down the coast of Chile, and is considered part of the Lake District region of northern Patagonia. The main island, a little smaller than Cornwall and Devon combined, is also called Chiloé. Sitting within the Roaring Forties, the archipelago is blasted with rain and high winds; weather so extreme that Darwin grumbled, ‘In winter the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better.’
Driving through Chiloé was initially slightly disorientating. Small, green pastures were grazed by dairy cows and expanses of yellow broom flowered by the roadside. Along with the blustery weather, this gave it the feel of the Outer Hebrides or Ireland’s west coast. But it was the birdlife that indicated we were somewhere more exotic. Black-faced ibis prowled the fields, blacknecked swans glided around the estuaries and chimango caracaras sat sentinel on fence posts watching out for snacks.
The architecture was the next giveaway. Many of the older houses are made of distinctive wooden shingles, while in Chiloé’s capital, Castro, and some other waterside communities, colourful palafitos (stilt houses) grace the waterfront. Then, once you meet the people, you realise that Chiloé has its own distinctive culture, and is very different to mainland Chile.
At the Chiloé National Park, a small museum gives a brief insight into the history, flora and fauna, legends and folklore of the archipelago. Guide Cyril explained that when the Spanish came to Chiloé they were more into mixing than conquering, and so a lot of beliefs blended. Hence, Chiloé has its own mythology of creation, involving two serpents, one good, one evil. They fight each other, which is why the tide comes in and out.
The origins of other characters were harder to explain. Take Trauco, an ugly troll who is guardian of the forest. He reputedly has the power to enchant women and even make them pregnant. He has proved to be a useful alibi. For instance, after the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake, the strongest ever recorded, Chiloé was a disaster zone and many Chilote men left to find work. If their wives fell pregnant while they were away, Trauco was blamed.
Even today, there is a lingering belief in the old myths. Whenever I queried how Chilotes felt about them, I received a similar response: “People say they don’t believe... But there is something in it, isn’t there?”
Priests and potatoes
The enduring folklore seemed at odds with such a devoutly religious population – over 95% of Chilotes are Catholic. While the colonising Spanish left the south of Chile to the Mapuche Indians, they settled in Chiloé; it was their first port of call after passing through the Straits of Magellan. The Spanish would stop on the islands to make repairs and replenish their food stores. And they brought their religion with them.
The Jesuits settled in Castro but undertook missions throughout the archipelago; they would make forays from September to March, when the weather is best. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled and the Franciscans took over. They built more elaborate churches, constructing them from wood and without nails; they used joints that could withstand earth tremors, essential in a land where seismic activity is common.
Despite their clever design and Chiloé’s healthy Catholic population, many of the churches have been lost, destroyed by fire and wood-eating bugs. However, those that remain have been given Unesco World Heritage status. In the small coastal village of Tenaún the handsome three-towered 18th-century church has recently been restored. Architecturally it resembles an upside-down boat – as many of Chiloé’s churches do, as they were constructed by boat builders.
We walked down Tenaún’s dirt street to a small family restaurant, where a traditional curanto was being prepared in a fire pit. A layer of seafood – mussels and clams – had been laid on the hot rocks, and then chunks of chicken, pork and sausages on top. Potatoes and two types of potato cake were added last. Finally the whole lot was covered with large leaves from the nalca plant, a type of wild rhubarb.
There were three types of potato, one of them a long, thin tuber with a nutty flavour. I asked what it was called but no one knew: “How can we, with so many varieties?” Chiloé reputedly has around 400 varieties of potato; a few years ago it was found that 90% of the world’s potatoes can be genetically traced back to Chiloé.
After an hour the curanto was uncovered, and the food piled into serving bowls, though before we headed to the table, we sat around the pit edge picking up the clams and mussels that had been left behind. Guide Cyril explained that food, whether from the land or sea, is easy to come by here. “You’d have to be lazy to starve! Plant a potato and it will grow in three months. And every tide brings more food.” Sure enough Tenaun’s pebbly beach was strewn with clam shells and crab claws.