WET, WILD AND... (WHISPER IT) WEIRD
Purple potatoes, pisco-sour-wielding old dears and a lecherous, smelly gnome - why the little-known Chilean island of Chiloé could be South America's most magical place...
Believe the myths of Chiloé and you don’t know which revolting creature will get you first. Will it be the flying hag who vomits her intestines? The sexually-ravenous old lady whose breath kills woodland animals? Or maybe it’ll be the dreaded <Trauco>, a foul-smelling gnome who gives young virgins erotic dreams, occasionally impregnating them too…
Nope, for Metro, it was 25 threadbare toy monkeys dangling from trees that truly terrified us. The shabby simians are the “interactive” element of Parque Ecologico y Mitlologico de Chiloé (you press their tummies to emit screeching sounds - FYI, only one works), which is either the world’s most pathetic theme park or its best, depending on your fondness for badly-carved effigies of crocodiles and trolls.
Just like Iceland, Japan or our own dear sceptred isle, this island off Chile’s Patagonian coast is a cultural Galapagos, having developed free from Santiago’s influence for centuries. Which explains Chiloé’s peculiar cuisine (purple potatoes, anyone?), unique architecture and why many rural islanders still believe in myths like the ones above. As our guide says, “If Chile’s the ‘world’s most isolated country’, Chiloé’s the ‘isolation within the isolation’”.
Until now, the only way to reach Chiloé was a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland. But with a new airport connecting it to capital Santiago, the island is now extending beyond its usual customer-base of backpackers and domestic tourists.
It rains a lot in Chiloé too. For 230 days a year, in fact. When you arrive, locals excuse the drizzle by saying, “The island’s crying with happiness” (it apparently bawls its eyes out when you leave). The only break from this fleece-donning inclemency is December-March, also the best time to see Magellanic penguins off Chiloé’s Pacific-facing coast.
The rain - which blesses Chiloé with misty, green landscapes - doesn’t prevent visitors from participating in activities, such as those offered by luxurious lodge Tierra Chiloé (see box). Tierra is all-inclusive too - meaning hibernating indoors all day guzzling head-spinning pisco sours is an option.
A much better idea is exploring Chiloé’s archipelago with Tierra’s boat (included in hotel price, alongside on-board champagne). While the wooden vessel bobs along, snow-crested Andes loom on one side, while penguins dive-bomb on the other.
The boat usually alights at Tenaún, knocking on the door of a local woman, who fetches keys to the local iglesia, one of Chiloé’s 14 Unesco-listed wooden churches. She then serves nalca (Chilean rhubarb) pisco sours.
Another stop is Isla Mechuque. Trudging through muddy, silent alleyways, trailed by Chile’s national animal (the stray dog), it’s like stepping into a vanished world. Like much of Chiloé, it’s famed for palafitos, stilt-houses built over water and daubed in jazzy colours because, “with 230 rainy days a year, you need something colourful.”
Only 500 people live on Mechuque, and a unique hallmark of many houses is a narrow attic, where families keep coffins, primed for when they die (it’s cheaper, apparently). There’s a museum too. At Museo Don Checo, a sprightly septuagenarian called Berta greets you at her door with a slobbery granny-kiss. Since her husband died, she’s crammed her house with paraphernalia collected her entire life - rusty old irons, ovens, radios, even her wedding shoes from 55 years ago. Afterwards, she serves home-baked biscuits in her kitchen (no coffin-loft here, we checked). Despite not knowing each other’s languages, you get along like a casa on fire, and are soon looking into Chilean adoption procedures.
Back on the boat, Metro eats freshly-harvested choro zapatos (“big-as-a-shoe-mussels”), donating a 30-year-old specimen to the skipper because it’s weird eating something in the same age-bracket as yourself.
Indeed, Chilote cuisine is as otherworldly as its citizens. At Castro’s (Chiloé’s second-city) Yumbel market, you’ll see purple potatoes, fist-sized ‘elephant garlic’ and ‘Jurassic rhubarb’ sold alongside cardboard boxes containing dozens of chicks, and homemade chicha (cider) in Pepsi bottles.
Chiloé’s signature dish is curanto, best-appreciated after a soggy boat ride. It’s prepared by digging a hole in the ground, heating up stones, heaping on clams, cholgas (mussels - good for “sexual appetite”, according to our guide), pork, chicken and potatoes, then covering with nalca leaves and damp cloths. Served with Chilean wine at Tierra, it’s delicious. Chilean meals often last three hours, begging the question: why aren’t they fat? Ask a local and they’ll smirk, muttering something about, “sexual appetite”. There could be some truth to those tales of raunchy witches and randy gnomes, after all…