Colourful houses built over water
Architecture,  Chile,  Culture & tradition

Chiloé: a place of witches and gnomes

Islands are often special places, removed as much in their culture from the mainland as they are physically separate from it. Chiloé is no exception.

Chile’s second largest island, and the fifth largest in South America, Chiloé is a place of soft green hills, wild coasts and homely architecture. It is famed for its wooden churches, sixteen of which are UNESCO listed. But its people still more than half believe in the witches, ghost ships and forest gnomes that inhabit its mythologies.

We came to Chiloé with high hopes of seeing two things, penguins and churches. In the event, we saw none of the former, and fewer of the latter than I had hoped. But we had found a special place nevertheless, and seen a very different side to Chile.

Chacao

Most people arriving on Chiloé by ferry will quickly head towards one of the main centres, Ancud or Castro. But when our guide Jorge suggested a short stop in the small village of Chacao we were glad to agree. And around its main square we found some picturesque wooden houses as well as an interesting church, Iglesia San Antonio. While the latter isn’t one of the 16 UNESCO listed churches of the island, it is well worth a visit. Dating originally from 1710, it has a simple cream-painted interior with wooden statues of saints.

Statue of Christ on a wall
Statue of a saint in blue and white robes

In the Iglesia San Antonio de Chacao

Chacao has a population of just 450 (2002 census) and is a sleepy place. But back in the mid seventeenth century, under the Spanish rule, it was the main military base on the island; hard to imagine now.

Mythology of Chiloé

As we drove around Chiloé Jorge shared some of the stories of this place, whose isolation from the mainland has given rise to many unique beliefs. Just as in similar places elsewhere in the world (Iceland sprang to my mind), even today many inhabitants believe, or at least half believe, in the mythical creatures that feature in these stories.

Green field and simple fence
Typical Chiloé landscape

These include witches, or brujo. On Chiloé the witches are all male and are said to live in a cave near the village of Quicaví. According to the Rough Guide, to become a witch:

‘an individual must wash away baptism in a waterfall for forty days, assassinate a loved one, make a purse out of their skin in which to carry their book of spells and sign a pact with the devil in their own blood, stating when the evil one can claim their soul.’

Their cave is guarded by the Invunche, a goat-eating monster and their messages carried by the Voladora. The latter is a woman who transforms into a black bird at night by vomiting up her internal organs (charming!) Her cries bring bad luck to all who hear her.

No more appealing is Trauco, a troll who lives in the forest. He dresses in rags and carries a club. His breath is said to make him irresistible to women. Hnd hence he is blamed for any unexplained pregnancy on the island! The men of the island fare no better, as they are susceptible to the questionable charms of Fiura. She has bad breath, dresses in moss and bathes in woodland waterfalls. There she seduces young men before driving them insane or causing deformities.

How the island was formed

One of the most important stories tells of the formation of the island. Two giant serpents, vilus, were locked in battle: Cai cai Vilu (representing the force of water) and Ten ten Vilu (the strength of the earth). Cai cai raised the level of the seas, covering the land and drowning people. Ten ten responded by lifting up the land so that the people would be saved. Ten ten won the battle and in so doing created the archipelago of Chiloé with its rolling hills.

Puñihuil

Black and white photo of beach with rocks offshore
The beach at Puñihuil

From this beautiful beach on the island’s west coast, zodiac boat trips ferry tourists to the nearby off-shore islets which make up the Islotes de Puñihuil Natural Monument, to see the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins that nest here. Or at least, that is the theory. When we visited on a drizzly foggy November morning, all trips were off, by order of the Chilean Navy who deemed it unsafe. Jorge seemed to regard this as a not uncommon situation. However I’ve seen no reference to the trips being weather-dependent in guide books.

As you can imagine, we were somewhat disappointed, especially as seeing the penguins had been our main driver for visiting Chiloé. But there was nothing to do but make the best of the situation. And as we both like our beaches wild and scenic there was consolation in taking photos here. We also met possibly the friendliest cat we have come across on our travels. And we enjoyed some tasty empanadas in the café overlooking the beach.

Ancud

Ancud is the former capital of Chiloé, having held that position from 1768. But in 1982 the capital was moved to Castro because of its more central position on the island; something that the inhabitants of Ancud still resent, according to Jorge. Many of its historical buildings were lost to an earthquake in 1960. But there are still some interesting sights to explore, of which we visited two.

The Feria Municipal

First on the list was a stroll through Ancud’s market, the Feria Municipal. This is an enclosed market with two floors of stalls, most selling produce of various kinds. It is very much a locals’ market, not a tourist one.

Stallholders with vegetables on display
Vegetable stall

Jorge pointed out some of the produce particularly typical of this part of Chile. These included various seaweeds and an odd-looking vegetable, gunnera, commonly known as Chilean- or Giant-rhubarb. Locals eat the tender young stalks and leaves of the plant, which are called ‘nalcas’ in Spanish. And they use the larger leaves in preparing the local dish of curanto. To make it seafood, meat and vegetables are layered in a deep hole in the ground. At the base of the hole are placed hot stones, creating a sort of natural ‘pressure cooker’.

On some stalls, we saw an assortment of unusually coloured potatoes. Chiloé is said to have over 400 varieties and to have been the original genetic source of the humble potato; a claim unsurprisingly disputed by Peru.

Stall selling vegetables and other produce
Produce stall
Centro de Visitantes Inmaculada Concepción

Our other main stop in Ancud was at this fascinating museum in a former convent, the 1875 Convento Inmaculada Concepción. It is dedicated to the island’s 16 UNESCO listed wooden churches and has wooden scale models of them all. These show the intricate woodwork in some detail, enabling you to appreciate the workmanship that went into their construction. There are also a number of artefacts taken from the churches for restoration or preservation. They include wooden statues, panels, window frames and other details. Signage was unfortunately only in Spanish but there were diagrams that help to explain some of the restoration processes.

Dalcahue

Dalcahue is one of the smaller towns on the island, lying on the east coast a little north of the capital, Castro. It is home to one of the island’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage listed churches but is also worth visiting for its pretty waterfront setting, market and some colourful wooden houses. The town is named for the traditional boat of Chiloé, the dalca; Dalcahue means ‘place of dalcas’.

We started our stroll around the town down by the water. The sun had put in a brief appearance, for the first and only time that day, and the views across to the small island of Quinchao across the channel were very pretty.

Small boats in a bay
Views towards Quinchao

Right by the water is the Feria Artesanal. This is considered one of the best places on the island to buy handicrafts such as traditional woollen jumpers, hats etc., although I resisted temptation (for once!)

Market stall with woollen rugs and slippers
Stall in the Feria Artesanal

From here we walked along the street that follows the waterfront, Pedro Montt. This has a number of the old painted shingled buildings that I loved to photograph.

Two men outside a simple red painted shop
In Dalcahue
Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores
White wooden church with pale blue roof
Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores

One of our objectives in devoting a day of our Chile trip to Chiloé was to visit some of its 16 UNESCO World Heritage listed wooden churches. The first on our schedule was that dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores in Dalcahue. This dates from 1849 and was restored very recently, in 2015. It is unusual among the island’s churches in having nine arches to its porch (most have five, a few have seven).

Its most famous sight however is inside, where a painting of Christ shows him surrounded by some of the mythological creatures of Chiloé. This was a deliberate move by the Jesuits to stimulate conversion of the island’s people by linking their indigenous beliefs to Catholicism. And it worked.

But there was just one problem for us. Having asked local company ProTours to plan a day out for us that would include some of the churches, we were disappointed to arrive here with Jorge and find the church locked. He did try to find someone who could open it for us, but to no avail. It seemed that it was only open in the mornings (if at all). Frustrating, but there was nothing we could do about it, apart from hope that we would find other churches open to us.

Castro

Our next attempt to visit one of the UNESCO listed churches was in the island’s capital, Castro. We had been warned already that the Iglesia de San Francisco was closed for restoration. But the exterior alone is well worth a look, not least for its colour scheme of bright yellow walls and purple roof turrets. I have certainly never seen a Catholic church anywhere else painted in such gaudy colours!

Bright yellow wooden church with purple spires
Purple shingled spire with white window frames and cross

Iglesia de San Francisco

There has been a church in Castro since 1567. It was then that the Jesuits chose the town as their religious centre for the island. That original church, which was dedicated not to St Francis but to St James, was twice destroyed in attacks by Dutch corsairs. It was with the arrival of the Franciscans in Castro that the first church dedicated to San Francisco was built on this site.

The current church dates from 1912. It was a replacement for an earlier one on this spot which had burned down in 1902, and which itself had replaced an even earlier one which also burned down (in 1857). If there seems to be a theme emerging here, it is one that remains relevant today. Even as we looked at the frontage of the present-day church we could see to its right an empty corner plot where another building (a shop I believe) had been recently lost to fire.

Unlike the other churches on the island, this is in a more conventional neo-Gothic style. It was designed by an Italian architect, Eduardo Provasoli, and built by local carpenters using native woods such as larch and cypress. Its two towers stand 42 metres high and each contains a bell.

Palafitos

Castro is one of the best places on Chiloé to see palafitos. These were once the traditional homes for most of southern Chile’s fishermen. The wooden structures have their frontage on a street like regular houses. But at the back thay jut out over the water on stilts. This allowed the fishermen to tether their boats to the stilts and to come and go easily directly from their home to the fishing grounds.

Colourful houses built over water
Palafitos

Today they are technically illegal, I assume for safety reasons. But this hasn’t stopped many people in Castro from restoring them as homes or, increasingly, as hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation.

Nercón

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Gracia

Having tried, and failed, to gain access to the church in Dalcahue, Jorge proposed instead a visit to Nercón where he was confident he would be able to track down a key holder for the church if necessary. Nercón is a small village on the outskirts of Castro, about four kilometres to the south. Its church, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, is one of Chiloé’s UNESCO-listed ones. It dates from 1887/88 and was restored in 2012. Like many of the island’s churches it was constructed mainly in larch and cypress, although some other more easily available woods were used in the restoration, causing some controversy. It is in a style very typical of the island’s wooden churches, with five arches supporting its front porch and a single tower above.

Wooden church with cream and blue porch
Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Gracia, Nercón

Jorge’s confidence that we would get to see the inside proved correct. As it happened, the local woman who holds the key (who lives in one of the houses opposite the church, I think) was already showing two other visitors around the church when we arrived. When they left she joined us to give some explanations, which Jorge translated. The simple interior has a few decorative touches, most noticeably the columns which, though wood, are painted to look like marble (at first glance – they don’t pay closer inspection!)

The other main feature worth looking out for are the various statues of saints. Most are dressed in fabric as is traditional all over Latin America. The figure of St Michael the Archangel with a demon at his feet, to the left of the altar (first photo below), is notable for being carved from a single piece of wood (both saint and demon, that is).

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Our local guide pointed out that it is possible to climb some steps to the organ loft above the main door. Up there you get a good view of the church. You can also access a narrow corridor that runs between the inner barrel roof and the outer tiled one, and thus see the construction of the former in close detail. This gives you a good appreciation of the work that went into all these wooden churches, not just this one. It’s a good place to end our day’s tour of Chiloé.

I visited Chile in 2016

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