Tourism comes (slowly) to Chile’s best-kept secret
You’ve likely never heard of the island of Chiloé, in southern Chile, but Charles Darwin knew alll about it.
The island’s diverse ecosystem inspired the famed scientist to explore the area.
Much of what Darwin saw in 1834 you can still find today.
Bright green forests populate the entire western side of the island, a close-knit penguin colony makes its home on the north. Marine fauna includes blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea otters.
Because the island developed independently of the mainland, it was and remains largely free from the influences of colonialism and capitalism that marred the country’s modern big cities with a dull urban monotony.
The country’s second-largest island (8,394 square kilometers), Chiloé has a cool climate and fresh breezy air that offers a pleasant alternative to the dry heat of Chile’s big cities.
In a way, yes, but the island’s ancient legacy may be about to change at a pace Darwin himself could never have imagined.
New airport, new business
For years, Chiloé was a trek reserved for groups of Chilean senior citizens on tour buses, or young backpackers who didn’t mind the mind the 14-hour bus trip from Santiago to the coast, followed by a ferry journey.
But the mystical island brimming with one-of-a-kind sightseeing and adventure activities has recently gotten easier to access.
In November 2012, Chile’s LAN Airlines opened a one-terminal airport on the island and began flying from Santiago to Chiloé’s capital city of Castro (with a stop in Puerto Montt) with the goal of bringing tourism to the island in a big way.
Chiloé’s waters, coastline and culture are the main attractions.
Visitors explore the island’s rocky coastline in traditional wooden boats, and take pictures of its naval-inspired architecture.
Spanish Jesuits arrived on Chiloé in the 17th century and used local shipbuilders to construct their wooden chapels. The result is a land dotted with churches marked by domed roofs that have the structure of a ship hull.
Another Chiloé postcard image is of a strip of palafitos (brightly painted stilted houses). The stilts allow owners to work beneath their houses during low tides.
Many of these ancient houses are abandoned, but others are being turned into boutique hotels and restaurants.
Here come the foreigners: risks and rewards
The risks facing Chiloé are the same facing any developing tourism region, though ones that can be especially tough on island environments. Increased amounts of garbage and pollution -- which can be difficult and costly for islanders to dispose of -- are just one threat.
While tourism-related jobs are welcome, some fear the abandonment of traditional trades and loss of culture.
The influx of tourists on Chiloé remains limited, but for some, the drawbacks of tourism can far outweigh the benefits.
Enjoy Chiloé Resort and Casino is a giant complex overlooking a row of palafitos that many locals call an eyesore. Some, though, admit to enjoying a little more activity on the island.
In some ways, the new airport seems premature. The one-room building welcomes one flight a few times a week, yet its machinery often seems to be in disrepair and the small staff can be overwhelmed even with the few flights that pass through the gates.
On top of that, LAN charges foreigners far above domestic prices. A recent ticket booked on LAN.com from Santiago cost US$633. The same ticket booked within Chile costs about US$150.
“Just like Disney World in Orlando offers Florida residents local discounts, as a South America-based carrier, we offer a discounted rate to residents in our home markets on domestic routes,” explains Megan Kat Williams, marketing communications manager at LAN.
Much the island seems ill equipped to handle a large influx of tourists.
While there’s a wealth of activities and sightseeing on the island, there’s also a lack of local staff prepared to welcome foreigners. For many travelers, of course, this is precisely the reason to come to Chiloé.
Even the UNESCO-protected churches, which have drawn a stream of architecture buffs, are often closed unless previous arrangements have been made. Of about a dozen churches, only a few had anyone manning the doors on a recent trip, offering to give short tours in Spanish only.
The markets are full of fluffy wool products that smell just like the sheep from which they were recently sheared, and local yellow and green vegetable dyes. A warm wool sweater runs about US$30 and hand-knit socks go for about US$6 a pair.
With few exceptions, there’s no haggling in the markets, perhaps because stall owners are used to spendthrift backpackers.
But some have already gotten hold of a few English words, and it’s easy to imagine vendors soon chasing tourists with cries of “handmade,” “artisanal,” and “VISA/MasterCard!” while trying to hawk ponchos with uneven stitches.
Trying to do it right
In the small and picturesque capital of Castro, a new 12-room luxury hotel called Refugia may be an example of how tourism might develop in Chiloé.
The hotel is promoting what it calls a new program that could shape how visitors experience the island.
Refugia tour guide Caroline Peña Tondreau is integrating the hotel into the local community by offering visits to local houses to see traditional agriculture and communitarian economics.
“Responsible tourism is a monumental challenge in Chiloé,” says Tondreau. “It makes sure that the territory, the host community, the local people, culture, heritage, environment, become the core, the sense, the reason for tourism. Responsible tourism is tourism for the destination.”
It’s rare that Chilotes limit themselves to one trade. A family may have a hand in the fishing industry, make cloudy apple cider at home, harvest dozens of varieties of potatoes, sell fresh eggs, spin raw wool and knit scarves to sell at markets.
Money isn’t a focus on the island. In fact, most natives operate under a type of barter code called minga -- swapping services, instead of coins, with neighbors.
Even supermarkets often run on fiado, or credit, letting residents run up a list of items and pay at the end of the month. The financial system on the island makes spreading the tourism industry difficult to monetize.
Refugia itself is another ship-like example of local architecture. Its rooms all face the water and are decorated with Chiloéan local wool and handicrafts. A 20-minute drive from the new airport, the hotel includes all meals, which center around local seafood and purple potatoes.
The high price tag (US$530 per person, per night, based on double occupancy) includes all activities, from horseback riding through wetlands, visiting village houses, bird watching or touring the markets.
Palafito Hostel offers an alternative for backpackers interested a Chiloé experience in an authentic palafito. Rooms range from US$21 for a dorm-style room to US$89 a night for the wedding suite. Most rooms have an ocean view.
Local traditions are handed down by the island’s tribes: the Chonos, a nomadic seafaring tribe, and the Huilliche (part of the Mapuche population), who settled here from the mainland.
Instead of doctors, shamans prescribe herbal concoctions and perform rituals to cure simple afflictions. Instead of police, bodies of witches deal with everything from small disputes between neighbors to misbehaving animals.
Often, the desire to stay within a witch’s good graces keeps people in check.
In fact, much of the daily life on the island is explained by ancient mythologies. The Trauco is a forest dwarf who covers himself in bark and attacks virgins, a scenario often used to explain unwed pregnancies in villages.
The further away you get from the island’s main cities, the more intensely people are likely to believe in the mythology.
For Tondreau, the way to enjoy the island is to not have any expectations.
“Forget time and schedules, because you need to get into the Chilote rhythm,” she says. “The best way is to listen, to let local people guide you in your experience, to let them talk, to accept their hospitality.”
The message isn’t unfamiliar to those who like to be on the edge of travel trends.
If you’re willing to put up with a slowly developing infrastructure and a few unexpected hassles in exchange for a land of still-untouched beauty, Chiloé is a place best visited sooner than later.
Where to stay
Refugia, San José Playa, Casilla 217, Castro, Chiloé; +56 65 772 080; from US$530 per person, based on double occupancy, single; refugia.cl
Palafito Hostel, Ernesto Riquelme #1210, Castro, Chiloé; +56 65 531 008; from US$21 per night; palafitohostel.com