Chiloé Island, Chile

Photo: clafouti via stock.xchng
Photo: clafouti via stock.xchng

It just got a lot cheaper to travel to Chile. For years, the United States and Chile have been charging citizens of the other country reciprocity fees. True, the fee was valid for the life of your passport, but $160 dollars per person was still a lot to tack onto a vacation. A recent agreement between the two countries ended this visa charge, though. So what’s the first destination on your Chilean wish list?

You plan to visit colonial cities, up-and-coming wine regions, and, of course, Patagonia’s fjords and glaciers. But first, you’re going to Chiloé, the largest island in the Chiloé Archipelago. The island is known for its wood-shingled churches, stilted houses, relaxing hotels, and gorgeous scenery. It’s the perfect place to unwind after a long flight.

You arrive in Castro after a ferry ride from the mainland. The region’s capital, located in the center of the island, is Chile’s third-largest city in continual existence. The Plaza de Armas, the main square, is the center of town. It’s always full of people, and it’s surrounded by green trees, shops, restaurants, and the yellow-and-purple Church of San Francisco. Wooden palafitos line the waterfront; the houses were built on stilts to protect them from flooding. The city has been wiped out twice by tsunamis after earthquakes. You can see photographs from the last one, in 1960, at the Regional Museum of Castro. After learning about Chiloé’s history, visit the Museum of Modern Art, housed in five refurbished barns.

Photo: Chiloé Island
Photo: Centro de Ocio Hotel

MAM Chiloé isn’t the only forward-thinking place on this traditional island. Across the water from Castro, you find Centro de Ocio. Your eco-friendly hotel, in an old chilota house, is surrounded by a native coihue forest and fields of grazing sheep. The light-filled rooms have huge windows, whirlpool baths, and balconies overlooking the fjord. Spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel. Have a Tui Na massage, which uses Chinese medicine techniques, to return balance to your body. Sit outside in the wooden hot tub. Or find a comfortable spot to stare at the beautiful surroundings with a pisco sour.

Over the next few days, you hike through Chiloé National Park’s Valdivian temperate rainforest. Have a picnic on long, windswept Cucao Beach on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Visit Chiloé’s UNESCO World Heritage Site churches. Many of the wooden churches are painted shockingly bright colors. The three-peaked Church of Tenaún is blue and white. The Church of Chonchi is turquoise and yellow. And the Church of Caguach is tomato red. If one of the churches is closed when you arrive, find the key holder of the village to let you in.

Travel to Puñihuil to see nesting Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins, plus huge colonies of marine birds. Watch for blue whales cresting offshore. Take a boat trip to see the palafitos from the water. You might see Commerson’s dolphins swimming alongside the boat or South American sea lions on the rocky shores. Eat curanto (meat, potato, and vegetable stew), milcao (potato bread), and fresh shellfish. Listen to stories about ghost ships, forest gnomes, and even witchcraft. The island may be filled with churches, but beliefs extend beyond Catholicism.

At the end of each day, curl up with a blanket on your balcony to hear the wind whistle through the fjord, see Castro’s lights bounce off the water, and watch shooting stars stream across the sky. And be thankful travel to Chile just got a whole lot easier.

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