Or “Forlorn Islands at Worlds’ End” (& Report Card # 5)
It´s funny how all the islands we have visited around the globe seem to have one common factor. No one is in a hurry, life passes by at a much slower pace, people seem to be much more content and in touch with both the animals and nature around them. Maybe that is the reason why I become more peacuful when my feet touch the ground of an island, or maybe it´s just the fresher air, or the smell of grilled fish that makes my belly rumble with hunger. Or maybe I was just a stranded pirate in my previous life.... :-)
When people think of Chile, the island of Chiloe is not necessarily the first thing that comes to their mind. And this, although it is only about an hour away from Puerto Montt and the gateway to Patagonia. We decided to head to Chiloe in order to see a different side of Chile. No volcanoes, no shimmering lakes or luscious forests that beckon you to enter like in magical fairytales. Rather than that Chiloe is a place that is somewhat...untamed. It reminded me of another island we had once called home, Ireland, and another which we dreamt of calling home in the future, the Azores. But as with siblings, although all of them are somewhat alike, they are not the same. Chiloe is rugged, in places uninhabited, nature still very much in command. It has a haunted quality to it, as if the life that was led here was a remainder of an extinct past. It was the life from before, when fishermen still faced the sea on a daily basis, life was hard and simple, and neighbours knew each other by first name.
Dark rolling clouds roll in from the ocean, then passing the island on their way inland. We had the four seasons on our 25 minute ferry ride from the mainland to the island. Sea lions greeted us on the way as sporadic rays of sunlights touched the green hills of Chiloe.
Wild yellow flowers grow in spades along the roads and the fields like petals of the sun. Wooden houses flank the town squares like the one in Chacao.
The road to Castro, the island´s capital and largest city, is paved, although bumpy at times. Small rivulets of the ocean run alongside it, proof that no matter what man does, the ocean will always have its way.
Castro itself is not the islands highlight, but it does boast two extraordinary things that I hadn´t seen before - stilted houses and a church made entirely of wood. The church stands alongside the main square of the city. We didn´t have any luck as it was being refurbished on the day we were here, so the picture you see below is unfortunately not mine... :-(
The inside was beautiful. Built entirely from wood, it creaked with every step we took. It didn´t feel like a church at all, rather than like a vessel of the sea. A quick explanation showed us that the locals had built the church just like they built their boats. I thought to myself that this was genius, as in the event of an apocalyptic flood, all they had to do was enter the church and it would float like Noah´s arch!
The stilted houses are the second thing that makes Castro unique. Built on wooden stilts, these houses might not be the prettiest of them all, but they are certainly unique. When the tide comes in the water fills the space underneath these houses, making it seem like a boat from the outside. Again, this continuing theme of boats and the connection with the water was all around us. The locals could come back from the sea with the tide and just dock next to the living room. How genius is that?... :-)
The markets in Chiloe are what one would expect. Filled with local products like potatoes and other vegetables, the main event is the fish. Fresh, cured, smoked, whatever way you fancy, you get! I can`t say that this is for everyone, but it felt real, authentic and smelt like the ocean...
After Castro it was time to get away from the people, away from the hussle and bussle of the streets and to enjoy the one thing islands seem to have abundantly - silence. Dalcahue was the obvious answer. A small fishermans village just 20 minutes from Castro it had exactly what we needed - a much deserved lunch! We entered the local food market, their own version of a foodcourt. Just instead of McDonald, Pizza Hut and Taco stands we got two women preparing the local dish. There was no pretense that it was fancy, no waiter that was dressed like a penguin, no undesirable vegetable that solely exists to garnish (??) a plate. There was fish, and then some more fish. The fish was served with potatoes, no fries, taken directly from a huge pot like you see in movies from the early 19th century. The fish you might ask? So tender it fell off the fork. I could still feel it swimming in the ocean only hours before. What can I say? It was the best meal we had in Chile by far!
Dalcahue has a local handycraft market, beautiful views of the bay and another amazing wooden church. Even the dogs took a siesta as the sun banished the clouds for a couple of minutes. We strolled lazily through the village, content and happy. What else does one need?
It was in Chiloe that I felt the joy of the trip return bit by bit and for that, I will always remember this island fondly.
The day of our departure from Puerto Varas finally arrived. It was a Friday, and a rainy one at that. Thoughts of stormy seas and confinement to the cabin as we hurled our lunch dinner and breakfast in a brightly coloured symphony of vomit passed my mind, but I quickly pushed them aside, in the hopes that our luck would turn and Chile show us its prettiest side as a parting gift.
What can I say? Beautiful fjords, forlorn and haunted islands, majestic snow capped mountains, ice fields, crashing waterfalls and stormy seas – we had it all and more. And although not all of it was fun, I think that it definitely was an experience of a lifetime. But words cannot adequately describe the wild beauty we encountered in our journey to the end of the world, so I shall let the pictures speak for themselves and bring only two of my thoughts during the trip to paper:
“The wind was whistling harshly as we neared the ocean. Relentlessly it threw pellets of hail through the air like little grenades. The water was a black creature with white fins crashing ferociously into the ferry. As I stood on the front deck, squinting my eyes against the oncoming forces of nature, I wondered what I was doing here. Not here on this ferry in general, but here standing up close and personal with nature’s best sumo wrestler. It was cold and I cursed myself for those 5 kilo I had lost and which fat would have come in handy at this moment and probably stabilize my wobbly feet. My hands felt numb as the addicted Japanese in me took out the camera to snap yet another picture. I was almost the last one left on the deck everyone else enjoying the inside heat and the comfort of dryness. A couple of German schoolgirls on their way to the land of pneumonia were laughing beside me, only enhancing my grimace. They seemed to be oblivious to the hardship we faced but I know that this was only the naïveté of the young. In a few hours five meter tall waves would crash against the hull of the ship and turn the vessel into a barf-ride. My grimace hardened. I felt both thrilled and annoyed at my stubbornness to stay on deck – why did I stay in this godforsaken wind, my face numb, my hands covered in wet ice, taking picture after picture? I love the feeling of hardship knowing that the vegetation and animals of this place faced it every day and survived. It made me feel part of their achievement part of something larger than me. Yet at the same moment I yearned for the heat of the inside cabin, for the level ground of the mainland, for some sun. I was a Japanese torn between two worlds, so I did what any Japanese does best... I took more pictures.”
“Something was definitely wrong. My body was supposed to be standing straight yet I found myself wobbling like a teenage schoolgirl at a Bieber concert. My stomach was doing summersault, the half digested turkey we had for lunch trying a new trapeze act whilst flying through the pits of my digestive system. I was definitely close to hurling, ‘lift out’ at T minus 2 seconds, my throat getting ready to evacuation procedures. I am not prone to sea sickness but 5 meter high waves at open sea can get me running for the toilet bowl like anyone else. I asked myself why in god’s name we had chosen the sea route to go south instead of... well, even walking would be preferable! My face as white as a freshly bleached ghost, I looked at Ronni, and only saw the same hospital-green shade reflected in her face. Was anything beautiful enough to endure THIS? The upward speeding bile seemed answer enough. Shutting all exits and panting like a dog I waited for Ronni’s magic pill to start showing me its rainbows. And then, like in a typical Hollywood movie, in the last seconds of the countdown, I finally became stoned and the waves turned into jellyfish. The world was still rolling, but now I was happily rolling with it. Inhaling another magic pill before my head hit the pillow, I entered the beautifully deep, chemically-induced coma sleep that was filled with dancing elephants and the singing of Julie Andrews.”
Greetings from the end of the world!!
Now that we have finished Chile, and with it all its ups and downs, it is time to get it down on paper, or in other words, its Report Card:
Km conquered: 7200
Events: Chile´s independence day, comatose buttcheeks, robbery,
The people: I can´t say that I connected with the Chileans. With the exception of a few people I felt that they were somewhat abrupt, almost rude, and definately as not as warm and welcoming as what we had experienced until now . Although the police is not corrupt, a nice change to what we had so far, it was still incompetent and uncaring. Having said that, people still helped us when we got lost (one even stopped what he was doing and walked me to where I needed to go...!), and I guess if we had more Spanish we might have been able to get a better understanding of them.
The food: Not one of Chile´s specialities. Yes, we had great fish in Chiloe, and yes, the best empanada so far was in Caldera, but generally I felt that the food here was just bland. At least we got a taste of fresh vegetables again!
The land: I think this is what makes Chile so special. It is so diverse, the Atacama desert in the north, with its salt flats and beautiful moon valley. In the centre the wine valleys, and the strong Pisco we tasted in Elqui Valley. South of Santiago the Ring of Fire, with dozens of volcanoes and fairylike forests and lakes. Chiloe is unique by itself, its wild landscape the defined by the hard winds of the ocean. And in the south, Patagonia. Glaciers, mountains and the overall feeling of having reached the end of the world is an experience one does not forget.
Bottom line: Would we have liked Chile more if we had not been robbed? I can´t say for sure. When we were in Peru I felt an instant connection to the land, the people, the food. I felt "in the zone". I never got this feeling in Chile, even before that night in Pucon. The landscpae is beautiful, and Torres del Paine was supposed to be one of the highlights, so I think that we will return to this part sometime in the future, but then coming from Argentina filling up with wine, steaks, chocolates and ice-cream on the way!
Final part: The last 24 hours in Chile were an overall picture of what we went through. Due to high winds the landing of the ferry was delayed by 10 hours, we missed our bus to Punta Arenas, had to find a hostel in Puerto Natales in the depth of the night, woke up at dawn to the take the first bus (and last two available seats!) in order to catch our flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago and Auckland (talk about last minute exits!). The overall feeling was that things didn't go as planned and that Chile just didn't want to let us leave...:-)