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food / travel

A Trip To Chiloe, The Island At The End Of The World

Sebastian Schoepp

PUNTA PIRULIL - You probably couldn’t live any further west than Don Orlando does.

He lives in Punta Pirulil on the western edge of the green island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile. In his book In Patagonia, British writer Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) described Chiloé as an island of “black storms and black soil.”

Until recently, the storms were one of the reasons it was so difficult to get out to Don Orlando’s place -- to his pale yellow wooden house, with its vegetable patch, geese and chickens, and blackberry bushes.

Now there’s a road that runs through the mountains which, not only makes it easier for him to go shopping or to the doctor in nearby Cucao, but also attracts more visitors.

A rocking chair is beside the window that looks out to the ocean and Don Orlando says his favorite thing to do is look out to see the marine life -- whales, black and white Commerson’s dolphins, Humboldt penguins, Patagonian sea lions, fur seals and Magellanic Flightless Steamer ducks (yes, that’s really what they’re called!).

On the other side of the body of water, some 8,600 kilometers away, lies New Zealand. Somewhere out there the west stops and the Far East begins.

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photo: gpoo

Orlando gives us a tour of his home, where animal skins decorate the walls. Some of his favorite topics of conversation are things that would make an animal conservationist speechless. He kills Darwin foxes and Chilean wildcats -- a kind of bonsai leopard -- before they even can think about sinking their teeth into his flock of sheep. Another collection he’s particularly proud of are fossils he has found in the estuary of the copper-colored river that runs beneath his window.

Don Orlando says that the “Springboard to Heaven” is not far from here and suggests that we go and see it. As we leave his house, we cross a wooden bridge that has seen better days, past the pans that his sons use to wash pieces of gold out of the sand, climbing up through the damp, misty forest where flowering plants and wind-bent trees are abundant. It’s here that the last Huilliche live -- Chiloé’s natives -- who survived the appropriation of their land by Spanish colonists and Chilean settlers.

In Huilliche mythology, the end of the earth is where the ferryman Tempilcahue waits for the souls seeking to get into heaven. To aid the dead to get to Tempilcahue, an artist named Chumono built a wooden ramp -- the aforementioned “Springboard” -- on Don Orlando’s property that fast-tracks souls into the nothingness beyond the Pacific. This Springboard is beloved by esoteric folks who come here to meditate. Some weep, others say that they can feel their soul wafting across the water. Either way, the springboard brings a nice little bit of extra income for Don Orlando.

Darwin's observation

People also come to animal-watch here -- there are plenty of species unique to Chiloé, like the Rufous-legged owl, the pudú (the smallest deer in the world), mountain monkeys, and the Chilean shrew opossum.

Charles Darwin visited the island in 1834, and wrote that it was just one big forest with a visually pleasing variety of green tones, where winters were dreadful and summers only marginally better. He noted that whilst the natives had enough to eat, they were desperately poor because they had no way of earning any money.

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photo: Sylvia Pef

The Chiloeans remained loyal to Spain for eight years after Chilean independence was granted in 1826, so the young country punished the island with complete isolation. Even up until the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) opponents of the regime were sent here in exile, as writer Isabel Allende described in her 2012 novel Maya’s Notebook.

Even so, as often happens, a place once considered inadequate, became celebrated. The island has astonishing vegetation, concrete is almost non-existant, and the wooden architecture, including many churches, are on UNESCO world cultural heritage lists and this makes Chiloé attractive to visitors. In 2012 the New York Times put the island on its list of 45 places to visit quickly before they become overrun with tourists.

Current Chilean President Sebastian Piñera -- who owns property on the island -- feels differently about the isolation of the archipelago, and now the government is on track to develop Chiloé, and fast. Soon it will be linked to the mainland by the construction of the first commercial airport. Of course, this has been highly criticized by the residents here, who fled Santiago’s neoliberal society to settle here, where they’ve opened up small hotels, come to take care of the penguin colonies, rent kayaks, and offer their services as guides. People like Fernando Claude and his wife, who rent out holiday huts, rely on sun and wind energy as much as possible.

Claude recommends kayaking at the crack of dawn, when the reflections in the water take on aspects of characters in the island’s myths. It’s said that the Brujos -- the warlocks who are the real rulers of the island -- meet regularly in a cave near the east coast village of Quicavi.

In Ancud, we asked the owner of a snack place for directions to Quicavi but he said, “no way”. Outsiders are kept away from this cave area by powerful invisible energies against which not even the most powerful SUV stands a chance, much less our small rental car. So, we decided to swap magic and myth for a plate of crabs caught straight from the sea. You’d be hard pressed to find another place on the planet with crabs as fresh and tender as they are here, at the end of the world.

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