Before we headed south to Chiloé we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. The island is in some ways the first (or the last) piece of road to travel before heading further south on Chile’s famous Carretera Austral and the last place where one can expect to find the services needed to keep a traveling couple happy and their VW Beetle humming. Guidebooks talk of its fierce maritime culture, complete with legends of witches and mythical creatures, and friends have told us of its laid back and relaxed atmosphere. Having initially resisted becoming a part of Chile after the country’s war of independence and electing to remain a Spanish possession until 1826, it was clear that Chiloé would offer a different culture from the rest of Chile at the very least. With open minds we hopped on a ferry to see just what the island had to offer.
A strong maritime culture? Check. Friendly people and a laid back vibe? Check. And to our pleasant surprise, it turns out Chiloé also abounds in tasty food! Usually we try to abstain from meat and especially seafood for sustainability reasons, but on Chiloé we just couldn’t resist. Our favourite way to find cheap and tasty food was usually to look just off of some of the main streets to a small little restaurant with only about 5 tables or so, ask what they had for the day, and sit down and give it a shot! A short food slideshow to highlight some of our favourites:
Yet despite all of the delicious food, Elliott was disappointed that the right moment to enjoy Chiloé’s iconic dish, curanto, had eluded us for most of our time on the island. Traditionally, the dish consists of all sorts of shellfish and seafood, chicken, beef, pork, potatoes, and potato pancakes cooked together in a pit with hot rocks over hours, with the juices of the seafood helping to cook the meat layered on top. Nowadays it’s rare to find curanto cooked exactly like this, but the principle still applies.
Luckily, on our second to last day, we noticed a piece of wood beside the highway advertising curanto in a large shack near a soccer pitch. Lisa was skeptical, but we pulled over anyway, Elliott got out and asked, and sure enough, there was curanto and it would be ready in just 20 minutes! They rolled a table out just for us, wiped it off, and offered us soft drinks and wine which we gladly accepted. While waiting, they also brought us each a cup of curanto broth to sip on, which was delightfully tasty. The building was big enough for a couple of hundred people, but it was just the two of us waiting for two big steaming plates of curanto as the cook’s daughters paraded through the hall with the family dog and the husband swept the floors before the hungry soccer players nearby came in for curanto of their own after they finished their game.
Eventually it arrived and a glorious feast ensued. Had we known that our bundles of food would each be so huge we would have only ordered one, but we soldiered on and managed to devour everything down to the last mussel. And the best part? We paid far less than any of the restaurants that had been advertising across the rest of the island.
With our bellies full pretty much the entire time we were on Chiloé, we also slowly toured some of the typical tourist attractions the island has to offer. The wooden churches, some of them dating back to the 18th century and with heavy Jesuit influence, are one of the most iconic sites for tourists to check out. The churches are… nice. And for those interested in wood working, they also offer some skilled interesting craftsmanship that has stood the test of time, demonstrating the resolve and ingenuity employed by people who made the most of the materials they had at hand at a remote outpost of the world.
One of the other tourist attractions on the west side of the island are small colonies of Humboldt and Megellanic Penguins. It is, however, VERY touristy, and eager penguin-viewers arrive by the busload to board silly little carts, get pushed out to some boats, take a 5 minute boat ride, and view the penguins for a few minutes before heading back… all without even getting their feet wet!
We had read, however, that in a tiny shack on the beach “The Original Fisherman” had two kayaks on offer to paddle out and check out the penguins via an “alternative tour”… but only early in the morning before the penguins had left for the day to hunt (AKA before the national park employees arrived). Sounded good to us! After The Original Fisherman got back from that morning’s fishing we suited up with half a wet suit each, dragged our sketchy sit-on-top kayaks to the surf, and had our friend push us out into the waves. After just a few minutes of paddling we reached the penguin colony. Turns out penguins are… kinda boring, but cute enough that it was worth it.
It was difficult to snap any decent pictures as we were both sitting in puddles of cold water and quite wet (Lisa got the wetsuit with a bottom half), but we watched the penguins for about half an hour and then paddled back to shore. With the surf already crashing onto the beach, Elliott also decided it would be fun to try to surf the kayak onto the beach, and Lisa thought he was stupid for trying. Nonetheless, he lined himself up, waited for a big wave to rise behind him, paddled hard, and… in a split second the wave caught the back of his boat and flipped him in an instant. Laughing and soaking wet, he stood up to tell Lisa he was okay, and it turns out she had flipped too! Alternative penguin viewing = totally worth it!
For the rest of our time on the island we puttered around the harsh Pacific-exposed coast on the west and the more sheltered islands and inlets of the east, finding beautiful and serene campsites in the middle of nowhere all along the way.
And at one of the campsites we even spotted two Pudus, Chile’s threatened pygmy deer, which are near to mythical in status based on how hard they are to spot. Unfortunately they didn’t really behave for the camera, so you’ll have to take our word for it, or question whether perhaps it was just a Chiloé witch or trickster trying to fool us.
After nearly a week on the island we were glad we visited, and we can truly say that of all the seaside places we have ever visited, Chiloé might just be the very most seaside-y of the all, with wet and dreary weather changing to bright and sunny skies in moments, warm cozy retreats echoing with the sound of waves and raindrops, tough and hearty yet kind and friendly people going about their business as relaxed as you can imagine, and by far the tastiest place to eat local seafood you could ever ask for.