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Only a narrow stretch of water separates Chiloé (the ‘Place of Seagulls’) from the mainland, but crossing it is like stepping into another country, and another century.
The green and fertile island of Chiloé was settled by Spanish colonists from 1567, and the indigenous population was soon decimated by European diseases. In 1598 the Spaniards were driven out of southern Chile, leaving Chiloé cut off and dependent for survival on an annual ship from Peru. The Spanish settlers were soon as poor as their neighbours and intermarried with them, producing a distinctive and homogenous society, with a vibrant folklore centred on sorcery and supernatural creatures.
The island finally joined independent Chile in 1826, and its economy began to improve. Many Chilotes left to work on Patagonian estancias, as they still do, and Chilote fishermen also established tiny settlements on the mainland just to the east, known as Chiloé Continental.
Chiloé is best known for its quaint palafitos, wooden houses built out over the water on stilts in order to avoid paying rent, and for its charming wooden churches. About 60 of these (of perhaps 150) remain, of which 16 were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000. Other attractions include its isolated islands and sheltered waters ideal for boating, its marine wildlife and national parks, as well as its friendly relaxed lifestyle.