The Chilean Witch Project – Chiloé, Chile


Chiloé is a small, yet magical, part of Chile which is not often visited by tourists. Its people, who have traditionally earned their living from the sea and from subsistence farming, are generally terribly poor but are amongst some of the friendliest people you will meet in South America.

A few days there is sufficient to soak up the rich, yet strangely foreboding atmosphere, and see a side of South America which is not often glimpsed. Many people come for the spectacular churches but I came for a different reason. I came to see if there was any truth in the dreaded Witch of Chiloé, who if locals are to be believed, is much less camera shy than her more famous cousin over in Blair.

For some brilliant pictures check out:

The island is located at the south end of Chile in the Región of the Lakes. It was inhabited origionally by Mapuches-Huilliches, Chonos, and Caucahues.

Spanish conquerors landed in 1553 and occupied it until 1567. The independence of Chile was declared in 1818 but it wasn’t until 1826 when the last Spanish troops were defeated and the last Spanish flag to fly over South American land was taken down from the small town of Ancud.

The Towns of Chiloé
The bus from the mainland first stops at Ancud which the guidebook describes as “a popular tourist town”. From my diary:

‘Ancud is a windblown sorry looking town…the houses are faced with wooden shingles and perch precariously on stilts over the grimy water’.

It was founded in 1767 to defend the coastline of Chiloé. But to defend it from what I am unsure as it looks like some bad words could demolish it.

Founded in 1567, Castro is the capital of Chiloé. In 1834, my old neighbour Charles Darwin described the place as, “a most forlorn and deserted place” (which I think is a bit cruel as the village where I grew up and where Mr.D, as he was known locally, wrote the Origin of Species, was far grimmer than Castro, and still is a total dump). From my own diary;

‘…my first impression is that I am back in the USSR…low wooden houses huddle together against the cold whilst hard faced people in drab clothes wander along the muddy streets…they go about their business with grim determination. There is a strange smell in the air which takes me back to Siberian towns and memories long since forgotten’.

Some 20km north of Castro is the small town of Dalcahue. It is famous for its Sunday market and its wonderful wooden church:

‘…the bus drops us off at the main square where a bunch of pissed off locals are trying to cover their tawdry wears with ancient tarpaulins…the church is beautiful and has one of those museums you only find in the forgotten corners of South America or the former Soviet Union…it’s a random collection of ecclesial crap. The shops in town are the same, their windows look like the contents of someone’s ancient maiden Aunt’s bottom draw spilled out in all their immodesty for the world to see. I am, of course, in love with the place.

At the end of a desolate road we find a monstrous pile of discarded cuttle fish shells from the local fish factory…a sad looking teenage girl is chewing gum whilst she sorts through the shells for something she can polish and turn into tourist tat. It is bitterly cold and her clothes are painfully thin. People here are desperately poor.’

Isla Quinchao
In the town of Achao is a UNESCO honoured church and very little else. We took a bus and ferry from Dalcahue. We shared the bus with a man carrying two huge bundles of dried seaweed which he was taking home to his sweetheart for Christmas. The town, which is sleepy at the best of times was deserted when we arrived on Christmas Eve. From my diary:

‘…at the end of the pier there is a ramshackle looking restaurant. Inside it is warm and cosy and the pico sours are strong enough to burn my frozen lips. I order a pollo ao pobre which is the cheapest thing on the menu. When it arrives it is a mountain of chicken thigh, a Everest pile of fries and two greasy fried eggs. For the first time in ages I wonder what is happening in the UK and wonder guiltily if I should perhaps call home. The food cost US$7 and it is the best food I have eaten for what seems like weeks.’

Achao Church
After lunch we decided to go and see the famous wooden church of Achao. The previous Christmas Eve we had been in Salvador and had wandered into a church where the priest had blessed us and said a prayer for our travels. I hoped for something similar this year. From my diary:

‘The church is fine as churches go…and there is another surreal little museum tucked away at the back. It has a book about the Pope and lists his travels. He certainly gets around and I wonder if he would be a good travel writer. The warden is a blustery woman who is hanging up decorations for midnight mass. I wonder if the congregation ever reaches double figures?

As we are leaving she rushes over to us and bars the door, did we like the museum she asks. We murmur encouraging words in Spanish and she drags us to the collection plate where we have already deposited a few coins. Listen, she says, waving a bruised finger at me and rolling her r’s the way the locals do when you have done something wrong and they want to make a point, you have to give more than this and she names a ridiculous amount. We laugh and look embarrassed.

She insists that there is some obscure Chilean law which says that all visitors must donate one third of their worldly goods after visiting a church on Christmas eve. Saskia is already humming a refrain from Jesus Christ Super Star under her breath. The woman is now insistent and wants the equivalent of a week’s local salary from us for visiting the church. What follows is a rapid exchange in gutter Spanish which thankfully Saskia can not follow.

Eventually, after cursing me and all my fellow travellers she frog marches us out of the church in to the blistering cold. Tomorrow will be Christmas day.’

You have been warned!

Myths and Legends
Chiloé is famous for its witches, dark deeds and supernatural happenings. There are many reoccurring characters in these dark and bloody tales. One such character is La Voladora.

La Voladora is a witch too, but she doesn’t participate in most of the witch activities and is kept on the edge of the cult and used solely for her special powers of being able to transform herself into a bird. In order to fly she has to undergo a secret and magic process in order to lighten her body. This process consists of vomiting her intestines onto a lapa (a wooden plate or a mollusc) that she later hides in the forest. Once this small inconvenience is taken care of she is now free to fly across oceans and deliver important messages for the inner circle of the clan – rather like a low budget DHL.

Unlike other witches, she doesn’t need the famous macuñ (a jacket made from the skin of a virgin’s chest) to fly. Her flight, however, is accompanied by loud unpleasant noises that scare the locals away (I am sorry, but does this remind anyone else of your average Air Portugal stewardess?). La Voladora must finish her mission before dawn and must swallow her intestines to recuperate her human shape (so that’s what I was eating on the last Air Portugal flight). Should someone hide the lapa then this poor unfortunate wench would be forced to wander the earth in bird form for a year and a day.

I told you Chiloé was a delightful place.

However, La Voladora seems like the Easter bunny compared to the Invunche. The Invunche is a monster that protects the gate of the witches most scared cave. A first-born male child is stolen from a family and immediately both his legs are broken and twisted over his back, sometimes his sides are sliced and his arms forced into the wound. Then a thick magical cream is smeared all over his body which makes thick black hairs grow all over the poor unfortunate boy. The witches split his tongue so that it resembles a snake’s. A wet nurse is employed to suckle the boy until he is old enough to move onto the flesh of a freshly killed child and later he will progress to adult flesh. He can never learn a language but speaks in retching guttural sounds which sound, in the ear’s of witches, like gentle chamber music.

The local people all shuddered involuntarily when I mentioned his name and suddenly found something better to do.

The fourteen wooden churches of Chiloé represent a rare form of wooden ecclesiastical architecture and are its sole example in Latin America. They were built on the initiative of the Jesuit Peripatetic Mission in the 17th and 18th centuries and demonstrate the successful fusion of indigenous and European cultural and religious traditions.

Chonchi church
According to UNESCO, “The churches of Chiloé are outstanding examples of the successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions to produce a unique form of wooden architecture. The mestizo culture resulting from Jesuit missionary activities in the 17th and 18th centuries has survived intact in the Chiloé archipelago, and achieves its highest expression in the outstanding wooden churches.” Although only the most avid of church buffs would go especially to Chiloé for the churches, they are worth seeing out as most are quite beautiful. The exception to this being the one at Achao for obvious reasons given above.

10 Reasons to visit Chiloé
1. Solitude – it’s a little bit off the tourist route.
2. It’s a terribly atmospheric place, rich in folklore and legends.
3. The people are genuinely hospitable.
4. The churches.
5. On a good day the views are magnificent and look a little bit like the English lake district.
6. When it rains, which is more often than not, you can sit by the fire with your host, drink good wine and listen to their stories.
7. Chiloé is a great place to wait for the Navimag boat to depart from Puerto Montt as it’s quiet and away from the crowds.
8. The market in Castro is a great place to stock up on excellent woollen cloths.
9. Some of the seafood places are excellent.
10. The shops are such surreal collections of junk and oddities that you could easily spend a week in them just browsing.

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