Imagine a place that’s unlike anywhere you’ve travelled before and you’ll have an idea of what to expect on Chiloe, the largest archipelago off the coast of Chile. Fairly isolated until about 20 years ago it’s now attracting some visitors, though it’s wonderful wooden churches, palafitos (houses on stilts) and stunning landscapes are still unseen by many.
It’s understandable as Chiloe is somewhat off the beaten track for the main Chile tourist trail, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to get there and is well worth the detour.
My friends and I were travelling independently, so after a fantastic few days in Chile’s cosmopolitan capital Santiago we flew to Puerto Montt with Sky Airline. It’s a low cost airline so cheaper than Latam and also had better timings. If you have trouble booking online try using Internet Explorer, as the website wasn’t optimised for Chrome or Safari when I booked.
We hired a car from Puerto Montt airport and I pre-booked with Econorent which was the cheapest. But when we arrived the queue was very long, so you might want the pay more to get out quicker. Most of the other counters had no one waiting. Once on the road the drive to Chiloe was very easy as it’s a good highway and then a half hour ferry crossing that costs 12,500 pesos.
We headed straight to Ancud, the closest main town on the archipelago’s largest island, Isla Grande. I wouldn’t suggest spending a lot of time in Ancud, but it was a good pit stop for lunch at Cafe El Embrujo and a visit to Centro de Visitantes de las Inglesias de Chiloe. This is a great museum housed in a former convent that tells you all about Chiloe’s wonderful Unesco wooden churches. The perfect place to go before visiting the churches themselves.
Exhibits include scale models of all 16 churches that have been given Unesco world heritage site status. These show the inner workings of the woodwork, while other exhibits include doors and other fragments recovered from churches that were damaged and rebuilt.
Another bonus is that you can climb up several sets of wooden steps to see the inside of a church for yourself and attempt to take some arty photos of Ancud from the bell tower at the top.
From here we headed further south to Castro, the capital of Chiloe and what passes for cosmopolitan on the archipelago. It’s a great place to stay as many of the original palafito houses have been converted into small hotels.
These unique houses look like any other wooden homes in the town from the front, but the backs are on stilts that jut over the water. We stayed at Palafito Waiwen which was very comfortable and had lovely helpful staff. As you might imagine with a wooden house it can be noisy, so best to take earplugs if you’re easily disturbed at night.
As we arrived on a Saturday we booked dinner in advance by email at El Mercadito, an excellent quirky restaurant on the other side of town. The decor included woolly hats on wine bottles and cheese graters and plastic pineapples hanging from the ceiling! It’s about a 20 minute walk and Castro has some steep hills, so we took a cab there and walked back later via a great bar called Almud. We can vouch for the Pisco Sours and Cosmopolitans!
On Sunday we went to visit some of the churches, starting in Castro at the Inglesia San Francisco, which rather unusually is painted a distinctive yellow with a mauve trim. Though it actually looked better from a distance as could do with a new lick of paint on the outside. We also popped into the artisan market in the centre next door. This became the theme of the day as there were artisan craft markets in most of the places we visited.
I suspect some visitors to Chiloe make it a mission to visit all 16 of the Unesco churches, but we preferred to take our time and explore the towns too. We started in Dalcahue, a short drive from Castro, where the church is the Nuestra Senora de Los Delores, which was founded in 1849 and being white edged with grey is very different in appearance to the Castro church.
We discovered Sunday was the best day for the Crafts Fair in Dalcahue. It opens daily in the main season but on Sunday sellers from the surrounding islands also bring their wares. It was bursting with a wonderfully colourful array of arts and crafts including lots of textiles. I picked up a very nice new wool hat for just over £2.
From there we took a short ferry ride to Isla Quinchao, a long narrow island with some beautiful scenery and amazing views, particularly if you pull in to the viewpoint just before you get to Achao – helpfully there’s a sign with a camera just before it.
Achao is a small seaside town with a beach and another fabulous church, the Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto. This 18th century church is the oldest in Chiloe and is held together by wooden pegs rather than nails.
There’s a good seafood place here, Mar y Velas, but being Sunday it was packed at lunchtime, so we popped into the Media Luna cafe near the church. The sandwiches were nice but there was no menu and we didn’t ask the prices upfront, so suspect they were expanded by the wily old man on the cash desk. Rookie mistake but we were hungry!
Heading back towards the ferry we stopped off at Curaco de Velez, a lovely small town with some colourful shingled houses, monkey puzzle trees and a bright green church that we rather liked even though it’s not one of the Unesco ones. We initially parked opposite the small fire station but would evidently have been in the way of the engines as we were swiftly and vigorously waved on down the street by the elderly lady who lived next door!
Back on the Isla Grande we decided to visit two more churches, driving first to Chonchi, about fourteen miles south of Castro. The church here is painted a lovely pale blue with a three tier yellow octagonal tower on top. Hard to get a landscape photo so check the gallery at the end for this one, but the inside was really interesting too.
Then our final stop was at Nercon, a tiny hamlet about three miles from Castro. This was one of my favourites as it’s set in lovely grounds and has a graveyard filled with interesting tombs.
Also this was the only one of the five Unesco churches we visited that we could climb up inside to the top. The bells were still in situ and there are great views.
After a busy day touring around we stayed local and had dinner and drinks at La Cevicheria, a few doors away from our palafito. Unsurprisingly given the name we shared some cerviche as a starter and it was delicious. As were the smoked salmon pizza and fish sandwich that followed.
The next morning it was time to leave Chiloe, but before we did we headed to Monumento Natural Islotes de Punihuil, three islands that are breeding grounds for Magellanic and the near-extinct Humboldt penguins.
It’s an easy drive along the Pacific coast from Ancud and when you arrive you drive down onto the beach across a narrow stream of water. By the time we’d parked one of the boat operators had come to greet us and we were quickly in life jackets and on one of the raised trolleys that take you to the boats without getting your feet wet.
It costs 10,000 pesos each for a 30-40 minute boat trip out to see the penguins and was worth every penny. In February they are at the malting stage where they can’t go into the water, so there were lots to see on the islands and plenty of opportunity to take photos. The boat gets quite close but if you have a long lens you’ll get better definition. Mine was zoomed to 200mm.
There are a few places to eat at the beach, so after our trip we sat on the terrace at Restaurant Bahia Punihull and tucked in to some more delicious ceviche with empanadas and tomato salad while we enjoyed our last couple of hours in wonderful Chiloe. The perfect end to a fabulous couple of days.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and check the Chile section of my blog for more posts about the trip now and in the future.