Discovering Chile - Chiloe Island and Puerto Varas

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March 24th 2019
Published: March 24th 2019
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When we first conceived this six week trip from Ushuaia to Mendoza I envisaged that we would be spending almost all our time in Argentina. As it turns out we will actually be travelling for over half our time in Chile. You see a difference as soon as you cross the border. In Chile the pavements/sidewalks are always in better shape and you can see from the infrastructure around you that its economy is stronger than Argentina’s. The prices in Chile are not far off those in the UK and apparently the distribution of wealth is far more extreme – the minimum wage is $400USD/month and the average $700USD.

There is an openness and friendliness about all the people we have met. Take, for example, Gladys, our AirBnB landlady during our stay in Castro. She always greets us with a smile and helped were she could. We communicated when we needed to via Google Translate. She would not take our money when I explained I broke a glass and got her son, Francisco, to drop us at the bus station on the last morning because ‘we were nice people’.

We have been staying on the Island of Chiloe, which like many parts of Chile has its own independent character. Historically it is an area where the Spanish immigrants mixed with the indigenous Chonos people and was a backwater until the turn of the century. It is now a local tourist spot and the local produce is feted by chefs in Santiago. We have seen a noticeable increase in the variety and quality of food (steak excepted).

We reached Chiloe on a 30 hour ferry trip from Puerto Chacabuco. This was 90 minutes by bus from Coyhuique, the last being a minibus where all the passengers’ bags were stacked all around us. The ferry zigzagged its way up the coast through the fiords stopping at outlying communities along the way. Salmon farming is the major industry here, most destined for the US market, and we saw many fish cages and support vessels. At several harbours we were escorted by dolphins or seals as we departed. The calm clear weather continued and we had fantastic views of the islands and the snow-capped Andes and the dominant summit of Cerro Maca volcano to the East.

We had been assigned reclining seats and spent much of the days outside soaking up the scenery in the sun. Jane found a bank of seats to lie across during the night. Some of the passengers around us snored like elephants which was challenge. Imagine trying to sleep in the middle of a seal colony. There was only a basic cafeteria, which we knew ahead of time so we had brought a good supply of food. They also provided us with free hot water so we did not miss our morning cup of PG Tips.

On the last leg we sailed across a gap in the islands with the South Pacific stretched out before us. We had hoped to see whales but they didn’t oblige. We docked in Quellon (pronounced Key-yon) on the Southern end of Chiloe and It was a two hour bus ride to our base in Castro. The island is green rolling hills, not unlike rural France, and there is a diary industry as well sheep.

On our first day we went to the nearby village of Dalcahue to catch the local craft market and get our first taste of the local food. Many markets have a set of ‘cocina’ (kitchens) attached. We found a stool and were quickly accosted by one of the serving ladies. I ordered ‘curanto’, the local speciality and Jane got as superb slab of grilled hake. Curanto is a bake cum stew (traditionally done in an earth oven), with mussels, clams, chicken, smoked pork, sausage, potato and some sort of dumpling. The dumpling, a grey colour similar to wet concrete, actually tastes better than it looks although with the mountain of food you don’t really need it.

The next two days we rented a car which gives you much greater flexibility. Jimmy at Go Rent a Car was the local operator and he treated us well – once we had beaten him down from 70,000CLP (£82) to 55,000CLP (£65) for the two days. This seems to be the standard process. We had planned a tour of the world famous wooden churches starting with the Cathedral in Castro. 16 are UNESCO sites and we got to 5 of them. It is hit and miss whether you find them open. They were built by Jesuit missionaries who incorporated local styles and materials. The oldest is from 1740. They are impressive outside and spectacular inside. Some do not even have nails. Their frames sit on a bed of boulders protruding above the ground and the wood construction must give them to the flexibility to survive the regular earthquakes that hit the region. One was on a nearby island in the town of Achao with a ferry service so frequent we just drove on and were on our way with no waiting.

The second day with the car we drove to the ‘capital’ of the island, Ancud in the North. We took the country route (aka dirt roads) and passed many farmsteads with sheep, cattle and pigs, and many selling cheese. Our first stop was to take a boat trip to the local penguin colony. This was underwhelming because most of the penguins had left for their winter feeding grounds. We saw a couple of Magellanic and two Humboldts standing kind of lonely on the rocks. It looked to me that a single baby Magellanic penguin would soon fall prey to the vultures circling above. There was other wildlife to see to compensate: flightless steamer ducks bobbed about and red legged and imperial cormorants were still feeding their young on the cliffs of the small islands we circumnavigated in the Pacific swell.

We did not stay long in Ancud because we had a table booked at Cazador, one of the better restaurants in Castro. It only had 26 covers and was run by a husband and wife team. They had interesting and tasty combinations of local ingredients and the local Sauvignon Blanc (Equilibria) was exceptional. The restaurant was in one of the houses on stilts that line the coast around Castro and we can highly recommend it.

I was disappointed to not have a chance to try the local seaweed, cochayuyo which according to Gladys is put in stews and salads. We saw it for sale in many markets but no one seemed to be buying it. We did enjoy the local cheese and devoured the local avocados. We left Chiloe by bus and ferry the next day charmed by its rural pace.

Our final destination in Chile was Puerto Varas three hours North in the Lake District area. It is a local tourism centre with a picturesque lake hemmed by two majestic snow capped volcanos, Osorno and Calbuco. We stayed at Mapatagonia hostel which had just won best hostel in Chile and it did not disappoint. The best hostels are also run by people who have travelled, it this case a French guy, who had done up an old colonial wooden house. He had created a relaxed atmosphere in a charming setting with a well equipped kitchen.

We looked at the tours on offer to go up to the ski area on the side of Volcano Orsano because there were no buses and quickly worked out that you could do more for a similar price by renting a car for day (once you had negotiated an appropriate price). That evening we met a young Welsh couple, Tal and Rhianne, who accepted our invitation to come along for the ride. You reach the base of the chair lift at the end of a hairpinned road. The whole area is surrounded in volcanic dust laid down when Darwin and Fitzroy were here in the 1830’s. The cloud was low and swirled around our heads (very Welsh we pointed out to our fellow travellers). We skirted around a shoulder crater where hardy flowers were slowly propagating on the barren slopes. There was no point going higher so we descended to Petrohue, where several hiking trails radiated from a small lake shore resort around the base of the volcano. We choose a circular path which crossed several river beds carved into the lava sand. All except one, whose water was the colour of chocolate, were dry. We found puma prints but saw no other sign of them. Tal was a photographer and geologist and it was impressive to see him operate his drone to get a unique view of our surroundings.

I write this on a night bus to Santiago on our way to Mendoza and Argentinian wine country. The buses in this part of the world are excellent and we have seats that lay flat as good and as roomy as any you will find in an airline business class. We know there is so much more of Chile to see. We will just have to return some day.


22nd August 2019
Muy buen post, sobre todo por la valiosa información que entregan saludos Nicolás

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