An Introduction to Chiloé Island


The jagged coast of Chile is speckled with myriad islands. Most of these islands feature impressive geography, wild landscapes and a surprising number of endemic species of flora and fauna. Many of these islands are still very remote and difficult to access. Chiloé Island is emerging as a popular destination for nature travelers looking to get off the beaten path in Chile.

Araucaria forests of Chiloe Island, Chile
The Geography of Chiloé Island

Chiloé Island is the largest in an archipelago of the same name. Measuring more than 3,200 square miles (155 miles long and 31 miles wide), the island is no small speck out in the sea. It’s separated from the Chilean mainland by the 1.2-mile wide Chacao Channel.

The landscapes of Chiloé Island are impressive, and even more diverse than one might expect. There are black sand beaches which look out towards a multitude of smaller islands. In the heart of the island, there are desolate flats covered with mossy grounds and small trees. And on the west coast, facing the Pacific Ocean, there are rugged shorelines and steep cliffs carved by years of erosion from heavy waves.

A Brief Human History

It is believed that the first human settlers on Chiloé Island came to the island around 12,000 BC. They were followed by a nomadic ethnic group known as the Chono.

The Chono people’s diet relied heavily on hunting and gathering.  They subsisted mainly on sea lions and seaweed, but also supplemented their food sources by growing limited crops of potatoes. Their population eventually went extinct in the late 1800s. During the end of their history, a branch of the Mapuche people called the Huilliche settled on the island and survived by using a mixture of fishing and agriculture.

The first European visitors set foot on the island when the Spanish explorer Francisco Ulloa arrived in 1553. However, a permanent European settlement wasn't established until 1567, when the Spaniards conquered and pacified Chiloé and established the towns of Castro and Ancud.  Interestingly, the island – part of the Vice-royalty of Peru during the era of Spanish colonization–remained a center of support for Spanish control until the bitter end of the war of independence.

Currently, there are around 150,000 people living on Chiloé. The vast majority of them are based in the current capital (Castro) and the former capital (Ancud), both of which have populations of around 40,000 inhabitants.  Fishing remains a popular industry on the island today, but tourism is also starting to become an important source of income for local people.

Flowers on Chiloe
Flora & Fauna of Chiloé Island

The unique environment of the Chiloé Archipelago has led to the flourishing growth of a wide variety of wildlife on the islands, some species of which are endemic.

On land, visitors would be lucky to spot one of the beautiful endemic Darwin foxes on the island. There is also a small deer that lives on the island, known as the pudu. In the seas and along the coast, the chilly waters feature an abundance of life as well.  Along the shores, one might spot penguins and sea lions. In the water, it's possible to spot Commerson's dolphins and a multitude of different whale species, including the spectacular blue whale.

The plants of the Chiloé Archipelago are also quite unique. In general, the island's climate can be categorized as a temperate rainforest. But there are also a variety of micro-climates on the island, which are a direct result of the ocean currents of the nearby seas.  For the most part, the western part of the island is covered in thick mosses and shrub-heavy forest. On the eastern part of the island, the landscape is more barren.  Some of the more common edible plants include a few different varieties of Chiloé potatoes and Chilean rhubarb.

The Skorpios II
Ecotourism on the Island

Chiloé Island has started to attract a greater number of international travelers, particularly those interested in nature travel. The island offers a broad variety of things to do and see, as does the surrounding archipelago.  The city of Castro is famous for its colorful stilt houses. Both of the main cities on Chiloé Island are known for their historic churches, 16 of which have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, most people come here for the island’s natural attractions. Chiloé National Park is likely the single largest attraction in the archipelago for nature-lovers. 

International Expeditions' cruise to Chiloé Island and Patagonia's Northern Archipelago combines the temperate rainforests of Parque Tepuhueico and Castro's famed churches with time spent exploring active glaciers and enjoying an observation of two penguin species.

Hailing from Alberta, Brendan Van Son is the professional travel photographer and writer  behind Brendan’s Adventures. His freelance work has been seen in outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.