Isla Chiloe

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Thursday, March 9, 2006

So where were we? Ah yes, we´ve just arrived at the ferry terminal in rainy Chaiten and there´s no ferry. We figure that we may just be a little early perhaps, so we have a bit of a banter with some of the other backpackers waiting. It transpires during the bantering that some people have paid 11,000 Pesos (about GBP11.00) and we have paid 15,000 Pesos for exactly the same ticket. Feeling somewhat hard-done-by I ask Gaelle if she´s interested in returning to the ferry office to complain at our unfair treatment (I also figure her Spanish is much better than mine, so a negotiation with her involved is likely to have a better outcome)

Leaving the backpacks with Rachel at the ferry port we trudge back through the rain to the ferry office and make the complaint about our expensive tickets. The lady serving asks us to step aside into her private office and she closes the door and explains angrily that the cheap tickets were only sold to people who practically begged for them because they couldn´t afford the normal priced ones. We know this excuse is rubbish because the Swiss couple Roland and Chantal aren´t the negotiating type and just asked for two tickets and got the cheap ones. We don´t need to argue though because the irrate assistant fairly quickly agrees to refund us the money and sell us the cheap tickets. Good News.

The bad news is that the Captain of the port has closed the harbour until further notice because of the inclement weather. We are told that there will be a weather update at 6pm when we should report to the ferry office to find out if the ferry will or will not (...please no!) leave this evening. Gaelle asks what if the ferry leaves at 3pm or 4pm, and we are told firmly that no, the ferry cannot leave before the decisive weather report at 6pm.

Another trudge in the rain out to the pier and I am thinking that these waterproof leggings were a good investment... I tell Rachel the Good News and the Bad News, and we trudge back into town to find a warm cafe to hole up in for the rest of the day.

On our way we pass the tourist information centre so we decide to pop in to see if there is any other news, or other possible ways out of town. Despite the lashing rain, the lady at the desk is sitting in a tight sleeveless flourescent purple top which matches the colour of her eyeshadow. Gaelle asks her about the ferry delay and she whisks out a summer schedule and starts explaining in detail the ferry times. Her behaviour is strange because a) the summer schedule is no longer valid and there are only two ferries a week to Quellon, and b) we want to know about the delay, not the ferry times. Gaelle tries to divert her by asking her a question about horse riding in Chiloe, but its a complete waste of time and she pulls out a few random maps that are no help whatsoever. We are just about to leave when the purple lady spots Rachel, and announces that she will sing a Japanese song to her, much to the amazement of everyone in the shop. We tell her that Rachel is Chinese, not Japanese, but it doesn´t seem to make much difference to her as she tells us: Korean, Chinese, it doesnt matter- they´re all Japanese to us in Chile.

Someone told me once in Punta Arenas that there are no useful Tourist Information centres in Chile- they should all be labelled Tourist Lack of Information Centres immediately. I have to agree that I have not yet received a single useful and accurate piece of information in one of these Centres in all our travel in Chile. I make a mental note never to go in one again.

We find a warm cafe beside the Parque Pumalin office, and the owner agrees to let us stay and eat our sandwiches provided we buy a drink. We while away a couple of hours in the warm surroundings enjoying the fire and glancing from time to time at a Rolling Stones DVD on the telly.

At 3pm we decide to head to the only internet cafe in town, which will now be open after a 2 hour lunch break. It never ceases to amaze me that an internet cafe would close for 2 hours at lunchtime. But this is rural Chile where tradition rules, and people haven´t quite got to grips with the information age.

We´ve just been in there 30 minutes when the Swiss couple, Roland and Chantal, tell us that the ferry is now leaving at 5.30pm, and we have to be at the pier by 5pm. But what about all the people who were told not to come back until 6pm?

At 5pm we´re on the boat and there´s a steady stream of people arriving at the last minute, because of the duff information. At 5.40pm we finally set sail after 3 blasts on the horn. After no more than two minutes at sea, we turn around immediately to return to port, as more last minute arrivals wave frantically from the dockside. I am amazed at how a company this incompetent can possibly survive.

Rachel sits back in the big armchairs while I go outside to watch the Chaiten and the grey mountains around it disappear slowly. As we sail out into the bay, the turbid brown waters swept down from Pumalin´s rivers suddenly changes to a deep blue, the interface marked a line of tiny white wavelets. Once on to the blue sea it feels like we´ve really left Chaiten behind, and the sky starts to clear as if in confirmation.

After dusk I head inside the cabin just as the restaurant is opening up. It has to be the worst excuse of a restaurant in the world. You can have a dirty polystyrene cup of tea or nescafe (even the water is luke warm), a selection of crisps that are all past their sell-by-date, or a hamburger. The ´hamburger´ is made by putting a slice of processed cheese and ham into a roll and heating it in a microwave until completely flacid. Fortunately Rachel has some fruit and bread so I don´t have to endure more than a cup of tea.

After dosing intermittently and enjoying some new music on the MP3 player (copied gratefully from Gaelle), we sail into Quellon at midnight. Not far from the pier is Hotel Playa, billed in Lonely Planet as ´clean´ and Footprints as ´dirty´. A quick look at the rooms and bathroom confirm that its not perfect but reasonably clean and we negotiate a room rate of 3,500 Pesos (about GBP3.50) each.

In the morning Rachel and I eat a quick breakfast and decide to walk to the highly recommended museum in town. It appears to have been neglected completely for a couple of years and the exhibits are overgrown with weeds and rotting in the backgarden. The owner of the house nearby tells us to have a look anyway, and it takes us all of about 5 minutes before we leave.

We decide that Quellon is more of a dump than Chaiten, and after a quick stop at the supermarket, we decide to get off to Chonchi as soon as possible. As luck would have it there´s a bus in 20 minutes (for 800 Pesos or GBP0.80), giving us enough time to collect our bags and get on board.

We arrive at Chonchi after about an hour and a half, and as the bus pulls up we are immediately impressed by a beautiful wooden shingled church. The front has been painted in vivid shades of blue, yellow, and cream which make it stand out beatifully in the sun.

We walk down to Hospidaje Esmerelda on the sea front, where it seems really quiet and serene with the waves lapping gently on the beach. A young Canadian lad shows us a couple of stunning rooms with sea views and we choose the cheaper of the two which is 5,000Pesos (GBP5.00) per person. Soon we are lying on the bed taking an afternoon siesta listening to the cries of gulls and the rhythm of the gentle surf.

We decide to take a walk down the beach in the afternoon, and as we walk past the hostel, it feels like we´re in one of those end-of-the-world seaside villages like Garlieston or Isle of Whithorn where time passes very slowly. Walking along the beach there is lots of wildlife to keep us entertained. A sea lion moves past slowly with his head out of the water to inspect us, a group of black headed swans swim past, and huge eagles soar along the edge of the trees beside the sand. Rachel spots a plentiful supply of blackberries growing nearby and we stuff our faces periodically as we walk along.

On the shore there are some locals gathering shellfish, and we wonder what they are collecting. Chatting to a short plump beret clad man reveals its mussels that they are after, and there seem to be in plentiful supply, exposed by ebbing tide. We wonder if we should take some, but we don´t have any plastic bag and Rachel doesn´t want the daysacks covered in mud and sand, so we continue walking.

Finally we get to a tiny village where there is huge wooden church, which judging by the fine new exterior timber, looks like its in the final stages of a major rebuild. Unfortunately its most definately closed and there is still a stout fence erected around the constuction site which prevents us from entering. Many of these churches in Chiloe were constucted in the early 1800´s by Jesuit missionaries, and have a characteristic style of wooden tiled exterior (shingles) and an imposing clock tower which is often painted in bright colours. They seem to dot the landscape all over the island.

Since we dont know the roads, we decide to retrace our steps back along the beach to Chonchi. We find a couple of plastic bags and decide to gather a few mussels for dinner that evening. It only takes us anout 15 minutes to gather what seems like a huge pile, and as we walk back we debate how they are supposed to be cooked.

Back in the hostel kitchen we say hello to new arrivals Tom and Sophie from England. It transpires that Tom went to the same school as Rachel - St Wilfrids in Crawley - and so they share a few stories together about teachers and students they both know. Tom and Sophie also know how to cook mussels, so we feel a bit more confident about eating them for dinner.

After cleaning them and cooking them in garlic and white wine, the result is much better than either of us could have expected. We enjoy eating them with bread and a tasty salad, watching the beach and activities in the harbour. It feels particularly satisfying to have gathered our dinner from the sea.

The next day we decide to take it easy in the morning, since Chonchi seems to encourage a fairly laid back approach. In the afternoon we take the bus out to the west coast to see the fringes of Chiloe National Park. The road is a pretty narrow rough dirt track that covers the 35km between Chonci and Cacao, and it takes us nearly 1.5hrs to get to our destination. We find to our disappointment that the last bus returns at 4pm, giving us just 1hr 30min to see the park.

Nonetheless we take the path down through the grassy sandunes to arrive at a vast beach where the Pacific Ocean smashes violently on to an endless strand of empty beach. We eat some sandwiches and chat about ´life on the road´ for half an hour before heading back. Perhaps we should have spent more time here we think.

Back at the park entrance, we jump on to the bus heading back to Chonchi, and struggle to stay awake as it chugs along the narrow gravel road beside the lake. Just a few kilometeres from town, the bus grinds to a halt and we wonder of we´ll have to walk back into town. The conductor retrieves a long crowbar, and with the engine cover open, levers something back into position. Likely stuck in gear I surmise to Rachel.

In the evening we have dinner at Esmerelda Hostel (4000 Pesos or about GBP4.00 each) with 6 other guests (Tom and Sophie, James and Camila from UK, and a German couple). We are served by the eccentric Canadian Hostel owner, Carlos, who encouraged by me, gives us a little speech on his political and social views between each course. It certainly makes for an interesting and unusual dinner. We begin with a salad starter and the main course consists of fresh salmon and smoked salmon with potatoes. The fish is some of the freshest we´ve tasted and comes from Carlos´s own fish farming ventures. On the political menu is ´the benefits of globalisation´, and on the social menu is ´how life has changed for the average Chilotian over the past 20 years´.

Next day Rachel and I visit the little museum in town called Museo de las Tradiciones Chonchinas, which is surprisingly engaging after the disappointments of Quellon museum. The museum is basically the home of some locals, Don Clemente Andrade and his wife, which is preserved just as it was in 1910. I enjoy the tasteful and colourful decoration, and the automatic piano, which operates from a punched paper tape. There is a box of songs in labelled cardboard boxes in a small cabinet beside the piano. We also see an amazing video in one of the back rooms of a Chilotian familiy moving house. Its amazing because they literally are moving a large detached two storey wooden house, assisted by five pairs of muscular oxen and their handlers. The sight of house moving through the green woods and fields towed by 10 cattle is truly mindboggling.

In the afternoon we take the bus into Castro, the main town on Chiloe, half an hour away. The town is a bit run down, with the same kind umpoverished feel as, say Punta Arenas, but there are some highlights which catch our attention. The first is a selection of very colourful and rustic stilt houses which are built with their backdoors over the sea. A little afternoon sunshine brings these homes with their unusual architecture vividly to life. The second attraction is the Jesuit church in the centre of town. The entire structure is built from wood, apart from the exterior corrugated iron cladding. Inside amongst all the wood are statues of Jesus, Mary, and numerous saints that look like the product of nightmares with their penetrating eyes and unsmiling faces.

We buy some bits and pieces for dinner at the local supermarket and head back to Chonchi in the bus. Rachel is excited because she has bought ingredients for a chicken and rice dish and it will be the first time we´ve eaten rice for over a month. Rachel cooks up a tasty dinner and we also tuck into some leftover homemade blackberry crumble, kindly given to us by James and Camila.

In the morning we trudge up the hill from the seafront to the bus stop to await the 9.50am bus to Puerto Montt. A bus turns up as soon as we arrive, and it turns out to be the 8.30am one. After some confusion, we find out that the clocks have gone back an hour for the start of the Winter Season. The conductor changes our tickets and I set my watch back an hour. So, I think, does that mean its the start of Summer in the Northern Hemisphere?
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