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The "Great Island of Chiloé" is a land of myths and magic -- of emerald, rolling hills shrouded in mist, and tiny, picturesque coves that harbor a colorful palette of wooden fishing skiffs. This is Chile's second-largest island, located south of Puerto Montt with an eastern coast that faces the Gulf of Ancud and a western, wet Pacific shore. With the exception of a few small towns, the landscape here by and large is pastoral, with a deference to development that tends to make travelers feel as if they have been transported back a century. Across the island, wooden churches modeled after a Bavarian, neoclassic style appear like a beacon in every bay; they are so lovely and architecturally unique that UNESCO recently deemed them World Heritage sites.

Visually appealing as it is, Chiloé is truly defined by its people, the hardy, character-rich Chilotes, who can still be seen plowing their fields with oxen or pulling in their catch of the day the same way they have for centuries. Spanish conquistadors occupied Chiloé as early as 1567, followed by Jesuit missionaries and Spanish refugees pushed off the mainland by Mapuche Indian attacks. For 3 centuries, Chiloé was the only Spanish stronghold south of the Río Bio-Bío, and its isolation produced a singular culture among its residents, who, after so much time, are now a mestizo blend of Indian and Spanish blood. The Chilotes' rapid and closed speech, local slang, mythical folklore, and style of food, tools, and architecture were and still are uniquely different from their counterparts on the mainland. The downside of Chiloé's limited contact with the outside world is a dire poverty that has affected (and continues to affect) many of the island's residents. Most families eke out a living by relying on their own garden patch and livestock, animals that can be seen pecking and grazing along the side of the road. Off the main highway, it is as common to see residents traveling on horseback or by fishing boat as it is by vehicle.

I recommend a day or overnight trip to Chiloé rather than spending time in the grimy environs of Puerto Montt, but with one caveat: Rent a car. While the principal cities Ancud and Castro can be easily reached by bus, the true pleasure of visiting Chiloé is losing yourself on backcountry roads and discovering picturesque little bays and lookout points that are otherwise inaccessible by bus, and stopping at roadside stands for local cheese, fresh fish, and other delicacies. This chapter covers the highlights here, but the island is easy to navigate with a road map.. Chiloé also boasts the Chiloé National Park, where visitors can indulge themselves with a walk through primordial old-growth rainforest that once blanketed the island. The island's tourism infrastructure is improving, but visitors should still expect modest accommodations. The tedious rain that falls more than half the year here makes for soggy shoes and limited views; nevertheless, Chiloé rates as one of Chile's top attractions for its cultural value and natural beauty. Useful websites for information about Chiloé are www.chiloe.cl and www.interpatagonia.cl.