The volcano Osorno rises above the clouds; snow-capped, serene, quiet for now. It is March 2013 and we are on our way to Chiloé, an archipelago off the west coast of Chile in Northern Patagonia. Tomorrow we drive to Puerto Montt and take the ferry to La Isla Grande de Chiloé, but today we are treating ourselves to a touch of modern Chilean luxury before plunging into the labyrinth of myths and magic that is Chiloé.
We are staying at the Casa Molino, a small hotel on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. It was ridiculously hard to find and the last five kilometres or so of the dirt access road had so many potholes we wondered more than once whether we would make it. This is not a place to arrive at after dark – but our efforts have been rewarded. The hotel is lovely and has an uninterrupted view across the lake to Osorno. The spectacle is breathtaking.
The Ferry to Chiloé
It is possible to fly to Chiloé, the island's first airport opened in November 2012 – but why would you? The ferry trip across the Chacao Strait is half the fun. About an hour and a half by car south of the Casa Molino we arrive at the end of the mainland; literally and abruptly. No town, no petrol station, no anything – just a wharf and a queue of trucks and buses.
This is our second attempt at visiting Chiloé. In November 2010 we arrived at this same point ready to board the ferry, only to chicken out and turn back – defeated. The guide books will tell you that rain and storms are part of Chiloés charm but in 2010 the storm was more like a force 10 gale. The intensity of the wind and rain increased exponentially with every kilometre we got closer to the wharf. We had spent four days in Puerta Varas on the shores of Lake LLanquihue and didn't once even so much as glimpse the magnificent Osorno through the clouds. When we arrived at the wharf we just couldn't see the point. We had set aside only a few hours for the island, we were running low on petrol, we weren't sure where we would find the next petrol station and we had no real idea of how regular the ferry service was.
This time we are prepared. David has done his homework on the climate, I have done mine on the ferry service, we have a full tank of petrol and four days to explore the island. We pull out past the trucks and buses into the car queue and are soon standing on the upper deck of the ferry watching seals playing in the wake. Civilisation, such as it is in this part of the world, recedes into the distance.
Mystery and History.
For most of its history Chiloés inhabitants have been isolated from mainland Patagonia. This is a place where the people believe in magic. There seems little doubt that witches roam the island by night, mermaids swim in the bays and the ghost ship 'Caleuche', crewed by the living-dead, sails the seas.
The ferry disgorges it's cargo in a spot almost as remote as it's mainland departure point. A single paved highway leads south to the towns of Ancud, Castro and Quellón. We choose the coastal route – a slow, tortuous, isolated, undulating dirt road, dotted infrequently with specs of civilisation.
The countryside is wonderfully bucolic. The tiny villages and farms appear almost untouched by the modern world. Best of all are the churches. Chiloé is famous for its churches. Many are protected as world heritage sites. Wooden structures, painted in bright spring colours many stand alone in the fields. We hunt them down and tick them off. My favourite is the lolly-yellow and purple church in Castro.
Castro and the Palafitos
We stay in a Palafito hotel in Castro. It is small and quirky with random hot water but the ambiance is stunning. The Palafitos of Castro are stilt houses built jutting out over the water into the bay. They give easy access to the sea on one side and to the land on the other. Our room at the top has a view of the bay. This is not a place to save money by choosing the room with no view. Each morning we open the curtains to the timeless serenity of the local fishermen setting out in their boats. In the evenings we watch the tide recede and the mud flats and sea grasses re-appear.
As well as the main island, La Isla Grande de Chiloé (roughly translated as the Big Island of Chiloé), there are several smaller islands nestled in the eastern inlets and bays. The best of these is Quinchao. It's only access is by ferry.
On a whim we join the small procession of cars embarking on the short journey to the island. Remote even by the standards of this part of Patagonia, Quinchao stands apart from the modern world in its own small envelope of timelessness. The sealed road soon exhausts itself. The island is long and narrow and we bump along the dirt to it's southernmost tip at Chequian exploring dead-ends and side roads as they wind around the bays and harbours.
Ancud – relative civilisation
We avoid Ancud until our final day. It is the largest Chiloén town and the guide books don't recommend it. Luckily we have a few hours to spare because the guide books have misled us. The seaside is littered with the paraphernalia of an unhurried village fishing industry. Colourful boats lay settled in the low-tide mudflats, old men sit and look out to sea, younger men work repairing boats and casting nets. We abandon the car and stroll along the wharves filling ourselves with as much of the atmosphere of the island as we can. Today we must take the ferry back to the mainland.
A Few Facts:
Where is Chiloé?
Chiloé is an archipelago consisting of La Isla Grande de Chiloé, about 190 km long by 60 km wide and several much smaller islands nestled in the inlets, bays and harbours of the main island. It sits to the west of Chile about half way down the coast.
hen to go: Forget all the guide-book rubbish about rain and mist being part of Chiloés charm. You can't appreciate a place unless you can see it. Go in February or March.
How do I get there?
By Air: Lan Chile has regular flights into Castro (Chiloé) from Santiago. – http://www.lan.com
By Bus: Long distance buses run between Chiloé and a number of towns on the mainland. The 'Welcome to Chile.com' website lists the names and phone numbers of most of the bus companies.
Tours: You can take day tours of Chiloé from Puerto Montt but I wouldn't recommend it. Chiloé is far too interesting to see in a single day.
By Car: Follow the Panamerican Highway south from Puerto Montt to Pargua. Join the queue and board the ferry. There is almost nothing else at Pargua so you can't miss it. When you arrive there will be a queue with trucks and buses. Pull out past these and you will find a much shorter car queue. The ferry takes about half an hour and leaves every 15 to 20 minutes. There is no need to book. The cost is about $A25 (10,500 Chilean pesos) per car. http://www.armasur.cl/conectividad/transbordadores-cruz-del-sur/
There is no petrol station at Pargua. We learnt this the hard way. If you are driving from Puerto Varras there are not a lot of petrol stations on the road. Do yourself a favour and fill up before you leave. Once you arrive on Chiloé the nearest petrol is at Ancud.
If you intend to stay on the mainland for a while before departing for Chiloé I would recommend staying at Puerto Varras, rather than Puerto Montt. Puerto Montt is about half an hour closer to the ferry departure point at Pargua but it has none of the charm of Puerto Varras.
Driving in Chile: Chile is not nearly as difficult to drive in as you might imagine. Chiloé itself is very easy. Castro and Ancud both have busy centres but the traffic is probably no worse than Parramatta Rd, Sydney on a Saturday morning. Provided you don't mind dirt roads the rest of Chiloé is simple.
If you fly into Santiago, you can rent a car there and follow the Panamerican Highway all the way to the southern tip of Chiloé, but don't just stick to the highway. If you do you will miss all the charm.
We flew into San Carlos de Bariloché in Argentina and drove across the Andes. The 'Seven Lakes Drive' via San Martin de Los Andes is one of the most beautiful scenic routes we have ever taken. Be warned though the bitumen doesn't last long so you have to be comfortable with driving on dirt roads. http://www.patagonia-argentina.com/i/content/especial/7lagos.php
If you hire a car in Argentina make sure you check that you will be allowed to take the car into Chile. Some rental companies won't let you drive across the border. Even then you will need a special permit which the car hire people need a couple of days to arrange.
Language: You can get by with English but I found it useful and polite to learn a bit of basic spanish before we went. Particularly if you plan to drive it is comforting to be able to read the road signs.
General Information – http://www.chile.travel/en/where-togo/islands/chiloe.html
The Casa Molino – http://www.casamolino.cl/index.php
Palafito 1326 – http://www.palafito1326.cl/el-hotel/interiores.htm
Churches of Chiloe -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churches_of_Chilo%C3%A9