Going To Chiloe

Chiloe is a large island of pastures and woods just off the mainland southwest of Puerto Montt and across the Canal de Chacao. The channel is notoriously turbulent. Thirty years before we had experienced just how fierce it can be. The ferry taking us back to the mainland was unable dock stranding us in the channel for more than one hour. Finally, after much maneuvering, the ferrymen got us to the dock but the situation was too precarious to unload and load the local buses—one going each way—so passengers were swapped instead.

Today, the Channel is relatively calm. A ferryman dressed in bright orange directs the cargo—huge transport trucks, buses, motorcycles, and cars—and passengers onboard.

Engines are cut and everyone descends to watch penguins, birds and ducks swim and dive for fish. The rambunctious penguins are too quick but a floating sea bird is patient enough for our camera.

In the distance the outline of buildings on the island come into focus. We watch as a distant little red church grows larger with our approach to the island. The passengers sense that we are almost across and hurry back to their vehicles.

Safely across we are on our way to Ancud on the northwest coast of the island. There is an active oyster farming business just north of the town; to the south along the rugged shore, the word is that the surfing is good but difficult to reach.

Ancud is today a sleepy little town; the market is empty except for a few vendors of artesania whose wares hardly excite us as we stroll through the almost empty aisles that fill up briefly only when the big tour buses roll through town. Thirty years ago I remember a bustling market where vendors sold an abundance of seafood—everything from seaweed to mariscos (shellfish) and fish to exuberant locals and adventurous travelers. I’ll never forget the pungent odor of strings of dried clams hanging like heavy curtains from rafters or the delicious empanadas made from them.

We have lunch at the hosteria and explore the ruins of a Spanish fort.

Remains of Spanish Fort at AncudBuilt to protect the supremacy of Spanish navigation around the tip of South America especially from the British, the fort remained under Spanish control until the island of Chiloe was finally united with Chile in 1826 with the Treaty of Tantauco. The islanders, known as Los Chilotes, are even today fiercely independent and when crossing the channel to the mainland talk about going to Chile.

From Ancud we travel south to Castro. Everywhere are bushes full of yellow blooms. No one can name them but they are pretty and make the ride interesting until we are stopped by a carabinero. “License, registration, and insurance certificate,” he commands. Haydee is driving and digs into her large pocketbook for her license. Antun opens the glove compartment to look for the registration and insurance card. The other car driven by Luci passes by and disappears. Antun doesn’t find the documents but pulls out the packet given to us by Herz from whom we’ve rented the car. The documents aren’t there but he hands the packet over to the carabinero to buy time while he looks further for the missing papers. Needing to do something, I jump out to check the trunk. Nothing there either. We’re stymied. Smiling, the carabinero reminds us that he’ll have to impound the car if we can’t find them. We look surprised as though we aren’t aware of this nasty little rule of the Chilean road.

I’m getting panicky. We are nowhere, know no one, and have nothing but a cell phone. Where, I wonder, is Luci? Is she and the three others sailing merrily along? Are they waiting for us up ahead? How will we all fit in the tiny Suzuki she’s driving? Collectively and silently we curse Herz for not putting the documents into something big and sturdy, something that can be easily found. Again, Antun calmly searches the dark recesses of the glove compartment with his fingers. They find something wedged into a crease. It’s the registration and insurance certificate folded up into a very little square. He hands them over. The carabinero checks them and hands them back. He waves us off. We sigh relief and are on our away again. Just over the hill, Luci has stopped the other car to wait for us. Everyone smiles with relief and waves as we meet up again.

What was a sleepy little town thirty years ago, Castro, has turned into a bustling big one. Hordes of young people hang out in the central plaza, La Plaza de Armas; shops are busy; cars clog the intersections.

As we stroll around the Plaza, the sun disappears; gray descends. But the steeples of the cathedral are beautiful in the mist. It’s just past five in the afternoon but we’re tired from driving and sightseeing.

On the Internet, Luci finds us a café that serves espressos. A blogger recommends it to those who are not fond of instant Nescafe. That would be us, so we stop there for onces, the Chilean equivalent to British teatime. Although the tradition is fast disappearing as the pace of life quickens, when on vacation everyone indulges in the ritual, not just to drink coffee but also eat pastries laden with fruit and cream, and catch up with friends. At Cafe Ristretto (Av. Blanco 264) the espressos and cortados (espresso cut with hot milk and served in a glass) are delicious as are the “pie de limon” and kuchen de nueces.  Fortified, it’s time to drive back up the island to catch the 8PM ferry to “go to Chile.”

If there was little traffic other than big rigs that work the fish farming business on the way down the island, there is less on our return. We are making good time and are sure we’ll make the ferry until… We’re stopped again by the same carabinero. Haydee is still driving and looks at him with amazement as he commands once again, License, registration, and insurance certificate.”

She looks at him ernestly. “But, Señor, you just asked me for my documents a couple of hours ago.”

He squints and looks back at her hard. He seems to recognize her, clears his throat, and waves us on. We make the ferry just in time and get back to Chile without another hitch.

All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum


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