Chiloé also includes the associated mainland area that is inaccessible overland. The main island is the Isla Grande de Chiloé. Some 180 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide, one of about 40 islands in the group, it is not only Chile’s largest island but South America’s second largest—only Tierra del Fuego is larger. The sheltered inlets on its more densely populated east coast are ideal for sea kayaking, linking peasant villages with a unique vernacular architecture of elaborately shingled houses—a handful of them stilted palafitos (fishermen’s houses)—and churches.
Though it can rain in any season, summer is the best time to visit, as days are long enough to hope for a break in the drizzle. On the Pacific side, penguins—the ranges of the Humboldt and Magellanic species overlap here—also breed in summer.
Pre-Columbian Chiloé was the province of the Huilliche, the southernmost branch of the Mapuche, who netted and trapped fish, gathered shellfish such as sea urchins, and cultivated maize and especially potatoes in its cool, damp climate. Their insularity bred a self-reliance that persists to the present, as residents have ingeniously adapted native materials into technologically simple but useful artifacts.
Spain founded the city of Castro in 1567, but Jesuit missionaries soon established a circuit around what they called the “last outpost of Christianity.” Before their 1767 expulsion from the Americas, the Jesuits encouraged the construction of wooden churches and chapels that were predecessors of the 50-plus scattered around the archipelago, which led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Refugees fleeing the mainland Mapuche insurrection of the early 17th century found a haven here, creating the first permanent European presence. Their geographical isolation took political form in a conservatism that made them the Spanish empire’s last holdouts in Chile, which failed to conquer the fortress of Ancud until 1826.
Economically, isolation meant poverty, though not starvation. Darwin remarked, a few years after Spain’s expulsion, that “there is no demand for labour, and consequently the lower orders cannot scrape together money sufficient to purchase even the smallest luxuries,” and that barter was pervasive. Emigration for employment became a way of life; buses still leave the Isla Grande for southern Patagonia every day. But developments of the past two decades have improved the economy and reduced isolation. Ferries constantly shuttle across the Canal Chacao to the mainland, and salmon farming, despite serious environmental drawbacks, has brought a measure of prosperity. In summer, the tourist trade also makes a substantial contribution.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.