Chiloe is one of those places in which the unwitting traveller could easily get stuck. It is a quaint place, but for me, it’s charm lay in the fact that is posited the first place where I truly felt comfortable and happy to be travelling.
So far on the trip, I had found myself struggling with a mixture of culture shock and homesickness, intertwined with the normal terror of new travel experiences (being lost alone in the dark on the far side of the world). Added to this, my ineptitude at communicating in more than Spanish small talk, made me feel that I was being squashed rather than growing from these experiences. My sense of self had become hopelessly dependent on being able to communicate it to others. This must be a fairly common experience for solo travellers who are used to the comfort of being surrounded by those that know them, but is really acknowledged. It was a relief to read Allende’s description of her husband as having a quality of ‘freshness and innocence’ acquired from living all his life in the same country with people that know him. Certainly, I am beginning to understand the title of her book My Invented Country; holding on to your roots, memories and even identity whilst being alone can be a real struggle. For me, Chiloe was where that changed; my innocence may be dissolving but I’m becoming stronger.
My plan was to cross the Andes into Chile from Argentina just above Patagonia, head slightly south for the wet wildlife and then meander northwards towards the Atacama desert. It was this stunning contrast of landscapes that attracted me to this sliver of land at the edge of the map. In one country, there are epic lakes, jungle, snow capped peaks, temperate wineyards, the dryest desert in the world and thousands of miles of coastline.
The island of Chiloe is the kind of place that the unwitting traveller could easily get stuck. It is known for its ancient wooden churches which dot every small village or town on the island. Since many of these look more like weather beaten shacks, you could not guess they were buildings of such religious significance were it not for the tiny signs reading ‘Inglesia’. The inglesia in the centre of Castro, one of the main towns, is a delightfully lurid yellow although the carvings inside are beautifully preserved. The earthquake and tsunami of 1960 destroyed a large part of the island and so the church at Ancud is merely a modern imitation of the old style. I am not religious but churches allow me to feel close to my mum and I enjoy their dry cool.
The shoreline is decorated with wooden palafitos. The front entrances lead onto the road but the opposite sides back directly into the estuary. When the tide flees, long wooden stilts decorated with seaweed reveal how far above the seabed they are. These buildings are actually illegal since it is forbidden to build across the public space of the estuary. As such, the majority of palafitos are hostels or restaurants which make enough dollar to shake off the fine. My hostel, with its roaring fire and view across the bay towards green fields populated by sheep, felt exactly like somewhere my family might have taken me on a childhood holiday. The rain helped too. Feeling more comfortable in a raincoat must be an English thing.
The town has a clothes market which, according to one of the stallholders, is full of traditional artisan, handmade products. Yes I translated ‘traditional artisan’! The next door ‘pescaderia’ or fish market sells ceviche. This is a dish largely composed of raw fish in lemon juice. Men from the island feed the sea lions in the bay outside so it is possible to see them up close. Even the sea lions, however, reject our generously donated pieces of ceviche. Feeding time also attracts pelicans and seagulls to form a chorus of delighted hunger.
These islands have been isolated from the mainland for so long that they were resistant to joining the republic. They also have a diversity of wildlife quite distinct from the rest of Chile. It is possible to find plenty of tours to the national parks but we rejected these in favour of the local bus. Wilke, a Dutch journalist I met in the hostel, and I waited at the bus stop for only about forty minutes before one showed up to drop us directly outside the entrance. From here, we took the advertised ‘hiking’ routes (took 15 minute strolls) through a great diversity of woodland, scrub and jungle. We saw beautiful birds and colourful butterflies, lizards and even heard what I believe to have been Renita de Darwin frogs bellowing. The most magical route, however, led us to the beach.
If I had been searching for paradise on earth, I would need to look no further. Miles of coastline stretched out before me, white sand and the bluest of oceans. The only creatures in sight were the pair of horses that ambled across to nibble hopefully at our backpacks. Lover of cold water swimming that I am, I decided to take a dip and waded out across the shallows. Waves were breaking out into the distance making the Pacific appear further away and allowing for very shallow swimming. Straight off the Antarctic, the water was predictable icy and surprisingly unsalty. I danced and splashed so gleefully that, eventually, Wilke splashed over to join me.
And so, I found myself following the wise advice of another good friend: that even when travelling to discover new experiences, it is important to make time for the activities that make you feel like you.
In Chiloe, I swam in the Pacific Ocean, tried ceviche, Patagonian donuts and the national drink of Chile, Pisci Sour, learnt about palafitos and the Mapuche people of Patagonia all for the first time. But this was also where I was able remember myself through the activities that I love and to get more into the swing of being myself to strangers (both English and Spanish speaking). The nurse who gave me my travel vaccinations before I left, jokingly asked whether I was travelling to find myself. Well, it’s a cliche, but travelling alone is definitely challenging myself to be the best version of myself.