Chiloé's World Heritage Churches

Some 70 of Chiloé's churches, without a doubt, are the island's most singular attractions, and together with some in Germany, Norway, and the U.S., unique in having been built entirely of wood -- no nails. The humble yet striking churches represent a rare form of architecture, the Chiloé "school" of religious architecture brought about by the fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions, namely those of the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries and the island's early inhabitants, the Chonos and Huilliches.

Jesuit missionaries first arrived on the island in 1608, conducting circular missions throughout the island wherein they traveled the archipelago throughout the year, stopping for several days at a mission site and spreading their brand of religion. But unlike other missionary groups, the Jesuits attempted to learn the languages and the cultural traditions of those they were hoping to convert. Thus, it was both their respect for traditional building methods and the Jesuits' absence for much of the year that afforded the indigenous peoples of the island the opportunity to lay such a heavy influence on the construction of each church.


The styles and layouts of the churches can be traced back to Europe: Chonchi's represents neoclassicism; the church in Nercón is neo-Renaissance; and in Achao, you'll find baroque, inspired by the first Bavarian Jesuits. However, the interiors and the locations chosen for each church reflect the inspiration of their local indigenous builders. A close look inside each church offers numerous examples of techniques that were borrowed from shipbuilding, such as wooden pegs and joints instead of nails. The center of the roof, if imagined inverted, often resembles the hull of a boat, with three naves to a church. Moreover, nearly all the chapels in Chiloé face the water, with central towers that functioned as beacons for sailors. The influence of the island's early maritime inhabitants continues to be a point of pride for those who call it home.

Although each church shares the same facade of semicircular arches, each church varies greatly in color and size, the latter representing what type of festivals were to be had at the church. The church at Achoa is the oldest and at Quinchao the largest, but the church at Tenaún, with its royal blue exterior -- upon which are painted two large white stars -- is probably the most impressive. Sixteen have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, but there are many more.

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