Close to the Chilean mainland and south of Puerto Montt you will find the mystical, enchanting and alluring archipelago of Chiloe. Renowned for it’s churches, folklore, weaving traditions as well as the flora and fauna it is fast becoming one of Chile’s burgeoning travel destinations.
It has many UNESCO World Heritage churches – which are a good demonstration of the unique heritage found there. The Spanish Jesuits arrived in the 17th Century and it was the local boat builders who constructed their churches, hence the reason the churches partly resemble the structure of a ship’s hull.
It is also well known for colourful stilted homes called palafitos (they allow the owners to work underneath during low tide). Many of these were abandoned but are now being turned into boutique style hotels and restaurants. The water and coastline is one of the island’s biggest draws and there is plenty of opportunity to take one of the traditional wooden boats out to explore. It has largely escaped the development of the mainland and still remains a captivating place to visit.
Chiloe has a rich and traditional culture. Weaving is particularly prevalent - handmade scarves, vests and ponchos are made using local and natural materials by means of traditional techniques which encompass the essence of this special place. The yarn comes from the islanders who dye and spin it and results in some very unusual and outstanding garments.
Chiloe is also famous for its myths and legends and even nowadays the native population is still very superstitious. There is a whole range of mythical figures ranging from a singing beauty to an assortment of nasty creatures. It could be described as a mystical breeding ground.These tales have influenced many Chilean arts and crafts and there are plenty of books and games available which indulge these tall stories. Shamans instead of doctors, witches instead of police, the ancient mythology of Chiloe impacts their daily life - even pregnancies out of wedlock can be attributed to a forest dwarf!
One of Chiloe’s most famous visitors was Charles Darwin who explored the island’s diverse ecosystem back in 1834 and many things still remain the same to this day. There are penguins, blue whales, sea lions, dolphins and other marine animals to be spotted there. It has year round cool climate, which during the stifling Chilean summer can be a welcome relief.
To make getting there that little bit easier a new airport opened on the main island in November 2012 and you can now fly direct from Santiago (briefly stopping in Puerto Montt). This means tourists will start arriving at a faster pace than before and are no longer required to be quite so intrepid.
So what does this mean for the archipelago?
Actually no different from what other islands who experience an increase in tourism face. More rubbish and more pollution are two of the main considerations. As tourism creates more jobs for the locals it will mean that some will abandon the traditional trades, which could have, in time, a detrimental effect on the culture. Some may say the benefits are outweighed by the drawbacks.
Also perhaps the island (and the airport) are not ready or equipped enough to handle the tourist masses yet and local staff numbers might not be enough.
Castro, the postcard pretty and colourful capital is home to the new luxury hotel Refugia, which is the clearest indication of how the islands accommodation may develop. The hotel is trying to shape the visitors experience in the best possible way and offers visits to the local community to see how they live and work. They are trying to make tourism responsible.
Most of the time the locals will have a selection of trades, very rarely will it just be the one. Money is not important and a barter system operates most of the time where they swap services rather than cash, even the supermarkets run on credit. However this non monetary system could hinder the spread of tourism.
The overriding message seems to be that Chiloe goes at its own pace and as a visitor you have to adapt this. Go and forget normal time and schedules – just embrace the sprit and rhythm of this beguiling archipelago and let the locals work their charm.
Combine with a trip to places on the Chilean mainland, have a look at www.historichaciendas.com for some inspiration on where to stay.
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