Co-ordinates: 42°34.2’S, 073°38.6’W
Weather: Hail, rain showers, many sunny spells
I woke up early and discovered the sun was shining, motivating me to get up, go out on deck and have a look at the Island of Chiloe. Many guests were doing the same thing and there was much speculation as to how the day would develop as clouds closed in and it began to rain. This pattern was to be repeated many times during the day!
After enjoying the kind of cooked breakfast I usually only fantasize about at home, I headed for The Theatre to set up for my 09.30am lecture on “Charles Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle & his Dangerous Idea.”
2009 has been an important year for Darwin (200 years since his birth, 150 years since the publication of “Origin of Species”), so I was looking forward to talking about his life and work in this region of the world, which he visited during the Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin’s time in Chile and Argentina provided him with much of the geological, botanical and zoological materials he needed to develop his theory of evolution.
At around 11am, the Prince Albert II dropped anchor off Castro on Chiloe Island. Chiloe Island is actually an archipelago of approximately 42 islands off the coast of Chile, famous for its indigenous potato, which is now the most widely grown throughout the world. Our kind hotel team started serving lunch at 10.30am (!) so that we could sustain ourselves before heading out on one of two tours. About a third of our number chose to go walking in Chiloe National Park; most other guests opted for a bus tour of Chiloe to Achao on the smaller island of Quinchao, with a few independent individuals opting to do their own thing in Castro, the capital of Chiloe.
Disembarkation for the Chiloe National Park group began at 11.30am. A 75-minute drive took them to the west coast of the island, an area of great botanical interest. Leaving the bus, the group strolled an approximate two-hour circuit of the park, taking in many endemic plants typical of a temperate rainforest (e.g. southern beeches). Fortunately, a boardwalk had been laid to help visitors cross swampy areas. JJ and Hans-Peter were on hand to identify plants (such as Chilean rhubarb) and birds (such as Chilean swallow, Chilean wigeon and black-necked swans); finally, a stop was made at a Swiss chalet-style building for snacks and drinks – local cakes and fruit, which were much appreciated.
The larger group boarded two buses and left Castro via a route that passed an impressive cluster of “palafitos” houses. These are wooden homes on stilts at the water’s edge, built from the 1800s onwards to house incoming workers for the booming tinder industry. The sun came out as we left the buses, and the brightly coloured buildings provided us with a great photo opportunity, enhanced by the presence of a few black-necked swans. A rain shower started just as we got back on the buses. For the rest of the day, the sun continued to shine at just the right time!
From there, we drove past the old 1912 train station (destroyed in the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960) towards the ferry crossing at Dalcahue. Our buses drove on to a tiny ferry to take us across to Quinchao Island (no bridge!). Views of the coast from the top of the island were spectacular as we drove down to the small settlement of Curaco de Velez, where we stopped at a charming little museum to get an idea of what life had been like for Chiloeans in the past. In an interval of bright sunshine, our group followed guide Marlene down a street of wood-shingled houses typical of the area, some brightly painted. This style of shingling was introduced by German immigrants in the early nineteenth century and adopted by local inhabitants because it provided such effective protection against rain. Just before we reboarded our buses, a number of us were proudly escorted down some steps below a monument in the main square to pay our respects to the remains of local hero, Galvarino Riberos.
Our final destination was Achao, described as the last civilized place on Chiloe! This was because there are no shops or facilities south of Achao, so all residents of small, outlying islands come here as regularly as local water transport allows, to shop. Our guide explained that they were quite cut off in winter and if they got sick in the absence of doctors, had to rely on a “wise woman” and the use of local herbs to cure them – a little like living in a different century. The main purpose of our visit was to view the famous church of Achao, built in 1730 of beautifully carved and painted wood, using no nails. We heard the tale of the miraculous survival of a Madonna statue (when Mapuche natives had destroyed the early church and killed the priests), which occupies a place of honour to this day.
A short walk from this beautiful church brought us along the seafront to a building where we were refreshed with pisco sours and local canapés, whilst being serenaded by a very talented group of schoolchildren and entertained with a number of local dances. It was a charming interlude, after which we regretfully returned to our buses for the drive back to Castro via the ferry. All went smoothly and some of us enjoyed beautiful views from the bus while others slept off the pisco sours!
Arriving back in Castro with a little time to spare, we were able to visit its splendid church built in 1912. Originally designed to be constructed of concrete, it was adapted so that the local workmen could use wood instead, with which they were familiar from ship-building. It provided quite a contrast with the church we had seen in Achao, from 200 years earlier.
Our last stop was at the Castro craft market for a shopping opportunity – especially high quality hand-knitted items – before returning to the ship. Both tours arrived back at around 5.15pm and were quickly whisked to the Prince Albert II over smooth waters. After our Zodiacs had been hoisted, we set sail for Isla Magdalena National Park, tomorrow’s destination. An early dinner was served and I called in at The Bar to talk over the day with a number of guests before retiring for the night.