Sunshine in Santiago. Salsa and street art in Valparaiso. Volcanoes, hot springs and cycling in Pucon.
When I arrived on Chiloé island, I was already living the Chilean good life. The air was fresh, the skies were blue and there seemed to be a hot chocolate or a glass of red wine around every corner.
Chileans will tell you Chiloé – an island off the coast near Puerto Montt – is another world, but you won’t believe that until you arrive. Perhaps it’s another planet. It’s certainly lonely and abandoned, shrouded in mist and rain yet assaulted by bleakly beautiful landscapes on every side.
I took the bus down to Castro, where I found a tiny wooden hostel built out over the water. These stilt houses – or palafitos – are a key feature of the island but, secretly, they hold the key to its overwhelming desolation. Are the houses built on stilts because they’re pretty? Or because, while everyone has to pay to build on land, no-one could possibly charge you for the water.
Poverty is the point here – but not the poverty you can see and almost accept elsewhere in Latin America. Not the poverty where people have nothing, yet find a way to work their land or sell their crafts – somehow making enough to survive and thrive in their own frill-free way.
No, it’s the kind of poverty we often see in the north of England, where a sudden shock – such as the closure of a mine or a slump in steel – changes life in an instant. Everywhere there are signs that things used to be better. Anger and alcoholism creep in. Bitterness and pride prevail.
I didn’t spend long enough on Chiloé to even hope to understand it but Castro, in particular, niggled at some of my most distant memories. Every shop seemed to be a discount shop or a cheap pharmacy. Too many houses were for sale, others in disrepair. There were too many people on the streets. Some had those giveaway faces – ruddy, fed-up, defeated.
Explanations are whispered. I heard of a giant fish plant that closed in a food poisoning scare, scattering its employees to the winds. Other economic disasters may lurk in the past too. But perhaps things are changing – there was one cosy German tea room, one pretty craft shop.
I found Ancud – 90 minutes closer to the mainland – in better shape but these two towns are no reason to visit Chiloé (although the wooden churches are popular with some. They were built brilliantly, with exacting construction and wooden nails when needed)
No, the beauty of Chiloé must fall to its surroundings. The national park lies trapped between a ruggedly windy coast and softly lapping lakes. There’s a Loch Ness-style monster legend, which seems apt in such a strange land. The ocean roars defeaningly. The flora is a strange mix, in the forests you’ll find thistles, daisies, even the odd wild rose.
But my favourite Chiloens were the penguins, both the Humboldt and Magellanic breeds. The Puñihuil cove, about an hour south of Ancud, is rare in that the two breeds nest together. Our little boat sailed out into the rain and I stood transfixed, watching the birds wobble up and down the rocks, slide on their bellies and fuss over the fluffier youths. I saw two slick sea otters and a lone dolphin, gliding quietly through the dark grey waves. It was perfect.
But you have to be careful. Depression and decay can be catching, sneaking up through the light drizzle, inching their way under layers of clothes, ignoring wood burner stoves and endless mugs of tea. I’m glad I came to this strange and lonely land but I wouldn’t stay. I doubt you would either.