Isla de Chiloé – Shingles, microbuses and curanto

Chiloé, Chile – the second largest island in South America, home of one of the most distinct architectural styles in Chile and famous for its wooden churches and permanently overcast weather. Having read two separate guidebooks talking it up as the most intriguing spot in Chile, I decided to head down south to the beginnings of the end of the world, before meeting up with Katie, Amy and Christelle in Puerto Montt to begin our Navimag adventure (a story for another day)

Travelling in the world’s longest country means that long distance bus trips come as part of the package. Chiloé is relatively isolated from mainland Chile – no direct flights are available and when the Chilean government wanted to build a bridge linking the island and mainland to celebrate the Chilean bicentennial, the backlash was fierce enough to stop it because of the pride that Chiloeans have in their remoteness.

In order to get down to Puerto Montt, the main transport hub of southern Chile and the jump off to Patagonia, I had to take a 14 hour bus and then a further 4 hour bus – including ferry ride – to get to Castro, the biggest city in Chiloé. Having had to make the tough decision to cut the Atacama desert and Bolivian salt flats out of my travel plans due to budget reasons (oh the bitter disappointments of practicality) I decided my newly loosened budget could afford a ten dollar upgrade to a salon cama bus from the ordinary semi cama bus so favoured by backpackers. The luxuries of a salon cama cannot be overstated. The seats recline massively, leg room is endless and the seat themselves are so wide and comfortable, you barely register you are sleeping on a bus (this blog obviously has a time lag due to me being out adventuring most of the time. Last night, we came back up from Patagonia on a semi cama bus. The comedown from salon cama was big.) After semi cama and salon cama, there are even more premium classes with flat beds but salon cama was so comfortable I can’t imagine feeling the need to upgrade further. Anyway, I had a fantastic night’s sleep, and arrived in Puerto Montt at 10.30am feeling fresh and not at all like I’d been on a bus for 14 hours.

The most glorious bus seat I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting on

I’ll be totally honest – Chiloé didn’t totally live up to my expectations. I think I’d been seduced by the write ups that were based on summer visits and a winter experience in Chiloé is a very different kettle of fish. I talked to 3 separate people on the Navimag who had just been in Chiloé at the same time as me, and all of us agreed we’d been a little let down. If anyone reading this blog is planning a trip to Chile in the future – I would definitely recommend Chiloé, but in the summer. The architecture is awesome year round and I absolutely loved that element but the churches – the main attraction of the island – get shut up over winter so effectively you bus out to rural towns, look at the church, snap a photo and then wander around a tiny town before hopping back on your microbus barely 20 minutes later. I also think my lack of private transport hindered me – the more rural churches have very infrequent bus connections, effectively meaning you devote one day to one church in terms of getting there and back – not ideal on a 3 day visit. So that’s my Chiloé recommendations – definitely go, but go in summer and a private car for the more harder to reach areas combined with the microbuses for fun cultural immersion would be the way to do it.

One of the many palafitos in Castro (and one of my favourite photos that I took during my six month trip)

As I mentioned, my favourite aspect of Chiloé was the shingled houses. Utterly distinctive and very pretty, almost every house on the island is covered in some form of unique roof shingle, making everywhere you go an utterly charming scene. Normally in a bright mixture of colours, the wood shingles of Chiloé are unique and I never got tired of seeing new mixtures of shingles and colours.

Chiloé is a big island, and Chilotes get around on microbuses everywhere. Staying in Castro was handy as it is the island’s bus hub and it was a simple matter of navigating the maze of bus stalls and handling the unhelpful bus clerks reluctance to give out details of their bus timetables (and I have become a master of conversations in Spanish regarding bus details, so it wasn’t from a lack of linguistic knowledge on my part that the struggle came from. A lot of people who have travelled in Chile talk of a national character of keeping to one’s self and being a bit hard to get to know. Chilotes take this to a new level.)

I made my way to Ancud, where I took an unintentional half hour detour to the port (me and Katie’s copy of Rough Guide to Chile are DONE professionally – the author put the Rural Bus Terminal in a completely erroneous location on the Ancud map just for funsies). I visited the Museo Regional and had my first curanto, the local Chiloé dish, which was absolutely delicious;

“The ingredients consist of shellfish, meat, potatoes, milcaos (a kind of potato bread), chapaleles, and vegetables (sometimes including also specific types of fish). The quantities are not fixed; the idea is that there should be a little of everything.” (thanks Wikipedia!)

Nom nom nom – one of my favourite meals I’ve had so far in Chile, washed down with a pisco sour

I also visited the Isla of Quinchao, hopping on a bus to Dalcahue and crossing across the strait of water on a ferry to visit Curaco de Velez and Achao. While the towns were nice enough, the real highlight of the hour and a half drive there was passing through a patchwork of shingled farmhouses, green hills and the ever present fog.

Sadly my visit ended on a sour note. Intrigued by Katie’s Rough Guide to Chile claiming Chonchi was “Chiloé’s most attractive town” (again, DONE professionally), I rushed through the Isle of Quincaho, convinced Chonchi deserved a full afternoon. There was talk of a delightful museum, nice restaurants and an utterly charming ambience. My honest opinion – Chonchi is a bit of a dump. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the museum, despite its winter opening hours being prominently displayed, was closed as were all the restaurants I’d been intending to go to. Additionally, I had bought my return ticket to Castro at the Castro bus terminal, and spent a good hour asking all the residents of Chonchi what on earth “Messamar” meant, which was where my bus ticket told me I would be picked up by the bus. I even got on facebook to ask Katie, who had no idea. Neither did Google. Messamar is still a mystery to me, and I ended up hitching another company’s microbus an hour earlier, eager to leave Chonchi behind me.

“Charming” Chonchi. These photos were not in any way selectively chosen by my bitterness over the disappointment of Chonchi.

At the crack of dawn the next morning, I awakened at 5.30am to catch my bus back to Puerto Montt. Walking through rain and darkness to get to the bus station from my hostel, I was followed by a local youth whistling at me. Runwalked my way to the bus station, and eagerly got on my bus, ready to get back to travelling with friends and having the ability to talk in English again (I was the only person staying at my hostel and literally spoke nothing but Spanish to the various bus drivers/tellers/waiters my entire stay – travelling alone is only fun for so long before you start to go a bit insane!).

However, overall my Chiloe overview is this: pretty houses, fantastic curanto. Go in summer and avoid freaking Chonchi. It’s a pretty special place and I’m really glad I made the effort to go. The combination of palafitos and shingles create a unique cultural landscape that you won’t see in other bits of Chile.