Chile may be famous for its soaring Andean mountains, the barren high-altitude Atacama Desert, and the glacier-laden landscape of Patagonia, but most visitors tend to miss out on the country’s charming coastal communities. Located on Chile’s southern coast that’s characterised by myriad archipelagos, Chiloé Island is a world of its own.
Known as a land of myths and legends, unique folklore and culinary traditions, it is also blessed with abundant nature. The Chiloé archipelago’s biggest island – Isla Grande – is the second-largest island in Latin America after Tierra del Fuego, and is surrounded by several smaller islands.
One of the most defining characteristics of this island is the profusion of colour which is evident in the quaint palafitos (stilted houses) and pretty wooden churches that are UNESCO-listed. Chiloé is striking for photographers. Nature lovers won’t be disappointed either: trekking routes take you through rich ecosystems, and boating trips get you up close to penguins.
Chiloe National Park
Situated in the middle of Isla Grande is Chiloé National Park, one of three major parks blanketing the island, and home to the indigenous Huilliche tribe. The breathtaking terrain soars to over 800m, where rushing rivers and lakes are surrounded by forests, before sloping towards the coastline.
A number of hiking trails cross the park, ranging from moist, moss-laden forests along the Tepaul Trail boardwalk, to wide-open sand dunes and beach walks in the Chanquín area. Another alternative is to explore the park on horseback as you take to the trails or the beach with mule drivers at Cole-Cole, or kayak the calm waters of Lake Cucao.
The park is one of the best places to watch humpback whales on their way to Patagonia; on Metalqui Island just offshore, there is a colony of sea lions. Among land mammals, the endemic (and rare) Darwin’s fox (so named because Charles Darwin first discovered it) and the pudú, a small deer, may also be spotted.
Castro, Chonchi, and Churches
One of Chile’s oldest cities, having been founded in 1567, Castro is located between lush hills and a beautiful calm bay that brilliantly reflects the colours of its famous palafitos. Built on stilts along its promenade, these colourful houses traditionally housed boats in their ‘basements’ and can be found in many coastal villages around the island.
It’s best to see Castro on foot: start from the Plaza de Armas with its painted cathedral and head towards the market area and then up the hill toward the mirador (lookout) with its bird’s-eye view of the city’s cemetery.
It’s a good place to try typical Chilote foods include the traditional curanto (a dish of mixed seafood cooked over hot stones in the ground), as well as recipes made from the hundreds of colourful local potato varieties for which Chiloé is famous. The best time to visit is from January to February when a multitude of traditional events spring up in villages and fields across the island.
In Castro, the colourful wooden San Francisco de Castro Church is UNESCO-listed and is part of a larger network of 16 heritage churches spread across Chiloé’s eastern coast. Nine of them are on the Isla Grande, while the others are scattered throughout other smaller islands, and are less than 10km apart from each other.
These churches are some of the oldest wooden constructions still standing on the planet, built during the 17th century to serve the evangelisation of the New World. Mixing Spanish design with techniques and materials of the island, they are unique in the Americas.
Just 30 minutes south of Castro is Chonchi, a small fishing village that was the starting point for the Jesuits to evangelise the southernmost part of Chiloé. Chonchi is home to the Church of San Carlos de Borroneo, the best preserved of Chiloé’s UNESCO churches.
One of the best ways to experience local life and visit UNESCO churches is on a kayak excursion which takes you to several islands where these churches are located.
Most operators offer a full day of sea kayaking in the Dalcahue Channel where you can expect to see great numbers of local seabirds including black-necked swans, oystercatchers, and grebes.
Islets of Punihuil
The protected Islets of Puñihuil (Islotes de Puñihuil) consists of three small islands off the northwestern coast of Chiloé Island, and is the only place in the world where (near-extinct) Humboldt penguins and Magellanic penguins live together. The best time of year to see them is during the breeding season from September to March.
A number of operators offer tours to the islets – you can either take a short boat ride for a close look at them or walk along the coastal trekking paths.
The site is also a breeding area for other bird species like the red-legged cormorant, kelp gull, kelp goose, and the massive, flightless Fuegian steamer duck. Marine otters, sea lions and blue whales can also be spotted from here.
The main island of Chiloé is accessible from mainland Chile via Route 5, part of the Pan American Highway, which is over 3,000km long. The route breaks at Pargua, where there’s a 30-minute ferry ride to Ancud, the biggest town on the main island. Further down Route 5 is Castro – Chiloé’s capital – from where nearly every village of Chiloé is easily accessible via good paved roads.