A mythical adventure on Chiloé Island

A secluded archipelago in southern Chile, filled with mysterious tales, wolf-like mermen and ghost ships at every turn.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY MARCK GUTT

5 min read

Right where continental Chile fades into deep fjords and majestic glaciers, the country’s largest island lies in a world of its own. Without a single bridge connecting Chiloé to the mainland, this isolated archipelago sits 1,100 kilometres south of Santiago and has distinct cultural and natural features that can’t be found anywhere else in the country.

Like most people who visit Chiloé Island, I embarked on my trip in search of boat-shaped churches and ancient rainforests. Instead, what I found was something very different. While spotting endemic birds and trekking to cascading waterfalls, I found I was being followed by tales of unexpected creatures. How unexpected? Well, there’s the Camahueto for starters, an underground unicorn-like bull with a grim face and appetite for humans.

As soon as I set foot in Castro, the main port and largest city on Chiloé’s Isla Grande, I realise that I’m in good company. It takes a single conversation with a Chilote for mythical creatures to steal the scene. Legends and folklore are woven into the local culture here. Try asking a Chilote for places to try local delicacies like cochayuyo (edible algae) and you’ll end up with more information about rooster-headed snakes than restaurants.

Wild potatoes for sale at a market in Castro.

Wild potatoes for sale at a market in Castro.

Ships moored in Castro, the main port and largest city on Chiloé’s Isla Grande.

Ships moored in Castro, the main port and largest city on Chiloé’s Isla Grande.

It was on my way to visit the famous stilt houses of Castro when I first heard of the Caleuche, a legendary ghost ship that sweeps the archipelago luring sailors. “Just make sure you stay away from the shore, especially after sunset.” I’m told.

The warning wasn’t entirely metaphorical and could be the echo of an ancient memory. The Chilote are an eclectic mix of indigenous Huilliche and Chono people. They are descendants of Spanish colonisers who ran away from independentist Chileans, and they take their myths very seriously.

The Chilote are an eclectic mix of indigenous Huilliche and Chono people...they take their myths very seriously.

The Chilote natives are an eclectic mix of indigenous Huilliche and Chono people, who spend their entire lives around water.

Wolf-faced merman

Favoured by the many hotels and local businesses found in Castro, the Isla Grande monopolises the region’s tourism trade. The city’s colourful palafitos and traditional markets are deservedly popular attractions. But to get a better view of Chiloé Island, you need to sail along its secluded bays and passages. It’s among the smaller islands and lesser-visited towns where you’ll find the truly stunning scenery and charming local communities.

We head to Isla Mechuque, one of more than 30 islands that make up the archipelago. Northeast of Castro, the urban landscape gives ground to black sand beaches, sheer cliffs and remote fishing villages. Disembarking, I wander the colourful streets of town. Usually I’d get lost, but luckily Mechuque is too small for that, so I have time to travel through the island’s past in the Museo Don Checo, an old stilt house turned local museum.

The boat-shaped, colourful architecture of Castro.

Back on board, it was time to get my binoculars and camera ready. Under normal circumstances, I’d keep my eyes open for South American fur seals and black-necked swans. But the magic of Chiloé has got to me, so I find myself looking out for more ethereal creatures like the terrifying Cuchivilu, a monstrous pig-faced fish, or the Millalobo, a handsome wolf-faced merman. And as we sail through the cool waters of the Pacific, I hope that the next species I cross off my list will be the enchanting merman the ship’s captain told me about.

Seals play and wait for fish scraps in the port.

Seals play and wait for fish scraps in the port.

Chiloé is a beacon for wildlife - especially birds - just off the coast of Chile.

Chiloé is a beacon for wildlife - especially birds - just off the coast of Chile.

Chiloé is renowned for its stunning waterfront architecture and churches.

Forest goblins

Now fully aware of the frightening underwater monsters that guard the archipelago’s waters, I decide to try my luck inland instead. First, I visit a collection of remarkable churches which resemble boats.

Catholic churches like this one in Castro, are iconic parts of Chiloé’s culture and landscape.

Devoted to the sea, the local craftsmen knew how to build long lasting ships. And now, along with the feared Caleuche, the inverted wood boat hulls that house Catholic churches are iconic parts of Chiloé’s culture and landscape. With my faith restored, it was time to pursue greener spaces and I knew exactly where to go. A few days earlier someone mentioned the conservation work of Elena Bochetti, a local naturalist and defender of forests.

When in Chiloé, you'll hear stories about the terrifying Cuchivilu, a monstrous pig-faced fish, or the Millalobo, a handsome wolf-faced merman.

Her name led me to the trails around Lago Huillinco, the largest lake in Chiloé. Amidst clear waterfalls, fluorescent lichens and ancestral ferns, we hike hoping to spot some of the archipelago's renowned wildlife.

Waterfalls permeate every corner of Chiloé National Park.

Waterfalls permeate every corner of Chiloé National Park.

Immerse in the vibrancy of South America