Chiloe: Chilean Patagonia’s emerald islands offer eco- and agritourism

I can’t remember who first told me about Chiloe, but I do recall that it was just a few weeks before my first trip to Chilean Patagonia. For a year I’d been planning an itinerary around my personal Holy Grail: rafting the thunderous Futaleufu River.

Located across the Chacao Channel from the bustling town of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, Chiloe is a 41-island archipelago. The largest of these is Isla Grande (“Chiloe island”), at 3,241-square-miles the second-largest in South America, after Tierra del Fuego. In 2009, Chiloe was ranked #3 on Lonely Planet’s “Best Places to Visit,” so it’s no longer a secret, but its relatively isolated location, sleepy pace, and often-tempestuous maritime climate tend to appeal to more intrepid travelers.

Chiloe was originally inhabited by Mapuche, Chonos, and Cunco indians, until the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500′s. The blending of indigenous and Catholic beliefs gave birth to superstitions and mythological creatures like the troll-like Trauco. These fanciful beliefs and icons are still a popular part of Chilote culture.

Located in Chile’s Lakes District–a breathtaking palette of cobalt-blue glacial lakes, emerald fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, and native alerce forest–Chiloe’s rural way of life is a direct reflection of its fishing and farming economies. While many of the archipelago’s 130,00 residents still subsistence farm, a low-key brand of eco-tourism has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

Flocks of sheep, not cars, clog the (frequently unpaved) roads, and ox carts, horse, and donkey are the alternate forms of transportation. Milk cans sit at the head of rutted driveways, awaiting pick-up from the dairy co-op. Brightly-painted palafitos (shanty towns on stilts) resemble children’s blocks, and colorful, handcrafted wooden fishing boats dot the coast or repose onshore. Many of the 150 Jesuit-built, 19th century churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Miguel A. Gallardo]

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Many visitors choose to sea kayak or do live-aboard boat tours of the fjords and inlets of the archipelago, which is perhaps the best way to take in the spectacular scenery and surrounding views of mainland volcanoes. Land tours, however, provide a more intímate cultural experience, especially for those wanting to experience Chiloe’s nationally-famed cuisine.
Chilean Patagonia has a strong European influence due to German, Swiss, French, Welsh, and Yugoslavian immigrants that arrived in the mid-1800′s to establish small farmsteads, which is reflected in the hearty regional food. Many farmers still make their own cheese, jams, and charcuterie, and keep bees. As a result, agriturismos (farmstays) have grown in popularity the last 15 years, which supplements the island economy.

The mystery acquaintance who suggested I visit Chiloe told me to contact Britt Lewis and Sandra Echegaray, the husband-and-wife owners of Ancud-based Austral Adventures. Britt is from the States, while Sandra, a chef, grew up on a farm in Peru. She prepares all of Austral’s land-based meals from Chiloe-grown ingredients, including potatoes (which originated on the island, not Peru, a fact that Chilotes are understandably proud of), as well as mussels, clams, fish, sea urchin, lamb, cheese, orchard fruits, vegetables, honey, seaweed, and foraged native foods like murta, a wild berry used in jams and sauces.

Austral specializes in eco-tours aboard Cahuella, a 50-foot wooden boat. Their six-day live-aboard trips around the archipelago’s fjords, and four-day journeys along the northern fjords of Parque Pumalin (across the Golfo de Ancud) are considered “one of the five unique boat journeys in the world,” by the U.K. Guardian’s travel section. The couple also guide personally-tailored land tours that focus on Chiloe’s culture, food, wildlife (which includes whales and penguins) and outdoor activities such as hiking and paddling. Austral provides guides on all of its tours “to enhance the cultural exchanges.”

After corresponding with Sandra, I immediately rearranged my itinerary, carving out five days on Chiloe. She made a plan to take me around the main island, where we would stay at several of her favorite agriturismos, and attend a curanto. This beloved Chilote social event is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau (via Easter Island). The food is traditionally cooked in a pit covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. No curanto is complete without Chilote music and dancing, copious amounts of red wine, chicha (fermented fruit cider, usually apple), and pisco sours. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, and can’t find a curanto to attend, look for a restaurant that offers “pulmay,” or “curanto en olla (in a pot).” It’s not the same experience, but it will allow you to try the foods for which Chiloe is famous.

Chiloe is connected to the mainland by ramps that have been built in the channel to form a motorway. The easiest way to get there is to fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt (LAN is the country’s main international and domestic carrier, but other domestic airlines include Aerosur, Aerolineas Star Peru, and Taca) then take a bus. There are terminals in the main towns of Ancud (North island), the capital of Castro (East coast), and Quellon (end of the road on the southeastern coast), but you can get off in any of the villages en route. Ancud has two bus terminals. Cruz del Sur, the long distance operator, is convieniently located near the Plaza de Armas. The municipal terminal is on the outskirts of town.

It’s about a 54-mile bus ride from Puerto Montt’s bus terminal to Ancud. Chiloe operates on a much slower pace than the rest of the world, but Ancud is a fairly busy, pleasant place to unwind for a couple of days. There’s an indoor marketplace where you can find produce, artisan foods, and handwoven Chilote wool sweaters. I spent night at the charming Hostal Mundo Nuevo, a Swiss-run place right on the bay. For dining, Sandra and Britt recommended Mascaron de Proa (65-621-979, and Casamar (65-624-481). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to either due to time constraint and getting sidetracked by a nameless empanaderia off the Plaza de Armas.

The day after my arrival, Sandra met me and we rattled off in her pick-up to Tenaun, a one-street, 19th century fishing village on the eastern coast. Seaweed is a major part of Chiloe’s economy, used for culinary, medicinal, and agricultural purposes, and I watched a farmer planting pelillo (agar agar, a species used in processed foods ) on the tidal flats. Mainly, I just wandered the quiet streets, snacking on buttery plum kuchen (coffeecake) and enjoying the solitude. Tenaun is known for its UNESCO-designated church, Iglesia de Tenaún, but the village is lovely: lots of apple orchards, beehives, beached fishing boats, flower-bedecked cottages, and old Mapuche men on donkeys. I stayed overnight at Familia Vásquez Montana (owned by aforementioned seaweed farmer Guido Vasquez, and his wife/cook, Mirella; reservations required, (09-647-6750). Since my visit, however, it has expanded from four to 25 beds, and operates more like a hostal than family home. You can catch a bus from Ancud or Castro to Tenaun three times daily (one-and-a-half hours, approximately).

The next day, Sandra took me to lunch at Maria Luisa Maldonado’s agriturismo (09-643-7046), outside of village San Antonio. The adorably fiesty octogenerian is one of the founding forces behind Chiloe’s agriturismo movement, as well as a hell of a cook. She has four guest rooms (seven beds in all) on her farm, which also operates as an informal dining room for overnight guests and pre-booked visitors. We joined Luisa’s son and young niece for a gratifying meal of her farmstead cheese; cazuela Chilote, a rich, flavorful stew of grass-fed veal and vegetables from the farm, raspberry juice from fruit picked that morning, and panqueques con manjar- crepes with Luisa’s own luscious, caramelized milk spread. Heaven.

Another popular agriturismo is Los Senderos de Chepu, in the wetlands area of Chepu, outisde of Ancud. Proprietor Enriqueta Carcamo is the current president of Chiloe’s Turismo Rural association; she and her husband, Fernando offer cheesemaking and other farm activities, horseback riding, and meals sourced from their farm.

My most memorable meal on Chiloe, however, came the day Sandra took me to the home of her friends, Hugo and Wanda Brenni. Hugo, who is Chileno, is the founder of Berkeley’s 35-year-old La Pena Cultural Center (oddly enough, I used to live just around the corner). He started La Pena while working as a cook in the Bay Area, “to create an awareness of solidarity” during Chile’s period of dictatorship.

Hugo prepared our lunch from ingredients grown and foraged on the property or purchased from neighboring farms. While he cooked, Wanda, who is from the States, told me, “What’s amazing about Chiloe is you can just walk down to the beach and collect as many shellfish as you can carry, get king crab from the kids on the corner, harvest wild berries. The local people are so traditional, the soil is so rich…there is always food. That’s the miracle of this place.” We sat down to a lunch of roast duck with a piquant salsa de murta, freshly-dug fingerling potatoes, a beet salad, and Wanda’s sourdough bread, cultured from wild yeast. Miraculous, indeed.

Potatoes in Chile Sauce

Recipe by Sandra Echegaray, Austral Adventures

serves 8

2 lbs. waxy new potatoes, such as Yukon gold, cut into ½-inch cubes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drizzle potatoes with olive oil and seasoning, and roast in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until cooked through. While potatoes are roasting, prepare chile sauce.

Chile Sauce

1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1-1 ½ cup dry red wine
4 tablespoon tomato puree
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
2 fresh red chilies, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
finely chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

In a medium size pot, sauté onion and garlic two tablespoons of olive oil for until tender, approximately two minutes. Add chilies and cook until tender. Add tomato puree, salt, and pepper, and sauté two minutes, stirring constantly. Add fresh tomatoes, half of the wine, and oregano. Cover and simmer the mixture at low heat for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rest of the wine, and continue to cook at low heat for 10 more minutes.
Just before serving, add the warm roasted potatoes. Serve immediately, garnishing with parsley.

[Photo credit: church, Flickr user James Byrum]

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.