Chile, and yet not Chile...

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March 13th 2012
Published: March 13th 2012
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A Sky Airline Boeing plucks us from the boondocks of Aysén and drop us in Puerto Montt, capital of Los Lagos region (number X for those of you who have been following). And what a shock it is! For one, there is transport! Buses, real, every hour! Every 30 minutes even! Like, to everywhere! To use the vernacular: OMG. Will we survive the excitement?

On the Carretera Austral, one of the first things you have to do on arriving somewhere is find out - immediately - when the outbound buses leave. It's not unusual for a bus between A and B to leave only on a Monday and a Thursday - making arriving on a Friday something of a pain if place A only has enough to hold your attention for a day, one dingy hospedaje and nowhere to buy food. Hence the need for hitch-hiking. Having left Aysén, however, we are now actually in Chile - the Chile of bus timetables and efficient service. Praise be.

Puerto Montt doesn't have much going for it - in fact it has almost nothing going for it, to the extent that we don't bother to venture beyond the bus station.
Quick seafood lunch!Quick seafood lunch!Quick seafood lunch!

Paila marina and fresh crab, freshly smashed by a scary lady with a hammer
Rather, it's straight off the bus from the airport and on to another bound for the island of Chiloé. It takes us first to the small port of Pargua before boarding one of the ferries which cross the Chacao Channel to Chiloé every few minutes.

Chiloé - to be correct, the Isla Grande de Chiloé - is Chile's second largest island (after Tierra del Fuego - which it shares with Argentina...hang on, Argentina...sharing?). It's about the same size as Corsica and faces the Andes to the east and the mighty Pacific Ocean to the west. It is separated from the rest of Chile by the narrowest of waterways - a mere half hour by ferry - but in all other respects Chiloé might as well be another country.

It's a beguiling place. Chiloé shares some unusual parallels with Europe which striking, albeit hard to articulate. I'll try. Take England, France and Spain: each of these three countries has a region which juts out into the ocean, a region culturally and linguistically set apart from the rest, a region influenced by the sea to a much great extent than its neighbours. England has Cornwall, France has Brittany, Spain has Galicia. All three regions thrust out into the Atlantic. All three are lands of beaches and coves, battered by the sea and its storms. All three have, or had, their own language - Kernewek, Brezhoneg, Galego. All three have cultural heritages which set them apart.

Chiloé is one such place. Facing the Pacific, drenched by its storms, home to hardy, seafaring people, Chiloé is surely Chile's Cornwall, its Brittany, its Galicia. It is a land of strange mythology (the Invunche has an arm sticking out of his back and drinks cat's milk), unusual cuisine and unique architecture. All in all, a wonderful place to spend a week and experience something of a foreign country within Chile. The place names alone are a sign after our month of Cochranes and Villa O'Higginses - Quinchao, Quellón, Dalcahue, Tenaún...

Despite its otherwise low profile on the global stage, the island is world famous for three striking architectural traditions: beautiful wooden churches, buildings covered in wooden shingles of all shapes and colours, houses built on stilts over estuaries and inlets. The latter, called palafitos, are to be seen in impressive numbers in the bustling town of Castro on Chiloé's east coast - and our first stop on the island. Beautiful wooden shingled houses abound all over the island, in every imaginable shape and colour, and dozens of churches - many of which are UNESCO-listed - dot the Northern part of the Isla Grande and its tiny surrounding islands and islets. It is also in Castro that we get our first taste of Chiloé great culinary treat: its seafood. From clams to mussels to crab to fish, Chiloé is probably the place to sample what the sea has to offer, which really is saying something in a country with Chile's geography. And its greatest offering is curanto - a Chilote obsession, no less.

Curanto al hoyo is the Chilote dish - and a dish it certainly is. We watched a Chilote lady prepare one while on a day trip to the tiny island of Mechuque, just off the shore of Chiloé proper. Curanto al hoyo starts with a deep pit dug in the ground (hoyo means "hole" in Chilean Spanish), in which a large wood fire is set. Once it has burned down, the hot coals are raked out and covered with a layer of hot stones. Once the stones are glowing the curanto ingredients are added: almejas (large clams), cholgas (giant mussels), longaniza (sausage), smoked pork, chicken. A large number of nalca or giant Gunnera leaves are placed over the food, followed by a mixture of potato and flour dumplings called milcaos and chapaleles. Yet more Gunnera leaves are laid over the food to make a large pile. The whole lot is left to steam quietly for half an hour before the leaves are peeled off and the bonanza of meat, shellfish and dumplings is piled onto plates and savoured with a glass of Chilean white and a mug of spicy chilli and coriander stock. Simply amazing. So amazing in fact that the locals sing songs about it, which you can hear playing on radios all over the islands - for days afterwards I find myself singing (if you can call it singing) "El curantoooo, el curantoooo....".

Other Chilote delights include chochoca, a potato based dough wrapped around a large stick before being roasted over a open fire and stuffed with pork scratchings, and chupe de jaibas, a thick stew of crabmeat cooked with cheese and bread. Just incredible. The dominance of shellfish in the Chilote diet means we don't have to worry too much about eating fish we really shouldn't be eating, although there are question marks concerning the negative effects of intensive shellfish and fish (particularly salmon) farming in Chiloé and Chile as a whole...

There are other things to do in Chiloé than stuff one's face, of course. Parque Nacional Chiloé, strung along the island's wild, battered, soaking wet Pacific coastline, offers some wonderful walks along bleak, windy beaches, through forest of prehistoric-looking giant rhubarb taller than we are, and past villages where giant kelp is the only harvestable crop, dried in the formidable winds, carefully folded into bundles and carried to town by mule - no roads around here! It is utterly beautiful - Goretex contributing to no small extent to our enjoyment of it, although we do get, shock horror, quite a bit of sun on a stunning walk from the village of Cucao to a gorgeous beach at Cole-Cole (where the weather is so good we even get to play a game of Scrabble while lying on the sand) - and utterly different from anything we've seen so far. Patagonia could be ten thousand miles away.

Our visit to Chiloé ends on a spectacular and unique high. In the north of the island, in the tiny rural district of Chepu, a lovely couple run a simple lodge where sustainability is the name of the game: water comes from the sky, electricity from the wind, hot water from the sun - no exceptions. The lodge is a place to lie back, relax with a book and not do very much at all - with one exception.

The alarm goes off at 4.45am. Bleary-eyed, we make our way from our little cabin to the main part of the lodge where Fernando, the owner, dresses us - like helpless children - in layers of neoprene. On goes a lifejacket before we make our way down to the river where we are loaded onto a twin kayak and, in complete, eerie silence, pushed off into the pre-dawn mist.

Two hours of wonder follow. We are paddling, shrouded in a fog so thick you can feel its cold clamminess against your face, through a graveyard. On 22nd May 1960, this place - together with a large swath of Chile to the north - was shaken by the strongest earthquake ever recorded: an almost unimaginable 9.5 magnitude and some four times stronger than the colossal earthquake which shook the eastern Indian Ocean in December 2004. The Valdivia Earthquake, as it has become known, caused landslides, floods, even volcanic eruptions (on which more in a later entry!). Rivers left their banks and were diverted - the river which snakes through Chepu did so too, causing swaths of forest to be drowned. The remnants of this forest - its skeleton, you might say, is what the lodge's now famous dawn kayak outing is all about. The eeriness of being alone among these long-dead trees enveloped in the mist, the quiet followed by the slow start of the dawn chorus, white egrets flying silently overhead, the moon - and then finally the sun - peeking through the mist. It was all beautiful beyond description. A wonderful way to end our exploratory visit of what must be South America's most intriguing and unique island. Chiloé - Chile, but not really Chile.

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First seafood meal - CastroFirst seafood meal - Castro
First seafood meal - Castro

A lip-smacking mix of octopus, crab and cheese stew called "chupe", and all sorts of goodies.

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