For those who wish to witness traditional Chilote life in settlements where time seems to stand still, there are few better places to do so than Chiloé’s east coast. If you have your own vehicle, take the gravel roads to tiny, sleepy coastal villages, where on a grey and misty day you can almost imagine the characters from Chiloé’s mythology coming to life. Those without their own wheels can cross over to the island of Quinchao, characterized by its rolling farmland, small towns with striking traditional churches and the busy market in Achao, attended by sellers from neighbouring islands.
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For some, ISLA QUINCHAO is the cultural heart of the whole of Chiloé. Rich in traditional wooden architecture, this island is a mere ten-minute ferry ride from Dalcahue. A paved road runs across Isla Quinchao through the only two towns of any size, Curaco de Vélez and Achao, both of which offer a taste of traditional Chilote life.
Twelve kilometres from the ferry terminal, Curaco de Vélez comprises a couple of streets of weather-beaten shingled houses set around a beautiful bay and bordered by gently rolling hills. The Plaza de Armas features an unusual sight – a decapitated church steeple, docked from the top of an old church, and a bust of locally born hero Almirante Riveros, who commanded the fleet that captured the Peruvian, ironclad Huáscar during the War of the Pacific.
Fifteen kilometres southeast of Curaco lies the fishing village of ACHAO with its scattering of houses clad in colourful tejuelas (shingles), set against a backdrop of snowcapped volcano peaks across the gulf. It is famous both for the oldest church in the archipelago and a couple of simultaneous festivals in early February: Encuentro Folklórico de las Islas del Archipiélago, a folk festival that draws musical groups from all over Chiloé, and Muestra Gastronómica y Artesanal, which gives you a chance to both sample traditional Chilote cuisine and pick up the handiwork of the archipelago’s artisans.
Achao is a living museum of Chiloé’s cultura de madera (woodworking culture). Dominating the Plaza de Armas and dating back to 1764, Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto is a prime example of a typical Chilote church and is thought to be the oldest one in the archipelago. The main framework is made from ciprés de las Guaitecas and mañío, a tree still common in southern Chile. The original alerce shingles which covered the exterior have mostly been replaced with ciprés boarding. Restoration work is a constant and expensive necessity – if you look around the luma wood floorboards, you can see the church’s foundations, a rare glimpse into the way these old buildings were constructed. All the joints have been laboriously fixed into place with wooden plugs and dowels made from canelo, another type of Chilean wood.