Chillin’ in Chiloé, Chile

Dark rain clouds threatened all morning as we hiked over lush green hills, through forests of wind sculpted trees, and past exotic ferns and flora that reminded me of Tasmania. As my guide, Carlos Toledo, and I crested the summit, clouds parted, the sun shined through the last hint of mist, and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean arced around us. To the north and south, long windswept beaches and rocky bays stretched to the horizon and, from a craggy islet several hundred feet below, rose the barking of sunbathing sea lions.

As I discovered over the next several days of exploring Chiloé, Chile’s largest island, and some of the surrounding archipelago’s waterways, this spot is about as dramatic as the island gets. Compared to the rugged peaks and glaciers of Patagonia, the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert, or the steep ski slopes of the Andes, Chiloé is subtle and soothing, with rolling hills and meadows where sheep graze and wildflowers bloom. It has echoes of Ireland or Nova Scotia, and of Oregon’s coastline.

The island feels anchored in another, more bucolic era, a place apart. The Spanish first populated it in 1567, but isolated from both the capital and the mainland, the Spanish and indigenous people intermarried and developed into hardy, independent-minded seafarers and sheep farmers. They developed a unique way of speaking, a distinct cuisine, a credo of self-reliance, and a religious mix of myths, fanciful tales and Catholicism.

On slopes overlooking the archipelago’s maze of water channels, Sandra Nayman showed us her 10-acre farm on which she produces more than 4,000 pounds of garlic and several varieties of Chiloten potatoes, which are creamier in texture and taste than our commercial varieties. As one of only two sources of the potato—the other is in Peru—Chiloé is one of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems.” Two hundred original indigenous varieties are still being cultivated on Chiloé.

On the small island of Quinchao, Carlos and I lunched in a large, weathered wooden home. Iris Montaña, the fourth-generation owner, walked us through its Victorian rooms. Floors creaked as sepia-toned portraits of her grandparents watched us from the living room wall. I felt I was walking through a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I warm to her explanations of the islands’ customs and stories of forest gnomes.

The hotel, Tierra Chiloé, was baptized Refugia for a reason when it opened in 2012. Isolated on a sloping tongue of grass several miles down a dirt road from the nearest pavement and 45 minutes from the island’s capital, Castro, it looks out at the serene, sapphire-blue Gulf of Ancud and, on the eastern horizon, the sweeping brush stroke of the Andean cordillera. Its architecture resembles a soaring wooden wing. With only 12 rooms, all on the second floor, the hotel is intimate and friendly, more like staying at a friend’s estate. On the ground floor, reception, a large living area, and a dining room intermingle in an open, almost minimalist style. Glass walls offer a 270-degree panorama of the idyllic surroundings.

On my last night, I had a drink with the hotel’s founder, Andrés Bravari, and now its manager after selling it to a Chilean hotel group. A former Santiago construction engineer, he renounced his corporate job in 2002, at age 30, and with his wife moved to Chiloé. Passionate kayakers, they were lured to the island’s extensive coastlines.

I liked Chiloé’s quirks, fashioned through time and isolation: those unique churches, the straightforward innocence of its denizens, the patinated shingle exteriors of buildings, cows and sheep that live in their owner’s front yards. I wondered if, as tourism soars, the island’s charmingly idiosyncratic character will be strong enough to withstand the numbing effect tourism can have on places it loves. Already new hotels are being built and the island’s iconic waterside stilt houses, los palafitos, are being converted into coffee houses, boutiques and polished restaurants.

Put me in the purist camp: I worry about the effects of tourism on isolated places. But I plead guilty to hypocrisy, too. After four days of being coddled, I admit that gentrification, tourism’s sidebar, has some comfortable advantages.