Chile Road Trip Part 2: Isla Chiloe

Sorry to say goodbye to Trevor and his awesome family, we drove out of Valdivia under grey skies in the early afternoon. Our next destination was the island of Chiloé, but being Sunday we weren’t sure about the ferry schedule, so we decided to stop off in the German town of Frutillar on Lago LLanquihue for the night, known for its annual music festival.

It rained off and on throughout the afternoon while we strolled along the lake and tried the local kuchen, a cross between cake and pie that is ubiquitous in Chile, and frankly leaves a bit to be desired. Late in the afternoon, we headed out of town to find the municipal campsite. In fact we headed way out of town on a gravel road only to find that the campsite was closed. This was not the first time we were told “it’s not the season” for camping. Yet here we were two campers looking for a campsite.

Frustrated, we headed back to town and followed signs for a private campground. We drove our little sedan up a terribly rutted dirt road to find a small house surrounded by scrap metal and wood piles with 20 or so campsites laid out next to it, each with its own covered picnic table. Ducks and cows roamed freely on the property. Not surprisingly, we were the only ones there. It seemed a bit sketchy but we were pretty desperate at that point and the owner seemed nice enough.

The sun came out as we set up our tent and started to make dinner.

The rain started as just a sprinkle at first, growing increasingly intense until it blew sideways, drenching us and our dinner even under our little shelter. We retreated to the car as fast as we could, getting completely soaked on the 15-foot sprint from the table. After five minutes or so in the car, the rain let up and the kind owner of the camp came out of his house to offer up his garage as a dry place for us to sleep for the night. At first we balked; we didn’t want to impose. But he insisted and we weren’t too excited about a repeat performance with the rain.

So we carried our tent, gear and kitchen into the huge enclosure, grateful for a warm and dry place to sleep. This definitely qualifies as the most odd place we would sleep on our entire road trip.

The next morning, we got up early and headed for the island. We pulled up at the ferry terminal and within 10 minutes we were on our way. The ferry ride was short, just 20 minutes across, and we enjoyed it from the small deck, watching imperial cormorants dart across the water and seals bobbing their heads up every few minutes.

Once we reached the island we headed straight for Monument Nacional Islotes de Puñihuil to see the two species of penguins that nest just off shore.

Getting to the boats however, required us to drive across a small river and along the beach. We were nervous at first, not knowing the tide schedule and whether we might end up marooned in a ridiculous but charming “town” with only a parking lot, a restaurant, a park office and two shacks that housed the tour companies, but after a quick lunch and some discussion, we went for it.

We pulled into the first parking area with a small shack offering tours and were immediately ushered onto a boat that would hold 25 or more people, but with only four others. The tour around the small offshore islands was short but filled with amazing pelagic bird species, including both Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, as well as Flightless Steamer ducks, Kelp geese, and Imperial, Red-footed and Red-faced cormorants. A sea otter also made a quick appearance.

Clearly better suited to water than land, the penguins waddled precariously along the rocks. We watched a group of them slide clumsily down a steep embankment and others effortlessly slide into the water where they quickly dove out of site.

Floating slowly around the islands offered a glimpse into a world so unlike our terrestrial existence.

After the tour, we headed to a peninsula that looked interesting on the map. We were rewarded for our long drive on a rocky dirt road with a deserted beach that anywhere else in the world would likely be covered in 10-story hotels and all inclusive resorts. But at Guabún, it was just us and the oystercatchers, kelp gulls and one little seal resting on the rocks. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the expansive sand, shocked that we were the only people there on a lovely spring day.

That evening we drove to Chepu where we had booked a kayak trip at sunrise the next morning. On our way we stopped off at a sign promising queso to find a guy in a barn making huge quantities of scrumptious cheese.

In Chepu, we found a nice camp run by Alfonso, a native of the area and quite proud of his little slice of heaven on the river.

The next morning we were up at 5 a.m., to make our required kayak departure at 5:40 before first light. We thought it odd that the time was so specific given that this was a self-guided tour. However, as we put on the water in the dark, a heavy fog hanging over the river, we realized the magic behind the required departure.

A full moon hung behind us, providing just enough light to paddle upstream. As day began to break, the fog became an eerie, thick mist hanging over the water. We paddled through a sunken forest, created when the ground dropped by one meter in the 1960 earthquake, causing salt water to inundate the forest, killing all the trees. Their skeletons poked up from the estuarine river reminding us that nature is not static.

The mist lightened but continued to blanket the river as the sun rose, sharpening the view of our surroundings.

The ever-present chucao tapaculo called incessantly from shore, completely hidden in the dense underbrush. Black-faced ibis squawked overhead, while Chiloe wigeons and Cinnamon teals quietly plied the shallows of the sunken forest.

Back at camp by 10am, we decided to make the most of a sunny day and hike to the beach about 3km away. We walked along the country road, passing the local church and so many farms filled with cows, sheep, dogs, chickens, ducks, goats and turkeys.

Once we reached the coast, we climbed over massive sand dunes headed for the ocean before realizing that our access to the beach was cut off by a stream, pock marked by the cows that blanketed the area.

But we made the most of it, birding among the dunes, turning up a Rufous-tailed plantcuéétter, Grassland yellow finches, and a Spectacled tyrant outside its normal range.

But the best bird show was yet to come. That evening, back at Alfonso’s camp, we saw at least 100 slender-billed parrots bathing in the river next to our camp, flying back and forth to the trees on the other side, cleaning and preening for about an hour. Our photos really don’t do it justice, but the sight and the sound was something truly extraordinary, the bright sunlight almost glowing on their blue, green and red feathers.

We were sorry to leave Chepu, but we had decided to spend our last night on the island at Parque Nacional Chiloe, further south along the coast. We stopped off in Castro, the capital of Chiloe, on our way to walk along the bay admiring the palafitos (houses on stilts) and their myriad patterns of alerce shingles.

The Alerce tree, often referred to as the “redwood of South America,” is considered by some botanists to be the second oldest living tree on earth; the oldest one being 3,640 years old. The trees once blanketed the island but have been all but extirpated by incessant logging. We would stand in awe of them later in our journey.

In the early evening, we arrived at Parque Nacional Chiloe. We quickly set up camp, then enjoyed a hike through the coastal scrub and to the beach (finally!) for sunset.

The incessant wind whipped the sand across the beach so that it appeared the entire beach was moving and created cool ripples in the settled sand.

We were excited to see a fence along the beach, thinking that for once the cows were being kept at bay. But we quickly realized that the fence actually ensured the cows would stay ON the beach, munching away at the sparse vegetation above the high tide line.

The next morning before breaking camp, we checked out one last trail that proved to be one of the most interesting ecosystems, and one of our favorite hikes, of the entire road trip. The trail meandered through El Tepual, a dwarf coastal old growth forest, with huge tree roots, some elevated at least one meter above the ground due to the high water table.

You half expected forest gnomes to jump out of the gnarled, labyrinth of tree roots. And we finally understood the indigenous Mapuche myths of tiny people who live in the forest.

New Chile birds: chilean pigeon, imperial cormorant, whimbrel, flying steamer duck, dark bellied cinclodes green backed firecrown, humboldt penguin^, magellanic penguin, rock cormorant, neotropic cormorant, kelp goose, flightless steamer duck, austral negrito, ringed kingfisher^, american oystercatcher, spectacled tyrant, cinnamon teal, yellow billed pintail, southern caracara, south american snipe, grassland yellow finch, rufous tailed plantcutter, grass wren, white winged coot  (^ denotes birds seen previously in other countries on this trip)

2 thoughts on “Chile Road Trip Part 2: Isla Chiloe

  1. Pingback: Chile Road Trip Part 3: An Adventure in Contrast | Lower the Bar for More Fun

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