Saturday, November 18
This morning we have a 10:30 flight from Puerto Montt to our southernmost destination, Punta Arenas (literally “Sandy Point”), on the Strait of Magellan. To get to the airport we have to ride the bus a half hour to get to the ferry, then the half-hour ferry ride back to the mainland, and another hour after that. So we had 6:00 breakfast, 6:30 “bags out,” and 7:00 departure. So I got up at 5:00, did all my morning stuff, had breakfast, and now it’s 6:30, so I thought I’d get a head start on recapping the last day and a half. (I’ll continue on the plane.)
Thursday, November 16
Pargua, in addition to being our “Day in the Life” locale, is where the ferry to Chiloé sails from. So after we left the Andrade family, we were quickly on board the ferry. We arrived at a small settlement called Chacao, on the northeastern tip of the island, and we had a little time to explore there before continuing to Ancud, on northwestern Chiloé.
Chiloé is the largest island by far in the Chiloé Archipelago and one of the largest islands in South America. It is a little smaller than Puerto Rico, about the size of Corsica or Crete. The island was devastated by the massive earthquake in May 1960 (which also moved it four feet closer to the continent). What survived is made of wood, which is more flexible than concrete and more capable of withstanding shaking. There are some newer concrete buildings; Pilar mentioned that these will likely not survive the next major quake. And in addition to the risk from earthquakes themselves, tsunamis also pose a significant threat. Our hotel is up on a bluff, high enough so that if we have one while we’re here, we should be okay.
The name of the island, by the way, is unrelated to the name of the country. Chile comes from an Incan word meaning “the end.” Chiloé is Mapuche for “the place of the gulls.”
Our hotel is in Ancud (and is called the Hotel Ancud), but from the little time I had to walk around, there isn’t much else of interest. Our hotel (which is built almost entirely of wood) is built on top of a fort that was built by the Spanish. The fort consists of a rampart and some cannons.
Friday, November 17
After breakfast at the hotel (If you ever stay here, I hope you like your scrambled eggs runny), we climbed in the bus and drove about an hour and a half to the largest city on the island, Castro.
During the drive Pilar gave us an interesting history lesson about the history of human migration to the Americas. I slept through a lot of it, but what I heard I enjoyed. In a nutshell, theories have long held that humans first came to the Americas through Asia and across the land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait. From there they moved south through North and Central America and finally into South America. But recent theories now suggest that humans were in South
America earlier than was previously thought, and that they came by boat from Polynesia. Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition proved that this is possible, but not that it is true. The fossil of Luzia Woman that was found in Brazil in 1975 has more features in common with aboriginals of Australia. But theories are just that.
In Castro we visited four main sites.
Plaza des Armes
The main square of Castro has an adjacent wooden church, one of many scattered all over the island. It also has a pay toilet and some surrounding shops.
These wooden houses built on stilts in the water are one of the main attractions of Castro. They were slums, but many of them have been renovated and converted to B&Bs and charming homes. One was even a gym. Others are still in poor condition. All survived the 1960 earthquake and tsunami, but if there is another one, a recent law will prevent owners from rebuilding. And because they are on the lowest point in the city, right on the water, tourists who stay there are not going to survive the next tsunami either.
Pilar called a friend of hers who lives in one of the Palafitos, a fellow tour guide, and we had the opportunity to visit and see the inside. It was a very humble abode, with low ceilings. The oven was wood-burning, but the tour guide’s wife was proud of her new gas range. In the back was an open-air extension over the water. He told us he built that after buying the house 27 years ago. He also showed us a piece of wood from one of the old stilts, rotted and eaten by underwater worms. And he said the piers have to be replaced every ten years.
The artisanal market
The market consisted of a lot of shops selling woolen items in particular, plus the usual assortment of tacky souvenirs.
The fish and produce market
Here we had lunch and wandered among the stalls. It’s housed in a new, modern building. Some interesting fish for sale, including salmon, hake, conger eel, and others I didn’t recognize, plus a lot of shellfish: clams, oysters, razor clams, and some squid-like thing. There were plenty of other strange items, such as stalks of something related to rhubarb only much bigger, dried seaweed in bundles that looked like big tangles of rawhide dog chews, and plenty of more “normal” fruits. They also had something Pilar called a Chiloé bagel. They were round with a hole in the middle, but much more hole than bread. It looked like it might be pretzel-like. I bought some; they turned out to be slightly sweet and the flavor reminded me of egg kichel, a Passover cookie, only denser.
Upstairs at the market were the cocinerias, eateries with a lot of traditional items. Pilar walked us through and explained the menu items. I got something that was essentially a potato pancake stuffed with pork rind. This pork rind, though, is nothing like what you get in bags at US truck stops. It was kind of a cross between bacon and sausage. It was so good it is probably illegal in the US.
Incidentally, in Chilean grocery stores, all packaged food that is not good for you comes with warnings in big black labels. I took a picture of a package of cookies the other day:
High in calories, high in sugar, high in saturated fat. After Pilar told us about these warnings, I told her I was angry at her for making me health conscious at the grocery store. But I guess I made up for it by eating that pork rind.
We drove back to Ancud after lunch, had a short break, and then headed by bus along the west side of the island. The landscape on the left side of the bus consisted of lovely wooded hills and meadows with grazing cattle and sheep. On the right side the coast reminded me of Oregon or California, with rocks and cliffs.
After thirty minutes or so we arrived at the beach where we donned life jackets and rode big wheeled carts into an open boat.
We headed to three tiny islets just off shore to the only place in the world where two different species of penguins share the same breeding ground. In addition to the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, we saw various species of seabirds: ducks, geese, cormorants, a blue-footed pelican (which was sitting so we couldn’t see the blue feet), and of course a zillion of the gulls that gave the island its name.
The Magellanic penguins migrate here from southernmost Chile (where we are heading today) to breed. Later in summer they will return south. The Humboldt penguins, which are far fewer, migrate from the Atacama desert in the north.
If I just say the cost of the entire trip was worth it for the opportunity to see these penguins, that might begin to express the wonderment and thrill. Those of us who live in the northern hemisphere have to travel a long way to see penguins in their natural habitat.
I took over a hundred pictures, but the boat was bobbing so much in the waves that it was hard to get good ones, and I only managed to get a handful that were in focus (or that even had a penguin in the picture at all). And I kept reminding myself that this was something not to be viewed with my camera, so a few times I managed to put the camera down and just be there to see it.
We got to watch a couple of fellows struggle to climb out of the water up the kelp at the edge of the islet, only to keep slipping back down again. We watched them walk on trails up to the top of the islet where their nesting grounds are located. Sometimes in groups, sometimes one little guy by itself. We’ve all seen movies of penguins, but here they were without the cute narration ascribing human emotions to them, just being penguins.
All too soon we returned to the beach, got carted back to shore in the wheeled carts, and went to to a restaurant overlooking the ocean for dinner of hake. I have to say that most of my least favorite meals have been the group ones. I’d much prefer to wander off to find meals on my own at places where tourists don’t go.
Chiloé was a mixed bag for me. It was an interesting place, pretty in some areas, but certainly not spectacular at the level of what we saw closer to the Andes.
The penguins, of course, made it more than worth visiting. But also, it was fascinating to go to a place that gets very few foreign tourists, where almost no one speaks English, and where we got to see a different side of this wonderful country.