As the Chilean coastline plunges south toward the Antarctic, it begins to fray into glacier-carved fjords and rain-forested islands, beginning with the Chiloé Archipelago. All but lost in the mists that mark the edge of human habitation, these forty isolated islets line the icy shipping lanes headed into the Straights of Magellan. They are a world unto themselves, long isolated from Santiago and the mainland, at least until Puerto Montt, 90km (56 miles) away, was founded in the mid-1800s.
Chiloé’s big isle is the second largest island in Chile, after Tierra del Fuego. Most of the population of around 150,000 people lives in the capital city of Castro. The island’s southern expanse is much wilder, covered by the lush temperate rainforests of Chiloé National Park and private Tantauco Park, a dramatically sculpted, 1180 square kilometer (456 sq mi) coastal reserve owned by former President Sebastián Piñera. It is a fine spot from which to set out for the glacier-framed fjords, frequented by blue whales.
The archipelago is noted not only for its waterfalls, rainforests, and beaches, but also its distinctive cultural heritage, shaped by international trade. Regional seafood dishes, in particular, get raves, perhaps because it was part of Peru for several decades.
Though the islands remain quite isolated from Chile proper, it’s about to become much easier to visit. Beginning next year, Chiloé’s brand-new commercial airport will offer flights from Santiago to Castro three times a week. If tourism doubles, as predicted, no doubt more flights will be added.
According to Southern Cone Travel, flight service in the region may well expand further. “Eventually, some flights might continue to the southern Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, where many Chilotes (as natives of the archipelago are known) work because of Chiloé’s traditional poverty and high unemployment,” says Wayne Bernhardson, who points out that direct service to Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine National Park would further benefit Patagoia’s tourism industry.
Currently, the quickest route to Chiloé is by flying into Puerto Montt, from which it’s about 150 kilometers (90 miles) by bus and ferry to the island—a three-hour journey, at least, which arrives on the side of the island opposite Castro and most services. Budget travelers and folks who just can’t get enough of that pre-Patagonian scenery could come from the capital by bus, a US$40, (at least) 14hr trip overland from Santiago.