North of Valparaiso, Chile is dry and barren right down the sea except where irrigated. So we were interested to see green hills and large farms as we flew into Puerto Montt. Indeed, the further south we cruised, the more likely it was that we would see rain.
Spanish conquerors reached the Chiloé archipelago just off the mainland coast in the 16th Century bringing Jesuits with them. Today there are more than 150 churches on the islands including sixteen wooden buildings which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps for this reason, these Spanish did not enslave the local people but married them instead. As a
result, at a time when the rest of South America was seeking independence, the residents of Chiloé preferred to remain part of Spain and only reluctantly joined Chile later. It is said residents still think of themselves first from Chiloé and as Chileans only as a poor second.
Whaling was the chief industry in the 19th Century, and the economy is still closely tied to the water. They do have some farming and cattle, but our guide suggested we not eat their beef; she said we have “sport cows; they are muscular and tough.”
All the famous churches are wood. All but one, were built by local boat builders, and their interior vaults look like inverted boat hulls. One church at Achao founded in 1743 was built entirely without nails. Castro, the area’s capital, was founded in 1667, but it wasn’t until 1906 that its large church, San Francisco, was built by an architect. The church looks much more European than the others, but the exterior is covered with painted tin, it has wooden flying buttresses, and the interior is paneled with wood planks.
Castro is also famous for colorful fishermen’s homes, palafitos, built on pilings above the water. Now the former homes are mostly shops and inns. While old ones are grandfathered, no new ones may be built due to tsunami danger. The tide, which can reach seven meters, however, was out while we were there.
We visited the island art gallery, a converted farmhouse and barn. The structure was fascinating and the setting very beautiful, but I wasn’t much taken with the art. However, we were honored to be at the opening of a new show, and they served wine, juice, and empanadas and entertained us with accordion music and dancing. We were told even churches used accordions as organs did not do well in the damp island climate.
Another famous church in Dalcahue (population 500) was closed for renovation, but we were happy to visit the seaside market, totally devoted to local products. Indeed, we enjoyed just walking along the water looking at the small fishing and diving boats. The shellfish divers are supplied with air through long yellow hoses. The hoses, the compressors and the boats all looked somewhat rickety to risk with one’s life.
We had spectacularly sunny weather on Chiloé, and although it was cloudy the next day when we arrived in Puerto Chacabuco at the end of a Chilean fiord, soon the sun was out. We had a great guided walk to a waterfall, “The Old Man’s Beard,” in the Aikén Del Sur Private Park, followed by Chilean snacks, wine, Pisco and juices. Local school children danced for us as we ate by a fire as two split lambs roasted. Our guide was as pleased to see the sun as we were. He said they have around 300 days of rain a year.
Puerto Chacabuco is a salmon fishing and port town with little to offer tourists beyond organized tours inland. However, we just enjoyed chatting with new friends in a playground looking over the harbor surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Some peaks were among Chile’s 2300 volcanoes. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed swinging on the swings, fortunately strong enough for an adult. The sun was also strong, and I developed a mild sunburn in the cool weather.
A cruise only gives us a taste of the area. The Pan-American Highway runs through Chilean Patagonia (even across the island of Chiloé). There are distinctive foods like huge rolls of seaweed and distinctive crafts. Buildings are often covered in shingles made of alerce wood that lasts over one hundred years. Alerce is a variety of redwood found only here. There is so much to see and so little time, but perhaps we will come back one day.