A misty archipelago located off the coast of the Lakes District in southern Chile, the islands of Chiloé are unlike anything found on the mainland. With no bridge connecting it to the mainland, the islands have developed a unique culture; islanders – who call themselves Chilotes – like to say that they are Chilote first and Chilean second. It’s a popular vacation spot for Chileans but is fast becoming a must-visit place for foreign tourists as well, who fall in love with the islands’ beautiful stilt houses, intriguing mythology, historic churches, one-of-a-kind gastronomy (which heavily feature the archipelago’s famous potatoes, of which there are more than 286 kinds) and stunning vistas of rolling hills patchworked with forests, sheep paddocks, and ocean channels.
When to Visit Chiloé?
High season is during the summer months of December through February, when it’s the best time for camping and the weather is mostly good. But there are seasonal advantages to visiting Chiloé no matter what time of year; in winter (June, July) you can see Chilean flamingos and you can enjoy the island’s treasures without the crowds (but with colder weather). Some of the higher-end resorts close down during the low season, but many tour operators are trying to entice more visitors to come in low/shoulder season with special offers, like a Chilote cooking class held by tour operator Chiloé Natural with the restaurant Travesia which is only available during low season months.
How to Get There:
LATAM Airlines has flights to Castro Airport (low-cost operator JetSMART is hoping to have flight options in the near future) but for now, the best way to get to Chiloe is to take a bus from the Municipal Terminal in Puerto Montt (there are many options, like Queilen Buses and Cruz del Sur, at about $7,000 CLP each way). As there is still no connecting bridge to the main island, the buses cross the channel on ferries, which takes about 25-30 minutes. The whole trip from Puerto Montt to Castro takes roughly three and a half to four hours. You can also rent a car and go on your own (the ferry crossing starts at roughly $12,000 CLP for cars).
What to do?
Chiloé is easy to do on your own, planning as you go, but to experience lesser-known sites or for more in-depth information, there are great tourism companies for single or multi-day trips. You can’t go wrong with Chiloe Natural, a sustainability-oriented operator that specializes in kayaking but offers everything from hiking and birdwatching to walking tours of Castro.
See the Palafitos in Castro
The spindly-legged houses lining the bays of Chiloe’s capital city, Castro, are one of the best examples of traditional Chilote architecture. These stilt houses – some of which are still lived in and others have been converted in boutique hotels, restaurants, and cafes – are sometimes painted vibrant colors or are covered in different stenciled tejuelas (wooden tiles).
Go on the Ruta de Iglesias
The famed wooden churches of Chiloé were originally built by Jesuit missionaries who started coming to the islands in the 18th and 19th centuries. The church’s architecture is a captivating fusion of Jesuit and local Chilota styles, using only local wood and the distinctive wooden shingles that adorn the outside of many classic Chilote houses. In 2000, UNESCO designated 16 of the churches throughout the archipelago as World Heritage Sites. There are multiple tours to visit the most popular ones on the route, but many are also easy to reach on your own. Each is beautiful in its own way, but the churches in Castro, Chonchi, Dalcahue, Tenaun, and Achao are definitely stand-outs.
Visit the Penguin Colonies
Chiloé is home to several penguin colonies, the most popular of which is located at Puñihuil National Monument near Ancud on the northern end of the island. Here, several small colonies of Humboldt and Magellanic penguins live side-by-side, the place on Earth where such a phenomenon has been witnessed, and several tour operators run boats out to the smaller offshore islands where they live. But there is also a smaller colony of Magellanic penguins further down the island near Queilen, which can be less crowded. Also, you can sometimes see penguins swimming around the channels of the islands.
Go Kayaking in Chepu
With its open bays, marshes, lakes, and rivers, Chiloé is a prime real estate for excellent kayaking. But one of the best places to go is Chepu, an area of wetlands that is the confluence of three rivers. Here, you can kayak through a “Sunken Forest” of trees that drowned when the area was created after the land dropped in the 1960 earthquake. It’s a wonderful place to see birds and wildlife, and the views and colors at dawn are especially enchanting.
Keep Your Eyes Out for Local Wildlife
Chiloe is a haven for wildlife viewing of all kinds. During the summer, keep your eyes peeled for migrating whales, as well as dolphins, penguins, and marine otters. And throughout the island, you can see a huge range of local birds like the martin pescador (Kingfisher) and the black-necked swan. Although they are hard to see, the island is also home to an astonishing array of interesting wildlife: Darwin’s frog, a tiny marsupial called monito del monte (little monkey of the mountain), Darwin’s fox, and pudu deer.
Try an Authentic Curanto al Hoyo
This local version of a clambake is one of the most traditional dishes from the archipelago. First, a hole is dug and filled with heated stones covered by giant nalca leaves. Then the hole is filled with mussels, oysters, sausage, chicken, milcao (a potato patty), and potatoes, covered with more leaves and then left to cook and steam for several hours. The result is the quintessential Chilote dish and a mix of flavors, full of tasty seafood, meat, and veggies. There are restaurants that serve it in Castro, but one of the best ways to experience it is to find a tour operator that works with a local family who prepares it and go on a tour that includes curanto.
Visit the Island’s Protected Lands
Chiloé’s isolation has created some spectacular landscapes and allowed historic forests and flora and fauna to prosper. Two of the best places to see Chiloé’s old-growth and temperate forests, full of ancient trees and an astonishing variety of ferns and other plant life, are in Chiloé National Park and the Bosque Piedra Private Reserve. Tantauco Park, which is located at the southern end of the island, is also a wonderful place to come face to face with Chiloé’s unique flora and fauna; be sure to pay a visit to the protected bay Caleta Zorra, which is absolutely gorgeous.
Learn All About the Local Mythology
Chiloé has a fantastic storybook of local legends and myths that give the islands an air of mystique and magic. The very origins of the archipelago are grounded in myth: it’s said that the serpent god of the sea Cai Cai Vilu wanted to drown the mainland, so the serpent god of the land Ten Ten Vilu challenged him and was able to spare the islands, but they were already separated from the mainland by the deluge caused by Cai Cai. Other popular myths include the Caleuche, which is a ship staffed by dead sailors that sails around the archipelago enshrouded by mist; el Trauco (the troll) who seduces young virgins with his bad breath and then impregnates them; the Righteous Province, a coven of male witches who supposedly rule over the island; and the Pincoya, a water spirit whose appearance can affect the bounty of a day’s fishing. Ask any Chilote for more information about the myths, and there are even tour companies that offer tours designed around particular characters.
Take the prerequisite selfie at Muelle de las Almas
This spot can definitely get a bit touristy (so try to go early in the day) but it’s a quintessential part of the Chiloé experience (and makes for a darn good Instagram shot). Santiago artist Marcelo Orellana Rivera designed and installed this wooden dock, which arches into the sky off the edge of a hill on the Pacific coast, paying homage to Chiloé’s Mapuche heritage and the island’s native woods. It’s about a 45-minute walk to the dock from the nearest parking lot, but the hike is easy and the views are worth it.
Where to Eat?
Chiloé is in the middle of a gastronomic renaissance, as local chefs and entrepreneurs are experimenting with the ancient flavors of the islands and presenting them in new and exciting ways. Rucalaf, Travesia, Cazador, and Mercadito are all excellent restaurants that use fresh, local ingredients but with each chef’s personal flair. Go to Sangucheria Patito for sandwiches that locals rave are the best on the island. For refreshment, go to Palafito Patagonia for the best cup of coffee (Intelligentsia coffee, no less!) on the island; for after-hours fun, head to Almud Bar in central Castro. And if you can, get your hands on a bottle of Sirena de Chiloe Vodka: the first ever authentic Chilote vodka made from the island’s famous potatoes.
Where to Sleep?
There are types of accommodation to suit all manner of traveler. The parks offer campsites, and a wide selection of rental cabins and campsites are scattered around all the cities and out in the countryside. In Castro, there has been a boom in lovely boutique hotels: the Veliche Hotel, Palafito 1326, Sizigia, and Palafito del Mar are all great options. For higher-end luxe stays, check out the OCIO Territorial Hotel and Tierra Chiloe, two exquisite properties located not far from Castro that offer day trips for their guests, with spas, gourmet food, and more.