Colorful Stilt Houses, Teatime, and Seafood Cooked in Leaves

17 Feb

Chiloé Island is green and yellow rolling hills of farmland sprinkled with chalk white houses. Its capital Castro is a historical seaside town built on hills looming over an inlet of the Sea of Chiloé that separates the island from the Chilean mainland to the east. Chiloé has a distinctive history and culture that stem from its isolation from the mainland and are embodied in the unique architectural style of its homes and world heritage churches, a mix of indigenous carpentry and European design that was brought with the Jesuit missionaries tasked with evangelizing the island during the Spanish colonialism. The remarkable buildings are constructed entirely of wood native to the island and painted with uncommon colors that could only have been created on an artist’s palette.

The ferry from the mainland to Chiloé Island

Situated in northern Patagonia, the island’s weather is on the chilly side, even in the middle of summer, which meant I got to make full use of the hat, scarf, and gloves that were taking up room in my luggage.

A short bus ride from Puerto Montt and a short ferry ride over the Chacao Channel brings travelers to Ancud, a little port town on the northern tip of Chiloé Island. A road weaving up, over, and around the undulating countryside of grazing cows, wandering chickens, tall flaxen grass, squat moss green trees, and white wooden farmhouses connects Ancud to Castro.

The hills of Castro make for an exhausting run!

My first adventure in Castro was an exhausting but entertaining run up and down its steep hills of diversely hued houses, along the waterfront of traditional chilotan homes called palafitos, colorful wood-shingled bungalows built on stilts over the water, and past the drifts of fishing boats parked on the shores of the estuary that covers Castro’s coastline.

Some traditional chilotan houses called palafitos on Castro's waterfront

It was well past lunchtime when I emerged from my hostel after my run, feeling good about myself for actually having exercised and feeling clean and warm from my scorching hot post-run shower. I was absolutely famished.

Adorned with all the winter gear I had, I set off into the refrigerator air to find a place that could satisfy my extreme hunger. I darted into the first respectable looking eating establishment I could find, a friendly and comfortable café serving coffee, cakes, and local dishes.

Fishing boats parked on the shore of the estuary

I ordered “once” (pronounced “ON-say,” the Spanish word for “eleven”), Chile’s version of afternoon teatime that is traditionally eaten around 5pm, despite its name implying it should be eaten in the morning or shortly before bedtime. According to a local I conversed with, the name comes from the days when 19th century miners drank liquor with their post-work meal, in defiance of the restrictions on alcohol at the time, using the code word “11” to refer to the number of letters in the word for the type of liquor they drank (“aguardiente”).

Once, an afternoon meal of coffee, breads, marmalades, honey, cheese, meats, avocado

My waiter piled my table with bread, jam, marmalade, honey, brie, prosciutto, avocado, sweet bread, and coffee. I slowly began to devour every last morsel until I was positively stuffed. What sounds like just a bit of food individually really adds up when it is all eaten together.

I walked off my full stomach through the center of town to the Plaza de Armas and its bordering architectural masterpiece, the pale yellow wooden San Francisco Church, and up to a hilltop mirador (a lookout point), from which there was a bird’s-eye view of the Palafitos Gamboa, a famous street of the colorful wooden stilt houses  in the Gamboa neighborhood in the outskirts of Castro.

The Palafitos Gamboa from a hilltop mirador

My day of exploration ended at Castro’s portside artisan market, where I browsed flashy wool sweaters, homemade liquors and jams, wooden home decor, and other impressively made handicrafts.

The next day, it was time to venture out to see some of the other islands in the Chiloé Archipelago. A tour bus first took me and a dozen other curious tourists to the artisan haven of Dalcahue, where we browsed aisles of artisan wares at the seaside market and perused the artisan boutiques along the small town’s waterfront.


The group then hopped onto Gladys, our lancha that would chug across the Sea of Chiloé, winding around tiny islands and coastlines of salmon and mussel farms, to Isla Mechuque. Upon our arrival, a dinghy shuttled us to shore where a local family welcomed us into their yard for a traditional chilotan lunch speciality, curanto.

Our hosts removing the tarp to reveal a pile of huge leaves

A canvas tarp was covering a mound on the ground. We watched as our hosts removed the canvas to reveal a pile of huge leaves. They lifted the leaves from the pile one by one, and there was our lunch layered between the leaves. Mussels, clams, pork, sausage, and chicken, and something called chapalele, potato bread soaked in pork grease deliciousness, were placed on steaming hot rocks in the hole, covered with these oversize leaves, and slowly cooked until they were ready for us to gobble up.

A stone street twisting through the Mechuque village

Full of meat, seafood, potatoes, pico de gallo, and wine, we reembarked Gladys and headed to a quiet village on Mechuque. (Quiet, that is, except for the agitated bleating emanating from a sheep that was scurrying around in circles in a local yard.)

The main street in the village is a stone pedestrian-only path that twists by a sky blue church, over a red and turquoise wooden bridge above an inland waterway, and around little farm-like yards enclosed by picket fences. After a quick stroll along the tranquil street, I realized I was parched. Luckily, some enterprising locals had set up a mini cafe in the kitchen of their tourmaline green palafito and sold me a tall cup of heavenly fresh squeezed peach juice.

The Iglesia de Tenaún

Back in Gladys, we boated to Tenaún, a long street of dilapidated houses neighbored with meticulously kept and creatively painted mansions, giving the town a sort of pleasantly eerie ghost town ambiance. The royal blue and white Iglesia de Tenaún stands tall on one edge of the street, its portico boasting a set of blue stars. The exceptional all-wood construction of the church led to its designation as a world heritage site along with another fifteen of Chiloé’s churches.

An intimidating rain storm had arrived when we returned to Castro, so I dashed back to my hostel for a warm, dry night of watching the Chilean WB channel.

Now, I’m going up to the adventure capital of Chile, Pucón!


One Response to “Colorful Stilt Houses, Teatime, and Seafood Cooked in Leaves”

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