Headed to Chiloe next which is a small green island with awful weather…it all felt vaguely familiar somehow. We stayed two nights in Ancud on the north coast first, stopping by a museum and doing a trip to a bird colony at Puñihuil on the west coast where we saw Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, sea otters, pelicans and sea lions. Next we headed to the flooded forest of the Chepu Valley, also on the west coast. The whole area sank two meters during an earthquake in the 1960′s, flooding the riverside forest and creating a very surreal place to go kayaking. We stayed two nights at a small eco-campsite with wind turbines and solar showers run by a lovely Chilean couple, who geared us up for setting off on the river at dawn the next morning.
We woke up at 5:30am and were on the river about 6am, still a while before sunrise – set up with a two-way radio to the base. Kayaking up the valley was the easy direction, wind on our backs as we paddled through the bizarre landscape of dead tree-stumps while the sun slowly rose behind the clouds, birdsong breaking the early morning silence. Following the serpentine turns of the river the dead trees started changing into live ones above the level where the salt water could reach, and after seven kilometers we came to a labyrinthine mangrove at the upper end of the valley. Paddling back was harder – while it had been still in the early morning the wind a little later on had been strong enough that we could just hold up the paddle in the air as a sail – and now we had to work against it. It started raining almost as soon as we turned around also. With a couple stops on the riverbank for snacks and trying to wait out the worst of the rain it took us double the time, a full six hours, to work our way back – having to stop and hold on to the broken tree stumps after every burst of paddling against the strong wind. When we finally finished the workout session and got back to shore they had three hot bowls of soup waiting for us
On to Castro in the center of the island next – it’s a cute fisherman village with that charming paint-falling-off feel, and we were staying in a house on stilts down by the water in the palafitos traditional part of town. We stayed four days, had some great seafood and some not-so-great – I got sick for the first time since India and spent a couple days in bed. Edel and Teresa visited a couple smaller towns, Achao and Dalcahue and tried the local speciality curanto at a market – a mix of beef, lamb, chicken, mussels and potato, which was traditionally cooked in a pit in the ground in the old days. When I felt better we moved south, visiting tiny Chonchi first with one of the peculiar Chiloe churches, and having a look in a museum in an old house in town…once we eventually found someone who could let us in. The museum had lots of photographs and displays on the timber baron who used to live in the house – “El Rey de Cipres” destroyed the forests of nearly the entire archipelago and married his first cousin, both surely well respected behaviours at the time.
Our next destination was Quellon on the south coast, to get a ferry into the sparsely populated Aisen region on the mainland. While most towns on Chiloe have that charming run-down feel, Quellon goes a step further and look like it fell off a truck and was left for dead. We arrived in the gushing rain with a few hours to spare before the ferry, and went looking for something to eat. Nothing much looked open, but we walked in to one fairly rough looking place in the harbour area that at least had a sign outside claiming it to be a restaurant – it was empty except for two very bored looking larger ladies drinking pints at a wooden table in the center. We sat down at a different table and they shouted for the owner…out walks the big brothel mama with enough makeup for ten people! Edel hesitated and then tried in Spanish “…do you serve coffee, or maybe tea?”. “No” she replied, “purely beer”, and gave us a look that said “…and you shouldn’t be in here should you?”. We decided it would be nice to wait in the ferry terminal instead – back out into the rain!