After a few days on the Chilean mainland we decided to head out to try some island life. Chiloe island, the second largest in South America after Tierra del Fuego is just a short hop from Puerto Montt. A 20 minute boat ride across the Chacao straight will take you to an area of Chile still new to the tourist track. The island is noticeably different to the southern Chilean mainland. Maintaining strong links with its native heritage along with a heavy dose of 17th century Jesuit missionary influence, Chiloe has charm, culture and colour in abundance.
For a few days we’d be staying in Castro the capital of the island, located half way down the east coast. The weather predictions were as we’d come to expect from southern Chile, bleak with almost constant rain expected. As we pulled into Castro in the dark and rain the only thing we could make out through the haze was a brightly lit building. It was only as we got off the bus we realised that this pink and yellow structure was in fact the towns Cathedral and in addition to it’s psychedelic colour scheme was also built entirely out of wood.
Chiloe is famous for it’s colourful wooden churches, there are more than 150 spread across the island, each one unique. The Jesuit missionaries and later the Franciscans are to thank for these remarkable structures, but probably not the colours.
The hostel we were staying in was in the traditional style for the island, a “palafito” a house on stilts, which at high tide leaves you sleeping above the water. As with most of Chiloe’s architecture the palafitos are brightly painted and made of wood. If you’re heading to the island we’d definitely recommend trying to stay in one of these traditional houses. As we arrived with the rain hammering down outside and a lovely log fire going all we wanted to do was sit back and enjoy the Chilean national drink, the Pisco Sour!
Southern Chile has yet to see the advantages of central heating, this is especially odd considering it has a cold climate most of the year. Wood burning stoves are fairly standard in homes, shops and restaurants. Whilst they make you feel warm and cosy, they also mean that after a few days you’ll smell rather strongly of wood smoke. So does everyone else though so you don’t really notice.
The next day started…surprisingly…rainless. As this was a rarity this time of year we were up and out, ready to explore within twenty minutes. Apart from it’s colourful architecture Chiloe is also famous for it’s cuisine. A little unsurprisingly for an island that cuisine is seafood and the fish market is where all the restaurants and locals come to get their supplies. A colourful building surrounded by colourful fishing boats you’ll find yourself amazed by the size and range of fresh catch for sale.
Whilst there is plenty of fish on offer what impressed us the most were the more unusual items for sale. Whilst I know seaweed is edible I rarely eat it outside of a chinese. Seaweed is however clearly put to good use on Chiloe. Loose seaweed, seaweed cakes, cooked, dried, smoked and even thick kelp like tentacles that were wrapped around themselves ready to go. If we’d had a clue what to do with it we’d definitely have bought some!
Directly next to the fish market is the central market selling a great selection of local hand crafts. If you’re only just starting to head south, this is a great place to pick up some warm jumpers and socks. Or you could always pick up a poncho if you’re feeling adventurous…but since we’ve yet to see anyone wearing one, we gave it a miss.
If you fancy sampling some of the local seafood the restaurant we’d recommend is El Mercadito, near the fish market. Specialising in seafood, the restaurants sharing starter is a great way to get a feel for Chilean seafood and followed by one of the huge mains it’s a hearty meal. For those who aren’t fish lovers, there are of course steaks on offer as well. The Frozen Pisco Sour at this restaurant is a must have, probably the best we’ve had in Chile. Book or arrive early as it’s nearly always full by 9:00.