Overland miles: 9801 Bus hours: 301 Empanadar: 38
Our finances had taken a bit of of a battering travelling in Patagonian Argentina, so we reluctantly abandoned plans to head north to Bariloche (telling ourselves it would have been full of gringos and way too touristy for experienced travellers like ourselves) and decided to head back to Chile after less than a week in the country.
Most of the other people we’d met in Argentina had been riding high off the back of competitive ‘blue dollar’ exchange rates, a semi legal market offering about a third more Argentinian pesos to the dollar than the official government exchange rate, meaning that their purchasing power was vastly inflated. We’d known about its existence beforehand and were packing greenbacks in anticipation of these fabled exchange rates, but unfortunately, no dodgy deals were to be had on the streets of southern Patagonia.
Discovering that a tube of toothpaste would have set us back £4.50 (US$7.50) was the last straw. We took ourselves and our poor dental hygiene back to Chile. The border crossing required us to pay £50 (US$70) for an uncomfortable, overly air-conditioned night bus sans food, films, reclining seats or working toilets. This was truly a low point in our 301 hours, 15 minutes of bus journeys across Latin America.
Our next ‘must-see’ destination was Chiloe, the second largest island in South America. Our journey there saw us take a ferry through some pretty majestic fjords, past more glaciers and forested hills.
According to our ever unreliable Lonely Planet, Chiloe promised “a rich spiritual culture based on a distinctive mythology, witchcraft, ghost ships and forest gnomes…landscapes that are windswept and lush with undulating hills, wild and remote national parks and dense forests”. The retired Brummie couple staying at our hostel preferred to call it the Chilean version of Craggy Island, (for non UK readers, Craggy Island is the fictional remote island off the coast of Ireland, where the TV series Father Ted was based). They recounted this observation to all the other guests, regardless of which country they were from, resulting in many bemused nods and smiles. While Chiloe itself is certainly very pretty, we failed to spot any of the magical, mystical charms we’d been promised. Had we been travelling for so long that we were failing to see the wonder in the new places we visited or was our hallowed travel guide simply over-egging the virtues of every destination?
In line with our policy of spending as little money as possible on anything (though our American readers will be glad to know that we had splashed out on some toothpaste by this point), we entertained ourselves wandering around the streets of Castro, the island’s capital where we we based, and looking at some of the architecture. Apart from goblins, ghost ships and witches, one of the more tangible tourist attractions for which Chiloe is famous is its wooden churches. There are apparently more than 150 working churches, constructed entirely from wood, on the island. Fourteen of these are UNESCO designated World Heritage sites. The thing we liked best about the church in Castro was that they’d decided to paint it bright yellow with a purple trim. Maybe the parish council was under the influence of some strong hallucinogenics (or some local witch craft) when they made that decision but it sure brightened up the town centre.
Chilotes also like painting their houses bright colours too – we saw homes that were green, blue, red and turquoise. Most have a fairy take-like shingle covering, making them look rather like something from one of the Grimm Brother’s stories. You almost want to reach out and snap one off to see if it tastes like gingerbread. Apparently, at one point the shingles were even used as money.
Our wanderings also took us past lots of ‘Palafitos’. These are the original homes of Castro where the back half of the house is built on stilts over the water. These days, most of the palafitos are being converted into expensive looking boutique hotels or posh cafes which proudly announce the fact they sell cafe en grano (proper coffee) as opposed to Chile’s preferred caffeinated beverage, Nescafé. Apparently, the architectural style came about because it was easier for local fishermen to tether their boats to a pier at the back of their houses and enter through a rear door, rather than moor their boats and tramp all the way round to the front. Maybe the tide was really low when we visited but we couldn’t imagine being able to get off your boat and into your house without a really big ladder.
In the end, Chiloe proved to be a pleasant enough stop over for two broke travellers. Our hostel had a huge kitchen where we could cook for ourselves, a living room complete with log fire, and the aforementioned Brummie couple provided excellent, if a little eccentric, entertainment. While the island’s landscape and mythical culture didn’t quit knock our socks off, it did allow us to spend us relaxing few days wandering around windswept streets before hitting the long road north. Jovian had heard tales of towns with Germanic style breweries and English-style fish and chips and was already salivating. We hoped that this time the rumours would live up to the reality.