March 05, 2009

Chile Lake District Chiloé Island

Our all-day (8 am to 11 pm) outing to Chiloe Island was a treat. From Puerto Montt, gateway to the Lake District, we took the ferry Cruz del Sur II to Ancud. We learned later that the Spanish horses had to swim across these powerful 10-12 mph currents.

Chiloe Island has been inhabited for 6000 years but the Spanish settled Chacao and Castro in 1567 for protection and provisioning of ships sailing the Magellan Strait. The Spanish claimed California, Santiago, Concepcion and Chiloe to Strait of Magellan. The Mapoche Indians held claim from Concepcion to Chiloe.

Britt, our local guide, began our tour in Chacao by visiting a boat building in progress with the special wood alerce. After the bristlecone pine, the South American Alerce is the longest growing wood. House shingles made of alerce are flipped over at 80 years and will then last another 80 years. Only a tree that had fallen over before 1978 can be sold. But at $60,000 per tree, proving that a tree was dead or downed before 1978 can be “arranged”. Some 30,000 year-old trees are “mined”. Two timbers can be shaped at a time over heat. Britt noted he found someone working on this boat about every 20 tours. He pointed out the lack of driftwood on the beaches. This is due to a mollusk that eats the driftwood before it reaches the beach. It starts out as a pin prick and grows to half-inch diameter and 2 feet. This is a major problem for boat builders. Fiberglass can’t be repaired in wet climates - the mean annual rainfall on Chiloe Island is 7-10 feet. Owners must either put their boat in fresh water to kill the mollusk, apply protective paint perfectly, or replace the boards as needed.

Chiloe is famous for its wood shingled homes and churches.

As we drove around the island and walked along a beach, Britt shared interesting tidbits about Chiloe. He pointed out Sanderlings that breed in the Arctic (north pole) and migrate to Chiloe (nearer to the south pole). Chiloe has 40,000 of the world's 50,000 Hudsonian godwits (the rest are in rest in Tierra del Fuego and New Zealand). Chiloe exports dried spagma moss that can absorb 20 times its weight in water. Seaweed is exported to Japan for medicines and cosmetics and to Europe for ice cream.

For our mid-morning snack, we bit into tender raw oysters that Britt told us had been “in the water 3 minutes ago.” We learned that Hake is merlusa and the 80 foot Chilean sea bass used to be called the Patagonian tooth fish. When salmon and trout started to be farmed, women were deemed to be better than men in some aspects of fish farming and it became the first time in Chiloe history that women could earn their own living. But, the government allowed Norway to purchase 50% of the fish farms. Norway accidentally imported infected fertilized eggs which destroyed the Chilean salmon industry. Since Norway has other supplies, they just shut down the Chile fish industry. So far, 25% of 1200 jobs were reduced last March and another 25% reduction is expected. We also heard stories about local folklore, the tragic impact on Chiloe from the largest earthquake in the world (magnitude 9.5, epicenter near Valdivia, 1960), and the notorious Admiral Cochrane.

Overlooking one of many isolated beaches, I indulged in one of the most tender fish I have ever eaten, local hake / merlusa. After lunch, we headed out for a boat tour to view Magellan and Humboldt penguins. They had a clever launching system that at least kept our feet relatively dry. We stood on the platform while they wheeled us out to sea to meet our zodiac.
We saw many Humboldt (almost extinct - pink around beak) and Magellan (2 black stripes) penguins plus a bonus otter. We also saw red-legged, neotropic, and imperial cormorants as well as Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks.
Our last stop was at a B&B with alerce siding and friendly guests who joined us for dinner. With a view of the sea and mountains, we inhaled unlimited clams and mussels as well as the local specialty called “cuarento” comprised of sausage, ribs, chicken and potato/flour patties. Too much food - but we couldn’t stop ourselves.

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