Getting There

We left Puerto Octay early in the morning - the sun had risen to reveal Volcan Osorno wearing a close-fitting cap of cloud, but as we left this was expanding rapidly into a broad-rimmed sombrero. Other mountains also seemed to be generating cloud around them and there was change in the air. By the time that we reached Puerto Montt, the sky was overcast and the wind was picking up. By the time that we reached the ferry to the island, gusts whipped across the water and the first droplets of rain started to fall - welcome to Chiloe! Not that we wanted any better - the wild weather of Chiloe is part of its reputation and its attraction. Soon our bus was heading south again, through the green Chiloe landscape - green, that is, apart from the large splashes of yellow everywhere from the gorse in full bloom. The Chiloe through which we were passing was one transformed by human settlement and infested with this beautiful but noxious weed and, in over 100 kilometres from the ferry to Castro, there was not a single stretch of land that was free of it. My image of Chiloe as a wild and pristine environment was slowly evaporating.

Gorse in flower - the yellow blight of Chiloe

The west coast at Cucao - a bit closer to Chiloe as we imagined

The cathedral at Castro - many of Chiloe's
churches are heritage-listed

Still, there was hope, as from Castro, we caught a minibus to head across the island to Cucao, a tiny settlement on the isolated Pacific Coast - perhaps here we would find the "real" Chiloe, where trauca, picoya, brujos and other mythical creatures inhabit the forests and shorelines and the Caleuche sails the seas.

Cucao Coast Walk (17km - 30m ascent - 3m descent)

The weather on the west coast lived up to its reputation - all night long wind gusts rattled the windows and rain squalls swept through in waves. In the morning we donned full wet weather gear, gorros and gloves and set out to receive a wet welcome from a passing chubasco (shower). We wandered down the road from the bed and breakfast to the National Park.

Coastal forest

I metre flower spike of nalca

First view of the windswept west coast of Chiloe

Heath-covered coastal dunes of the National Park

In this weather, the idea of a two-day trek into the heart of the park had rapidly faded and we settled for a day-walk to experience the windswept western coastline. To get our bearings, we followed a short path through the back dunes, colonised with dwarf olivillo and arrayan trees, low shrubs and herbs, to a couple of viewpoints out to the distant surf pounding in from the Pacific. To the north and south the coastal dunes and hills faded into the mists of seahaze and low grey cloud. We chose to head north.

The route north was a gravel road, leading to the small indigenous community of Chanquin, a few houses and a tiny church in the Chiloe style. We followed it as far as a curious boat-shaped bridge across the outlet of Laguna Huelde.

As close as we got to the mythical Caleuche

Nello heads into the windswept dunes ...

...watched closely by a red-headed vulture

Chanquin church - a mini-version of the classic Chiloe style

A yacht or what? The bridge at Chanquin

From here we headed along a narrow track beside the outlet to have a better look at the lake and the forest-clad hills behind, watching the wind gusts sheet across the water surface. Backtracking to the bridge, we decided not to push any further into the face of the northwesterly and, instead, turned toward the sea across the rolling frontal dunes, where wind-blown grasses drew circles in the sand.

Laguna Huelde

West coast landscape

You never know who you might meet in the dunes

Sand circle drawn by wind

We soon reached the grey sand beach, scattered with clam shells and lined with spume. It was good to head south again with the wind at our backs, accompanied by the roar of the surf and the lonesome wail of gulls. The wind whipped frothy balls of spume along the beach, tiny dotterels raced in and out of the interwave zone to probe the sands for food between foaming surges, and gulls and vultures struggled into the wind or swept by with it, as we wandered along this isolated and desolate beach - it felt good to be here, overdosing on the negative ions.

A walk on the wild side

The odd lonely nalca

The long entrance of Laguna Cucao

Dotterels feeding in the interwave zone

Kelp gulls pushing into the wind

The wild dunes of Cucao

Pied oystercatchers

We followed the beach back to the entrance of Laguna Cucao, before deviating inland to cross back dunes covered with nalca, their metre-wide leaves and red flower spikes shooting from grey prostrate stumps. The river herded us back to the north, but on its protected side, where we crossed the bridge leading into Cucao village.

Sand being whipped across the dunes by the fierce wind

A field of nalca reshooting from old prostrate trunks

Back in the forest

Birds of the forest...

.... and of the lakes

From here we wandered down the road on the windswept side of the river to descend onto the beach once again and continue our southward walk. The beach was flatter, stonier and very exposed here and we found a large driftwood log to shelter behind for a bite of lunch - the sun even emerged briefly to join us, but was soon chased away by more cloud. To the south the cliffs approached the coastline and we could see small rockly islets through the seahaze.

Heading along the stony beach south of Cucao

Near the southern end of our walk

The wildness of Chiloe's west coast

However, before we could get there, our walk reached its southern limit when we found ourselves facing a stream cutting swiftly across the sand to flow into the sea. Not being the time for wet feet, we called it a day and headed back to the warmth of our B & B. It was a good decision - the rain squalls arrived just as we did, and it was much better watching the rain beat into the window panes over a hot coffee, then watching it beat into our faces over a cold nose.

We may have been thwarted in our original plans, but still we got the chance to experience the wild side of Chiloe - my impressions of the island were on the rise.

Our B&B - a good place to be on a stormy day

Chonchi and environs

Polychrome wooden church at Chonchi

We spent the next three nights at Chonchi, a small village south of the main town of Castro, and when not sitting in our seaside room, watching the sea-lions and dolphins hunting salmon in the channel alongside, used it as a base for more touristy explorations of the Chiloe.

Looking across to Isla Anchao from Chonchi

Our Chonchi backpackers

Brightly coloured shingle houses of Chonchi

More shingle houses in Castro

We explored the shingle houses of Chonchi and Castro, the palafitos lining the inlets of Castro on their ricketty stilts, the heritage-listed wooden and shingle churches with their unique architectural style, the Sunday market at Dalcahue and the smaller island of Quinchao, with its patchwork of farms (and gorse!) and small villages.


The palifitos of Castro


Fishing fleet at Dalcahue

Iglesia Dalcahue

Iglesia Curaco de Velez - isla Quinchao

The sun breaks out over Castro

The passing of the storm - Chonchi

The tides rose and fell, and the showers alternated with the sunshine, as we drifted into the quiet inertia of Chiloe. It was a pleasant few days, but as we headed off by bus for the mainland once again, through the farmlands, forest and gorse, I could not shake off a vague feeling of disappointment; for me, Chiloe was the first place that we had visited in South America where the reality was less than the expectation.

Post-storm ambience - Dalcahue