Chiloe – Conquistadors, Palafitos, & Curanto

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
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15
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Trip End May 24, 2010


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Where I stayed

Flag of Chile  , Isla Chiloe,
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chiloe is a very special place, but I can't put my finger on why. Its capital city is nice, but unremarkable.  Moreover, as the son of a Cuban émigré, Chiloe’s capital has the most unfortunate of names – Castro.  Chiloe’s national park – a "precious jewel" as told to me by a local – had the worst infrastructure of any park (national, state, or municipal) I’ve ever visited.  And while the island is littered with cute little towns, there is literally nothing to do in any of them – except look at old churches.

Yet not only did I enjoy Chiloe, I loved it.  It has been one of undisputed highlights of our trip thus far.  Go figure.

Chances are you’ve seen Chiloe and not even realized it.  It is a large island off the coast of Chile, about 800 miles or so due South of Santiago, the national capital.  Click here on a map to see Chiloe’s location.

Unlike most other areas of Patagonia, Chiloe has a long history dating to the second half of the sixteenth century.  According to a few sources (none of them particularly reputable, to be honest), the pre-Columbian indigenous groups possessed a highly hierarchical and centralized society – at least relative to other pre-Columbian groups in the New World.   Consequently, when the Spanish arrived, they solidified their control fairly easily by overpowering the ruling class and meshing the traditional pre-Conquest hierarchical social structures with that of the Crown and the Church.  Over time, a distinctive “Chilote” culture emerged as well with customs, architecture, cuisine, and mythology because of the area’s geographical isolation from the mainland.

One of Chiloe’s most distinctive features is the island’s “palafitos” – houses built on stilts along the waterfront.  Often, these houses are bathed in array of bright colors, which adds a splash of color to the green countryside.  

Chilotes (people from Chiloe) who live on the water’s edge need houses on stilts because of the islands dramatic tides.  Tidal swings from low to high tide can vary as much as 23 feet (20 feet in Castro).   When the tide is out, the palafito stands on a mud flat.  When the tide comes in, it looks like a multi-colored tiki-hut with a tin roof.

Entire fishing fleets become beached when the tide goes, creating very interesting visuals in communities across the island.  From our hotel – located on a palafito on the water’s edge – I spent large amounts of time with a glass of wine in my hand literally watching the tide roll in.  Especially when the tide is low, you can watch the water slowly rise and cover the mud flats and small islands made of reeds.   I’m easily amused, but usually not THAT easily amused.  Nonetheless, it was somehow a captivating spectacle.

We arrived in Castro after a four-hour bus ride from Puerto Varas.  Much to our delight, in the lobby our hotel was a friend we met in El Calafate – Melissa.   She had already lined up an organized tour of the some of the smaller seaside towns on the island the next morning, and we decided to tag along. 

That evening, Monique and I went out to paint the town.   We went out to a restaurant to grab a drink at 7:30, which meant we were the only folks in the place.  I asked about Licor de Oro, which translates as “liquor of gold.”  It’s a local drink unique to Chiloe, and with a name like that, how could I NOT try it?  Unfortunately for me, I was out of luck.

With my first attempt at liquor de oro thwarted, we turned the Chilean drinking staple – the pisco sour.   Pisco is a distinctive hard liquor made from grapes usually grown in Chile and Peru, usually mixed with traditional sour mix.

We ordered a couple of pisco sours, which were painstakingly made from scratch over the course of 10 minutes.  They were outstanding.   One contained crushed calafate berries (the local Patagonia berry), while the other was “clasico” – just pisco and sour mix.   We had already had a few of pisco sours in other places on our trip, but none approached the quality of these drinks.

I asked the bartender what she would drink if she was me, and she pointed me in the direction of 120 proof vodka mixed with crushed calafate berries.  It sounded like a bad idea, but the pisco sours were delicious, so I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and ordered one of these calafate berry vodka bombs.  The first sip tasted like tender gasoline – a mild burning sensation on the way down with the strong after-taste masked by the calafate berries. 

In a rare display of prudence, I switched back to the pisco sours, we ordered a lovely salmon dinner (salmon fishing is cornerstone of the local economy in this region), and called it a night.  We were off to a roaring start in Chiloe.  

On day two, we set out for a tour of the some of the picturesque small towns that dot Chiloe´s coastline.  We joined our friend Melissa and her traveling companion Bevin, and hopped into a minivan with our entertaining guide – a man by the name of Sergio.  Sergio was pretty savvy, and when I entered the van, he immediately peppered me with questions in Spanish.  My head was throbbing a bit from the pisco and berry vodka explosion, but I quickly saw what he was up to.  He was trying to gauge if my Spanish was better than his English, and apparently it was (which isn’t saying much).

So I became the tour guide translator for the day.

Our first stop was the little town of Delcahue, northwest of Castro.   Click here if you want to see a map of the towns on Chiloe.  We perused the local craft market, walked past the fishing fleet, and made our way up to the town plaza and the town’s famous church.  One of Chiloe’s claim to fame is that it has a collection of old churches scattered in towns throughout the island dating back as far as 1730.  The interior of the church of Delcahue contains a renowned mural that combines Christian and pantheistic imagery, which we photographed.  Of course we didn’t know it was “famous” until we returned to the van and Sergio told us, but Monique has a good eye and decided to snap a photo not knowing its supposed historical influence.     

From Delcahue, we drove to the small village Tenaún.  Along the way, Sergio regaled us with the history of the island (he was one of my sources for the earlier paragraph on the island’s history) and shared with us some details of the island’s “mythology” (a sordid and somewhat grotesque variation of what we would call “witchcraft” in the U.S. – only that the Chilote version of witchcraft reduces the accusations of the Salem witch trials to a bad performance by a magician at a child’s birthday party.  To read more about Chiloe’s mythology, click here (warning, some entries may be a bit grotesque).

Tenaún is a small village of a couple of hundred people, so we strolled down the main drag, snapped a few more photos, enjoyed a photography lesson from Melissa, and were promptly called for lunch.   There was only one problem – there was no restaurant in town.

Our dining experience became one of the culinary highlights of the trip.  We were called in a woman’s home, where we each had a fresh seafood salad and a glass of white wine waiting for us.  As it turns out, this family rents out rooms and prepares meals for tour groups coming through.  We enjoyed a plate of fresh, lightly fried hake with some potatoes and listened to Sergio’s multiple tall tales about the island.  As we came to quickly realize, Sergio knew just about everyone in Chiloe and seemed to have a story about each of the island’s inhabitants.

After lunch, we made our way to a launch – a small fishing boat, really – and boated for 45 minutes across a channel to the island of Mechuque.  Mechuque only has a couple of hundred inhabitants, but is oozing with character and charm.  As we disembarked, Sergio was chatting up just about everyone hanging around the dock, which must have comprised about one-fourth of the island’s population.   We strolled around another old church, saw a few more palifitos, and visited the Mechuque museum. 

The museum turned out to be the highlight of the day for Monique.  The museum’s owner and curator was a thin, old seafaring man with sunken eyes and a white beard, and he beamed with pride as he showed off his collection of items.   There were three rooms, one with a captain’s wheel and an assortment of old soda bottles and records, a second that looked like a collection of sea glass, and a third with a small replica of a boat that apparently sailed in some regatta in 2010.  I had no idea what any of the items had to do with the island of Machuque or their historical significance (especially the boat replica from 2010).  And when I tried to speak to the proud owner, the combination of an extra-thick provincial accent and what I thought was a notable lack of teeth (not totally sure though, and I thought it rude to stare) made him completely unintelligible.

Nonetheless, none of this mattered for some reason.  We all had a great time and gladly leave a generous contribution to the local museum when we left.     

On the way back to Castro, I asked Sergio where I could find the best curanto.   He promptly responded that I couldn’t find any curanto this time of year.  I was perplexed; multiple restaurants throughout town had signs outside their front doors saying “Today Curanto.”

“Curanto” is a local dish comprised of shellfish, pork, and potato dumplings all cooked to together.  In other words, it’s an observant Jew’s worst nightmare served on a dish.  True curanto is served “al hoyo” which means the chef digs a hole in the ground; places a couple of red hot stones, mounds of shellfish, potatoes, and pork in the hole, and the covers it with damp leaves and earth.  After about the two hours, you have curanto.

The problem is, this process is time consuming and requires a plot of land and guaranteed number of patrons to make it economically viable.  Instead, what restaurants were serving was called “pulmay” – which has all the goodies of curanto, but is cooked in a pan, or “en olla.”  When the restaurants are offering up curanto, they are really serving pulmay.  But at the end of the day, both dishes are very similar.

And delicious.

When my curanto (pulmay actually) arrived, it was served with a mound of mussels and clams, a couple of potato dumplings (according to Sergio, there are more than 200 species of potato on Chiloe), a slab of ham, and a pork sausage.  On the side came a glass of the most amazing broth (seafood and pork) I have ever tasted.  Apparently, this is how you know you’re getting pulmay and not curanto.

The most memorable parts of the meal were the mussels.   The mussels were extraordinary, with a flavor and texture I hadn’t tasted before.  Apparently, mussels from Chiloe are exported all over the world for this very reason.  

After polishing off a fantastic meal (unfortunately, Monique’s fell a little short) and a decent bottle of carmenere, we decided to call it night.  We were halfway through our stay in Chiloe, and looked forward to what the next day would hold in store for us.  

Traveling Notes

Incidentally, the hotel we stayed at – Palafitos Hostel – was one of the best and most interesting places we stayed at in our trip so far.  We had an amazing view of the channel in Castro, our own little balcony, and met some very interesting people.  To the extent that staying in pleasant living quarters helps make a visit to a place special, it couldn’t get much better for us at the Palafitos Hostel.

There are only three tourism agencies in Castro, and we visited all three.  By far away the most professional operation in our minds was the one that started with a "P."  Petrohuen Travel maybe?

I ate curanto (or pulmay, actually) at the three places.  By far and away, the best was at El Octavio.
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Comments

Maggie on

I figure you have to love a place with good food and wine, beautiful scenery, friendly people, and mesmerizing 20 foot tides. Looking forward to the next posting!

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