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.

History

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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Chile features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

15 things everyone learns backpacking South America

15 things everyone learns backpacking South America

South America has become a favoured destination for the intrepid backpacker, and while it’s impressive in the astounding diversity of its nations, there are a…

02 Mar 2016 • Steph Dyson insert_drive_file Article
Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

National parks are some of the world's most awe-inspiring natural places, taking in mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and forests (sometimes all in the same one…

02 Jul 2015 • Rebecca Hallett help Quiz
Off the map in the Atacama: Chile's eerie ghost towns

Off the map in the Atacama: Chile's eerie ghost towns

Thousands of foreign travellers visit the geysers, salt flats, oases and volcanoes of north Chile’s Atacama Desert, but few make it to two of the region’s m…

14 Jan 2015 • Shafik Meghji insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month