Castro (population 29,148), 88 kilometers south of Ancud via the paved Panamericana, is a central location for excursions throughout the Isla Grande. Its compact central grid occupies a broad plain above the Estero de Castro, a sheltered ocean inlet, while Avenida Pedro Montt curves around the shoreline at sea level.
The Isla Grande’s first urban settlement, picturesque Castro dates from 1567, when Martín Ruiz de Gamboa made it the base for evangelizing the archipelago’s southern Huilliche and Chonos populations. Despite the activities of Franciscan, Mercedarian, and Jesuit missionaries, it remained a poor and isolated backwater, subject to earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, and sacking by privateers.
On seeing the city in 1834, barely two decades after Chilean independence, Darwin found it “a most forlorn and deserted place.” Even in the early 20th century, Castro had barely a thousand inhabitants, and its isolation had fostered a distinctive townscape still characterized by its surviving palafitos, the stilted waterfront houses with their elaborately carved shingles. By 1912, a narrow-gauge railroad linked Castro with Ancud and the rest of the country, as farm products increased port activity.
The 1960 earthquake devastated the city, but salmon farming in the late 1970s began a recovery that has continued to this day. Improved ferry connections have brought regular tourist traffic of Chileans and foreigners, the latter mostly Argentines (at least until their recent economic crisis). A new community museum, under construction on the waterfront, promises to be a major attraction.
Most transport in and out of Castro is by land, but there are now ferries to the mainland port of Chaitén.
Most local and long-distance bus companies use the deceptively named Terminal de Buses Rurales (San Martín 667). Cruz del Sur (San Martín 486, tel. 065/632389) has its own terminal, also used by Turibús (tel. 065/632389) and Transchiloé (tel. 065/635152). Some companies have ticket agents at both locales.
Cruz del Sur goes south to Chonchi and north to Ancud and Puerto Montt, and offers continuing service to Santiago and intermediates. Transchiloé has similar routes. Several carriers go to Punta Arenas, including Queilén Bus (tel. 065/632173), Buses Pacheco (tel. 065/631188), and Turibús.
Naviera Austral (Av. Pedro Montt 48, tel. 065/634628, www.navieraustral.cl) sails the ferry Pincoya three times weekly to Chaitén. Fares range from US$22 pp for fixed seats to US$30 pp for reclining seats. Vehicle rates are US$125 for passenger vehicles or small trucks, plus US$11 for the driver, and US$33 per lineal meter for other vehicles; bicycles cost US$13 and motorcycles US$27.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition