The wooden churches of Chiloé are often touted in guided books as “gorgeous” or “spectacular”. While I do believe this is yet another guidebook overstatement for anyone but an aficionado of quaint churches, they are of a unique architectural style (16 have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and offer a great focus for a tour around the islands.
This post covers the churches that we visited. You could visit all of these in one very packed day, better would be to divide your visit into two days. You could then pick up a few additional churches if you haven’t seen enough, or spend a morning or afternoon at the National Park as we did.
It’s best to start your tour in Ancud, on the north side of the island, at the Iglesia de Chiloé Visitor Center. The small convent turned into a museum has a parking lot just outside the entrance. This is a great convenience in a town that has very little free parking.
They have models and examples of the building materials and construction methods used to make these unique churches. Given the seafaring nature of the island, the churches were all constructed by maritime carpenters and employ many unique shipbuilding techniques. You can also get guide books and maps in the gift shop.
Most of the ”famed” churches are located on the way to and around Castro where we would be spending the next two nights.
On our way to the churches in Colo and Tenaún we passed through Quemchi around lunch time and stopped at El Chejo, highly recommended in Lonely Planet. The menu of the day isn’t ready until 12:30 so we walked around town a bit. A cute colorful town, rough around the edges, but might be a good place to hangout for those so inclined.
Back at the restaurant we got the menu of the day as suggested by the guidebook. The dining room is a colorful, bright open space with sky lights, a stove fire burning and views of the port.
The meal started with mariscos soup with lots of mussels, eggs, tomato and rice. Good flavor but I’ve had better homemade broth.
The main was a ham hock and vegies that had been cooked forever. The smallish ham hock was way too salty to eat and may have been more intended for flavoring. The vegies had a good salty smoky flavor and included cabbage, carrots, corn, potatoes and peas.
The table behind us ordered empanadas, fish, meat and a plate of sliced tomatoes among other things. Looking at the board at the entrance on our way out I noticed that it’s not just a single set menu as described in the guide book – they do have other options so ask what they have before ordering.
Heading down the small road out of Quemchi towards Colo there are good paved roads all the way around to Castro.
The Colo Church, listed in Lonely Planet as one of the best, really wasn’t that interesting. Both the outside and inside are rather plain, albeit with bright green trim on the inside. You could see inside through the windows but we did not try to find the caretaker to have the building opened.
The façade of the Tanaún Church is painted sky blue and white. The pretty interior, mostly white, is rather plain. Here you also need to track down the caretaker for the key to get inside, but she was just leaving the church as we walked up so we asked to take a look. The exterior of this one is more interesting than the interior, though it is probably better in morning light. Early afternoon the sun is directly behind the front façade.
San Juan Church
The San Juan Church is down a dirt road off the main little road that winds through these towns. Although the church is not really worth the drive down the dirt road, it is an excuse to see the country side.
The church has an unpainted exterior and you can see inside through the windows. A small boat hangs from the ceiling. There is no mention of a caretaker to visit inside.
Continuing on towards Daicahue we decide to take the ferry out to the Achao Church on Quinchao Island, home to the oldest church. The clouds were clearing leaving a beautiful afternoon. They run the ferries back forth continuously until 1AM the guy told me. We got on the next ferry to the small island but there was a line when we returned and we had to wait for about 15 minutes for the following ferry.
This island is tidier that the main one, hillier with great sea views, houses in good condition with pretty fields and yards.
In Achao we hit the jackpot, finally a church worth the drive. The outside is nicely lit in the afternoon, the brown exterior is in good condition and contrasts nicely with the little yellow house next door.
The interior is truly special, beautiful honed wood floors, carved alter, ceiling and trim painted blue with white accents. This was an interior worth taking a few moments to explore and appreciate.
We continued on to Quinchao, down the main road then a short steep drive down a dirt road. The church is in good condition and larger than some of the others, but the same brown structure with buttresses on both sides. No windows to see inside nor any mention of a caretaker.
The next morning after breakfast we walked to the Castro Church, a must see if you are in the area. The native wood interior is worth even a drive to see. The colorful exterior in yellow with lavender turrets is in need of a good cleaning.
The interior, however, is fascinating. The entire thing is done in natural wood planks including the ceiling, columns and floor. Beautiful morning light through the high windows.
After a morning visit to the national park we stopped at the last two churches on my list, Chonchi just south of Castro and Aldachildo on Lemuy Island.
The Chonchi interior’s magnificent starry ceiling I had read about was a disappointment. Just OK stars on a faded blue ceiling in an otherwise drab interior. The exterior was in need of a good cleaning.
There is frequent ferry service to Lemuy Island running every 15 minutes. Cars were lined up on the way over and on the way back to the main island.
Lemuy Island is much smaller than Quinchao and it was only 15K or so to Aldachildo Church listed by Lonely Planet as one of the top 5 churches, specifically for its ornate interior. Unfortunately it was closed up tight on a Saturday afternoon. Posted hours say 1-5 Monday to Friday. The plain exterior is not worth the drive out.
The island, however, more rural than Quinchao, makes a nice drive if you are looking for other driving destinations.
Driving on Chiloé
Driving on Chiloé is generally easy with good roads now covering much of the island, including some stretches listed in the guidebook as having a dirt road.
In and around the bigger towns such as Ancud and Castro traffic was much heavier, especially during commute hours, and street parking was sometimes limited.
Ferry crossings connect mainland Chile with Chiloé on the north end of the island and in the south out of Quellón back to Chaitén. We only used the northern crossing in Pargua, about a 45 minute drive from Puerto Montt. It took about another hour including the ferry crossing to arrive in Ancud. On the way back to the mainland it took us about 4 hours from Castro on Chiloé to Puerto Varas including the ferry crossing.
Fares are collected on the ferry and you have time to get out of your vehicle and take a few photos or get a coffee in their small café.
On Chiloé ferries to the closest smaller islands are frequent, running continuously or every 15 minutes or so. For more remote islands check the posted schedules.
March 2-3, 2018
For links to the posts in this series visit the Lake District and Chiloé page.