We were promised dolphins during our crossing to Chiloe, a large island just north of the point Chile breaks up into thousands of sounds and islands. Although the 20-minute ferry crossing offered stunning views across the lake to the surrounding hills and mountains, we didn’t get dolphins. Or sealions. Or whales. Then, it was time to get back on the bus for another couple of hours to Castro.

Those hours made up for the disappointment on the water; first we followed the coast where small fishing boats worked amongst the sandbars. Then over the hills, with stunning coastal views on both sides. After thirty minutes of this we passed through sprawling Ancud. Turning the corner we caught sight of the water again and were surprised to see European-style military towers high on the hill. Crossing over the body of the island, we sped past farmland and forest with small shingled churches dotting the side of the motorway.

These shingle churches are a local specialty, and quite different to the architecture found in other parts of Chile. Built by settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the architectural style has spread to some hotels and private homes, plus the surrounding mainland regions — we saw similar workmanship in Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas.

Castro itself is a pleasant coastal town, stretching up from the water, around the central Plaza de Armas, and to the hilltops above. Unless you’re strolling along the waterfront, you’re either walking uphill or down every time you step out the front door. At the water you’ll find another of Chiloe’s architectural quirks: palafinos. These brightly coloured shacks are built on piles overhanging the water. Some have been upgraded or converted into guesthouses and restaurants, but many remain as unsavoury housing options with a very photogenic aspect from the outside.

The church dominating the Plaza de Armas appears to be made from corrugated iron, while the Franciscan monastery beside it remains in the wooden shingles that dominate the religious buildings of Chiloe. These buildings, however, have been transformed into an local artisans market selling leather and woolen goods, preserves and liquors. There’s something quite surreal about a graphically carved crucifix hanging over a display of homemade jams.

The other feria, as the craft markets are called here, is located on the waterfront alongside several palafinos that have been converted into restaurants. It was in one of these that we first tried curanto, a local dish prepared similarly to the hangi and umu found throughout the Pacific Islands. The meat, seafood and vegetables were smoked in an underground oven heated by stones before being served to us with a broth to keep the food hot and a bottle of good Sauv Blanc to keep us happy. We ordered two between four and, although it was deliciously smokey, we struggled to finish it before heading back out to the sunshine.

Before leaving Chiloe, we headed north to stop in Ancud, the largest town in Chiloe and one that sprawls out for some distance. We only spent an hour here, admiring the tall church spires and strong stone fortifications and wandering hopelessly around the square on the prowl for coffee. I don’t know what Chile has against espresso, but many restaurants and cafes serve Nescafe straight from the tin. It was here we discovered several statues which represent local myths:

In this video: la Baslilica, la Serena, el Trauco, la Fiura, el Cuchivilu, la Pincoya, el Invunche and la Viuda.

We could have done with more time in Chiloe, and I’d recommend a week if you have the time to base yourself in Castro for a bit. I would have loved to have made it to the large National Park, around an hour from Castro. The park takes up a large part of the western side of the island and is home to some excellent hikes and wild camping along the shoreline. Chiloe’s lifestyle, architecture and culture is rather distinct from that of mainland Chile and is well worth investigating. The same can be said of its modern history, especially its importance during the independence movement and the reconstruction after the great earthquake of 1960.

We did get our fair share of dolphin sightings on the ferry back, and plenty of sealions too. I guess we’ll have to keep a weather eye out for whales on our next visit.

Chiloe and Castro travel resources:

Our research found coachline Cruz del Sur to provide the cheapest service to Chiloe, as they appear to own all the ferries. It is slower but cheaper to travel to Ancud then change to a local bus than go straight to Castro.

In Castro, we stayed in a family-run guesthouse, Hospedaje Juana Barrientos, ph. (65) 635 031. Spanish neccessary. We didn’t stay overnight in Ancud.

We made copious use of the free wifi in Cafe Ristretto, Castro. It’s just off the Plaza de Armas on Av. Blanco 264. They also served the best espresso I’ve yet tasted in Chile.

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