CHILOE ISLANDS, CHILE – Every night, a legend appeared on my pillow at Tierra Chiloe hotel on these legend-enshrouded islands off Chile’s southern coast, so green they put Ireland to shame.
Avidly, I read that thousands of years ago, an evil serpent threatened to add Chiloe, then part of the mainland, to his underwater kingdom, and flooded it. But a kind serpent saved its people by helping them climb the hills, which she raised higher. She turned others into fish and seabirds.
Good finally triumphed over evil, and the Chiloe archipelago was born.
“Everyone believes in witches, who live in caves and can be invisible due to a magic cloak or turn into animals. But many people say it’s taboo to talk about them,” said my guide, Henrique.
I saw bookmarks about the many characters in Chiloe’s rich mythology in the crafts market in Castro, the biggest town on Isla Grande, the biggest island.
“The Spanish killed Mapuche shamans since they thought they were calling to the devil, but some live still.” Walking on Castro’s Ten-Ten Peninsula, I saw a sign noting it was named after the good serpent, Tentenvilu.
While I didn’t spot figures from legends on my stay, the views from Tierra Chiloe were legendary. The blue waters of the Dalcahue Channel, that endless green and wetlands, could be seen everywhere from floor-to-ceiling picture windows in my guest room, the restaurant and living room-like public areas, immersing me in nature. Sunsets were simply breathtaking.
On one of the many guided tours, included in the hotel price, I explored Castro’s palafitos, wooden and metal houses on stilts over the water. Painted in vivid primary colors like red, yellow, cobalt blue and green, many of these former fishermen’s homes are now small boutique hotels and restaurants.
One new boutique hotel, Sizigia, had guest rooms with sea views from so many windows you felt you were floating, plus a delightful shop with wood products from the islands’ many sheep. Another, Palafito del Mar, offered a beautiful view of the sea from a public room crammed with wool pillows and wall hangings.
I also saw the Chiloe islands’ most famous sights: unusual-looking 18th century wooden churches, designated as UNESCO cultural treasures, built for German Jesuit priests. On Quinchao, the second-biggest island, a gray-shingled 1735 church, Chile’s oldest, sported a wooden ceiling shaped like an inverted boat and blue and white wooden carvings by the altar. The seafaring islanders had no idea how to build churches, but were skilled in boat-building. Another rustic wooden church on the same island had a bright green shingled façade, like a palafito.
Seafood abounds here, and the signature dish is curanto, a stew of mussels, clams, meat, sausage and potatoes steamed with leaves. A cooked-in-a-pot version, pulmay, is widely available, and that’s what I had at Tierra Chiloe.
Chiloe islanders have always felt a distinct identity and isolated from the mainland, though on a map it looks nearby. “He who rushes loses time,” a Chiloe saying advises. Keep it in mind, as getting here takes a long, long time, but its remoteness of part of its charm. I flew to Santiago, Chile’s capital, on LATAM, then flew to Puerto Montt in the Lake District. Then, a three-and-a-half drive to Isla Grande awaited, including a car ferry — there’s no bridge — and then a two-hour drive from Chacao, the port, to my hotel. Seasonal flights Santiago-Castro exist, cutting the trip considerably, I noted wistfully; alas, they had no seats left.
I didn’t have time to see Parque Tantauco, a 250,000-acre nature reserve on Isla Grande, created by President Sebastian Pinera, who took office in March 2018 (a business magnate, he bought the land to preserve it forever). But, thanks to a book on it in the hotel library, I know what it looks like. The library also had a delightful book on local legends, written and illustrated by the general manager’s wife and small son.
After drinking Chilean wines from Matetic Vineyards and Lapostolle at Tierra, I journeyed to their wine regions, staying at outstanding boutique hotels both wineries owned. The Matetic hotel, La Casona, a Colonial-style mustard-yellow orange tile-roofed house, was flanked by beautifully manicured gardens, full of roses and irises. In my extra-big room adorned with prints of flowers, doors opened to even more gardens in back, with chairs to bask in the tranquility.
“Just like English gardens. It reminds us of Kew,” a British woman commented at lunch in the hotel’s octagonal restaurant overlooking a koi pond.
An hour’s drive northwest of Santiago in the Casablanca Valley, La Casona is seven miles from Matetic. The next day, I enjoyed a tasting of its premium line, EQ, ranging from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir to Syrah. The winery is owned by a Croatian family who came to Chile’s Patagonia region in the 1880s for the gold rush, and later moved north to Santiago.
At Lapostolle Residence in the Colchagua Valley, two hours south of Santiago, a different experience awaited me. Four sprawling casitas with huge terraces, way up a hill, commanded an expansive panorama of vineyards and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Started by a descendant of France’s Grand Marnier founder, the winery makes Clos Apalta, a Bordeaux-like blend of mostly Carmenere (Chile’s signature red grape), and Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Chardonnay, among others.
A drive around Lapostolle’s vast property the next day produced a delightful surprise: alpaca crossing signs. I begged to meet the herd, which the winery uses as lawn-mowers, moving the adorable animals around to eat the grass.
“For years we in Chile didn’t recognize what we have in the country — tourists re-opened our eyes,” hotel general manager Joaquin Larrain told me humbly, referring to gems like fjord-filled Patagonia, myth-drenched islands, the world’s driest desert to wine country.