Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Chiloé, Chile’s Most Mysterious Island, Bewitches With Its Folklore, Food, and Forests

Chile Travel
by Hannah D. Cooper Mar 19, 2024

You have a phantom ship named Caleuche to thank for the haze obscuring Chiloé from sight as you sail from mainland Chile. Chilotes say this enchanted galleon travels underwater at breakneck speeds, shapeshifts to avoid detection, and rewards local merchants with booty when they dare strike a deal with its crew of wizards. Even if you don’t believe in sorcery and superstition, this mysterious archipelago will disarm you with its rugged wilderness and charming fishing villages.

Isla Grande de Chiloé, Chile’s second-largest island, is part of the southern Los Lagos Region. Its relative isolation kept Spanish influences at bay and even today, indigenous Huilliche and Chono culture remains strong. Following the same climate pattern as the Pacific Northwest, frequent rainfall nourishes the temperate rainforests edging the western coast and southern wetlands. This probably bears some responsibility for those ethereal fogs but you’ll not be able to resist keeping watch for maverick ghost ships when mist draws in.

Chilote mythology

chiloe statue in chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

There’s no escaping tales of witches and wizards, mermaids and cryptids in Chiloé. Chilote fishermen will tell you they owe a successful haul to La Pincoya, a dancing mermaid who would have spent the evening prior gazing out to sea. A poor bounty suggests she turned her back on the fish that night. El Trauco is the axe-wielding dwarf nobody wants to encounter in the twisted woodlands. The Coo has the body of a rooster and the head of a cat whose caw implies wizards are close. El Basilisco Chilote petrified islanders long before J. K. Rowling penned Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Wood-carved effigies of Chiloé’s mythological creatures line Blanco Encalada in Castro. They’re the favored subject of trinkets sold at the artisanal markets in the east coast villages. Stop to admire the handspun woolen hats, scarves, ponchos, and sweaters knitted before your eyes at these feria. Chilote superstition says that when the needles of two knitters meet, they’ll be friends for life.

stilt houses in chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Around the island – palafitos and penguins

Palafitos are the postcard image of Chiloé. These colorful stilt houses bridge land and sea and harmonize with the tides. Living quarters occupy the upper level whereas a lower terrace is used for fishing and other maritime tasks. Most remaining palafitos sit on the outskirts of Castro, the island capital on the sheltered eastern side, and are viewable from miradors along Ruta 5.

A small number of palafitos are used for tourist accommodation. La Mar Casa is a traditional two-bedroom palafito with an overwater deck and a larch wood exterior to waterproof and insulate the home. This same nail-less tiling applies to many of the UNESCO-designated churches dotted all over Chiloé. You’ll pass these as you drive through the villages and out to beauty spots. Some, such as those in Quicavi and Isla Aucar, are left unpainted whereas those in Chonchi are painted vibrant colors. Dalcahue’s chapel is a striking black and white.

Bookend your time in Chiloé with a trip to see the penguin colony of Puñihuil in the northwest of the island – the only place in the world where Humboldt and Magellanic penguins co-exist. They breed and nest in October with hatching season following in January. The colony departs for six months at sea at the end of March.

Hiking in Chiloé

hiking trail in chiloe, chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Muelle de las Almas hangs over the western shore between the Chiloé National Park and the Tepuhueico woodlands. According to Huilliche legend, the Dock of Souls is manned by Tempilcahue who transports souls to the afterlife. Getting there as a member of the living is as simple as strapping on your hiking boots. You’ll pay a modest fee at the Oficina Muelle De Las Almas before following a dirt road to the trailhead (doable in a regular sedan during summer). The trail to the dock art installation ducks into the woods before emerging on the headlands with views as far as the eye can see.

Another installation awaits you on Lemuy Island where you can “fly a broom” over the coast at the Muelle de los Brujos (Dock of Wizards). A low-effort forest trail to see the Cascadas de Tocoihue near San Juan is a worthy detour. These twin waterfalls are at their best after a rainy night.

Parque Tantauco dominates the southernmost and wildest part of Chiloé Island and marks the border with Patagonia. Start at the Yaldad Visitor Center next to Lago Yaldad where three short trails weave through the forest. Continuing south brings you to the Laguna Chaiguata campsite where several longer day trails cross suspension bridges and waterfalls. Accessible by sea and air, multi-day treks from the remote Caleta Inío sector include the two-day Quilanlar Circuit and the eight-day Tantauco Route.

Curanto and licor de oro

licor de oro in chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Curanto is the dish to sniff out on Chiloé Island. Shellfish, seasoned chicken, spicy sausages, and chapaleles (Chilote potato dumplings) would traditionally be placed in a bubbling pit of stock under the ground, similar to New Zealand’s hāngī. These are coated in nalca (Chilean rhubarb) leaves, and heated by the hot stones that give the dish its name. The flavor intensifies the longer it stews and you should ask for a cup of broth on the side.

Curanto is surprisingly scarce in quinchos (Chilote restaurants) during the sleepy winter season. La Oveja (Castro), Curantos Y Asados Caleuche (Chacao), and Fogon y Euincho el Hoyo Caliente (Ancud) usually keep a cauldron brewing. It’s designed to share so solo travelers may need to settle for caldillo de congrio (Chilean fish soup). September is a good time to sample curanto at a fonda open-air festival around Independence Day in Chile.

Look for vendors selling homemade licor de oro at the feria. Chiloé’s signature “liquid gold” blends aguardiente, whey, and lemon to produce a satisfying mix of sweet and bitter. Other flavors include mango, coffee, guindao (fermented cherries), and manjar (Chilean dulce de leche). The sellers are generous with samples of this tasty spirit exclusive to Chiloé to ensure you find your perfect match.

boardwalk in chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Getting to Chiloé Island

Transmarchilay operates 24/7 crossings between Pargua and Chacao. Thirty-minute sailings cost 15,300 Chilean pesos (around $15) per car and are first-come, first-served. Puerto Montt’s El Tepual Airport is the closest option where low-cost flights take 1 hour and 45 minutes from Santiago.

A rental car is the best means of getting around Chiloé. Avis, Hertz, and Chilean Rent-A-Car have kiosks at El Tepual and vehicles should be pre-booked. A high-clearance vehicle or four-wheel drive is needed between July and October and at all times for the far-flung Tantauco Park.

dalcahue feria in chile

Photo: Hannah D. Cooper

Unique accommodations in Chiloé

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

Castro is where to sleep in a palafito in Chiloé. Otherwise, you can hang your cap at Casa del Faro – a Chilote lighthouse Airbnb built using the typical larch and cypress tiling with amazing views across the peninsula. This forest treehouse Airbnb on Chiloé Island has a stargazing moon roof and a pellet stove for cozy nights sipping fireside licor de oro and sharing spooky stories.

Chile’s trailblazing sustainable luxury hotel brand knocked it out of the park with Tierra Chiloé. Sea-view suites resemble mini chalets with woodsy paneling and handwoven fabrics. The restaurant serves curanto and the spa spotlights modern-day magic: a heated infinity pool. Excursions include mountain biking, horseback riding, trekking, shellfishing, and nature bathing.

While many destinations in Chile take their toll physically – looking at you, Patagonia and the Atacama Desert – Chiloé is as taxing as you want it to be. It has all the intrigue and culture of Rapa Nui without the hefty price tag of visiting Chile’s Polynesian island.

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