Background

History

The original Chilotes (inhabitants of Chiloé) were the Chonos tribe, who were pushed south by the Huilliches, invading from the north. The first Spanish sighting of the islands was by Francisco de Ulloa in 1553 and, in 1567, Martín Ruiz de Gamboa took possession of the islands on behalf of Spain. The small settler population divided the indigenous population and their lands between them, but the Huilliche uprising after 1598 drove the Spanish out of the mainland south of the Río Biobío, isolating the 200 Spanish settlers on Chiloé. Following a violent earthquake in 1646, the Spanish population asked the viceroy in Lima for permission to leave, but this was refused. Much of Chiloé's distinctive character derives from 200 years of separation from mainstream Spanish colonial development.

The islanders were the last supporters of the Spanish Crown in South America. When the Chilean patriot leaders rebelled, the Spanish governor fled to the island and, in despair, offered it to Britain. George Canning, the British foreign secretary, turned the offer down; Chiloé finally surrendered to the patriots in 1826. Visiting less than a decade later, Charles Darwin still clearly distinguished Chiloé from the rest of Chile, saying that here the Andes were not nearly “so elevated as in Chile”.

Throughout the 19th and the first part of the 20th century, Ancud was the capital of Chiloé. All that changed with the earthquake and maremoto (tidal wave) of 1960. This drastically altered the landscape in Ancud, bringing petrified trees to the surface and causing forests to submerge. The whole of the lower town was destroyed, except for the cathedral, which was badly damaged and then blown up rather than renovated; until then, this had been the second largest cathedral in South America. The capital was moved back to its former site at Castro, which is the only place in Chiloé that really feels urban today. The maremoto, and the rivalry between Ancud and Castro that it spawned, have never entirely been forgotten.

The relatively high birth rate and the shortage of employment in Chiloé have led to regular emigration, with Chilotes settling across Chile; they were prominent as shepherds in late 19th-century Patagonia and as sailors and fishermen along the coast. However, with the recent growth in the salmon farming industry, more Chilotes are choosing to stay.

Climate

The appalling climate of Chiloé is almost as legendary as the witches that are said to live there. The west coast has particularly vile conditions - it can rain here for three weeks at a time - while the sheltered east coast and offshore islands are only a little drier. Some of the best weather is in early December and late March. The main benefits of the climate are culinary: the Humboldt Current and the sheltered east coast ensure a wide variety of fresh shellfish is available all year. Chiloé also has indigenous elephant garlic, which is used to make a very tasty garlic sauce, as well as several dozen endemic varieties of potato.

Art and architecture

The availability of wood and the lack of metals on the islands have left their mark on Chilote architecture. Some of the earliest churches were built entirely of wood, using pegs instead of nails. These churches often displayed German influence as a result of the missionary work of Bavarian Jesuits. Four notable features were the
esplanada
or porch that ran the length of the front of the church, the not-quite semi-circular arches, the central position of the tower directly above the door and the fact that they have three levels representing the Holy Trinity. Few of the oldest churches have survived, but there are still over 150 on the islands and even small villages almost invariably have churches with pretty cemeteries - in 2001, UNESCO declared them World Heritage sites.

The rucas (houses) of the indigenous population were thatched; thatch continued in widespread use throughout the 19th century. The use of thin tejuelas (shingles) made from alerce wood was influenced by the German settlers around Puerto Montt in the late 19th century; these tiles, which are nailed to the frame and roof in several distinctive patterns, overlap to form effective protection against the rain. Palafitos, or wooden houses built on stilts over the water, were once popular in all the main ports, but are now mainly found at the northern end of Castro, to the west of the Panamericana.

The islands are also famous for their traditional handicrafts, notably woollens and basketware, which can be bought in all the main towns and on some of the smaller islands, as well as in Puerto Montt and Angelmó.

Folklore

Chiloé's distinctive history and its maritime traditions are reflected in the strength of its unique folklore. There is widespread belief in a mermaid (
pincoya
); witches, who are said to meet at caves near Quicaví (between Dalcahue and Quemchi); and a ghost ship, the
Caleuche
, which whisks shipwrecked sailors aboard . The
Caleuche
is said to transform itself into a log, brought ashore by its crew (who become birds) when it needs repairs. Legend has it that Chiloé's dead are rowed along the reaches of Lago Huillinco and Lago Cucao in a white ship, out into the Pacific.

Modern Chiloé

Although fishing and agriculture remain mainstays of the economy, salmon farming has become just as important, and seaweed is also harvested for export to Japan. Tourism provides a seasonal income for a growing number of people, especially in Ancud and Castro, with agrotourism also available in rural areas. This consists of staying with local families and sharing their way of life, whether it be farming or fishing. The host families are invariably friendly and welcoming, and the stays are highly recommended as a fascinating way to immerse yourself in Chilote life.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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