Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chonchi, Chiloe Island, Chile

Yesterday was a travel day. We took the bus from Pucon south to Puerto Montt, the "jumping off point" for Chile´s "Inside Passage".

The territory directly south of Puerto Montt is similar to that directly north of Olympia Washington -- mostly water, but lots of islands, glaciated channels, with a mainland rim of high peaks and hanging valleys stretching for a thousand miles or more. Having travelled north through this territory on our cruise ship, our goal was not to re-enter by sea. Rather, we were now headed south to see it by land.

Our first destination was Chiloe, an island that hangs off the southwestern tip Chile´s "Upper 48" in the same way that Vancouver Island (sort of) hangs off the northwestern tip of the United States´ "Lower 48". (Apologies to any Canadians reading this.) Someone had said we would have no problem arranging transport from Puerto Montt on to Chiloe, and they were right, but only partially. While there were frequent bus departures, by the time we arrived in Puerto Montt, all buses were full for the next 3 hours! We think it must have been the post-holiday rush, but we´re not sure. Whatever the case, our bus was full enough, even the aisle packed with standees. (I think the bus companies simply do not offer the option of standing room to tourists -- they certainly haven´t ever to us, anyway.)

The three hour trip, including a section by bus ferry between the mainland & the island, brought us into Castro at midnight. We were able to secure a taxi from this central town to Chonchi, the bucolic fishing harbor 30 km. south where we had hostel reservations.

Chonchi fronts on a long "finger" bay extending off the waters between the island of Chiloe and the Andean mainland and so is protected from the Pacific surf and storms. Salmon fishing and tourism are the main industries of the town and the island. Even the Chileans consider Chiloe a world apart, its culture, architecture, and mythology diverging from that of the other regions of the country. Apparently, the mythology speaks of mer-people, forest sprites and spirits, spells, enchantments, and the like. Somewhat to our disappointment, we didn´t have the opportunity to hear any of the island lore. A still greater disappointment was failing to spot any of these mer-people from the windows of our bay-front hostel. All we saw were salmon farms, some seals lazing about (hoping that the farm nets might one day break, no doubt), and these characteristic fishing boats, stranded twice-daily by the tides.

In the photo above, our hostel, "La Esmeralda", is the the three story blue-roofed building on the beach. Our host was Carlos, a fifty-something Canadian expatriate. Carlos spoke of living in fourteen countries in his lifetime, but Chiloe has exercised more hold on him than most, keeping him 10 years so far with no end in sight. He praised the weather, the beauty, the ease of life, the absence of poisonous snakes (!), and so forth. (Apparently, he hasn´t met any of the more alarming forest spirits spoken of in island lore.) His guests during our stay there were not much less diverse -- travelers from the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, and even a couple of USFS park rangers from Colorado.

We enjoyed some fine weather and enchanting views over Chonchi´s harbor.

The island of Chiloe is known for its ancient wooden churches, several of which are "World Heritage Sites". We were amazed at the effort that must have gone into crafting these quasi-classical structures, replicating pillars, sconces, arches, vaulted ceilings, ornamental reliefs, and the like completely in wood rather than the (usual) stone the priests must have been thinking of when they specified these designs.

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