Located immediately to the south of the Lake District, the fascinating Chiloé archipelago – part of a mountain range that sank below the waves following the last Ice Age – is a haven of rural tranquillity. The main island, Isla Grande, is South America’s second largest island. Sliced in half lengthways by the Panamericana, it connects the two main towns, Ancud and Castro, with the port of Quellón and is easily explored by bike, car or bus. The densely forested Parque Nacional Chiloé and Parque Tantauco offer great opportunities to explore unique Chilote wilderness, while coastal villages and islands off Isla Grande’s east coast – the most accessible being Isla Quinchao and Isla Lemuy – provide glimpses into traditional Chilote life.
Chiloé was originally populated by the native Chonos and Huilliche (southern Mapuche), who eked out a living from fishing and farming before the Spanish took possession of the island in 1567. For over three hundred years, Chiloé was isolated from mainland Chile owing to the fierce resistance of the mainland Mapuche to European colonists. As a result, the slow pace of island life saw little change. Ancud, in fact, was the last stronghold of the Spanish empire during the wars of Independence, before the final defeat by pro-independence forces in 1826. In spite of being used as a stopover during the California Gold Rush, Chiloé remained relatively isolated until the end of the twentieth century, though now it draws scores of visitors with its unique blend of architecture, cuisine and famous myths and legends.
More than 150 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wooden churches and chapels dot the land. Chiloé is also one of the few places in the country where you can still see palafitos, precarious but picturesque timber houses on stilts, which were once the traditional dwellings of most of the fishermen of southern Chile. Much of the old culture has been preserved, assimilated into Hispanic tradition by a profound mixing of the Spanish and indigenous cultures that occurred here more than in other parts of South America, making today’s Chiloé more “pagan Catholic” than Roman Catholic.Read More
The Chiloé islands have long been rife with myths and legends, especially in the remote rural regions, where tradition and superstition hold sway, with colourful supernatural creatures cropping up in stories throughout the archipelago.
Basilisco A snake with the head of a cockerel, the Basilisco turns people to stone with its gaze. At night, the Basilisco enters houses and sucks the breath from sleeping inhabitants, so that they waste away into shrivelled skeletons. The only way to be rid of it is to burn the house down.
Brujo This is the general term for a witch; in Chiloé, there are only male witches and their legendary cave is rumoured to be near the village of Quicaví. To become a witch, an individual must wash away baptism in a waterfall for forty days, assassinate a loved one, make a purse out of their skin in which to carry their book of spells and sign a pact with the devil in their own blood, stating when the evil one can claim their soul. Witches are capable of great mischief and can cause illness and death, even from afar.
Caleuche This ghostly ship glows in the fog, travels at great speeds both above and below the water, emitting beautiful music, carrying the witches to their next stop. Journeying through the archipelago, it’s crewed by shipwrecked sailors and fishermen who have perished at sea.
Fiura An ugly, squat woman with halitosis, she lives in the woods, clothed in moss. The coquettish Fiura bathes in waterfalls, where she seduces young men before driving them insane.
Invunche Stolen at birth by witches, and raised on the flesh of the dead and cats’ milk, the Invunche was transformed into a deformed monster with one leg crooked behind his back. He feeds on goats’ flesh and stands guard at the entrance to the legendary witches’ cave, the Cueva de Quicaví, grunting or emitting bloodcurdling screams. If you’re unlucky enough to spot him, you’ll be frozen to that spot forever.
Pincoya A fertility goddess of extraordinary beauty, Pincoya personifies the spirit of the ocean and is responsible for the abundance or scarcity of fish in the sea. She dances half-naked, draped in kelp, on the beaches or tops of waves. If she’s spotted facing the sea, the village will enjoy an ample supply of seafood. If she’s looking towards the land, there will be a shortage.
Trauco A deformed and ugly troll who dwells in the forest, Trauco dresses in ragged clothes and a conical cap and carries a stone axe or wooden club, a pahueldœn. His breath makes him irresistible to women, and he is blamed for all unexplained pregnancies on the island.
Voladora The witches’ messenger, the Voladora is a woman who transforms into a black bird by vomiting up her internal organs. The Voladora travels under the cover of night and can only be detected by her terrible cries, which bring bad luck. If the Voladora is unable to recover her innards at the end of the night, she is stuck in bird shape forever.
Hot rocks: the culinary secrets of curanto
Hot rocks: the culinary secrets of curanto
Chiloé’s signature dish, curanto, has been prepared for several centuries using cooking methods very similar to those used in Polynesia. First, extremely hot rocks are placed at the bottom of an earthen pit; then, a layer of shellfish is added, followed by chunks of smoked meat, chicken, longanisa (sausage), potatoes, chapaleles and milcaos (potato dumplings). The pit is then covered with nalca (Chilean wild rhubarb) leaves; as the shellfish cooks, the shells spring open, releasing their juices onto the hot rocks, steaming the rest of the ingredients.
Traditional curanto (curanto en hoyo) is slow-cooked in the ground for a day or two, but since traditional cooking methods are only used in the countryside, you will probably end up sampling curanto en olla, also known as pulmay, oven-baked in cast-iron pots. The dish comes with hot shellfish broth, known to the locals as “liquid Viagra”, to be drunk during the meal. Other Chilote specialities include cancato, salmon steamed in tinfoil and stuffed with cheese, sausage and tomatoes, and carapacho, a filling crab stew with a crispy crust.
It is impossible to visit Chiloé and not be struck by the sight of the archipelago’s incredible wooden churches. In the early nineteenth century these impressively large buildings would have been the heart of a Chilote village. Several of the churches have been declared national monuments, an honour crowned in 2001 when UNESCO accepted sixteen of them on its prestigious World Heritage list.
The churches generally face the sea and are built near a beach with an open area, plaza or explanada in front of them. The outside of the churches is almost always bare, and the only thing that expresses anything but functionality is the three-tiered, hexagonal bell tower that rises up directly above an open-fronted portico. The facades, doors and windows are often brightly painted, and the walls clad with tejuelas (wooden tiles or shingles). All the churches have three naves separated by columns, which in the larger buildings are highly decorated, supporting barrel-vaulted ceilings. The ceilings are often painted, too, with allegorical panels or sometimes with golden constellations of stars painted on an electric blue background.
Only the pueblos with a priest had a main church, or iglesia parroquial. If there was no church, the missionaries used to visit once a year, as part of their so-called misión circular. Using only native canoes, they carried everything required to hold a mass with them. When the priest arrived, one of the eldest Chilotes would lead a procession carrying an image of Jesus, and behind him two youths would follow with depictions of San Juan and the Virgin. They would be followed by married men carrying a statue of San Isidro and married women carrying one of Santa Neoburga.
If the pueblo was important enough there would be a small capilla (bell tower) with altars to receive the statues. The building where the missionaries stayed was known as a residencia, villa, casa ermita or catecera, and was looked after by a local trustee called a fiscal, whose function was somewhere between that of a verger and lay preacher. This honorary position still exists and, in Chiloé’s remoter areas, the fiscal commands great respect in his community. For more information on Chiloé’s churches, check out the informative interpatagonia.com/iglesiaschiloe.
Maquí: The Wonder Berry
Maquí: The Wonder Berry
Stronger than a blueberry. More powerful than the açai berry. Able to battle ageing and neurodegenerative diseases. Look! In the evergreen tree! It’s Maquí the Wonder Berry! The maquí berry (Aristotelia chilensis), also known as the Chilean wineberry, is native to Chile’s Valdivian rainforests and has been used by the Mapuche for centuries, both as a foodstuff and as a means of preparing chicha (an alcoholic drink made from fermented berries). In recent years, scientific studies have discovered that the maquí berry has far higher antioxidizing properties than its nearest competing “superfoods” – blackberries, açai berries and blueberries. While studies are still limited, it is believed that the consumption of antioxidants helps to prevent degenerative diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Maquí berry products can be found at islanatura.com.