Island in the Sea

The earth began to shudder.  The groaning of wood ripped through the cold dampness of the air.  The stilts that elevated the houses above the water began to vibrate and the reverberation spread across the brightly painted houses like waves.  Disturbed by the shifting tectonic plates, the sea water crashed against the wood and stone of the tiny island.  The rumbling trailed off lazily.  The earth groaned and returned to slumber, while the tiny damp island began to emerge from the mist of night and sea spray.  Ribbons of smoke floated from the chimneys of the rows of houses suspended above the sea, clouds of condensation escaped the mouths of the fishermen as they prepared their boats.  The boats steered into the frigid waves, the sun not yet risen, the shuddering of the earth already forgotten.

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La isla de Chiloé, is a small island in the south of Chile. One of the last bastions of the Spanish Empire in Chile during the fight for independence, and separated from the mainland, it is a drove of unique Chilean culture.  Famous for its “palafitos” houses suspended over the sea by stilts, incredible sea food and a myriad of intoxicating home-made liquors.

I travelled to Chiloé on whim, I had 5 days off from U de Chile and no plans so at 6pm on  Friday night I threw some stuff in my pack and jumped on the metro to the bus station, looked at the departure schedule and decide Chiloé is where I was going for the next few days.

The overnight bus was very similar to when I travelled to the Lake Region during my first month in Chile, I woke up to cold climate rain forests, the whole world was a blurred combination of green and grey, trees and mist.  We ferried across to the island, and I was the only one who battled the cold weather and rain to stand outside of the bus soaking up the salty ocean air, typical gringo.

We made it to the island and I got off the bus at Ancud, the first town inland.  I walked around the old stone streets that seemed to climb at impossible angles, like the whole village had erupted out of the sea.  Everything was damp and cold and grey, but absolutely beautiful, I was reminded of the town in England where my father is from, and felt like I was back there visiting my grandparents.  With most of my life strapped to my back I climbed up and down the  streets lined with hedges, brightly coloured houses and the smell of smoke and food, looking for a place to stay.

After about an hour I found a small wooden hostel situated on a point looking out over the sea and paid way too much for a tiny room stuffed in the back with no heat.  I survived on three packs of cookies for dinner to try and make my money last.  I visited some of the old churches that are considered UNESCO heritage sites, watched as the boats came in from a day of fishing and visited an old Spanish fort.

The next day I jumped on the first bus out of town to Castro, the main town on the island.  Upon arriving I got my first glimpse at the famous ‘palafitos’ and headed straight to the shore to find a hostel on stilts.  I paid for a bed in one of the dorms, tossed my stuff in a locker and started to explore the town.

Castro was awesome, it was as wet and cold as the rest of the island, but the air was so clean and invigorating.  After walking around the town I found a small restaurant where I had my first experience with Chilote sea-food, I ordered ‘paila marina’ a stew of mussels, oysters, clams, and salmon, it was delicious and of course I washed it all down with an Escudo.  Warm and full I headed back out into the damp cold to get some sleep at the hostel.

The next morning as I was walking out of the hostel a minibus came tearing down the street with a sign for the national park, I waved it down and jumped on, speeding through the island for an hour and a half and arrived at the Parque Nacional de Chiloe.  I spent the day drenched and cold walking through a cold-climate rainforest, but utterly enthralled by the beauty of the park, and the collection of trees that can only be found in the entire world within this park. After a few hours wandering around I returned back to the road and realized I had missed the last bus, with the sun about to go down I was lucky enough to get back through a combination of walking and hitching a ride.

I returned back to the same restaurant but this time ordered ‘Curanto’, a Chilote specialty, comprised of shellfish, chicken, pork, sausage, fish, all put into a leaf lined hole in the ground and covered with hot rocks from a fire, the result was probably one of the best meals I have ever had.  I returned to the hostel and met some American girls in my dorm who told me they had been in Chile for a few months and still hadn’t experienced a ‘temblor’ (mini earthquake), that Chile is famous for.  Luckily for them that night at about 4am we were all woken up by the shuddering of the ground and our hostel on stilts swaying violently over the ocean.

My last full day in Chiloé I jumped on a bus to Chonchi, a nearby town, where I sought out some of the homemade liquor Chiloé is famour for, specifically ‘liqour de oro’, gold liquor, an alcohol made from lemons and saffron.  I relaxed in the sleepy fishing town and watched as the boats brought back there days catch, before returning to the hostel to get some sleep before heading out early the next morning for Santiago.

Chiloé was my first real impulse trip, I fell in love with the idea of just picking up my pack and pointing a place on a map or on a departure schedule, the spontaneity and adventure that my trip to Chiloé created in me fermented and began to be the precedent for the rest of my travels throughout South America.

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