The natural wonders of Chiloé Island

Chile home to many wondrous animals, plants and people

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2007

For many years I have studied birds in the south-temperate rainforest of Chile, using my farm and the associated rustic field station as a base of operations. The large continental island of Chiloé has become a home-away-from-home for me and I'd like to introduce you to it.

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First of all, this island is almost 1,000 km south of Santiago. Either by bus or rental car from Puerto Montt, you get to the island by ferry (at least until a threatened bridge is built). A short ride of about 40 minutes offers fine chances to see shearwaters, petrels, pelicans, gulls and terns, three or four kinds of cormorants, occasional penguins, and the regional species of sea lion (but here they are called wolves -lobos - instead of lions). The tidal currents in the channel are fierce, but they make it a good foraging place for all these fish-eaters.

The origin of the name Chiloé seems to be lost in time, but one notion has it that it comes from the indigenous Mapuche word for Place of the Gulls (Chil-hue). The island was originally inhabited by sea-faring Chonos people, who were pushed out long ago by Mapuches aided in the 1700s by Jesuit missionaries and eventually assimilated, genetically and culturally.

Mapuche legend says that the island and presumably also the Andes range was formed by a massive battle between two gigantic serpents. The malevolent CaiCai and her helpers, Fire, Thunder and Wind, attacked the more benevolent TrenTren by flooding the earth and almost submerging the mountain cave where TrenTren slept. But TrenTren woke up, arched her back, and raised the mountains higher, ever higher, until CaiCai and her helpers fell into the ocean abyss, where they still lie stunned and sleeping. But occasionally CaiCai has nightmares, and the earth shakes.

Spanish invaders took over the island in the 1500s, although pockets of proud Mapuche settlement remained. And when Chile eventually fought for and won its independence from Spain in the early 1800s, one of the last bastions of royalist forces was in Chiloé.

Despite all the political upheavals that characterize Chilean history, the Mapuche stories still live. One concerns El Trauco, a small, deformed male that lives in the forest, but who has a very hypnotic and captivating gaze. He accounts for numerous otherwise-unexplained pregnancies, although curiously his purported offspring are normal humans and do not exhibit his peculiar traits. Another story features a magical ghost ship, the Caleuche, with its crew of wizards. It sails in its own cloud, at night, even underwater, and it can change shape to elude pursuers.

Chiloé is now a land of farmers and fishers, with only two towns of any size (Castro and Ancud) and numerous smaller settlements. Most of the people live in the northern half of the island, where typical farms are small, raising cows or sheep. Farmers cultivate a home garden, with lots of potatoes and garlic, along with other vegetables.

Brightly colored fishing boats throng the harbors. Small shipyards, with access to power tools, are found in several places. However, boats were also built on beaches, using just hand tools and keen judgment, until recently. Since rural electrification happened about 10 years ago, boat-building has become modernized in rural areas too.

Salmon and shellfish farms clutter many of the bays. North American salmon (mostly coho and Atlantic species, I think) often escape from the rearing pens, and they have established spawning runs in some rivers. Over-fishing of native marine species has become a problem, endangering some of them.

Tourism is a growing industry. Go to one of the local crafts markets in the austral summer and you might hear at least six languages being spoken. The outdoor market on Sundays in Dalcahue, just north of Castro, has been my favorite, although there is a trend toward enclosing it. An array of wool sweaters, ponchos, blankets, slippers, and scarves is usually on display, along with baskets made from forest vines, some wood carvings, and various trinkets. In Castro there's a huge barn and side buildings full of similar items plus more jewelry and imports from other South American countries. Several smaller crafts markets are found in Ancud. The countryside is dotted with rustic chapels and small churches of distinctive architecture, reportedly showing the influence of German missionaries and immigrants.

Don't be surprised if you find Chilean, and especially Chilote, Spanish a bit difficult to understand. Chileans speak very rapidly, without moving their lips much, and have the frustrating habit of dropping terminal consonants. This makes it hard to recognize words, even ones that you think you know. To give you an idea how tough it can be, here is the previous sentence in that style: "Thi make i har to recogni wor, eve one tha you thi you know." Now say that twice as fast as you usually speak!

In addition, there are many slang expressions, which cannot be translated literally (as is true of any slang). The 'y' sound (for the double L or a real y) might sound like 'y' or like 'zh'. Bs and Vs are indistinguishable. Chileans use words derived from native languages for corn (choclo), beans (porotos), peas (arvejas), and probably other items, so the vocabulary differs a bit from other parts of Latin America. And here, 'platanos' really means ordinary bananas, in contrast to the usage in most other Latino countries.

One of my favorite little expeditions is to Puñihuil, a tiny fishing village west of Ancud. Here you can hire a boat to take you out along the cliffs and among the sea stacks, where you can see a wonderful array of wildlife. The main attractions are the penguins; this is said to be the only place in the world where both the Magellanic and Humboldt (Galápagos) penguins nest. In summer you can see them with their big gray chicks standing at the burrow entrances, or leaping out of the water only a rock ledge. There are kelp geese, red-legged cormorants, steamer ducks, at least two kinds of gull, and an occasional giant petrel from the far south, which sends the local birds into watchful silence. The native 'sea otter,' a.k.a., nutria del mar, a.k.a., chungungo winds its way through the kelp beds; it's closely related to our river otter, but not to our sea otter.

For bird watchers, another nice excursion is to the bay of Caulín near the north end of the island. On these beaches you might see some visitors from Alaska, such as whimbrels, sanderlings, Baird's sandpipers, and Hudsonian godwits. There are usually several groups of black-necked swan, pairs of steamer ducks and several species of dabbling ducks, gulls and terns of several kinds, two grebes, and sometimes the oh-so-elegant skimmers and Chilean flamingos.

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