Chiloe – exploring Chile´s largest island

5 Jun

Chiloe is an archipelago of 40 islands off the coast of central Chile, the biggest of which is Isla Grande de Chiloe. The island is very green and fertile with rolling hills and views down to the sea – for us the island bore a strong resemblance to Wales, especially the rain we encountered! The East and West coasts are very different – the East is sparsely populated and filled with wild sandy beaches backed by dunes and temperate rainforests, while the West is home to the majority of the island´s population with several major settlements, countryside cultivated for farming and many islands and inlets sheltered from Pacific storms. Island life has strengthened cultures and traditions on Chiloe with many local superstitions and elaborate stories of ghosts, fairies and witchcraft being lapped up by the tourists.


The capital city Castro is located on the island´s Eastern coast and is the third oldest city in Chile behind Santiago and La Serena. Dismissed by Charles Darwin as forlorn and deserted, Castro is now a thriving city with a population of just over 40,000 residents.


Despite the hustle and bustle, we found that Castro still had a real harmony between the past and present – wheelbarrows full of local produce directly outside a large supermarket.


‘Palafitos’ or wooden stilt houses in the sea can be found all around Chiloe and are concentrated in several places along Castro’s waterfront.


The outside of the buildings have been shingled and painted in bright colours. Several of the Palafitos have had balconies added to extend the living space and wood burning stoves pump out smoke from tiny chimneys. Not an attraction set up for the tourists, we observed people living in the Palafitos and going about their daily business – wives hanging out the washing and children playing by the water.


San Francisco church on Plaza de Armas is one of the most striking churches we’ve seen on our travels – constructed totally of wood and painted in bright colours the church is a vivid greeting on a cloudy day. There are around 150 churches on the island of Chiloe, 16 of which have been listed as UNESCO world heritage sites.


Chiloe is famous all around the country for its bounty of fresh sea food. The local markets are awash with muscles, prawns, squid and a whole variety of fish caught earlier that morning. At one small stand in the centre of Castro up to five women at any one time sell their own home-baked empanadas and all vie for your attention as you pass by. It was almost comparable to an Amsterdam side street as the ladies whispered the name of their produce over and over whilst lifting the corner of their tea towels in a seductive fashion to give us a glimpse of what we could indulge in! We asked for ‘Jamon y Queso’ (Ham & Cheese) empanadas but due to our terrible Spanish accents we got ‘Salmon y Queso’ – a superb mistake to make as they were delicious.


Chiloe National Park can be accessed in the South through the small community of Cucao which offers basic amenities – cabanas, camping, small shops and family run restaurants. The park itself runs along the West coast of the island and offers a cooler and wetter climate due to the proximity of the Pacific ocean. This National Park was a big contrast to the mountain and lake filled spaces we’d experienced so far on our journey through Patagonia. Here white sandy beaches stretched for miles.


The Pacific waves crashed on the shore and strong winds sent a conveyor belt of sand blasting into the distance. The wind was so strong at times, it was almost possible to stand at a 45 degree angle and not fall over!


We camped a short walk behind the row of sand dunes by the edge of a beautiful lake with abundant bird life. We walked around the edge of the lake and climbed to a high point for a birdseye view.


Within the National Park we visited ‘Sendero interpretivo el Tepual’ which took us on an interesting circuit through botanical gardens with fallen trees and creeping vines.


We also walked half of the popular 20km Chanquin-Cole Cole route and encountered first hand the notoriously rainy weather on the island. We passed small wooden houses painted in pastel colours, farmland with horses roaming freely and crossed bridges leading across estuaries moving out to sea. We didn’t meet a single person on the long expanse of sand.


On our way back I was adamant that we would be able to cut off a chunk of time by walking the last 6km along the beach rather than following the windy road back to the village and even though Dan was highly sceptical, we gave it a whirl.


The Pacific waves crashed onto the shore and we had to keep on our toes to avoid the foaming water that advanced up the beach. After passing the 5 kilometre mark we realised that a wide river passed through the dunes and flowed out to sea blocking our path. Dan was pretty smug that he was right all along but not wanting to walk all of the way back, there was only one thing for it…so off came the shoes and socks and into the river we waded. The water was freezing and almost came over our knees at the deepest point. By the time we popped out the other side our feet were bright purple. Several fields lay between us and the road back to camp so we scaled a small fence and set off, however half way across we realised we weren’t alone. Two huge bulls were staring straight at us and we were doubtful if we could out run them. Taking small side steps and maintaining eye contact at all times we crept out of the field (having stood in only one cow pat!) and threw ourselves to safety over a wooden gate. In-between Dan’s huffing and puffing, I vowed there would be no more short cuts!


Due to the overcast, rainy and windy weather, it was a short but sweet three-day visit to Chiloe for us. The island has lots to offer from a multitude of churches, penguin colonies in the North and kayaking tours through inlets and around islands so we’ll certainly be back some day – perhaps in the Summer, when the sun might be shining!

2 Responses to “Chiloe – exploring Chile´s largest island”


  1. Rock your world – Guatape & El Penol | latin chattin' - March 21, 2014

    […] Kate and Dan!” We’d met Mark from America 6 months earlier whilst exploring Chiloe, Chile’s largest island and shared a beer together one evening. In our time apart, our South […]

  2. The influence of exisiting gender and labor patterns on women’s participation in the Island of Chiloé salmon industry, Chile | GENDER IN AQUACULTURE AND FISHERIES - February 1, 2015

    […] Chilote women selling home-made empanadas, including those containing salmon, Chiloe Island, Chile. Photo: Kate Stevenson and Daniel Poulter, Latin Chattin […]

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