Chiloé is South America's largest island, 112 miles (180km) long and 31 miles (50km) wide. It is a wild and beautiful place but also one of Chile's poorest areas with most of the populace scratching a living out of farming or fishing. It has rich folkloric traditions and a wealth of mythology that has contributed to Chilean literature, involving trolls, sea monsters and ghost ships. Another mark of the unique Chilote culture is the distinctive craftwork that is produced, especially that made from wool.
Isla Grande de Chiloe © Joanna C
The island rich heritage is evident in its unique architecture: the forested countryside is scattered with more than 150 wooden churches dating from about two centuries ago; the estuaries are lined with quaint palafitos (stilted houses); and the small towns feature wooden shingled buildings. Most of the Chilotes live within sight of the sea and scenes of colourful wooden boats are commonly visible through the rain and mist. Seafood is a prominent part of daily life here and the morning's freshest catch is always available at local restaurants and markets.
Known for its damp weather and the spooky folklore that is perfectly suited to the island's misty beauty, Chiloé balances wild nature with the warmth of its people and their culture. As it is still largely an unknown destination, a visit to the island offers adventurous travellers an authentic and unique experience of Chile, especially in the main town Castro, or in the wonderful national park on the pacific coast, Parque Nacional Chiloé.
Castro © Christian Cordova
CastroCastro is the main town (technically a city) on Chiloé Island. It is actually the third oldest city in Chile, founded in 1576. Castro is famous for its colourful rows of palafitos (stilted houses) lining the estuaries, excellent seafood and traditional handicrafts. With an eclectic blend of Chilote culture and modern development, Castro is a popular summer destination for Chilean and Argentinean tourists and has a laid back feel to it. One of the town's most interesting features is the San Francisco Church, painted in dazzling pastel colours. The town itself is full of interesting features however, including craft markets, the regional museum, and the MAM Gallery. There are a range of restaurants and shops, and a few bars to keep the fun going at night. The central town square, Plaza de Armas, is the heart of Castro and here you will find a number of great places to eat, as well as a prime people-watching position. Cycling around the island is a popular activity and a good way to see the sights. The town also provides access to the nearby islands of the Chiloé archipelago and the Parque Nacional Chiloé, which make for wonderful excursions.
Parque Nacional Chiloe © Lin Linao
Parque Nacional ChiloéFollowing in the footsteps of Darwin after 150 years, visitors will find an isolated but wildly beautiful assortment of rolling hills, native forests and pristine coastline in Parque Nacional Chiloé. It is home to the Chilote fox, the rare pudú (miniature deer) and over 100 species of birds, including the Magellanic penguin. The park offers a variety of walking trails, through forests and under twisted tepú trees, along miles of unspoilt coastline or along nature trails that lead up onto the hills for superb views of the surrounds. One of the draws of the hiking trails in Chiloé is the wide selection of short hikes, making it a good activity even for visitors who aren't in the best shape. There are also epic hikes for those who want to walk long-distances. The park is home to several Huilliche Indian communities. The information centre at the entrance has good displays on the flora, fauna and the traditions and folklore of the Huilliche people. This amazing wilderness area is only 18 miles (30km) west of Chonchi and 34 miles (54km) west of Castro, making it easily accessible. The area receives a huge amount of rain year round so be sure to dress appropriately.
Wooden churches of Chiloe © Alastair Rae
Wooden Churches of ChiloeThe Spanish, who arrived in the 16th century, and Jesuit missionaries that came to Isla Grande de Chiloe in the 17th century, built hundreds of wooden churches in the archipelago in an attempt to 'civilise' the three local Indian tribes that occupied the islands. The Jesuits built more than 80 of these places of worship, and the Franciscan order later joined them and added to the region's astounding collection of chapels and churches. The 16 churches which still remain well-preserved have been jointly UNESCO-listed. Visiting some of these old buildings is one of the most interesting things to see and do in Isla Grande de Chiloe. Apart from being very old, the churches have a unique architecture which makes them special; in fact, the whole archipelago benefits from its own style of building which visitors find delightful. Although recognisably colonial in some ways the mix between the local and the European is unexpected and original to the area, possibly because isolation allowed the architectural style to develop largely undisturbed for centuries. The churches are wooden, often painted with the pastel colours associated with Castro. Three of the most famous can be found in the villages of Chonchi and Dalcahue, and in Castro itself. The churches are a popular tourist attraction in Isla Grande de Chiloe and for those lucky enough to travel to this region should try to visit as many as possible.