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]

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