Churches of Chiloé
The Churches of Chiloé are outstanding examples of the mestizo culture that resulted from Jesuit missionary activities.
Groups of missionaries would travel around the islands of the Chiloé archipelago. In each zone, they would build a church, looked after by local laymen for the rest of the year. This tradition was started by the Jesuits in 1608 and later continued by the Franciscans. European and indigenous cultural traditions were combined to create this unique form of wooden architecture.
Community Perspective: these churches are a great excuse to visit the beautiful surroundings of Chiloé and taste its excellent seafood. Nan visited 7 of them on public transport, Allan tackled 11 by rental car. Timonator (14/16) found out that they only have regular opening hours in January and February – the rest of the year you have to look for someone with a key.
Map of Churches of ChiloéLoad map
In 2012, I visited four of the sixteen UNESCO registered churches: San Francisco de Castro, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de Dalcahue, Santa María de Loreto de Achao, and Señora de Gracia de Nercón.
When I visited, the Church of Senora de Garcia de Nercon had yet to be restored. When I compare the photos that I had taken in 2012 of the Church of Senora de Garcia de Nercon to the more recent photos I found online, I can see that the entirety of the church's steeple and outer walls of the main floor are reconstructions.
The churches of Chiloé, by themselves, may lack the brilliance and the scale of the world's grand churches, but these churches are to be best appreciated in their setting, that is to say, the quiet and moody atmosphere of the Chiloé archipelago.
In a 5 day journey I have visited the Chiloé archipel with some friends with whom I have rented a car in Puerto Montt. With full insurance its quite expensive. We´ve paid around 76€ per day for the car but with 4 people it was worth the effort. The ferry to Chiloé costs 16€ for a car one way. We followed also the recommendations in this group that visiting all the churches without car will be quite complicated. In the end we visitied 14 out of 16 world heritage churches of which we could enter 8. We did not make it to the two more remote islands to which the ferry only goes once per day which means that you need to sleep there or organise a private ferry. Apparently there are 160 churches of the wood style with more or less Jesuit origin of which the more or less biggest communities and churches are the world heritage sites. We stayed 5 nights in Castro from where we visited all the churches which is easily possible as they are all within a 1 hour drive from the islands capital sometimes with ferry transfer in between.
Below follow the details I could find out about the churches as well as my opinions on them. Generally I must say a lot are quite similar and the joy of visiting many is more in driving around the island and discovering new places than being stunned by the new churches as many are very comparable to each other. Only some are quite outstanding. Additionally to the churches I have visited the other bigger town Ancud in the north which has two museums to offer, one on the churches and one on the islands in general, which I can recommand and from there we drove to the Pacific coast to see the penguin colony which failed though because of the boat not going out only for a handful of tourists. However we saw some penguins with binoculars from shore on the island in front of the beach (very small though). On another day we have visitied the parque nacional de chiloé which has nice forests and beach and dunes to offer near to the stunning pacific ocean waving in. Close by is also Muelle de las almas from where the souls make their final transit into the ocean and for the less mystical people it is a nice viewpoint of the cliffy shoreline.
Back to the churches here is my feedback and tips and tricks on each of them that I have visited. Generally the season for visiting the churches is january and february and everything outside of the season is more luck and willingness of the people with the key to let you in during their freetime. Some churches have their opening times on google maps but that counts for high season. Also the churches really need renovations- some of them obtained it recently. I found striking as European that no church had a organ. The fun of having a car was also bigger as without car I would have been much more annoyed by the rain that was present on more than half of my visit to the island which is quite a normal frequency for the rain here. Here are the churches in the order that I have visited:
Only church on this peninsula
Beautiful light blue colouring
Was my first church and I really liked it in the middle of this village at the water
The key is in the café next to the church where there are also bathrooms
Did enter my name in the visitor book. Feel greeted when you open the book yourself :)
Nice world heritage site wooden sign in the garden in front
Graveyard right next to it
Couldn´t enter and a woman told us only possble from 11 to 16 o´clock as according to Google. Another woman told us only possible to visit in high season
Key is with the woman living in front of the church on the boundaring property.
She works rather before lunch. Best is to visit in January and February
Nice wooden church however not special. I liked the very small town feeling
Service when we arrived therefore open
Bigger town and therefore also bigger church
Worth a visit but not fantastic
On the island of Lemuy to be reached by very regular ferries
Unpainted wood and closed. Not very special
Closed and no one there whom we could have asked for the key
On the island of Lemuy to be reached by very regular ferries
Very remote on the island. The neck of the island is quite spectacular which is just 100m wide and which was articifally craeted for 20m of length (I read that it´s not visible). Nice views of surrounding islands and nice drive here
Supposingly the key is with a person in close by Punta Lima but the people in the village didn´t have it with them.
Nice unpainted wood church.
Needs a renovation
On the island of Lemuy to be reached by very regular ferries
Nice unpainted wood church. Closed and no one there
Next to the (ugly) beach. It´s fun to walk on the pier a bit into the water
Was service when we entered
Mercado artesanal every day apparently best sunday with local island products. Nice to stroll around.
Nice information signs on the plaza in front of the church about the island
Good café in the hotel at the plaza
I had a curanto next to the mercado artesanal and I think with mustard it tastes quite fine with the mussels, meat and some other stuff in a net. However the mussels were very sandy in this canteen style restaurant place. So partially need to disagree with Nan. It´s an experience.
On the island of Quinchao. Frequent ferries from Dalcahué
Woman with expert sign welcomes us in the church
Stunning interior- I can recommend visiting this church
Oldest church of the whole country of Chile
On the island of Quinchao. Frequent ferries from Dalcahué
We could cruise with the car around it but couldn´t enter
Woman in the green house with two levels next to the graveyard has the key but did´t want to open us the church as she had worked already on the day before.
Stunning cathedral especially from the inside. Also out of wood but very different.
At least double the size of all other churches
Very different style to the other churches. Also originally a Franciscan church whereas the other churches were first jesuit churches and after they have been expelled became franciscan.
Beautiful exterior in blue with some big, white stars
Unfortuantely closed and the people in the village that we have met didn´t have keys.
Nice fishing village in which we saw how people constructed a wooden boat. Originally the church building style was based on boat building style in Chiloé.
The woman in the house with the red cars in front at the corner (4th house on the left from the church) stopped her lunch sleep for us and opened us the church. Visit is normally just in January and February.
Nice, unpainted wooden church
Guy in the hospedaje next by gave us the key. We even let some other tourists in
Could climb up the second level to get nice views of the church interior
Read more from Timonator here.
We visited the site in 2015. Many of the churches are quite spread out, and if you really want to see the best of what this site can offer, you’ll need to rent a car. We flew into Puerto Montt, and drove down. There’s been talk of connecting the island to the mainland by bridge for years now, but as far as I’m aware, that’s still not come to fruition, so be prepared to take a ferry.
The churches, like many things Latin America, are outwardly Christian, but with a strong local flavour. There’s a decently well signposted tourist trail, though be prepared for some tricky driving conditions. Not every WHS church is on the trail and not ever church on the trail is WHS, so if your time is limited, I recommend doing a bit of research ahead of travelling.
Castro makes a great central base from which to visit more remote islands. We stayed in a beautiful hostel in a palafito, a local style of stilthouse. The food was also spectacular, and unique to island.
All told, we visited 11 of the 16 churches. My personal favourite was Detif on the island of Lemuy, which is the furthest south, and requires an additional ferry to get too. Lemuy is Chiloe in micro, and an immensely relaxing way to spend half a day. You can visit a majority without leaving Chiloe proper, but I think you miss out on what makes the place special if you don’t get out to one of the smaller islands.
Other stand-out churches include Castro (easily the biggest of the churches), Rillan (with its stunning blue and white colour scheme), Chonchi (attractive astrological map painted on the roof of the church) and Tena (a good drive and close to the water's edge). We had no issues getting into any of the churches, with one even letting you get right up into the rafters.
Make sure to visit the the stunning Chiloé National Park for an amazing unspoiled coastline, and the Islotes de Puñihuil in the north-west for a chance to see wild penguins.
Chiloe is a special corner of the world, and despite the long journey and out of the way nature of the site, it was a proper highlight of all of my travels to Chile.
In October 2017, I made an easy, but long, day trip by bus from Puerto Montt to Castro, probably the best base from which to visit the wooden churches. One of the best wooden churches, the Church of San Francisco, is next to Castro's bus station. I arrived in Castro around 11:30 am, so was able to visit the interior of the church, which on the day of my visit was open from early morning to noon, closed early afternoon, and then reopened in the late afternoon.
Since I only had a few hours to visit several of the shingled churches, I booked a tour with Pehuén Expediciones (http://www.turismopehuen.cl), a local operator that I found while on my way for lunch at one of the restaurants in Castro's palafitos, traditional wooden stilt houses that sit above a tidal flat. There were other operators around the main square, and I expect they can set up similar day trips. I organized a few-hour tour (45,000 Chilean Pesos, approximately US$70) to visit three nearby wooden churches. We first drove around 20 minutes to the farthest church, the Church of Chonchi (I arrived around 2:30 pm and the interior was open). While heading back to Castro, we stopped at the Church of Vilupulli (it was locked, but my guide was able to drive to a local school and return with a neighbor who maintained the key; after our visit, we returned her to the school -- without a guide, I doubt I would have obtained access to the stunning interior). Finally, just outside Castro, we stopped at the Church of Nercón (its interior was open).
This is such a wonderful and peaceful part of Chile. Although the churches makes up the WHS, it's interesting to see the lifestyle here and all the small communities. Getting there is half the fun too on the ferry.
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
With the means available to them the Chiloens built several wooden churches on their islands. These are very simple structures substituting wood for stone. If you were to strip the decoration, the tower and the columns from the buildings you would end up with large barns. Still, the simplicity and the modest means have a distinctive charm worthwhile exploring.
During my visit of 2.5 days I was able to visit 7 of the 16 inscribed churches. Of these I was able to enter 3 (+1 view). I wasn’t able to find any information on the opening hours for most churches, so be ready to stand in front of closed doors. You may have more success if you join an organized tour.
Given our maps, locating the churches was not an issue at all:
- Castro: Currently (2016) undergoing renovations and not open to the public.
- Achao: Open from 10h to 15h. I was too late.
- Dalcahue: Wasn’t able to get in. Twice. Plenty of busses from Castro. Busses continue to both Tenaun and Achao.
- Tenaun: A bit remote and the road to Tenaun is terrible. They are constructing a new road, till then mind your car. You will probably be able to get in, though: The key is with a neighbor (leave a donation). Direct busses run from Castro via Dalcahue. Nice add on: You get a view of the snow covered Andes.
- Nercon: Nice church not far from Castro with a graveyard. The cleaning ladies let me take a peek.
- Villupulli: I liked this one best. A small village church on the sea. The key is with the neighbors (leave a donation), so good likelihood of getting in.
- Chonchi: First church I finally got in. The town itself is quite impressive.
The hours and opening times are provided to the best of my knowledge.
Hunting for all the churches, I spent hours in busses having the gorgeous landscape pass by. As such I feel that the Chiloe inscription should encompass more than just the island’s churches, i.e. some towns and the island’s nature, too.
There are plenty of busses coming in from all over Chile. If you fly in, you will probably end up in Puerto Montt. From there it’s an additional 4h bus ride to Castro (Cruz de Sol, Quellenbus). You can also check for a direct flight from Santiago to Castro that LAN has started offering.
I would stay in Castro, the center of the island and the central transport hub. It also offers the most amenities and has a site itself.
Having a car helps. A lot. But plenty of churches are easily accessible via local bus from Castro. If you are short on time and want to see as many churches as possible take a look at tour operators.
The easiest stretch and from what I have seen a representative selection are the four churches between Castro and Chonchi. If travelling by public transport, go to Chonchi and then hop back to Castro from church to church. Frequent busses are running this stretch of the Panamericana, so no need to plan much.
While You Are There
The world reknown, iconic landmark you want to see are the palafitos of Castro. I did a Kayak tour to get a seaside view with Siempre Verde Tour Company (25.000$). I do think the palafitos merit inscription on the list on their own. However, the beaches the buidlings are set upon are public land and the buildings therefore basically illegal. Apparently, there aren't even public property records. Also, the buildings aren’t that old as most were destroyed by the last great tsunami in 1960 and new ones are built frequently. Still, a site to behold.
The west coast and south of Chiloe are covered by impressive natural parks. From Castro hourly busses run via Chunchi to Cucao from where you can explore Chiloe National Park. The visit can also be combined with visits to the three churches along the road. From Ancud you can go and visit a penguin colony.
If you come in via Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and the Osorno volcano are nearby. From Puerto Montt you can also visit Monte Verde, one of the oldest known human settlement sites in the Americas and itself a tentative site of Chile.
- Several of the churches are aligned along the iconic Panamericana highway.
- Food in Castro is stellar. I ate at both Mercadito and Nueva Galicia and the quality was very good. Sole caveat: Curanto, don’t go there. Mixing mussels and pork sausage is weird at best (been there, done that, never again).
I too only learned of Chiloé through the UNESCO website. On a recent trip to Chile a friend and me visited as many of the churches as we could while based in the beautiful "city" of Ancud. The churches' designs are surprisingly sophisticated and beautiful. These things were built with love and care. You should go.
Important: as with most UNESCO sites: pay attention to the area surrounding it - they make the best part of the trip! Chilotas* were friendly and their food delicious (try the traditional Curanto!) and their culture rich in myths and legends; some of them downright diabolical. I found it odd, but I realized that any area that has such a huge religious presence begets a reaction. This, however, I only found in the booklets with traditional myths and stories that you'll see in every park.
*Initially "locals" seemed a tad unfriendly and dry (although not rude) until we started meeting native Chilotas who complained that these people are from other regions and give Chilotas a bad name.
Wasn't it for the World Heritage List, I would never have heard of this place. It's left out often of Chile itineraries. Chiloe is a green island, or actually a number of islands, with a distinct culture and history.
During my Chile trip I stayed in Chiloe for a few days, both in Castro and Ancud, its main towns. I ate a lot of fish in little harbour restaurants. Salmon features prominently on the menu, for about five dollar you can have a delicious meal.
My most precious memories are of the day I spent driving around the islands, looking for old or remarkable churches. I picked up a Czech hitchhiker on the way, who was much better informed about the churches than I. I think we found six that day, in hidden towns at the end of gravel roads.
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