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Published: February 2nd 2010
I love Chiloe - where else do you get a lilac and orange cathedral in the main town?
Chiloe is an archipelago of islands off the coast of southern Chile - its appeal is the 150 odd wooden churches and its unique way of life developed when its Spanish settlers were isolated from the mainland settlers for 200 years. Its not the most logical destination when your starting point is Buenos Aires but I've always wanted to go there so off we set on a 33 hour journey involving 3 buses, one border and a ferry.
Stage one was a 22hour bus journey from BA to Bariloche - but in Argentina that's not as arduous as it sounds, think 1st class plane travel. Great big comfy seats that almost fully recline, pillows and blankets, a steward bringing round drinks and serving wine with the meal and whisky night caps. The bus isn't even half full and we are upstairs so there are fantastic views of the scenery. It feels really strange pulling into the YPF petrol station - suddenly all sorts of memories of the last few months come flooding back, I never thought I'd feel nostalgic about a
petrol station. For the last couple of hours we are on the same route we took on the bike - its great, we see the barren grasslands and the deep blue lakes from a different perspective high up on the bus and keep going 'that's where we stopped for a photo/petrol/a picnic etc'.
From Bariloche its a 6 hour bus to Puerto Montt in Chile via the Paso Cardinal Samore - the one that was covered in snow when we went over on the bike. Now most of the snow has gone, there are just a few patches in amongst the trees, its almost unrecognisable. On the bike we used to race to get in front of all the bus passengers at the border but now we are the bus passengers. Its all very organised; at immigration they have a passenger list and the bus conductor has lined us all up in the correct order to file through. At customs the bus is parked so that we get off we walk straight through the scanner, then the sniffer dogs, in their cute little aduana uniforms are sent in. As we drop down to Osorno it is unrecognisable; last time
there was low cloud and drizzle and it looked just like the UK with the green fields, big trees and cows. Today there are clear blue skies and snow topped volcanoes everywhere - it definitely doesn't look like the UK now. Finally its 2 hours on a bus from Puerto Montt over on the ferry to Chiloe Island.
Was it worth all the effort? Absolutely. Chiloe has that laid back feel to it that small islands often have (the main island is only 118 miles by 40 mile) and the locals love to stop and chat - its just a shame that my Spanish isn't better as they insist on talking really fast and have a thick local accent, even Juan-Paublo a traveller from Santiago had trouble understanding them!! It rains here most days so its incredibly green. They are supposed to grow over 100 varieties of potato (DNA data suggests that Chiloe was the original source of the potato) but we rarely saw any cultivated fields it was all steep green hills covered in trees or cleared for pasture. The fields we did see were small family owned plots, mostly being ploughed with oxen.
The thing that
made me come here was the churches. Everywhere you go there are large wooden churches - even the tiniest village with just a couple of houses has an enormous church, sometimes they are just on the roadside by themselves, no houses anywhere near, They are all incredibly beautiful, they just have really aesthetically pleasing shapes and some are painted wonderfully bright colours; pale blue & yellow, orange & dark blue, rose pink.
To get inside you have to find the fiscal, the local lady who holds the key and is responsible for the church. This is most easily achieved by spending a day with a local guide, so off we went to Lemuy Island with Juan-Paublo who not only opened the doors to the churches but also gave us a glimpse of the local culture and superstitions. Inside the churches are almost primitive - there are no grand marble columns or ornately carved Baroque alters, just simple wooden columns and pews, with stars painted on the gently arched ceilings and maybe flowers painted on the columns or model ships hanging from the ceiling. Each church has its own distinct personality. They are all have a calmness and tranquillity about
definitely not the UK
when we passed by on the bike the low cloud and drizzle make this look just like the UK - not so on a sunny day when snow capped volcanos line the horizon
them and are incredibly welcoming, far more so than grand stone cathedrals, it is almost like walking into somebodies home and feeling comfortable there. The alters contain several saints which are often 100 year old wooden idols with real hair and wardrobes of brightly coloured clothes that they change frequently - lined up in their bright attire they look like a row of dolls dressed up by children which actually makes them feel approachable.
Inside each church we sit and chat away with the fiscals who are happy and proud to share the stories & legends associated with their churches. There is a lot of folklore on these islands and they do genuinely believe what they are telling us - the mass is not valid if the special stone is not placed on the alter, that you have to keep the stone covered so the witches can't find it and make their potions on it. They are so chatty and friendly its difficult to get away - some take us into their houses for drinks, others take us to see the traditional ovens hidden away in their own special huts and only used to make bread for mass and
typical Chiloe landscape
with the snow covered Andes on the mainland as the backdrop.
funerals. They just love to talk about their church, community and history. .
Inspired we get a hire car and head off to explore Chiloe and find some churches of our own.
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