Sign Up for Our Monthly Explorer Newsletter
The second-largest island in Chile, Chiloe hangs like an earring off the mainland at the northern edge of Patagonia. With misty, green landscapes; colorful fishing communities; and strong folkloric traditions, it’s a tranquil place perfect for leisurely exploration.
Chiloe is the largest island in the Chiloe archipelago, which is also composed of more than 30 smaller islands. The capital, Castro, is Chile’s third-oldest city and was an important port during the colonial period.
The Church RouteChiloe is known for its distinctive wooden churches, 16 of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites for their blend of European architecture and native boat-building techniques. Completed around 1740, the Church of Achao on Quinchao Island is the archipelago’s oldest surviving church, which I visited on an excursion through hotel Tierra Chiloe.
Later, I toured other churches with Cyril Christensen, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind Castro-based tour company Chiloe Natural. We began at the striking yellow-and-purple Church of San Francisco in Castro’s main square, then made a circuit to the northeast, stopping at several more churches, including the Church of Colo, the smallest of the UNESCO-listed churches, notable for its distinctive half-arches on either side.
Rural TourismChiloe’s strong farming heritage has given rise to a growing number of agritourism activities. My tour of Quinchao included a visit with Sandra Naiman, a Huilliche indigenous woman who raises sheep and pigs and grows rhubarb, cilantro, beans and other crops on a 5-acre property that she farms entirely by herself. As we walked through her fields, she explained that managing the farm alone is challenging but gratifying.
“It’s a lot of work, but you see the fruits of your labor,” she said.
Actual fruit was the focus of my visit to Terra Lluvia Chiloe farm, which specializes in murta, a berry native to southern Chile. After a tour, my hosts, Gloria and Egor, invited me into their fogon, a replica of a traditional Huilliche dwelling, where I sipped a glass of murta juice as they described the berry’s many scientifically proven health benefits.
The Wild WestWhile the rolling hills and protected inlets of eastern Chiloe are home to most of the island’s population, the west is sparsely settled, with dense forests and a craggy coastline. The archipelago has a great diversity of plants, such as ferns, which I saw in abundance during a guided hike through Bosquepiedra, a private nature reserve that contains several types of temperate rainforest. Other protected areas with good hiking trails are Chiloe National Park and Tantauco Park.
In the northwest, the sunken forest of the Chepu River was created when a major earthquake struck Chiloe in 1960, causing the land to drop as much as 6 feet. Saltwater then flooded in, killing the trees. Chiloe Natural operates early morning kayaking trips through this unusual wetland, an experience Christensen describes as “magical.”
BirdwatchingChiloe boasts a tremendous variety of birds, from songbirds perching on dead trees in the Chepu sunken forest to hummingbirds flitting through the verdant foliage of Bosquepiedra. In the northeast, near Quemchi, Christensen and I crossed a wooden pedestrian bridge to Aucar Island, which is just big enough to house a tiny church, a cemetery and a small botanical garden that attracts lapwings, swans and other birds.
Another can’t-miss spot for birdwatchers is Punihuil Bay in northwestern Chiloe, which is the only place in the world where Humboldt and Magellanic penguins nest side by side. Boat tours from the beach circle the offshore islets, which are also home to many other seabirds, including cormorants, ducks, geese, oystercatchers, gulls and ibises.
Where to StayOn the Rilan Peninsula, the all-inclusive Tierra Chiloe incorporates traditional Chilotan architecture and handicrafts. All rooms feature large windows with sea views. My visits to Quinchao, Bosquepiedra and the murta farm were among the property’s regularly offered excursions.
On the main square in Dalcahue, Refugio de Navegantes is a new five-room boutique hotel with a popular cafe. After two nights in a spacious suite, I didn’t want to leave.