Excursions Beyond Castro
Few Chilean towns surpass the entrancing beauty of Dalcahue, Achao, and Curaco de Vélez, the latter two located on the Isla Quinchao. The towns and the countryside separating them are Chiloé highlights, offering lush scenery and a glimpse into the Chilote's culture and day-to-day life.
Just off Rte. 5, the island's only major highway, Dalcahue is a little town whose prosperity is best illustrated by the hustle and bustle of salmon industry workers at the pier, unloading and loading crates of fish byproducts to be processed. Dalcahue's other thriving industry (although on a smaller scale) is its Feria Artesanal, located at the waterfront about 2 blocks southwest of the plaza. Every Thursday and Sunday, artisans drive or paddle in to Dalcahue from the surrounding area to hawk their knitwear, baskets, hand-carved wood items, clothing, and more. In a boat-shaped wooden building beside the restaurant, several relatively slick restaurants have been installed serving Chilote cuisine. Sirena's is the best of these.
At the plaza sits one of the larger Chiloé churches, with scalloped porticos. Across the plaza, on the corner, you'll find the tiny Museo Histórico Etnográfico, Pedro Montt 105 (tel. 65/642375), which houses a cluttered array of stuffed birds and Indian and colonial-era artifacts. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm and admission is free. All transportation stops in Dalcahue first before crossing over to Quinchao.
Several blocks away at Dalcahue's pier is the ferry to Isla Quinchao. The ferry makes the 5-minute ride almost continuously from 7am to 10:30pm every day ($8/£5.30 for cars round-trip). This is one of Chiloé's most populated islands, a magical landscape of plump, rolling hills, where smoke slowly wafts from clapboard homes and Chilote farmers can be seen tilling their land with oxen and a plow. The island also affords visitors with spectacular views of the Gulf of Ancud and the scattered, pint-size islands that sit between the Isla Quinchao and the mainland.
The first town you'll encounter upon exiting the ferry is Curaco de Vélez, a historic village whose former prosperity brought about by wool production and whaling can be witnessed through the grand, weather-beaten homes that line the streets. If you are hungry and are feeling adventuresome, follow the yellow OSTRAS street signs to an open-air restaurant, Ostras El Trunco, across the street from the water. Here you can slurp three different kinds of oysters, shucked right in front of you, for a quarter of the price you would pay back home.
Continue southeast along the island's single, unnamed main road to Achao, a former Jesuit colony founded in 1743 and home to the oldest church in Chiloé. Made entirely of cypress, alerce, and mañío, this church is as plain as a brown paper bag from the outside, but one step inside and all impressions change due to its multicolored interiors and whimsical decorations. Take a walk along the waterfront for people-watching, and bring your camera for the photo op along the shore, where red, yellow, and sky-blue fishing boats bob and dance in the bay. Throughout the Island of Quinchao, you'll find wooden gazebos atop well-designed lookout points along the road. Here's hoping the weather allows you to take full advantage of them. The homes in Achao are characterized by the region's penchant for adapting shingles into a variety of geometrical patterns, from concave to convex, circular to triangular, all nailed tightly together to keep the rain out. At the pier you can hire boatmen (be prepared to negotiate) to take you to some of the more remote islands such as Mechuque. If you have time, take a seat at Mar y Velas, in the building overlooking the harbor just steps away. It's known as one of the best traditional Chilote restaurants anywhere on the archipelago and serves some of the freshest mussels and clams around.
I recommend that you make the aforementioned destinations a priority, but if you still have enough time, try to make it to Chonchi. About 32km (20 miles) south of Castro, on the main highway, this pleasant town is home to the best-preserved 18th-century buildings on the island. The early prosperity brought on by the timber export industry (mostly cypress) at that time is reflected in the handsome wooden houses and buildings around town. Made from fermented cow's milk, Licor de Oro is as much a cultural experience as it is an intoxicating elixir. Chonchi has created a cottage industry out of this liqueur's production, and drinking it here is the norm. Made with fruits, herbs, or, in some cases, sugar and egg (think eggnog), the liqueur isn't as bad as you might think. You'll find it at Chonchi's Fería, located on the corner of Irarrázaval (along the coast) and Canessa streets. There is one decent lodging option if you want to stick around, Esmeralda by the Sea (tel. 65/671328; www.esmeraldabythesea.cl), which charges $30 (£20) for a double.
Quellón, at the southern end of the Pan-American Highway, is another 72km (45 miles) south. It's not particularly attractive, but it's the departure (or arrival) port for ferries to Chaitén on the Carretera Austral or for the ferries that ply the fjords southwest to Puerto Chacabuco, a fantastic, 37-hour alternative to the more common trip directly from Puerto Montt. The latter is served by Aysén Express (tel. 65/680047 in Quellón, or 67/240956, Coyhaique head office), and Naviera Australon, Pedro Montt 457 (tel. 65/682207; www.navieraustral.cl); reserve well in advance for either of the two. Quellón is also the departure point for boat trips to Inio in the Tantauco private preserve that takes up much of the island south of the town. One of the most modern hotel options on the entire island is Patagonia Insular (Ladrilleros 1737; tel. 65/681610; www.patagoniainsular.cl; $75/£50 double) a Wi-Fi-enabled 30-room hotel that overlooks the water.
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.