Taking It Easy On Chiloé Island

Famous for churches, superstition and rainy weather, Chiloé is the biggest island in Chile.
The island is located off the West coast of the mainland about two thirds of the way down the long country, and also lends its name to the surrounding archipelago.
Images of the colourful houses and tales of the island’s myths and legends caught the imagination of Jacinta, so we had to work out if we could get there.
The island is a popular Chilean tourist destination, but sits off the main international travel route – aka the Gringo Trail.
If you’d like to know how to get to Chiloé Island on a budget, or you’d just like to read more about somewhere a little mysterious, read on…

A map of Chiloé island
Map of sleepy and mysterious Chiloé Island [visitchiloe.cl]

The Arrival

We were fairly short on time before we had to be in Santiago to catch our flight to Easter Island (you can read about that other mysterious island here).
We weren’t sure if we could squeeze it in but a bit of research revealed there were direct overnight buses from the island’s capital Castro to Santiago which simplified the logistics.
If time is of the essence then Castro’s airport also offer flights to a few locations in Chile, including to Santiago.
As a bonus for us the bus was very reasonably priced, especially when compared to the flights up, so that’s what we chose.

The Stay

As mentioned Castro is the capital, and the main town of the island.
It is centrally located, offers quite a few lodging options to travellers and has some attractions of its own.
The San Francisco church that sides on one side of the main plaza of Castro is the biggest on the island, and probably the most impressive. It was originally constructed in 1567, but the current incarnation was finished in 1912, and acts as a landmark in town as its bright yellow exterior beams out across the rooftops.

Bright yellow exterior of the church on Castro
The San Francisco church is hard to miss in Castro!

The interior evokes a strong sense of being inside a ship, wooden beams soaring above.

Interior of San Francisco church in Castro
The interior of the San Francisco church feels like being inside an old wooden sailing boat

The old palafitos, traditional wooden fishermen’s dwelling that were built over the water on stilts and painted in bright colours, are iconic of the island and the heritage of its people.
Just make sure you look up the tides, because the palafitos are much more enjoyable and photogenic at high tides when the mud is hidden beneath the shallow inlet.

Close view of a Palafito
A close view of a Palafito wooden house

On clear days the miradors at the bottom of the hill and above the cemetery both give great views for sunrise and sunset, and were one of our favourite things to do.

Castro is a popular choice as a base on the island, and is indeed what we chose.
We stayed at a quirky hostel, Hostel Backpacker Chiloe, with a very entertaining host. It had good kitchen facilities, a cozy atmosphere and simple but well sized rooms.
Other options include the possibility to stay inside a renovated palafito – something different for the travel stories.

View of Castro from a mirador
On a clear day the view from the lookout above the cemetery is well worth the short walk

For tourists the main other town is Ancud, an 18th century port town on the north coast.
It is close to the Spanish San Atonio fort and the penguin colony where you can take a tour to see Humboldt and Megellan penguins which is sure to appeal to many.
We can’t comment too much as we didn’t get quite that far north, except passing through it on the bus to and from Puerto Montt.

The Attractions

Chiloé island is well known for its hundreds of wooden churches.
16 of them have been UNESCO heritage listed for their significance, so one of the popular things to do is to travel the island and visit at least some of them.

UNESCO churches sign
This sign includes the 16 UNESCO listed churches spread across Chiloe island – the Churches route

Jesuit missionaries arrived on the island in the 18th century which saw the founding of many churches, two of which still stand today.
What sets these churches apart is they were typically built by shipmakers from the island with Jesuit descriptions of what a church should look like, so the construction techniques have a maritime theme and exclude nails and other fasteners.
We found many of them to be locked up when we visited, but there was often a key holder marked on a map, so with more time they could presumably be tracked down to see the interiors.
One of our favourites was the church located on the tiny island Isla Aucar near the town of Quemchi, as much for its wonderful location as for any particular feature of the church itself. It is only reachable by a 100m long boardwalk, or presumably very low tides, and there is also a very nice small cemetery.

The boardwalk to the tiny island of Aucar was a highlight of our day driving around Chiloé

Other churches that caught our eye were the blue and white Tenaún church, and the interior of the Dalcahue church.

Blue and white church of Tenaún
Tenaún church is very picturesque, and is quite emblematic of the colourful style of many of the churches

National Park
The national park, Parque Nacional de Chiloé, occupies 43,000 hectares on the mid-west coast of the island, part of which is dedicated for tourism.
From the main entrance near Cucao there is a short network of trails that can be walked in a couple of hours including dunes and forests endemic to the island. There are also some longer trails that require more preparation than we had done, and options for camping which would be great for those carrying their own equipment.
The trails themselves were quite short and not well maintained, but the end trail was enjoyable as it felt like you were in a fairy tale land. It was quite easy to see how some of the island’s myths could thrive in that sort of environment.

The Parque Nacional Chiloé was a good way to spend a couple of hours walking amongst nature, just don’t expect too much

On the east coast the Tocoihue waterfall is a slightly hidden stopover, well worth the small detour if you’re making your way along the coast.
Reaching the falls was a little confusing, the main road in essentially appears like a one way track that can’t be entered. We noticed another option on the way out, but it is apparently in very bad condition (and the one we took wasn’t great!).
After paying a small fee (1000 pesos / $2 AUD / $1.50 USD each) to a guy that pops out to collect it from a house, you can pass the gate and choose one of two paths.
Heading up there is a very short but steep trail up to a lookout to get a feel for the over 50m drop.
Taking the other way leads you along the river to the base of the falls, and a better location to enjoy the power of the falls.
Once you’ve finished you drive back up the less than perfect trail and hope no one is coming the other way!

View of the Tocoihue waterfall
The high viewpoint looking out through the forest gives the best overview, but the real fun is at the bottom

Island Hopping
As mentioned Chiloé island is the main island of the archipelago, but there are quite a few other islands surrounding it.
Many of them are inhabited and can be visited by ferry from Chiloé, or using another island as an intermediate step.
We visited Quinchao island with the car ferry from the nearby town of Dalcahue.
Two of the UNESCO listed churches, Achao and Quinchao, are located on the island but our favourite part was probably the views from a lookout between the two of them.
The ferry price was a little high for such a short journey, but it was worth it in the end.

View from lookout on Quinchao island
We could have sat here for hours enjoying the view out over neighbouring islands

Muelle de las Almas
We didn’t make it to one of the most popular attractions on the island, the Muelle de las Almas, or the Dock of Souls in English.
The Muelle de la Almas is a piece of art that links to a traditional belief that when you die your soul is transported to the afterlife.
It is a very popular photo spot, but having visited the nearby national park the day before we decided to explore more of the island.

The Transport

For a normal traveller the best way to reach and get around the island is undoubtedly to hire a car from the mainland and take one of the frequent ferries across.
Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas are two popular cities to act as a base, and have many more, and cheaper (starting at 25,000 pesos per day), hire options than the island.
In general the roads are quite good, and except for the main highway and Castro there isn’t much traffic at all so it is a pleasant place to drive – even if you’re used to driving on the other side of the road like us.
For a backpacker the choice becomes a lot more complicated, as car hire adds up quite quickly over a few days.
There are shuttle style buses between towns on the island.
Their frequency seems to range quite drastically depending on the day and destination, with little information online that we could find prior to visiting.
Popular spots like the Dock of Souls, the National Park and Ancud are well connected to Castro.
Getting to smaller towns or specific places gets a lot more difficult, and seems best left to self driving or those with a lot of time.
We took a shuttle to the National Park for half a day and spent the other half exploring Castro, so we found this a good option to keep costs down.

Bus times displayed in a ticket window
Windows like these are how we worked out our movements by bus

If you don’t hire a car on the mainland we found two agencies who could provide them on Chiloe.
West RentACar have a main office at the airport, and also offer pickup/drop off from a small counter inside the Enjoy Hotel in Castro.
Go Rent A Car also have a small selection in Castro, with WhatsApp the best way to communicate with them (as a bonus for foreign travellers the owner speaks English).
We hired a car through West from Enjoy Hotel as they had slightly cheaper rates (34,000 pesos for 24 hours) and provided a diesel model which meant fuel was also cheaper.
They were a bit late for the car drop off, but the hotel has free wifi so we were able to confirm there was no real problem.
When we picked it up however it was still dirty so they gave us a discount of 4,000 pesos too.
The biggest bonus of this approach is it meant we could hire the car for only a day, instead of paying for multiple days from the mainland. The bus tickets from Puerto Montt to Castro for two people were also quite a similar price to the ferry fare for a car so we broke even in that area.

View over Anchao
Hiring a car lets you get out to spots like this and take as much time as you like

Hitchhiking is also a very viable and safe option for getting around the island, as it is in the rest of Chile.
We gave one Spanish travel blogger a lift back up the steep trail from the waterfalls but were unfortunately going in the wrong direction to take him further.

The Thoughts

Visiting Chiloé island was like stepping into a a different world.
It felt like a time capsule, peering into an older and simpler life.
It was great to get away from the typical gringo trail and enjoy something slightly different.
While the sights are nice, visiting Chiloe is more about the experience than ticking them off.
A few days is enough for a taste of this interesting island, and it can be done with a backpacker budget without sacrificing much.
We only stayed for two days, and we got lucky with the weather so we could make the most of it, but we would have loved to stay longer.
It’s places like Chiloé Island that really make you take stock and appreciate travelling – it’s a place we can really recommend for some down time and somewhere a little different.

Waterfront view in Castro
Chiloé Island is built on a fishing and seafood culture so water is ever present in Chilote life

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