Chiloé National Park, on the western coast of Chiloé, covers 43,000 hectares (106,000 acres) and is divided into three sectors: Chanquin, Middleb and North. This park's strong suit is its short hikes that allow you to savor the best the park has to offer; in fact, the 19km (12-mile) backpacker's hike is disappointing. Lodging at the park is a super deal, too, with attractive cabins for about $40 (£27) a night. The Chanquin sector is connected by a dirt road that branches off Rte. 5, about 35km (22 miles) south of Castro; this is where you'll find the Conaf ranger station and a visitor center. This is the only truly suitable part of the park for visiting, due to its easy access and good trail conditions (unlike the North, or "Chepu," sector). The Middle section (also referred to as "Metalqui") is a protected island with a large sea lion colony, but visitors are not allowed there.
For transportation to the national park, take Buses Arroyo or Buses Ojeda (no phone) from the Terminal Municipal. Buses depart once daily in low season and twice daily in high season, though schedules vary. The park is wild and wet -- very, very wet -- but it is one of the few places to see old-growth, thick rainforest bordering the coast. Many backpackers come in the summer to hike through the park's forest and along vast stretches of sandy beach that often peak into sand dunes.
Visitors first arrive at the tiny village of Cucao, the gateway to the national park, which was devastated by a 1960 tidal wave; today it is a collection of rickety homes. This is where you'll find the four Cabañas Conaf, each for six guests, and they have kitchenettes, so come prepared (tel. 65/532502; firstname.lastname@example.org). After the suspension bridge, visitors will find the park interpretation center run by Conaf (Chile's national park service), which has environmental displays and information about hiking trails. From here hikers have an option of three trails. The short, though very informative (English-language signs are here) 770m (2,926-ft.) Sendero El Tepual winds through thick, humid tepú forest. The Sendero Dunas de Cucao is about 1.5km (a little less than 1 mile), and it passes alternately through dense vegetation and open stretches of sand dunes blanketed in golden grass.
Vast and desolate, this stretch of coastline is one of the most beautiful in Chile. If you are lucky and arrive at low tide, a handful of locals might be here digging machas, or razor clams, out of the sand, which they sell to buyers all the way to Puerto Montt. There is a 20km (12-mile) backpacker's trek via a long trail on the coast, which weaves in and out of evergreen forest and sandy beach until arriving at Conaf's backcountry refuge, Cole-Cole. In truth, the hike is overrated, but backpackers will enjoy camping out in this lovely environment. From here it's another 2 hours to Conaf's other refuge, Anay. The refuges are in bad condition, and it is recommended that you bring a tent. Parque Nacional Chiloé has a variety of campsites, and it is open every day from 9am to 7:30pm; admission is $2 (£1.30) adults, free for children.
South of the national park, a private preserve 30km (19 miles) southwest of Chonchi has recently been established. Called Tepuhueico, it features a lake and a fine eco-lodge of the same name, built in gray cypress wood in a style that reminds me of Le Corbusier (tel. 65/633958). The lodge has seven doubles with en-suite bathrooms, along with two cabañas. Electrical light runs from 9pm to midnight. It has a hot tub in the garden and plenty of possibilities for hiking and fishing.
Another much larger but very remote private preserve, Tantauco opened here in 2005. Bought by billionaire entrepreneur and politician Sebastián Piñera, the park comprises some 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres), uninhabited except for the 30-family fishing hamlet of Inio on its southern coast. At press time, facilities were limited. One very rough road leads through a northern sliver to the Chaiguata and Chaiguaco lagoons, with one campground with 20 sites charging $10 (£6.70); at Inio, there's a campground with 15 sites, and a modern barbecue grill, for the same fee. A dozen hiking trails have been established in the park. One weekly boat heads to Inio from Quellón for $22 (£15). Information for the park is at Av. La Paz 68 in Quellón (tel. 65/680066; www.parquetantauco.cl), open daily from 9am to 6pm. In Santiago, contact Fundación Futuro, Av. Apoquindo 3000, 19th floor (tel. 2/422-7322; www.fundacionfuturo.cl/parque_chiloe.php).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.