Chiloe: Mysterious Patagonian Island

Trip Start Aug 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Chile  , Isla Chiloe,
Friday, January 14, 2011

Off the southern coast of South America's famed Patagonian region lies a windswept island, battered by the open ocean on it's western shores, while sheltering an archipelago of small islands to it's east. Long separated from the mainland, the isolated inhabitants of this once thickly forested realm forged a cultural uniqueness that is known today as Chilote.  

The island of Chiloe was first inhabited by the highly spiritual Chonos and Huilliche natives, with a later invasion by a highly religious group, the Spaniards, bringing with them their own legends and superstitions... the blending of these diverse cultures forged a cauldron of mythological creatures that stumbled, hobbled, swam and flew around the island, causing havoc amongst the people.  
The Jesuits, followed by a wave of Franciscan friars, christianize the people by implemented a building of churches that patched the main island and many of the smaller inhabited ones with small wooden churches built in a style that is unique to the island.   The early construction of these churches was performed without nails... utilizing a complex combination of woodworking joints like tongue-in-groove, mortise and tenon, dovetail joints, copious amounts of dowels and other complex joints.   Much of the knowledge used by the mestizo people of Chiloe to construct the churches came from their mastery skills of the island's boat builders, resulting in the inside looking like an upside down boat hull.  Of the 200 mini masterpieces still standing, after hundreds of years of wicked weather pounding away at them, UNESCO deemed 16 of them World Heritage Monuments... a recognition that is quite an honor.  We spent part of our time driving around the island trying to find some of the churches... to the boys dismay... "Not another church!" was a mantra we heard from about the 4th to the 5th one... I think scaring them from attending church for good.   Each one of the these tiny temples was unique in it's exterior and interior style... and filled with various saints and icons that were deemed important to the people living around that part of the island... telling a complex visual story of the community surrounding it. 

We found the Chilotes friendly and always ready to throw a smile our way... a brandishing they have been given by many travelers that have made it to their archipelago off the southern coast of Chile. Even Darwin, who often spoke critically of the native peoples along Chile's expansive coastline, had soft words of praise for the islanders... stating that, "with only three quarters of indigenous blood... the people are quiet and meek... Perhaps this is the only place in South America where you don't have to carry a gun when you travel". Many of my Chilean friends have also shared with me positive sentiments of the Islanders... bestowing them with many positive accolades.  We found many of them to be accurate...  
I asked as many locals as I could about their culture... but my simple Spanish proved a bit of a problem, as the Chilote dialect is spoken with a unique accent, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary that is heavily influenced by the native toungues that have become mestizoed into the language one hears today. Even the name of the island stems from the native language, meaning "seagulls place".  I was able to find a few people that were budding historians... giving me bits and nuggets of interesting tidbits about the history of the people.   

Delving deeper into this culture's lore proved intriguing... especially when I found out that a few white settlers remained isolated on the island for a few hundred years after the natives on the mainland fought the Chilean Spanish invaders, pushing them northward into the valleys close to Santiago.  The remaining settlers intertwined their genetics, as well as their cultural ways with the local natives, creating a unique culture of mestizo peoples.  Remaining isolated for an expansive period of time allowed them to forge a uniqueness that remains to this day. Even during the push for Chilean independence, the Chileans from the north could not incorporate most of the Chilotes into their fight for nationhood... as they has sided with the Spanish crown until their final incorporation into the nation of Chile in 1826... being the last of the South American colonies to become "free".    
The separation from the mainland not only created a unique human culture, but also a unique collection of flora and fauna that are indigenous to only the islands within the Chiloe archipelago... with percentages of around 50% of the freshwater fish found in the island's lakes,  80% of amphibians and 30% of all mammals and birds found on the island evolving into their own variations... A few of the most unique being the world's smallest deer, the 15 inch high pudu, as well as the common white potato that is now widely grown in farmer's fields around the planet.  
I realize that I have gone on about the uniqueness of the people, buildings, plants and animals of the island for some time... and should probably stop... but I have left out the most strange of all... the rich mythological tales that continue to color the island yet another shade of uniqueness.  I am not going to write much about these tales as I am plan to do a future blog on this topic after I return to the island and spend quality time with the Chilotes.  My first stop will be to track down a local expert and author of the lore... a kind and very interesting man that I met at a small country market.  I can say that a few of the most unusual characters are Invunche, Trauco and a witches brew of Brujas (Spanish for witch) that reak havoc on the islanders.  Check out the captions on the pics I have included of these characters if you want to learn a bit about their bizarre personalities.

In closing I am including the lyrics of a Chilote hymn that we listened to on a CD that we bought from a local group that cut their own album of traditional folk songs, collected from the various villages around the island.  

 HIMNO A CHILO… (Chiloť Hymn)
    Chiloť my beloved land
    With endless fields and beaches
    The clouds proudly cross you
    Heralding a happy future

    The giant oaks
    Of this island soil
    Sway in the wind,
    Caught by its eternal kisses

    Rich in plant and beast
    Your mountains, eternally green,
    Alongside a thousand rural leagues,
    I bless a hundred times, my lord

    You northern brothers admire you
    For your climate, sun and sky;
    For the heroic battle you gave
    When you were the last bastion of Spain

    Your sons work contentedly
    Managing plough or tiller
    Opening the fruitful furrow
    Singing a happy song

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Ray on

Todd & co.,

Your travel blog is fascinating (as are your travels)! Learning so much and feeling muy emocionado to begin international teaching travels of our own.

Thank you again for sharing the inspiration! Mil gracias.

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