Ghost ships vie with spectacular birdlife and historic UNESCO churches on the “Isla Grande de Chiloe”, the second largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the continent. Overlooked by most visitors, the islands are linked to the mainland via a short ferry journey to Pargua, close to Puerto Montt, and offer a compelling contrast to the national parks of Chile’s high Andes. Rolling hills of old-growth forest tumble onto wild Pacific beaches and rocky crags while the sheltered east coast harbours colourful fishing villages, rich in tradition under the distant shadow of the Andes.
Settled in 1558, the islands rose to prominence as Chile’s second port along the transatlantic trade route which took ships through the Straits of Magellan up to the west coast of the Americas. However, the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 soon transformed the face of world shipping and cut the island off from its lifeblood. The devastating earthquake of 1960 finally reduced the last traces of former glory to rubble and today the islands depend on the traditional industries of fishing, farming as well growing tourism.
For visitors, the islands offer a fascinating mix of history, tradition and nature. Colourful “palafito” houses, constructed on stilts over tranquil bays, sit alongside 16th century wood-shingled churches while the roaring Pacific offers spectacular cliff top walks and thriving colonies of penguins, parakeets, sea lions and flamingo. Chiloe sits at the heart of Chile’s rich folklore, an island awash in sea-faring myths and legends. Dragons and phantom ships patrol the seas while deformed creatures (“traucos”) haunt the forests ever looking for maidens to seduce (a welcome story for unwanted pregnancies!).