Its name may be just one letter away from “Chile,” but Chiloé, the country’s second-biggest island, is a complete world apart. Connected to the southern Chilean mainland by ferry (a ride of about 30 minutes), Chiloé has managed to preserve its slow pace and rich traditions, remnants of the Mapuche culture that predated European settlement in Chile—and which many believe has undeniable connections to Polynesian culture across the Pacific.
Some 160,000 proud and effusively warm Chilotes live on the island, around a quarter of those in its biggest city of Castro. One of Castro’s most distinctive traits is its coastline of brightly colored palafitos, traditional wooden fishermen’s homes that stand on stilts above the waters.
But Chiloé is probably best known to the outside world for the stunning churches that dot its bucolic landscape. Made entirely of wood, these churches have roofs shaped like upside-down boat hulls—reflecting, like so many things in Chilote life, the deep local ties to the sea. Sixteen of these churches have collectively been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
No single thing is more crucial to the Chilote way of life than curanto, a massive feast cooked in layers over hot rocks in a large circular pit, while family and friends gather around it to sing songs and tell tales. Ingredients vary, but generally include meat, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, potato pancakes and potato dumplings—the potato being an especially important ingredient in Chilote cuisine, since many genetic scientists believe Chiloé to be the ancestral home of the modern potato.