Island of Myths

Chiloé’s population of independent-minded farmers and seafarers, mixed with its self-reliant and mythological beliefs, creates a place in Chile that is truly a place apart  

WORDS Jill K. Robinson
February 2017

Photography by Francisco Negroni

When the sun disappears, I am not at all upset.

Sea and sky blend into a pearly shade of gray as the mist creeps in off the ocean. The robin’s-egg sky, rolling green hills and deep blue of the sea have vanished, as if a cozy wool blanket has been drawn over the landscape.

A downer in many places, fog in Chiloé is embraced as part of the local mythology. These are the conditions, after all, in which you can lose your way and run into the forest goblin El Trauco, or glimpse the lights of the ghost ship El Caleuche. These muted colors of land and sea, the scalloped lines of mussel farms, the luminous seaweed — all provide the perfect setting for Chilote magic.

Chiloé is the second-largest island in Chile, and despite its close proximity to the south coast of the country, it’s been able to retain its rich spiritual culture that’s based on a lore of witchcraft and otherworldly beings. Even with a ferry and a new airport to connect the main island to the rest of Chile, Chiloé still feels remote. In 2020, a new bridge is scheduled to be completed, allowing another way to connect to the more than 40 islands of the Chiloé archipelago.

Even then, Chiloé will be a place apart.
Chiloé was the last stronghold of the Spanish conquistadors in Chilean territory. The beliefs, superstitions and legends brought from Spain mixed with those of the Mapuche, the island’s indigenous inhabitants. Today, it’s home to independent, seafaring people who developed their culture almost in defiance of the country’s capital of Santiago. Regardless of instant connections with the rest of the world via electronic media, a rich legacy of myth and magic prevails.

The Chiloé archipelago, formed from the ridges of a mountain range submerged beneath the sea, has landscapes that can seem alien. Temperate forests, a rocky coastline and wild beaches dominate the islands, and just across the channel lie the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, but they, too, disappear from view in the ocean mist.

My temporary home here is Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa, a 12-room boutique retreat with floor-to-ceiling views of the Dalcahue Channel and the Hudson Channel on Pullao Bay — located in the eastern part of the main island, Isla Grande (often called simply Chiloé). An all-inclusive property, Tierra’s rooms feature an array of island craftwork, from woven wool rugs to wicker baskets to wooden carvings.

Eager to get the lay of the land on my first day (or at least the lay of the land nearest the hotel, as the island of Chiloé is about 3,241 square miles), I sign up for a short horseback ride.

“Are you a good rider?” asks Camila, my guide.

“Sure,” I reply. “I don’t ride very frequently but am comfortable with a gallop.”

“OK,” she says. “I’ll get you a normal horse.”

Cereso, my “normal horse,” takes Chilean equine confidence to the next level. As Camila and I ride along the hills sloped toward the water, Cereso surges forward. I let him run, and my hair whips my eyes until I pull back on the reins to slow us down. Cereso will have none of it. Once running, it takes multiple tugs on the reins until he relents, and we come to a stop under a grove of flowering trees.

When we’re back at Tierra, we find Cereso’s sweet spot, courtesy of a handful of apples. Then the rain begins to fall, so Camila and I scoot inside, leaving the horses to munch in peace.

From our position curled up in the Tierra living room in front of the huge windows, the downpour doesn’t seem so bad. I watch the horses run, kick, stomp and play like big dorks. While a fire crackles behind me, I sip a pink nalca sour cocktail made from pisco and the juice of a local plant with fuzzy leaves. As daylight fades to dusk, the wool blanket drawn protectively around the land, I glance at the horizon. My head tells me that the ship, El Caleuche, won’t be there, but my heart wants a sign.
Excursions from Tierra Chiloé allow visitors to immerse themselves in local culture and activities across a variety of landscapes. The next day, an excursion to the town of Dalcahue reveals one of the region’s iconic wooden churches. The Jesuits brought Catholicism here in the 17th century, and the many churches result from their so-called “circular missions” among the many islands.

Previously, local builders had been employed mainly in making fishing vessels, so churches scattered predominantly along the coastline were constructed through the 18th and 19th centuries with the framework of an upside-down boat. There are more than 200 churches from this time, and 16 of them have achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

At Dalcahue’s Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los -Dolores de Dalcahue, the doors open to a modest interior of white and turquoise wood, the blue shade on the ceiling intended to evoke the heavens. The pillars have been painted with a design that makes them look like marble, and shiny, natural wood pews reflect the light from unadorned windows.

Down the street, I enter the Feria Artesanal de Dalcahue and wander among stalls of woven sweaters, wraps, hats, gloves and other items. While some locally woven products have the unmistakable bright colors of synthetic dyes, the majority have hues that range from bark to periwinkle — all the product of natural plant coloration.

Next door in the Cocineria Dalcahue is the food-market version of the artisan fair. Each small stall has beloved Chilote dishes, like seafood or apple empanadas and milcao, a bread made of fried or steamed potato. In Chiloé, there are more than 300 types of potatoes, and they find their way into nearly every meal.

A ferry takes me to Isla Quinchao and the town of Curaco de Vélez, where the homes are clad with elaborate wooden shingles, which were once used to denote a family’s wealth. A short distance from town is the farm of Sandra Nayman, which produces garlic and several indigenous varieties of potato. Subsistence farming is how most Chilotes lived before the salmon farming industry came here at the end of the 20th century. Local society was built on the concept of minga, a help-your-neighbor spirit resembling traditions of pioneer North America, such as quilting bees and barn raisings.

“The old culture is still here,” says Nayman, “but it’s very slowly changing. Instead of helping neighbors move their house or contributing to a wedding party, many people now prefer to pay for the service to be done for them.” She shows me piles of potatoes she recently harvested from her land. Once I see the fields, I ask her how many people help during the harvest.

“Just me,” she says. “I’m tired when it’s over, but then I take some time off.”
The oldest of the wooden churches is the Church of Santa María de Loreto de Achao, also on Isla Quinchao. Construction began here in 1730, and the interior might be described as Folk Gothic. I look up to the fretted ceiling, outlined in vines and rosettes, and follow the lines from the door to the altar, which is richly carved. The female keeper proudly explains that pegs were used to construct the church. No nails.

That night (another misty one), I read a book called Seremitos, about the myths of Chiloé. In it are stories of El Caleuche (the ghost ship used by witches to sail at night, taking in all who perish at sea), the Millalobo (a king who is half man, half sea lion and lives at the bottom of the ocean) and El Trauco (a forest goblin that captivates and impregnates women, who are powerless to resist his charms).

“Even when everybody knows that they are only old stories,” says Juan Pablo Mansilla of tour company Chiloétnico, “it is impossible to not think that there’s some truth to them. These mythologies remain very alive, deep in the collective unconscious. Even for me, there have been things I’ve seen that I can’t explain in a rational way. All the energy that comes from the people who live here gives the power to magic to make it real.”

A trek to the Muelle de las Almas, the Soul Pier, provides as close to a mythological experience as you can get on Chiloé. Along a seaside cove, an artist installed a wooden pier to honor the local belief that a boatman stops at this spot to take souls to the afterlife after death. The voyage is not free, even for the dead, who must pay for the trip with a colored stone from the nearby beach.
Considering how much Chilote culture is focused on the ocean, it seems a requirement to take to the sea during my visit. Aboard Tierra Chiloé’s traditional Chilean vessel, the Williche, I take a maritime tour to Isla Chelin. Along the way, I glimpse the extensive mussel farms off the coast, as well as sea lions, dolphins and Humboldt penguins.

On Chelin, I finally get a chance to climb the tower of one of the wooden churches. The exterior of the neoclassic-style Nuestra Señora del Rosario is yellow and blue, while the interior is mostly white and adorned with marble-looking columns. As I ascend the stairway, I see the other side of the wooden church’s curved ceiling — fashioned like the hull of a boat — and from this vantage point, it finally makes sense to me.

The tower is a cramped space, and after glimpsing the view from the top, I descend carefully and head to the graveyard, just behind the church. Contained in small wooden houses, the graves are meant to evoke earthly life, so the dead don’t mourn what they have lost too deeply. When it’s time to go, Camila tells me to exit the graveyard backward, so that no homesick spirits will follow.

Back in town, I experience the most modern Chiloé gets: its capital, Castro. It is here where brightly painted stilt houses (palafitos) punctuate the wild landscape of rocky coastline. See them the way any seafaring Chilote does — from the water, where on a calm day, you can view the palafito colors reflected in the sea.

I see something stir in the depths, beneath the reflection. Is it Millalobo? I stare at the water for a few minutes, but nothing emerges. In only a few days here, I have grown to believe.

Away to Chiloé


Restaurant Rucalaf Putemun
Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa
Chile Travel


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