Legend of Chiloé, Chile

Off the coast of Northern Patagonia lies a string of little-visited Chilean islands blanketed in virgin rainforests, dotted with fishing communities renowned for their singular Indigenous culture and culinary alchemy of flavors.

About the same size as Puerto Rico, Isla Grande—known as Chiloé—is the Chilean archipelago’s central hub. Surrounding it are dozens of smaller satellite islands, many of which are connected to Chiloé by a vast network of interisland ferries. 

World Heritage chasers come here to tick the islands’ whimsical wooden churches off their UNESCO lists. Meanwhile, hikers explore pristine forests, and wildlife watchers search for Humboldt penguins and migratory whales. Add to the mix an emergent culinary culture based around endemic ingredients, a growing list of private nature reserves, and a clutch of alluring hotels, and you see why these islands—known for their fables and fairytales—can cast a spell on unsuspecting visitors. Here’s why Chiloé should be on your next South American adventure.

Myths and legends

Chiloé’s rugged, wild coastline from the air.
Chiloé’s wild, rugged coastline is home to sea otters, sea lions, dolphins, whales and penguins.

Mainland Chile and the offshore islands of Chiloé are two separate worlds, even though traveling between them involves a boat journey of just five miles. Whereas continental Chile at these latitudes is rough and rocky, like Southern Alaska, Chiloé is rolling and green. If you squint your eyes, you might mistake this archipelago for some rural patch of the British Isles.

Of course, comparisons end with the landscapes; they say nothing of the people who inhabit them. The hardy folk of Chiloé have, for much of the islands’ history, lived in isolation from mainland South America, developing their own culture, foods, and beliefs that blend European Catholicism with Indigenous traditions of the Huilliche and Chono. The local mythology includes a wild cast of characters: a sneaky troll who lives in the forests and a ghost ship that lurks along the coast where a mermaid waits to assist passing anglers. All must be respected to maintain order and prosperity.

A luxurious base camp

The communal area at Tierra Chiloé and its sea views.
A stay at Tierra Chiloé will help you connect to the island’s culture and wildlife through its excellent excursions. Image courtesy of Tierra Chiloé.

No lodge near Castro gets you under the island’s skin quite like Tierra Chiloé, which immerses guests in Chilote food, crafts, and legends. Its eye-catching architecture—the building is clad in wooden shingles—calls to mind both the traditional palafito homes and the island’s UNESCO-listed churches. Yet, it’s also rooted in energy efficiency, part of the hotel’s strong commitment to sustainability (it also has a native vegetable garden and promotes the sustainable management of neighboring wetlands).

Inside, the design immerses guests in the folk charms of the island (think wood-carved furnishings, Indigenous Huilliche textiles, and hand-crafted lamps in each room). The restaurant, too, has a hyperlocal focus rooted in a farm-to-table concept, with most meals based around fresh-caught seafood. As you dine, you can stare out toward the serene inland sea while the hotel’s horses graze grassy pastures below.

One of the choicest perks of staying at this Tierra property is its Uma Spa, which comes in handy on a rainy day. It has the standard rubs and scrubs but also highly local offerings, including the Poñi Treatment, which harnesses the high vitamin C and calcium content of endemic potatoes for a nourishing facial. There’s also a seashell-like sauna and an infinity pool overlooking the Pullao Wetland—both ideal after a day filled with guide-led excursions, included in the room rates. Days based at Tierra Chiloé can consist of everything from hikes in nearby conservation reserves to kayaking the Rilán Peninsula or touring Castro by boat.

Whimsical woodsy architecture

A fishing boat on the shore in front of Chiloé’s distinctive palafito stilted houses.
Castro, the largest town on Chiloé, is known for its picturesque stilted houses, known as palafitos.

Like its singular cuisine, Chiloé’s architecture is wholly distinct from that of mainland Chile. Most notable are the archipelago’s iconic wooden churches. Jesuit missionaries arrived in the 1600s and began constructing them en masse, blending European architecture with Indigenous craftsmanship. These quaint, creaky buildings have survived hundreds of years and speak to the incredible skill of island woodworkers with facades composed of small shingles made from towering native alerce trees.

The archipelago is dotted with 70 or so wooden churches, most painted in wedding cake colors, such as dandelion yellow and robin-egg blue. In 2000, UNESCO declared sixteen of them a World Heritage Site. All are found in and around Castro, including the nearby Rilán Peninsula and offshore islands like Quinchao—you can arrange a tour if you’re staying at Tierra Chiloe.

Castro is similarly one of the last places in Chiloé where you can still find palafitos. These stilt homes—lost across much of the island to a massive 1960 tsunami—lurch over the sea, with one façade facing an interior street and the other overlooking the water. The most iconic in Castro lies off Pedro Montt and Ernesto Riquelme streets—both have viewpoints for the requisite stilt house photos found on island postcards and magnets. Many of these colorful palafitos now house boutique hotels (Palafito 1326), coffee shops (Café Bauda), and seafood restaurants (Encanto Chilote).

Hikes and natural attractions

The Dock of Souls, built in 2007, is an artwork by Marcelo Orellana.
The Dock of Souls is one of a number of noteworthy art installations dotted across Chiloé.

While much of Chiloé’s east coast has been carved up by farms and cities, the wild west remains pure parkland, home to virgin swaths of temperate Valdivian rainforest. The island’s biggest reserve, Chiloé National Park, protects 166 square miles of mountain-clad rainforest, flat peat bogs, dense swamplands, and coastal dunes. Highlights include the eight-mile Huentemo Cole Cole Trail, a moderately difficult half-day hike that takes you to the island’s prettiest beach: a remote crescent of golden sand backed by bushy green hills. Many also come here to photograph sea lions or search for the blue whales, humpbacks, and finbacks who migrate just offshore.

Just south of here is one of Chiloé’s most famous attractions: Muelle de las Almas. This so-called “Dock of Souls” is a 225-foot boardwalk that curves over a panoramic clifftop above the Bay of Cucao. Architect Marcelo Orellana built it in 2007 to honor the legend of Tempilcahue, a mythical boatman who helps transport wandering souls to the afterlife. The attraction is so popular that there are others just like it up and down the coast, including the Muelle del Tiempo (“Dock of Time”) in Tepuhueico Park, a private reserve along the southern border of the national park. Tepuhueico has a network of well-maintained forest trails along the Bravo River and offers the best chance at spotting the elusive pudu, the world’s smallest deer, about the size of a bulldog.

Yet another private park, Parque Tantauco, created by former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, protects a vast stretch of southern Chiloé. Though mostly visited as part of multi-day backpacking trips, there are a few notable day hikes here, including a three-mile beach-to-beach hike around the Punta Rocosa peninsula called Sendero Punta Rocosa.

Potato Island

A plate of mussels and potatoes from the Chiloé Archipelago.
Chiloé’s distinctive cuisine uses elements of the sea and the earth to create delicious, rustic meals, such as umami-rich cazuela chilota.

Recent DNA studies have found that the common potatoes sold in grocery stores worldwide trace their origins to the Chiloé Archipelago. People historically cultivated more than 800 varieties, though only 286 survived into the 21st century, including clavela lisa (a creamy pink variety), bruja (a starchy purple potato), and cabra (both sweet and spicy). These prismatic papas chilotas have long been hidden away in family kitchens, but with the help of the UN, NGOs, and young Chilean chefs, there’s a newfound pride in this native product once at risk of dying off.

Chiloé has emerged as a culinary hotspot, with its star spuds making an ideal companion to the bounty of the surrounding sea, where fishermen haul in everything from oysters to sea bass and king crabs. Nowhere is the food scene more inviting than Castro, where you’ll find restaurants like Travesia, where chef Lorna Muñoz has spent years traveling to rural homes to rescue traditional stews (such as the umami-rich cazuela chilota, made with mussels), breads (including the pancake-like chochoca), and desserts (the mella de papa cake)—all made with native potatoes. The quirky market-focused eatery of El Mercadito pairs tangy ceviches with tart pisco sours, and fine dining hotspot Rucalaf makes stars out of fresh-plucked oysters, mussels, and urchins.

No feast on Chiloé is more legendary than the curanto—one of the oldest continuously-practiced cooking traditions in the Americas—a family feast that starts with digging a massive earthen oven into the ground. Then, red-hot rocks are placed at the bottom, with mussels, clams, chickens, sausages, and potatoes layered above. On top of the mounting pile go two potato-based dumplings: milcao and chapalele. Then, the whole thing is covered with Chilean rhubarb leaves to steam for 90 minutes. You won’t find this feast in any restaurant (though possibly a similar plate called pulmay, or curanto el olla made on a stovetop). We can arrange an authentic curantos for group visiting.

How to make Chiloé a part of your South America journey

A couple walking across a wooden bridge over a river in Chiloé.
Chiloé is a haven for hikers, with walking trails covering the island. Image courtesy of Awa Hotel.

Chiloé is easy to pair with a trip to Chile’s volcano-studded Lake District, which lies just northeast of the main island on the far side of the Corcovado Gulf. The resort town of Puerto Varas, on the edge of Lake Llanquihue, is the most practical base here. Settled by German immigrants, it has an entirely different look and feel from Castro, with a small downtown grid lined with upmarket shops (Artesanías de Chile), outdoor clothing stores (Wild Lama), and fine dining restaurants (Casa Valdés), many of which have views of the conical Calbuco and Osorno volcanoes.

The architecturally striking Hotel AWA in Puerto Varas is a perfect launchpad for trips into nearby nature reserves, such as Alerce Andino National Park to the south and Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park to the east. Both are carpeted in thick rainforest, while the latter is home to the popular Saltos del Río Petrohué, a frothing waterfall that squeezes through a narrow canyon carved by ancient lava flows.

It’s also possible to catch a ferry from the southern Chiloé city of Quellón over to the Northern Patagonia harbor of Chaitén, whose namesake volcano had a major eruption in 2008, destroying a significant part of town (it’s since been rebuilt). From Chaitén, the famed Carretera Austral, or “Southern Highway,” heads north into Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, which is named for the late American philanthropist (and co-founder of The North Face) who was instrumental in protecting vast swaths of Patagonia from development.

Pumalín is one of Patagonia‘s wildest corners, lorded over by dueling volcanoes and carved around its edges in deep fjords. You can hike to the base of a crackling glacier on the 12-mile El Ventisquero Trail or through fern-filled forests up to a high Andean lagoon on the three-mile Laguna Tronador Trail. Many other day hikes lead to waterfalls, volcanic calderas, or forests of 3,000-year-old alerce trees.

Just south from here on the Carretera Austral are several alluring riverside properties such as Uman Lodge, in the white-water rafting capital of Futaleufu, and Rio Palena Lodge or Melimoyu Lodge, in the fly-fishing hub of Río Palena. Both offer remote luxury and experienced guides for regional adventures into unruffled corners of Northern Chilean Patagonia.

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