Archive for the ‘ Chiloe ’ Category


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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abstract: Most people have never heard of Chiloe Island. It has been inhabited for 10,000 years and was discovered and colonized by Europeans in the 16th century. Even Charles Darwin lived here for two years in the 1830s. He famously complained bitterly about Chiloe’s rainy weather. That might have deterred further immigration, but the isolation has helped protect rare natural habitats such as colonies of both Humboldt and Magellanic penguins and has encouraged intermarriage among disparate peoples residing on the Island.  The culture that has emerged from such human hybridization in Chiloe is distinct, remarkable further as it has also allowed for the continuation of identifiable component parts, especially the Christian and Mapuche systems of belief. The latter, that of the original people of Chiloe, has survived by oral tradition in the absence of written recording, thus becoming embellished with myths and legends. These are closely related to the geology of the island, its ocean and hills. Insular living of a relatively small number of residents made the Chilotes dependent on community help. That is reflected in the local cooperative attitude crystallized in the singular institution of minga, gathering to help neighbors. Chiloe is close enough to mainland Chile that the government has recently started planning to build a bridge between the two. For now,  tourists take the ferries, usually for a day trip. That is not long enough for a good look at all the riches that Chiloe has to offer. Here is an attempt at a longer focus.


We were on the ferry which we had boarded in Puerto Montt, Chile, crossing the Chacao Channel toward ChiloeIsland. The Channel looked calm all around us. I tried to imagine the turbulence here when Chiloe as a part of a mountain range sank in the Pacific Ocean waves following the last glacial period. That was more than 12,500 years ago. Such an event in the deep time might be the subject of conjecture, but the results were concrete: over 5,000 islands stretching south to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of the American continent. Next to the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego at that end, the Greater Island of Chiloe is the largest at this end. It is 118 miles long and 34 to 40 miles wide. I was now looking at it from the deck of the ferry.

After disembarking we began driving on a highway named Routa de las Iglesia Patrimoniales, immediately reminding us of the architectural significance of the wooden churches of Chiloe which are considered a National Heritage by Chile. There are sixteen such churches, built from the 1700s to the 1900s in a distinct architectural scheme.

The first church we visited in Chiloe was not among them, but it had its own charm. The wooden church in the small village of San Antonio de Chacao, which had been built in 1710, was elegant in its simplicity. As we stepped in a service was still on, fully attended on this Sunday. Our local guide said: “The worshipers are here not just because they are baptized but because they are believers.” The priest was at the altar. Presently, on the corner to his left, a man started playing the guitar and singing. I was surprised to recognize the tune; it was Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”

The Chacao church was at the tidy main square of the village lined with monkey puzzle trees. These Chilean pine trees (pehuén) are so ancient that they are described as a living fossil. They were cultivated in Chiloe as long as 10,000 years ago. The ground pine kernel was an important food source for the original people of Chiloe. Soon, I was introduced to another native tree which has also played an important role in the life of the people of Chiloe. Alerce is an evergreen that is the largest native tree in South America. Its wood has been used by the

Chilotes to develop an exceptional craftsmanship applied not just in the Patrimonial churches but in many areas of everyday life. I saw examples in the Artesanias shop a few doors from Chacao’s church. I talked to the three women who were selling the handicraft made in this village. They showed me a modernist looking small sculpture of the local penguin crafted from Alerce wood. They told me that the tree normally reaches a height of 200 feet in full growth.


Seaweed is another natural product that is still significant in Chiloe’s family economy. The locals collect them for food and cosmetics at shores such as the one we next visited, the Caulin Bird Sanctuary. As the name indicated this was also a beach on the Chacao Channel, ideal for bird watching with its exceptional tide which retreated hundreds of meters every six hours.

Indeed, Chiloe means the “Land of Seagulls” in the language of the Mapuche, the original people of Chiloe. The oysters from Caulin bay are equally famous, befitting the name for Chacao, “Water with Shell fish,” in the same language.

As we took a long walk on the Caulin beach, my local guide detailed her erudite version of the origin of the people of Chiloe. That evening I transcribed my notes as follows.

Until 1976 it was believed that humans first came to the American continent by way of the Bering Strait some 13,500 years ago. This was based on the 1920s and 1930s findings at the archaeological site in Clovis, New Mexico, U. S.A. In 1975, however, in Monte Verde which is only 30 miles north of Chiloe on the mainland coast, peasants brought to the attention of a visiting veterinary student tusks of a huge animal which was later proved to be a mastodon. This led to the excavation of the site by archeologists who have now established that human settlement existed in Monte Verde 14,800 years ago. This is based on the radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal found at the site. As our guide put it: “Among other evidence, the archeologists found burns on boards which could only have been due to a human-made fire, as there was nothing like a natural fire around that area. What is more, at the end of the board were knots which were from ropes made of local reeds tied to the poles those humans used to put up their tents.”

After the reports from a revisit by a group of respected archaeologists to the Monte Verde site in 1997, it has been generally accepted that the human settlements in this area far predated any other found elsewhere in America. It is likely that humans came down along the western coasts of North and South America. That theory is supported by the wide variety of  seaweed and marine algae found around their hearths. Many of those are the local seaweed varieties used by today’s native inhabitants of Chiloe. Therefore, according to the Monte Verde discoveries, Chiloé Archipelago may have been populated from some 14,000 years ago.  The earliest known inhabitants were a seafaring people called the Chonos. Around the 15th century, a branch of the Mapuche, called the Huilliche migrated from the mainland and settled in the eastern shore, engaged in fishing and agriculture.

My guide now cautioned: “The claim that Monte Verde settlers were the earliest humans found in the continent has been challenged based on the discovery of the 11,500 year-old skeleton of a woman found in Lapa Vermelha, Brazil, in 1975, now called Luzia.”  Her facial features are dissimilar to most Native Americans and their Siberian forebears. They resemble those of indigenous Australians and Africans. Accordingly, some Brazilian anthropologists have argued that Luzia’s ancestors lived in South East Asia and came to the New World as early as 15,000 years ago. This is not accepted by other anthropologists, some of whom have maintained that Luzia’s feature variability could simply be due to genetic drift.

There have also been various claims about the Polynesian origin of the inhabitants of the Chiloe area, the guide continued.  Certain common cultural traits suggest contact between Polynesians and the Mapuche of south-central Chile.  Strong westerlies and El Niño winds blow from Polynesia to the Mapuche region north of Chiloe. A few years ago a report suggested that chicken bones found in El Arenal, in mainland Chile not far from Chiloe, were from the 14th century and thus predated the arrival of the Spaniards. But later studies of the same specimens concluded that it provided “no support for a Polynesian” origin.

Pacific side

In 1553 Captain Francisco de Ulloa reached the Chacao Channel following the orders of Spain’s recently established government of Chile and proceeded to explore the ChiloeIsland. He is thus considered the first “discoverer” of Chiloe, although the Island had been “sighted” some 13 years earlier by another Spanish explorer, Alonso de Camargo, as he was traveling to Peru. Then as now the residents of the Island lived mostly on the eastern central part of the coastal range where the temperature is milder and it rains only 75 inches a year, and not on the far harsher environment of the Pacific side. Charles Darwin who spent two years, 1834-1835, in Chiloe later complained about a winter storm in its northwest:  “Such weather utterly destroys for every good end  the precious time  during which it lasts.”

We took advantage of our luck on a sunnier day to visit the Pacific coast.  The rolling hills drew a pleasing landscape. We were never far from the water with its scenic bays. The land seemed fertile.  We saw chickens and pigs in the small yards of the houses on the sides of the road. Bigger properties were fenced off . Economic activity here consisted of “small production of vegetables and dairy products, and extraction of shellfish and seaweed,” our guide said. This was not a rich or developed region. Closer to the Pacific, it took us 45 minutes to go 10 kilometers on the narrow dirt road which was used for two-way traffic. Cars passed us kicking up dust  as our bus struggled up some hills. We shared the road on occasions with riders on horseback which was still their common means of transportation.

Our destination was the Punihuil Islands, just off the shore of the Pacific.  This group of three islets near the village of Punihuil constitutes a NaturalMonument which is a wildlife sanctuary. That designation did not deter the café on the beach from offering several catches of the day on its menu for our lunch: salmon, conger (congrio), corvina, and hake (merluza). A poster at the Ecoturismo Office next to the cafe showed the pictures of the two types of penguins, the Humboldt and the Magellanic, and the penguin’s reproduction cycle, as well as the variety of other birds and mammals which could be found on the Punihuil Islands.

The main attractions were the penguins, about which we now learned the following from our guide.  The Penguin is a fish except that it nests as birds. Only ten percent of all penguins in the world are of the Humboldt type; ninety percent are of the Magellanic type. The fewer than 12,000 Humboldt penguins are classified as “vulnerable.” Punihuil is unique because “in all of Patagonia” Humboldt penguins only breed here and, furthermore, this is the world’s only shared breeding site for Humboldt and Magellanic penguins. The difference between the two types of penguins is “around their neck.” The Humboldt has one black pectoral band while the Magellanic has two. Penguins are always in couples or small groups. They make caves where they put their nests. In their colony on the Punihuil Islands Penguins are without predators but they have competitors for food which are the sea-lions who have their own colonies. The PunihuilIslands are the penguins’ home from October to March when they go back into the Ocean after breeding, and migrate north toward the Pacific coast.

We now boarded a small boat on the beach that took us closer to the PunihuilIslands. The penguins we saw were all the Magellanic type; we did not spot any Humboldt. The babies were without hair and looked grey. The nests were holes in the ground. We also saw some of the penguins’ neighbors here: red-legged cormorant   and kelp gull – for both of which Punihuil is the breeding ground – marine otter , black vulture , steamer duck, oystercatcher, and South American sea-lion.


Tourists come to Chiloe only on day trips, our guide said. That is a pity because the Island’s isolation over centuries has nurtured a unique blend of the cultures of its original people and the European immigrants. How can you observe a culture unless you stay a few days? We lodged ourselves in one of the few overnight accommodations available on the island, Hosteria Ancud .

We were greeted at the door by a legend who had preceded us almost exactly 457 years ago. Alonso de Ercilla was the namesake of the vessel that brought us over the Chacao Channel from mainland Chile; he himself had arrived around here on February 28, 1558 sailing on a more primitive boat with ten European companions and some local “Indian” boatmen. He carved that memorable occasion on a tree, and subsequently memorialized it in his La Araucana (The Araucaniad). That work, Published in 1589, is now considered to be one of the greatest historical poems in Spanish. It consists of 37 cantos (songs) and at the entrance to our hotel in Ancud, this part of Canto XXXVI (Stanza XXIX) was carved on a wooden plank , as a replica of Ercilla’s original (the English translation here losing the tight rhyme scheme of the “octava real” stanza form):

Here came, where another has not arrived,

Don Alonso de Ercilla, the first

in a small boat load shedding,

with the drain alone spent ten

year fifty-eight entered

about fifteen hundred, for Hebrero,

at two in the afternoon, the last day,

returning to the company left.

Alonso de Ercilla was a soldier in the expeditionary forces led by the Spanish governor of Chile, García Hurtado de Mendoza, on the move to subdue the original people of the land, the Araucanians.  This expedition was then followed in 1567 by a campaign led by Captain Martín Ruiz de Gamboa, to conquer ChiloéIsland and pacify its inhabitants. The Chiloé archipelago was claimed for the Spanish crown and the city of Castro was established as its administrative center in that year.

Those original local inhabitants consisted of three groups, my guide said. She had been trained as a social linguist and relished expounding on her knowledge of the evolution of Chiloe culture. The three groups were the Chonos, Cuncos, and Huilliche peoples. The first was a nomadic people that became extinct toward the end of the 19th century. The Cuncos were a sedentary people, belonging to the southern group of Mapuche peoples and speaking the language common to all Mapuche peoples, the Mapudungun. The Huilliche people were also a Mapuche living in the western region of the Mapuche’s traditional homeland in present day central Chile, although their language is also called Veliche.

In the Spaniards’ reporting of the time, the pacification was said to be aimed at the Cuncos.

Regardless, the need for such an effort is not easy to comprehend.  A few years earlier,  Alonso de Ercilla, as he reported in his Canto XXXVI, had encountered some friendly natives coming in a “gondola” in these waters to offer food and welcome. Tellingly, the poet worried that such goodwill will not “withstand Spanish indolence and corruption.”

Most of the Spaniards who followed Ruiz de Gamboa to Chiloe in 1567 were from Galicia, my guide said. “They had their own language and culture and were Celtic, related to the Scots and Welsh.” They were men who came without women “and married the local Mapuche, so what evolved here was a race of mestizos.” Because of that fact “We don’t have racism in Chiloe.” Our guide was married to a Mapuche herself.  “Mestizos have light skin and their hair does not go grey. So you can’t tell how old they are.” She added, “But we have class distinction which is related mostly to education and profession, and legitimacy of birth.” She returned to what the contemporary residents of Chiloe have in common. “They speak a distinct dialect of Spanish. The Chilote is different from the Spanish spoken in Chile, in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. It has been influenced by the Huilliche language. That is one reason for the Chilote culture being distinct. This process of using the Mapuche (Huilliche) language in Spanish began as early as the 17th century.”

I wanted to ask about the problem of illegitimacy which the guide had mentioned, but she did not have time now. She said Chile was playing a big soccer match with Uruguay and she had to go and watch it on Television. “For us futbol, which you call soccer, is like a religion.”


In 1594 Castro had 8,000 inhabitants. That was the bulk of Chiloe’s total population. Today Chiloe has about 155,000. One-half of these are thinly spread among many farms and small towns, while some 40,000 live in Castro and an equal number in Ancud. I decided to take a walk around Ancud to get a glimpse of how its one-fourth of all Chilotes lived. I started from the top of the hill where the San Antonio Fort had been located. It was built in 1770, with a clear view of the approach from the sea  to protect the port of Ancud that was then important for the traffic from Cape Horn. Two years earlier Ancud had replaced Castro as the administrative center of Chiloe. Ancud’s new status was pursuant to the Spanish Crown’s decision to transfer Chiloe from its General Captaincy of Chile to its “Viceroyalty of Peru. Independent Chile defeated Spain to take Chiloe back in 1826, and I could see a stone wall left where the Spanish flag had last flown in the island that year. Ancud continued as the capital of Chiloe until 1982 when Castro again resumed that position.

The streets up in this hill of Ancud were quiet. The first group of people I came across were five women, one a young black woman helping an elderly woman in the crosswalk . She was unique, an exception that proved the rule. Unlike many other places in America, here one could not find descendants of Africans.  As our guide had explained, the Spaniards needed slaves as labor for their mines in Chile but could not easily bring Africans around Cape Horn. Instead, “they called the Mapuche cannibals so as to be able to enslave them.” That slavery, however, did not extend to Chiloe, she said.

A block away, the Parish of Good Shepherd St. Pius X (Parroquia buen pastor Pio X) was in a modest building with even a more modest sign, just a typewritten name on a piece of paper . It was named after a big man, the early 20th century bishop who was the first Pope to be canonized since 5 centuries before. Across the street from the parish, The Hostal Chiloe, catering to backpackers, offered ‘WIFE’ (no doubt meaning WiFi). This was at the square with the National Police (Carabineros) station. Facing the station were the busts of Ramon Freir Serrano, President of Chile, 1823-1826, with a plaque under it noting that he incorporated the territory of Chiloe, which had been in the Spanish royalists’ hands, into Chile in 1826. There was also another bust,  that of Hernan Merino Correa [43], heralded in the sign under it [44], as a “Hero of the 20th Century.” In fact, he was just a lieutenant of the Carabineros, who died in 1936 during a confrontation with a contingent of the National Gendarmerie Argentina.

I crossed O’Higgins Street, named after the President of Chile who was removed from office by the junta that put Freir Serrano in his place. At the bottom of the hill was the shopping area which had souvenir stores with redundant sheep wool clothing items and wooden artifacts, but without customers. The main square of town, a few blocks away, was where the action was. The youth of Ancud had filled the place. Some had just gotten off their bicycles, some were playing soccer , some couples were cuddling, some were making dreadlocks on others’ hair, and in the raised gazebo that was in the middle a DJ was tuning up his electrical sound system [48]. The main fixture in the place was a sculpture of “The Pincoya.” The sign under it described this mythological figure of the original people of Chiloe as follows: “The Pincoya is the extraordinary beautiful goddess of the sea, appearing on the beach, dressed in seaweed and phosphorescent plankton together with her husband, the “Tincoy”, who attracts her with his melodious voice, inviting her to dance. If she returns to the sea at the end of the dance, it assures a period of abundance, and if she looks towards the beach there will be a time of scarcity. The victims of shipwrecks also receive her aid.”


When my guide returned a few hours later, she was in a foul mood. Chile had lost the soccer match. “There is a street in Ancud named O’Higgins,” she began our conversation. “He was a bastard.” She meant it literally. O’Higgins story is the proverbial example of discrimination due to illegitimate birth in Chilean culture which the guide had talked about. “Ambrose O’Higgins was an Irish-born nobleman who served the Spanish King as the military governor of Chile in the late 18th century. He had a woman in Chile from a prominent family called Isabella. She gave birth to a child whom she named Bernardo. She kept him and said he was an orphan. They lived in central Chile not far from Chiloe. Bernardo’s father did not acknowledge him and the two never met.” Only after Ambrose’s death, could Bernardo change his last name to O’Higgins; until then he used the name of the man his mother married. “Bernardo did not inherit from his father as the law did not allow it, although to Ambrose’s credit he paid for the son’s education. Eventually, Bernardo became involved in the Chilean movement for independence from Spain and with the help of the Argentinian leader San Martin, he became the first President of Chile.” However, our guide punctuated, “Bernardo O’Higgins was never really accepted by high society in Chile because he was born out of wedlock.”

Even today, she said, “the slang word here for an illegitimate person is ‘lonely.’” Although “Bernardo O’Higgins was our George Washington,” she continued, “he is only memorialized on a one Peso coin.” She took out one and showed us: “See the red head and blue eyes of his father’s ancestry!”  Then she walked us to the portal of the hotel where there were several stone sculptures of mythical figures from the original people’s legends. She pointed to one who looked like a deformed and ugly dwarf. She said that was Trauco. “He is the father named in the official Identification Card of illegitimate children.”  In the traditional Mapuche mythology of Chiloé, Trauco is a supernatural being that lives in the forest and has an irresistible attraction for women -although he is married to the ugly Fiura. When a single woman becomes pregnant by a person whose name is concealed, folks assume that it was Trauco. The stigma of illegitimacy in more modern times has its roots in Chiloe’s catholic religion. The way its culture deals with it is, thus, by resorting to its other source of metaphysically-based morality.

Castro Main Square

The juxtaposition of Chiloe’s two spiritual worlds was more prominently on display in the central square of the island’s capital city, Castro. A graceful statue of Pincoya stood in the fountain of blue water that was in the middle of the Plaza de Armas, looking invitingly toward Iglesia de San Francisco (The Church of San Francisco) on the edge of the square. Soil liquefaction caused by earthquakes had tilted the towers of the church but one overlooked that imperfection in the dazzle of the bright yellow paint in which the exterior of the church was bathed. This church has become a primary tourist attraction in Chiloe since in 1992 when UNESCO recognized it as a fine example of the wooden churches of the Island. It is not an old church, having been built in 1912, and unlike the older ones it was designed by a professional architect. The execution of the elaborate architectural detail by craftsmen of Chiloe, however, has produced an exceptional traditional monument. The church’s shape as an inverted ship was inspired by the naval heritage of the place. It looks toward the sea.

The Church of San Francisco serves a community that is seventy percent Catholic. When it was originally constructed it was meant to house Franciscan monks. Its vast interior now is resplendent in Rauli Beech and olivillo wood. Three major figures of Chile’s Franciscan Christianity dominate the statuary.  Facing the altar, on the right is the Virgin Mary dressed in a brown gown and a crown, holding a brown scapular as well as the Niño, also crowned . The sign of the pedestal on which Mary stood identified her as Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nuestra Señora del Carmen”) who is the patroness of Chile. Next to Mary in the church was a full size statue of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the 20th century Italian whose stigmata of wounds, in locations on his body corresponding to Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, never became infected and never could be explained. Having that in common with Christ and the first stigmatic, St. Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio is believed to have helped heal the faithful in Chiloe for the last 20 years. This church had its own chapter of the “Faithful Association of St. Pio of Pietrelcina.” Opposite Padre Pio, on the other side of the church was a sculpture of Archangel Michael standing victorious over Satan. It is this St. Michael to whom the Franciscan order directs one of its “Prayers in times of Trial.”

The Franciscans did not arrive in Chiloe until 1771, when the Spanish government expelled the Jesuit missionaries. The latter had come in the early 1600s, charged with evangelizing the local population and, to that end, built 79 wooden churches of the traditional style which are on the UNESCO World Heritage log. The power the Jesuits accumulated had threatened the control of the Crown and Spain replaced them with the Franciscans.

The goal of the Franciscan missions was to spread the Christian faith to the “uncivilized” native people. Education was a vital part of their program for converting the Chilotes. The youth were taken into the mission schools and there taught until they were judged secure enough in the faith to be returned to their communities as Christian teachers. “As a result of 500 years of missionary education,” our guide said, “today, Chiloe has one of the highest literary rates in the world.” We were now approaching a bookseller’s stand at the other corner of Plaza de Armas in Castro.

Spread on a long table was an eclectic collection of works by authors decidedly not Catholic, such as the Communist Pablo Neruda and the atheist Sigmund Freud, as well as books of topical interest like a history of Chile’s transition from President Augusto Pinochet to his successor.  These were in English. There was a volume of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle in a bilingual edition. In Spanish, two of the books here caught my attention. One was a Mapuche Dictionary and the other a volume on Myths and Legends (Mitos y Leyenda) in Chiloe.

The bookseller told me that he sold about 100 books a day which was a remarkable sign of readership in this small community. I referred to Darwin’s book in which he had first broached his still developing theory of evolution by natural selection and told the bookseller that I was intrigued by the other book on Chiloe’s Myths and Legends. “What is the origin of creation in those myths?,” I asked the bookseller. This was not a busy time and he could be generously hospitable with his answer. “The myths tell us that for a long time Chiloe was a part of the continental land. Then the mythical reptile CAI-CAI made the waters to rise, inundating the land in Chiloe and burying its inhabitants in the waves. Now, the protector mythical reptile TEN-TEN appeared against his enemy CAI-CAI and lifted the land out of the sea. He helped people reach high ground. He gave some men the power to fight and turned others into birds. As water receded people who had drowned became fishes and animals became rocks, valleys became channels and hills became islands.”

This was closer to Christianity than to Darwin. Catholicism and the Mapuche system of beliefs succeeded in co-existing in Chiloe. That was unlike the Europeans’ conflict with the Incas who had a tradition of blood offerings. “People are Catholic in Chiloe but very open minded,” my tour guide said. In fact, “in Chiloe witchcraft survives.”  In addition to using many jungle plants in traditional medical procedures, she said, “witches and wizards are followed.”

Medicine Woman

We went to see a Mapuche medicine woman. The sign at the door of the simple one-story building said: The Jose Antonio Huento Rain Natives Association. The woman who greeted us inside explained that this was an “association of the Mapuche for education and preservation of the original culture.” On the wall, there was a chart with the Spanish translation of the alphabet of the Mapuche language. There was a kultrun drum on a stove to the side, and a poster above it showing the design on its surface, with this title: “The Mapuche World in Kultrun”. The design was the image of “The Land of the Four Places” , representing the earth and the four cardinal points which were, counter-clock-wise, east, north, sea, and south. As our guide informed us: “The drum kultrun is a very important musical instrument among the Mapuche. It is used by the healer, and by the shaman (machi) in religious and cultural ceremonies.”

We were in the presence of Berta, a gentle grand-motherly healer . This was her clinic for traditional medicine. Standing in the middle of the room as we gathered around her, she gave us this description of her work, as our guide translated:  “Patients come here. There is no sign outside for the clinic, but we have a weekly radio program which reaches people. Our concept of health and the lack of health may sound a bit different to you. We see human beings as a whole. We say balance the mind and the body follows. For example, ‘stress or hatred’ will result in physical illness. So you treat the mind first, and then the body if needed. We do our diagnosis by conversation. Elders in other cultures came to the same conclusion. So that means that it must be O.K.  We also treat ‘cultural diseases’ such as ‘the evil eye.’”

The medicine woman continued: “What we do is now covered by the national health service. This means a person can come here, using national health vouchers, or go to the hospital.  People go back and forth between this type and western medicine. Sometimes patients come here saying Western medicine did not work for them, but they could not say it there. The difference between us is that we do not have machines here. Ours is medicine from the heart. We produce medicine everyday in this place based on the many herbs you see here [65], for pretty much everything. There is cream for burns. We also do massages.”

Berta was 60 years old. She had “inherited” her position as a medicine woman from her “family.”  She was “the only one” in Castro.  Healers in Chiloe are generally women, but there are some medicine men too. Before we left, Berta proposed to perform a ceremony to wish us a safe trip. We gathered around a brazier in her room. Berta spoke out a few words and put some fragrant herbs in the brazier’s fire . An assistant accompanied her by beating the kultrun . Then we held hands and Berta said “now let’s all yell loud” which we did after her two times and, again, one more time.


When we looked up, on the wall facing us in Berta’s clinic was the image of George W. Bush as Uncle Sam. He was gazing at us in defense of “machines.” This was in a poster which juxtaposed a scene jammed with cars against this caption in Spanish on the top:  “Food for the machines and hunger for the people.” An American in our groups grumbled: “Blame everything on Bush!” That was not far from the position of the newly radicalized youth in Chile who blamed the CIA for the 1973 overthrow of their hero, President Salvador Allende, and were currently demonstrating in support of the more assertive among the Mapuche. Our local guide in Castro gave us this retro-radical perspective on the historical background of the Mapuche political situation: “There are over a million Mapuche in Chile and two to three times more with mixed blood. It is impossible to know how many of the Chilotes are Mapuche because many do not consider themselves Mapuche or do not say so to avoid discrimination. As a group, the Mapuche are the most deprived sector of the Chilean society today. Diseases brought by the Europeans and the long wars with them killed many of the Mapuche people and eradicated much of their culture. The word Mapuche is the combination of map (land) and che (people) in their language and these people fiercely resisted the Europeans occupation of their land from the very beginning.”

She continued: “Hierarchical organization was what the Europeans called a civilization and the Incas were that way and were easy to defeat, simply by getting rid of their headmen. Mapuche did not reach that level of organization. Mapuche had seven tribes who would get together in wars and make common decision. They were decentralized and would engage in guerilla war, like Hydra with many heads. So the Spaniards could not defeat them; they lost more soldiers and resources in wars with Mapuche than in conflict with all other people they conquered in the Americas, combined.”

Spain did not win, but its successor, the government of Chile at the end of the 19th century succeeded in a campaign called the Pacification of Araucania to seize most of the Mapuche territories. Araucania was the name of a Kingdom the Mapuche established in 1860. Their king was a French lawyer, Orelie Antoine de Tounens who had come here in 1858, attracted by the tales of the Mapuche’s past resistance. A year later, the Chilean government defeated the Kingdom, arrested King Orelie Antoine, declared him insane and expelled him from the country. His heir, Prince Philippe now lives in Paris, France, and calls himself Royal Highness to the Crown of Araucania and Patagonia in exile.

“Chile has never recognized the Mapuche as a nation,” our guide said.  “By an agreement in 1980 the government gave them about 5% of the territories the Mapuche had claimed, but even that is now gone because the ‘Corporations’ took them. So the Mapuche have set fire to the Corporations’ machinery. The conflict recently got bloody. A Mapuche was shot in the back by the police. Two weeks ago was the 4th anniversary of that event and there was a big demonstration in Santiago attended also by many leftist students.”

The poster we saw in the medicine woman’s clinic was protesting against the corporations and their machines, under the rubric “Agrocombustibles.”  Translated as “agrofuels,” that term has been referred to as the “catalyst of global capitalism” by critics who see in it the grabbing of the land by the big agribusinesses to grow plants for biofuels.


Our guide said “Chileans did not have an appreciation of Chiloe’s culture and traditional products, but the young are now becoming more interested.” She was taking us to see an example of the local cottage industry.  This was a shop that produced small clothing items from wool. It had two owners who made the goods and ran the business by themselves; they had no employees.  One of them, Marcela , told me “our forefathers were attached to ‘wool-working.’”  On the wall here was a poster showing the drawing of a woman with the names of her body parts in the Mapuche language. The store made clothes only for women. Marcela explained: “even men buy for women, as are not good customers for themselves because they would always complain that the clothes scratch, etc.” She and her partner dyed their own yarns of many colors, using local trees, shrubs, flint, and sawdust.

The colors that the artisans of Castro are more famous for were on their palafitos. These are houses which were built on pillars of wood acting as stilts. The stilts served to lift them above the high tide of the marshes in which the houses were located near the waterfront. The commercial marine traffic of the 19th century encouraged housing in the area. Palafitos (pile dwellings) have existed since the pre-Columbian days in many parts of Latin America. The local style developed in Castro is distinguished by balconies and window forms, as well as their colors. Palafitos, however, were not the only structures painted in vibrant colors in this town; the blue chosen for other houses perfectly matched the color of Castro’s sky on this half-sunny day.


In contrast, the streets of Castro’s business district were drab and ordinary, betraying it as a provincial town.  The residents went elsewhere to shop for food products. That big, busy covered market was overflowing with local produce , fish , and flowers , mixed with handicraft , cosmetics and even an occasional used watch . The kelp and seaweed were specialties. “Kelp has to be dehydrated to eat,” we were told.  A salesgirl who was wearing a “Delaware” hoody sweatshirt chucked a mussel and offered it to me. I asked if she knew where or what Delaware was. “She says she has no clue,” our guide translated her answer. I am not sure if many in Delaware had a clue where Castro was. The magic of some manufacturing factory, probably in China or Bangladesh, connected the two.

In the market, of course, there were potatoes, a few varieties. “Potatoes originated here in Chiloe,” our guide reminded us, “there is genetic proof for that, and the ones in this market are close to the original potatoes.” It is believed that potatoes are indigenous to the Chiloé Archipelago and that they were cultivated as early as 10,000 years ago. They were introduced to Europe, and the rest of the world, only in 1536. On the other hand, Europeans introduced almud to Chiloe. This is a wooden box, with a capacity of 6 to 8 liters, used for measuring. Almud “takes about 2 pounds of potatoes.” As a yardstick of capacity, it was the most common measurement system in the colonial times in many parts of South America, used not just for potatoes but also for carrots, peas, wheat, oats, and even seafood. “This was for those who could not count potatoes,” our guide said.  As the original word “al-mudd” indicates, it was an Arabic term brought to Islamic Iberia. Today, however, Chiloe may a rare place where Almud is still used. “The only other place you can find it is museums in Spain,” our guide maintained. Indeed, when I asked Google to translate almud into Arabic I got bushel (al-bushel), as in English.


Chilotes produce nearly all the food they need, our guide said. “They like to eat well: having several dishes at lunch is common.” We were about to find this out for ourselves as we headed to a minga. A cherished tradition among the Chilotes is the gathering of friends to help in a neighbor’s construction or agricultural projects. The minga is this “collective work done for the community.” Such work is rewarded usually by supplying food and drinks to the friends. “Curanto is how you pay back to the community,” we were told by our hostess, Maria Luisa. Curanto is a traditional Chilote food. Although we were not among those who helped her husband build their “house and the furniture in it,” some time ago, we were going to be served a curanto, similar to the one they had been fed.

We witnessed the making of the curanto step by step. In the front yard of the house, when we arrived, we saw two men who had built a fire from charcoal in a hole they had dug and surrounded with leaves. They now spread a big number of mussels on the stones in the smoking charcoal. Next, potatoes were laid on top of the mussels, pieces of chicken on top of the potatoes, and sausages on top of the chickens. These were now covered with big green leaves before Maria Luisa brought out a plate with potato bread from the house and placed it upon the pile which was again covered with another layer of leaves.  Now many more leaves of a different kind were added and a black tarp and plastics were used as the final coverings, secured with several pieces of peat turf . This heap was left to be cooked and steamed for an hour, as our hostess informed us while she led us inside the house. “The curanto will be ready when the shellfish release their water. We put the mussels at the bottom to allow their steaming juice to cook and flavor the above layers of food.”

On the stove in her kitchen, Marie Luis showed us how the popular local snack milcao, fried potato pancakes, was made. She mixed egg yoke with potatoes and fried them in a pan with vegetable oil. She steamed honey to be added to the milcao which we were then served.

Afterward, we came back to the yard to see the men uncover the hole and take out the steaming food. A table had been set with plates and glasses for wine and water in the dinning room. The bountiful feast was put on plates. Our hosts sat with us. They said they had two children who were away but eventually would come home and stay here. They had been producing milk here and now they wanted to produce cheese. In the backyard we could see their grazing pasture. We also noticed a wooden tub which sometimes functioned as the hot tub in this property that introduced itself as a “Turismo Rural” establishment. Amidst their diplomas on the walls of the dining room there was the picture of one guest in place of honor: Isabel Allende. Marie Luis took it down for us to see. Chiloe is the setting the Chilean-American Allende used in her 2011 novel Mayas Notebook. She rendered it as a beautiful place where her heroine, a troubled young woman could begin to heal after a harrowing life of abandonment, drugs, and violence in the United States.

There was a lot left over from the curanto meal. The custom is, Marie Luis said to our group of guests from America, “you take a doggy bag for the road.