Chiloén Churches and Chaitén Cheer

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The island of Chiloé is well known for its special maritime culture, and is a tourist destination for many Chileans from the mainland. The independent spirit of the Chilote people is said to date back to the 16th century, and there is certainly a special self-sufficiency and sense of identity that is still proudly maintained. Nowadays, however, the lifestyle is relaxed and tourism is probably as important a source of income as the traditional industries of fishing and farming. We joined the summer throngs from Pargua for the short trip across to the northern tip of the island, jammed on the ferry with an impossible number of other closely packed cars, buses and trucks.

Our first impression of the island was almost totally obscured by cloud and mist, but once we got off the main Ruta 5 highway, and the sun came out, we discovered small rural communities with shingled churches, and fishing villages nestled in picturesque inlets backed by pastoral rolling hills. The churches are often constructed of alerce wood (an ancient type of cypress that is indigenous to the area) and many of them are covered with intricately shaped shingles held together with wooden pegs - tradition has it that the early churches constructed by the Jesuits were often burnt down by the local Chono Indians in order to get at the valuable iron nails. We certainly didn't visit them all, but it is easy to believe that there are close to 150 of these characteristic churches throughout the island. Many of the more important ones have been designated as national monuments, and several particularly impressive ones are protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Maybe as characteristic as the churches, are the 'palafitos' or stilted houses built over the water along the shore of many fishing villages. At high tide the fishermen can tie up their boats right at the back door, but from the street the houses look just like any others. As in any maritime culture, life revolves around the time of the tides and when the catch is coming in. All manner of fish, seafood and shellfish form the basis of the island cuisine, and locally farmed salmon and oysters are in particular demand. In Castro, the provincial capital, we found a restaurant perched high above the water on stilts, and tried the local dish called 'curanto'. It turned out to be a sort of mixed stew - huge mounds of mussels and giant cockles still in their shells, together with chunks of ham, chicken, sausage and boiled potatoes, served with a bowl of spicy fish soup. Our friendly waiter told us that this used to be the staple food on the island, but is now mostly indulged in by the tourists - the natives prefer and can now afford a good solid steak! As we ate, we watched the dolphins cruising the Fiordo de Castro on their way out to Golfo Corcovado.

At the end of the week we took a larger ferry - Navimag's 'Alejandrina' - for the five hour trip from Quellón at the island's southern tip across to Chaitén, a small town nestled under the rugged hills of the remote Aisén region of Chile. This was to be a special rendevous as Adrian and Tanja, our young Swiss friends, had been travelling up the Carretera Austral from the south. Sure enough, there they were on the pier to greet us, and we were all very excited and happy to meet up again. As we spent the next four days together, it seemed to be a perpetual round of talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and generally good cheer. We were able to catch up on all the news, get briefed about the "absolute musts" on our journey south, and plan our next reunion in Switzerland. Our first campsite overlooked Bahía Chaitén, with Volcán Corcovado (the Humpback) in the distance, and we were again able to watch the dolphins patrolling just offshore and marvel at the stunning sunsets. To top it all off, we were pleased to introduce them to the highlight of English cuisine (well, a Channer favourite comfort food, anyway) - steaming bowls of macaroni pudding for dessert. They were appreciative, but somehow didn't seem to be that impressed!!

We travelled a short distance north to visit Parqué Pumalín - a private park developed by Douglas Tompkins, founder of Esprit clothing. This is a unique endeavour based on protecting the pristine natural beauty from commercial logging and farming activities, as well as developing and encouraging community-based alternative income generating enterprises. We camped in a spectacular setting below the snowy massif of Volcán Michinmahuida with its half dozen hanging glaciers. We did manage to get a little exercise and took a couple of short hikes - the Cascadas Escondidas Trail to find the hidden waterfalls, and around the Interpretive Trail designed by Chilean naturalists Pablo Martinez and Adrianna Hoffmann. On both walks we had plenty of opportunity to admire the Alerce trees that often reach 2,000 years in age, and the large-leaved Nalca that can be used as a sort of rhubarb substitute. Although our site was beautiful, we expended as much energy swatting the hordes of mosquitoes, deer flies and horse flies as we did on the hiking.

Eventually it was time to continue on our separate journeys. Adrian and Tanja are heading north, and then across the Andes to Argentina and finally to Buenos Aires. This will complete their two year travels in the Americas before returning to resume a "normal" lifestyle in Switzerland (wonder how long that'll last?!). We headed south to begin our long anticipated trip down the Careterra Austral and across Argentina to Tierra del Fuego. Our parting of the ways brought a few tears to more than one pair of eyes.
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