Claudio leaned far over the bow of the ship. The mist was so thick that he could barely see the shore. The cold dampness was held at bay by the thick wool of his chamanto.
For just a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of her flowing, blonde hair as she danced. And then she was gone. The faint sounds of a mystical song carried on as the cool air wafted by.
His mate, Luis, joined him on the search. There again they saw her, this time they could see her arms raised high and the dark colors of the seaweed that was draped around her body briefly appeared in the dim morning light.
“Which way was she facing?” Claudio asked in a fierce whisper as he moved his chilote cap a little further back on his head as if it would help him see through the fog just a little better.
“I couldn’t tell, I think she was facing the sea,” answered his friend as he tightened his grip on the bow.
“There, I just saw her face!” Luis said excitedly, “She is dancing toward the sea. We will have fish today.”
They both moved happily over to spread the nets knowing their day would be prosperous because La Pincoya, the nymph mermaid of the sea, was dancing for them.
Chilote Culture in Chiloe
The island of Chiloe is a culture unlike the rest of Chile with mythological tales and its blend of indigenous and Spanish culture. Due to their isolation as an island from the rest of Chile, they have clung to their distinct chilote culture and rich traditions.
La Pincoya, one of many mythical creatures, is said to be the daughter of the king of the sea and a human. They believe she governs and lives at the bottom of the sea. Fishermen say that if she dances facing the sea they will have an abundance of fish. However, if she dances facing the island they have done something to anger her and she will withhold fish from the fishermen.
The Spaniards first discovered Chiloe in 1553 and established a settlement in Castro by 1567,
In 1608 the Jesuits arrived and founded their first church in 1612 located in Castro. Wooden churches were erected in an effort to establish Christianity. The result was a mix of the religions much like the culture of the island, a mixed compromise of religions and cultures. About 70 churches were built. Sixteen of the wooden churches on Chiloe are preserved as UNESCO World heritage sites.
The wooden churches are often listed as one of the main attractions of the island. Although each of them is unique and interesting, I prefer the National Park.
Chiloe is known for its rain, one of the reasons it is lush and green, but we had a couple of rare sunny days in Castro. The higher elevation portions of this island get up to 3,000 mm (120 inches) of rain a year. Yet just north of here is the Atacama desert – the driest place on earth outside the poles. Weather is fascinating.
Chiloe National Park
So we packed a lunch and headed down to the bus station to catch a ride to Chiloe National Park. It took about an hour and a half to cross the island before we were dropped off at the entrance to the park. The last return bus would leave at 6:30 PM, the driver told us.
The sky was completely blue, not a cloud in sight. The trails of the park were marked well and boardwalks were built over the marshy areas and bogs. Warning signs advised visitors to stay on the trails and boardwalks as the leaves and dust can create false soil. It looks like ground you would be stepping on, but you could immediately be submerged in water.
Some of the slats of the boardwalk were loose or rotting. One board flipped when Trin stepped on the side of the boardwalk sending him off the walkway onto the marsh. Thankfully he caught a tree and I caught his shirt. He jumped back unharmed and still dry.
The park is part of the Valdivian temperate rain forest area. The forest consists of evergreen southern beech trees, and some native conifers. These trees provide the shade needed for the plethora of vegetation growing on the forest floor. Many areas are swampy and contain peat bogs.
Everything was growing life upon life, vines, moss, and fungi on the trees and ground cover.
Trin and I were discussing possibly hitchhiking over to Muelle de las Almas, another area of interest south of the national park when another couple passed us on the trail. We asked them if they knew the bus schedule going to that point.
“No, but we are driving there now, want a ride?” said the guy whose name was Andrew.
We readily agreed. Together, we hiked back to the parking lot and climbed into their rental car. We had a pleasant conversation for the half-hour drive to the next trailhead. Their names were Andrew and Sophie, they were from Portugal and London. They were very interested in the national parks in the US and we talked about some of them, especially the national parks in Utah.
Muelle de las Almas
The trail to Muelle de las Almas had beautiful views all along the way. Thankfully it was a weekday and we practically had the trail to ourselves. From what I’ve read about this trail, it was supposed to be very muddy and I could see that on a rainy day we would have been slipping and sliding all over the place.
The day was clear, the sun was out, and the trail was dry. In the distance, we could see the rugged coastline. The views from the trail were unexpectedly good. I had heard it being described as a muddy, dreary hike to a photo op site. But this was not at all what I expected.
Dock of the Souls
Muelle de las Almas (Dock of the souls) is an art installation set upon a cliff along the rugged shoreline of Chiloe. It was built by a Chilean sculptor as an homage to mapuche folklore.
Just before the end of the trail, we came upon a lookout point where could see the artwork down below set among the vast landscape of rock walls jutting up from the sea. Even without the man-made attraction, this was a pretty view.
We made it down to the artwork and did the requisite photos. I wonder if the artist knew that this would turn out to be an Instagram destination. It’s a weaving dock that seems to go nowhere. Perhaps the artist meant for it to be the departure dock for the soul’s final journey.
We sat on the grass (by the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away) and talked for a while as other visitors started to trickle in. As it turns out, Andrew is an IT professional and we talked shop for a bit. They were on vacation for a few weeks in South America and are planning another trip, next time to the US.
We rode with them back to Castro and parted ways. They were such a wonderful couple and I wish them all the best.
Exploring the Towns of Chiloe
Castro is centrally located on the island and a good jumping off point for day trips. The bus routes between towns are regular and easy to use. We decided to town hop one day to see a few of the old wooden churches and explore some of the smaller towns of the island.
There are no bridges to connect Chiloe to the mainland of Chile nor to its smaller islands but ferries run regularly. On our way onto the main island, the bus drove onto the ferry and no one even got off the bus though you could if you wanted to. It was raining so we stayed inside. This would be considered a safety issue in other places.
After exploring the town of Dalcahue we walked onto the ferry to Quinchao island. Pedestrians can get on for free. It was a short hop and as it happened, there was a bus on the ferry that would take us to the next town. So we got on it.
Quinchao island has small towns spread across its breadth. Curaco de Velez is a sleepy town on the island’s west bay. It had a newly-built boardwalk along its shore. It was a pleasant walk and we stopped to eat our lunch while watching white swans gliding along the water. There’s a wooden church next to the square and some artisanal shops.
Our next stop was Achao which is also a sleepy town. From the main dock, there are boats that connect to other islands in Chiloe. Both these town that we visited had no central attraction. The town itself is what many come to see.
On our way from Castro to Ancud, we stopped at a town named Quemchi. We had no idea what to expect except that we would be walking around town. Maybe it would be the same atmosphere as Curaco and Achao.
As our bus meandered along the hilly shoreline road of the town we could see a cruise ship at the bay. In the town center where we alighted there was a smattering of activities. Some of the passengers from the cruise ship had already made it on shore through little zodiac boats. They all had what looked to be cruise issued rubber boots and raincoats. The town greeted them with a small band and dancing at the dock. It was festive.
We spoke to some of the passengers and also the cruise tourist guides. The cruise had a capacity of 200 passengers and it was considered an expedition cruise, mostly because they take zodiac boats to go to little towns like this. That’s what the guide told us.
Mash Potatoes Roasted on a stick
The vendors had set up an elaborate pit fire on which they were roasting a potato-based local delicacy that they called shoshoca. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it is spelled, and it’s probably not even close to the real name. They had a log, kind of like a telephone pole but I’m sure it was clean, and they slathered potato-based batter around it and then roasted it on the pit.
We tried some. It tasted like potato. Chiloe has a wide variety of potatoes. We tried a bunch of them from the market. They all tasted the same to me.
We ate some seafood empanadas, and Trin ate some sea urchin. The woman cracking open the sea urchins found a large worm in one of the urchins. After showing it to the onlookers, she popped it in her mouth and chewed. She smiled gleefully when we all squirmed.
Most people who visit Ancud go to see the penguins. We didn’t because we will be going to Puerto Deseado where we can see them up close. But we stayed for a couple of days in town just to check it out. There is a nice shoreline and downtown. There was some kind of celebration of bomberos (firefighters) and the firemen were doing a carwash, splashing the cars with a firehose and from what I could tell, they were missing a quite a few spots.
There was a band at the mercado municipal and they were cooking curanto in large pots. I heard that it’s not as good as the traditionally-prepared curanto which is seafood cooked in a hole on the ground with leaves and hot rocks, but there we were and that was what’s on offer. So we joined a line. When it came was our turn, they asked for our tickets. Trin said that he just wanted to buy some curanto, but they said that we had to have tickets. We didn’t know where to buy tickets so we asked a lady at the counter and she said the tickets were sold out.
Food can sometimes be complicated.
Chillin’ in Chiloe
I wanted to see Chiloe because I was intrigued. The towns are beautiful, well maintained and clean. Some of the towns were undergoing major renovations to build boardwalks on the bay.
The Chiloe islands did have a different feel to them as the guidebooks said they would. Small town friendliness abounded and they welcomed visitors with open arms. The architecture is unique with its wooden homes and window boxes. I muse at the mix of culture, the adaptations to each other that makes this island utterly unique and peaceful. They adapted, they learned, and they love their island, opportunities not wasted.
- Note this is a fictional story I wrote to illustrate the mythology of La Pincoya
- Hanisch, Walter (1982). La Isla de Chiloe, Capitana de Rutas Australes. Academia Superior de Ciencias Pedagógicas de Santiago. pp. 11–12.
- Moreno, J., Rodrigo A. (2008). “Chiloé Archipelago and the Jesuits: The geographic environment of the mission in the XVII and XVIII centuries”. Magallania. 39 (2): 47–55.
- Chiloe Archipelago, Wikipedia