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Jacada Travel Journal: Chiloé, Notes from a Far Flung Isle

Latin America expert George Warren reports on his recent trip to Chiloé on Chile’s southern coast.

‘From a distance the view somewhat resembles that of Tierra del Fuego; but the woods, when seen nearer, are incomparably more beautiful. Many kinds of fine evergreen trees, and plants with a tropical character, here take the place of the gloomy beech of the southern shores.’

Writing of this remote region in 1839, Charles Darwin describes the far-flung isle of Chiloé with reverance of its resolutely wild nature. As he sailed along the Chilean coast in his famous vessel, the Beagle, he notes the ‘boisterous’ winds and ‘impenetrable’ forests; this was no beach-side paradise, nor a landscape for the faint-hearted, but instead a challenging region nevertheless offering its own wild beauty.

Comparing my recent trip to Chiloé with Darwin’s impressions, I found that despite the near 200-year separation between our visits, the place hasn’t changed quite as much as you might think. From the bartering system still used in its markets to the abundance of lichen covering the extremely fertile inland forests, Chiloé is still distinctly off-the-the-beaten-track and will most definitely bring out the true explorer in you.

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‘White massive clouds were piled up against a dark blue sky, and across them black ragged sheets of vapour were rapidly driven. The successive mountain ranges appeared like dim shadows, and the setting sun cast on the woodland a yellow gleam, much like that produced by the flame of spirits of wine.’

Approaching Chiloé via ferry, it’s clear that the weather remains firmly inclement. However, despite the clouds, my arrival presented some impressive sights, with the stilted ‘palafino’ houses along the shore providing a welcome burst of colour.

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‘The forests are so impenetrable, that the land is nowhere cultivated except near the coast and on the adjoining islets. Even where paths exist, they are scarcely passable from the soft and swampy state of the soil.’

The thick forests of the Parc National Chiloé remain just as dense as Darwin’s time, although there are a range of winding pathways to navigate around the abundant lichen and moss that thive in the wet climate.

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‘I have seen a man bringing on his back a bag of charcoal, with which to buy some trifle, and another carrying a plank to exchange for a bottle of wine. Hence every tradesman must also be a merchant, and again sell the goods which he takes in exchange.’

Whilst the modern Chilean economy took over much of the island long ago, the thriving markets of Chiloé still retain the use of a unique bartering system. As you’ll see in the images below, wooden boxes (in this case contianing native Chiloé potatoes) are filled to the brim, and used to trade for dried meat, dyed wool and clothing.

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‘The church, which stands in the middle, is entirely built of plank, and has a picturesque and venerable appearance.’

Darwin, perhaps more concerned with the landscape and it’s inhabitants, somewhat glosses over Chiloé’s vibrant churches, which are well worth a visit. Crafted by the island’s ship-builders, these UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been constructed almost entirely out of wood and shingles. Utilising their knowlegde of hulls, the original builders shaped each roof in unique patterns mirroring those used in their ships.

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During my time on Chiloé I holed up in the fantastic Refugia Hotel. Anything but old-world, the Refugia has been meticulously crafted from local materials, making the most of the plentiful native wood and wool, to provide a welcome retreat from the weather. The huge log-fireplace was particularly welcome on the colder days…

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