Raúl Barría cuts a fashionable figure as he looks out to sea. The 20-year-old has donned a tie-dye shirt, chinos and green loafers to show a group of visitors the rugged west coast of Chiloé, an archipelago of one large island and 48 smaller satellites on the western edge of Chilean Patagonia. But Raúl is a country boy at heart. “I love it here,” he says. “There’s a kind of magic.”
Below the clifftop, Magellanic and Humboldt penguins slip in and out of Pacific breakers to catch fish for their young. When the chicks are fully grown, the Humboldts head north for Peru, while their smaller cousins join blue whales on the long journey south to Antarctica.
They’re not the only ones leaving. As Raúl tells it, his friends are moving away in droves.
Some only go as far as Puerto Montt, the port city a 90 -minute ferry trip and drive from the main island’s northwestern tip. But others journey the 600 miles to the capital of Santiago, lured by the opportunities of modern city life.
“We’re pretty unique here,” says Raúl, back in the Casa Damasco tour office in Ancúd, a faintly dilapidated fishing town. “The typical Chilote is very trusting, they’re very connected to their natural environment. But this is the traditional Chilote, I mean, because the youth of today have changed.”
“With all the technology we have now, we’ve lost this, and they want to leave,” he adds. “The place they’re living in doesn’t have much to offer them. In the north, there’s the skycrapers, the businesses; this attracts people.”
What the islands lack in modernity, they make up for in history. The Spanish came in 1567, but were too few to stamp out the culture of the local peoples. Instead, the two fused to produce a dense mythology of ghost ships (the Caleuche), mermaids (the Pincoya), and a forest-dwelling dwarf (the Trauco, once blamed for mysterious pregnancies.) Jesuit missionaries recruited local ship-builders to create dozens of all-wooden churches that dot the islands.
But change is in the air. In the island’s capital of Castro, the traditional houses on stilts known as palafitos are now overlooked by a multi-million-dollar mall. Families collecting rubbery armfuls of kelp on the beaches are a common sight; along with salmon, it’s sold by the kilo for export to China, replacing the ancient potato as the cash crop of choice.
But most controversial of all is a US$670 million bridge that will span the the 1.7 miles to the mainland, to be completed within five years. A huge engineering platform arrived in the middle of the channel in January, rivalling any monster featuring in locals’ tall tales on long winter nights.
Many recognize the benefits the bridge offers: locals will be able to access better hospitals, schools, and jobs, with a journey time to Puerto Montt cut to 40 minutes. But others fear the drawbacks.
“Progress is going to come, and big companies will arrive, and perhaps some places will lose their Chilote character,” says Raúl. “It will bring some things, but maybe not what we need.”
“I think some support it, because they think the economy will improve. But not everything’s about money,” adds his boss, Xua Avila.
Angela Cardenas, who runs the Casita de Piedra cafe in Dalcahue, a fishing village to the south, agrees.
“I wouldn’t change the island for anything. The place, and above all the people, have a magical sense to them,” she says. But she laments that the island is “becoming more like civilization. Here in Dalcahue is one of very few places to keep its Chilote identity.”
“No longer an island”
A few miles along the coast lies the shingle beach of Tenaún, dotted with purple mollusk shells once observed by Darwin, who dropped by with the Beagle in 1837. Here, leaning on his fence with a view across to snowcapped Corcovado, I find Rodolfo Bahamonde. The 77-year-old former merchant mariner was born here and raised on the sea.
“I’ve worked on ships all my life, doing a bit of everything. I worked for a long time bringing wood, potatoes, all kinds of things to Puerto Montt, and bringing things back to sell in Castro,” Rodolfo tells me cheerfully. In his lifetime, the island has changed in many ways, but his birthplace is “almost exactly the same.”
Most of the same families still live in the village, but some, his son among them, have left for work at Chile’s southern tip, or traveled around the Cape to Argentina. Across the road is the boarded-up wooden mansion owned by his former boss. “He married a gringo woman, and when he died, she took all his money and left,” Rodolfo recalls with a smile.
For Rodolfo, the bridge could change things. “Lots of people say the island will change for the better if the bridge comes, but for me, I’m not so sure,” he says. “With so many millions, you could put it into hospitals, into roads. And in the end, with the bridge, we’ll no longer be an island.”
Across from Rodolfo’s is Tenaún’s UNESCO-recognized church, strikingly painted in blue and white. Camilo, Rodolfo’s 23-year-old grandson, volunteers inside.
Camilo is currently studying for his third grade ship’s pilot license. “I can go anywhere in the world with it, but hopefully I can find work here in Chiloé,” he says.
“I love the sea. I remember him taking me out fishing when I was a boy,” Camilo adds, nodding across the street to his grandfather’s house. “He gets it.”
Chiloé has already survived invasions, pirates, mass migration, and earthquakes. But could the loss of its island status prove the end for its distinct culture? Or will a new connection to the mainland be the lifeline it needs to avoid becoming little more than an open-air museum?
Maybe the bridge will bring the businesses and visitors that will keep the new generation of Chilotes like Camilo close to home. And if the new arrivals get to be too much, perhaps the Pincoya, Caleuche, and Trauco can reappear to keep the numbers down and preserve the islands’ unique identity.