Friday, January 22, 2016

Chiloé Archipelago - Churches and Penguins!

22 January, 2016

We spent three days in Ancud, then headed south to Castro, the big town on Chiloé Island.  We've been here four days, learning a bit about the culture of Chiloé, the third largest island in South America.  (The first largest is off the coast of Brazil; the second is Tierra del Fuego, way down south at the tip of the continent.)

The indigenous people named Chiloé, which means "land of the seagulls."  I was told that they have a small seagull here, though most of the gulls look like the normal fairly large kind.  There are also terns, herons, flamingos, all kinds of shore birds, and of course our penguin friends.

Castro has a famous church built in the Chilote style, wood with the layered steeple.  It's currently painted a sunny yellow, which glows really brightly at sunset when it gets direct sunlight.  In morning light, it's a much softer kind of yellow.  But always gorgeous against the blue sky.  

Castro is located on the Castro Fjord, or Fiordo de Castro.  Who knew that Chile had fjords?  It makes sense, I suppose, since fjords are created by glaciers.  And there wouldn't be glaciers in the equatorial zone.  No, glaciers were (and still are) in the places that still have cold winters with snow, the more northern or southern the colder.  So yes, fjords in Chile.

Fjords have smaller bays and inlets and mini-fjords, as well as rivers that feed into them.  Even though the sides of the fjords are steep and often rocky, much of the lower-lying land is marshy or wetlands.  Perfect for all the birds that love water, and wonderful for fishing.

With all that water, stilt houses are common.  The stilt houses are bright and colorful, perhaps to compensate for the long grey wet winters.  Monthly rainfall in the summer averages about an inch (25 mm); during the winter, each month the average rainfall is close to one foot (300 mm)!  I imagine the winter weather is something like Seattle weather - chilly, wet, grey, and windy.

So the church is bright and cheery.  The stilt houses are colorful and happy.  The bandstand in the Plaza de Armas is decorated with mosaic murals of the stilt houses and singing mermaids.  Even the boats are painted in eye-catching colors!

And the summer skies are a glorious deep blue.

We've walked around town, which seems to be surrounded by water on three sides.  There are great views from much of the town.

I signed up for a boat tour to one of the neighboring islands, Chelin.  This was an all day cruise, about eight or nine hours.  Richard opted for the shorter fjord cruise, for the same evening - we planned to meet at the pier, and we would both go on the fjord cruise.  Since this trip was scheduled for 7 to 9 PM, we thought we might catch the beginning of sunset while on the boat.

So, yesterday I was at the pier ready to go at 8:30 AM.  We were put on a bus headed to Dalcahue (dahl-CAH-whey), up the coast, where we boarded the boat.  As we headed out of the harbor, me sitting outside on the upper deck, I spotted a little penguin in the water!  Thrilled!  But a little slow with my camera, and penguins being rather shy, he had already dived down and disappeared from view.

Dalcahue has its own lovely church in the local style, visible from the water once we set off.  It seemed to be mostly white, with blue roofs on the steeple.  One thing I've noticed, with the houses, stores, and now the churches, is that sometimes only the front façade is painted; the remaining sides are left unpainted.  I don't know what kind of wood is used for the shingles, but they weather to a soft grey, and seem to stand up well in the winter rains.

We had a very off and on weather kind of day.  At times it was bright and sunny, a lovely summer morning, though chilly on the water with the wind blowing in from the channel.  At other times, our world was wrapped in fog, and nothing was visible.  Land disappeared, sea and sky merged, and the world became silent and mysterious.  It almost looked like we'd sail right off the edge of the world and fall endlessly into nothingness.

It was also much more adventurous, as if we were heading into the unknown, uncharted waters of a new location, unseen by humans, not knowing where we might end up.

We motored on, into the void, past shellfish farms (clams, oysters, mussels, abalone), and also net "tanks" for salmon farms.  

The scenery was gorgeous, mostly greens and occasional golds, small towns, a few cows or sheep visible through the fog.

We also saw all kinds of sea birds - cormorants, gulls, terns with their forked tails.  An interesting swan, where the body and wings are white and the neck and head are black.  Richard and I had seen these while driving on the mainland, and they were the oddest sight!  Usually in the northern hemisphere, swans
are either all white, or all black.  These are just, well, they take some time to get used to the half and half coloration.  Then they seem perfectly normal.  (And I apologize for the grainy photo, these swans were a LONG way off for my little camera.)

We saw dolphin, the little Chilean dolphin (also known as Peale's dolphin, or black dolphin because their backs, fins, tail, and heads are black, while their bellies are white).  Again, dolphin are pretty quick and in constant motion, so my only photo is this one dorsal fin sticking up - the little black triangle in the middle of the water.

But dolphin like to play and show off - these were constantly diving in the wake of the boat (which was a catamaran), or jumping in front and diving under one of the pontoons.  

Then one dolphin decided he wasn't getting enough attention, so he swam alongside the boat - he'd swim a few feet, slap his tail, swim swim swim, slap, on and on like this for a good minute or two!  He was so funny, and everybody stood on that side watching and oohing and aahing!  By the time I thought to get my camera out, since he was putting on this show, he decided the show was over - one last slap and away he went.

And penguins everywhere!  Penguins look like small dark ducks while swimming, but with shorter necks.  Often, it looks as if they barely have their heads out of the water.  In the lower right corner of the next photo, you can see a little Magellanic penguin swimming along.  We saw these, as well as the Humboldt penguins, all over as we cruised along!  Of course I was excited and thrilled and happy to see each and every penguin!  Most dove out of sight, but some of the braver penguins stayed put as we motored by, close enough to see that white swirl around their eyes.

We also saw several of the Chilote churches.  Each island, in fact almost every town, seemed to have one of these buildings that are emblematic of this region, and the reason this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Eventually we arrived in Chelin, the island that's sort of at the intersection of the fjord and the major channel.  Chelin is a small island, with some 150 or so inhabitants, but they have an exceptionally beautiful church, so the tour stops here on a daily basis.

The tour company is called Mar y Magia, "Sea and Eating."  (Their website is

A big part of the tour is the traditional food of the Chiloé archipelago, curanto.  Curanto is the Chilean version of a New England clam bake.  And we were taken to a special curanto house on Chelin.

First a pit is dug in the ground, and lined with layers of round river rocks.  A fire is built on top of the rocks, and burns until the rocks are red hot.  Once the rocks are truly glowing red and orange, the logs are removed and kept to the side, hot but not flaming.  (They can be re-used, but are kept hot in case they're needed.)

Tubs of cleaned clams and mussels are brought in and dumped on top of the hot hot rocks, and are raked flat.  Then washed whole potatoes are placed in a layer on top of the shellfish.  Next, cut up chicken, pork (or ham), and sausages are placed on top of the potatoes.  A final layer of fava beans, in the pods, are placed on top of all of that.

A little water is sprinkled around, and these absolutely huge leaves are spread around covering all the food.  But, like many commercial offerings, there's always more.

I thought it was bread, sort of round white rolls.  I asked someone (because I was the only non-Spanish speaker in the crowd, so I had to ask if I needed more information), and it turned out these were mashed potato cakes with flour mixed in, almost like Italian gnocchi dough, or Jewish potato kugel batter.  But the dough was stiffer, and there was meat or vegetables or something inside.  Papas rellenos - literally, stuffed potatoes.

So these went on top of the leaves.  Then more leaves were added, completely sealing off the curanto, with steam rising up.  This was left to cook for a while, and we went off for a hike.

We walked up to the old cemetery, and our guide told us about the mausoleums and crypts.  I received an abbreviated version, which was okay - my new friend Paola, who adopted me, gave me a summary of his talk, which was a creepy story about witches and corpse stealers and, well, yeah, creepy!

What I found interesting was that so many of the small houses used mausoleums (or for the family to watch over the newly buried loved one) were built to look just like miniature versions of the churches.

I had noticed the exact same thing in parts of Asia - the shrines along the road, or outside homes and businesses, were designed like miniature Buddhist or Hindu temples.  The architectural style varied from country to country, but the shrines or memorials looked exactly like tiny temples.  The same way these crypts and mausoleums did here in Chelin.

I guess it's one of those archetypes - we see our houses of worship built in a certain style, and then replicate that style for our personal use, whether as a household shrine or a funerary site.  Even though the religions differ, and the architectural styles vary, this human concept of copying our religious edifices seems to be universal.

Then we hiked up a hill to a memorial (the guy's wife survived an illness despite all odds, so he built this site in thanks), and had wonderful views across the island and to the sea.  And back down on the other side, through a grove of ancient trees.  Paola is with the forestry department, and she pointed out various trees.  (Eucalyptus is one of the major trees here because it grows so quickly.  We've seen them all over the country.  Also araucarias, those ancient trees that we saw in New Caledonia, the tree species that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs.  They're protected by law, though people do cut them down for firewood.  A major problem here.)

By the time we returned, the curanto was ready.  We watched the layers of food uncovered, steaming hot and looking good!  Our hosts shooed us back to the tables, and we were given plates piled high with food.  I don't know what it is about this west coast of South America, from Ecuador to Peru to Chile, people serve huge plates of food!  I can't eat this much, even if I tried!!!  

The mussels and clams were brought out separately, so I didn't have to turn them down, I just didn't serve myself any.  I'm not fond of bivalves.  But I ate my chicken, a little pork (it really was more like ham), a little bit of the papas rellenos (which tasted just like potato kugel, I swear), part of my potato.  With a lovely Chilean sauvignon blanc.  

I was even able to have some small, limited conversations in Spanish with the people at my table.  Paola was there, and a young woman who just started working with the company - she also spoke some English.  But people asked where I was from, what I was doing, was I travelling alone, all that kind of stuff.  If it was a fairly simple question, I could manage an answer.

By now it was after 3 PM, and time to visit the interior of the church.  Our guide told me that the Chilote churches were built by boatwrights, who travelled with the Spanish.  They didn't use nails, just wood pegs which swelled with the humidity, making for a tight fit.  The ceiling inside the church is curved like the hull of a boat (though art historians refer to this as a barrel vault).

One of the more interesting aspects was that the interior pillars and frieze, all wood, were painted to look like marble - first painted white, then varying greys painted over that to simulate the veins in marble.  I started laughing, and pointed out that one of the grey areas looked exactly like a sea lion, lobos.  No idea if this was accidental or deliberate.  But once you see it, you can't UNsee it!  And of course, after that I saw sharks (tiburones), fish (pescados), all kinds of shapes in the marble lines!  (See the sea lion?)

By now it was 3:30 PM, time to leave.  We had been on island for several hours.  Here's the time lapse - this little boat in the water when we arrived, and the same little boat stranded on the beach when we were ready to head out.


So we had a problem.

The tide was out.  The water was too low for the catamaran to come in very close.  The crew couldn't get the stairs close enough to the gate in the rail.

The solution - the stairs were moved to where this man is standing, and the boat came in closer to the ramp.  The man on the boat held a metal ladder that hung over the rail, down to just above the highest stair.  One by one, we climbed up the stairs, then up the ladder; about two or three runs before the top, two crew members helped people up (because there was no longer something to hold onto!).  Up to the top rung, over the rail to put a foot on the side of the boat, get the other foot over, and jump down onto the deck.  Yeah, okay.

There was an older gentleman, maybe 80 or so years old?  Or 90?  He got to the top, and Mr Big Crew Guy just picked him up, lifted him over, and gently set him down.

Fortunately, I made it up and over without falling off, despite the fact that we were a good 9 feet (3 meters) off the concrete boat ramp.  Add in that I was the second to last person on board.  And that after every ten or so people, the boat backed away a bit, and the land crew had to push the stairs farther down the ramp.  By the time it was my turn to climb up, the waves were lapping the base of those portable stairs.

It was an adventure.  And as I told the tour guide, it was better than the time the ferry in the Solomon Islands lost an engine, and Richard and I had to jump off the boat and drop into a police boat in the water.  Yeah, now that's adventure!

We motored back through the channel, up the fjord, and to Castro, just about as the rain started.  I managed to get up to the shed before it got too wet, and met up with Richard.  We hung out a bit, chatting with people and saying goodbye to Paola, and then got back on the catamaran for our fjord tour.  The crew were surprised to see me again, and some of the trip was the same as where we had already been.  But I like boats, and it was pretty exciting with the lightening flashing every so often around us!

The map at the end points out the places we visited, as well as the island of Chelin.

Tomorrow we head north again, back toward Santiago.  We have a week to explore the lake district, maybe visit a mountain or volcano, and I've read that somewhere there's a puma rescue center.  I'm not sure whether we'll find it, but we'll have a good time searching!


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