Penguins & Palafitos, Chile’s famous stilted houses of Castro, Chiloé Island
Just a short ferry ride away from the mainland of southern Chile is Chiloé Island, where the wood-slat houses are painted cheerful colours and the weather reports say it rains 300 days a year. We were hugely lucky to get 3 hot, sunny days in a row, which perhaps changed our view of how great Chiloe Island was. It has a really beautiful vibe, quite different to the rest of Chile as the island life has left this community rather isolated. We chose to stay in Castro, Chiloe Island’s main town, as it’s home to the iconic stilted houses, and would recommend it as a good area in which to stay with easy bus access to other parts of Chiloe Island. We felt very at home during our stay in Castro!
Officially named ‘Isla grande de Chiloé‘, Chiloe is indeed Chile’s largest island – fun fact, there are 5000 islands that belong to the country of Chile. Chiloe Island is surrounded by much smaller breakaway islands that make up the Chiloe Archipelago, and has no bridges connecting it to Chile’s mainland, only ferries.
How to pronounce Chiloé: chill-oh-AY
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How to get to Chiloe Island
Buses are generally pretty easy within Chile. To get to Chiloe Island, the most common route is to take a direct bus from Puerto Montt or Osorno for $7-10, which will include the 45 minute ferry crossing to Chacoa. Most will stop at both Ancud and Castro. Those coming by bus from Santiago to Chiloe Island face a gruelling 16 hour journey. Check out our guide to staying safe & comfortable in night buses in South America before you tackle this trip!
Coming by air, Chiloe Island does have a regional airport in the town of Dalcahue (Aeropuerto Mocopulli). The flights to Chiloe Island are operated by Latam Airlines, and at the moment the only place they fly to and from is Santiago. There are regular buses and ferries from Dalcahue to other major towns on the islands of Chiloe and Quinchao.
Things to do on Chiloe Island
Enjoy the small town feel of Castro
Castro is a really small town, so you only really need a day to walk around and see the main sights. On Plaza de Armas, you will see the beautiful yellow church, Iglesia San Francisco, which is one of the 16 UNESCO world heritage churches on Chiloe Island. Like most small towns, the main plaza comes alive in the evenings, with music, clothes & jewellery vendors and food. Up at the top of the hill, there’s the Mercado Municipal De Castro food market which we’d recommend browsing round as long as you don’t mind the sight of raw meat. Once there, you should definitely have a local lunch on the top floor. On the walk up to this market, you’ll also pass a cemetery with views over the coastline which is a great way to get your bearings.
Walk down to the Chiloe palafitos (stilted houses)
The main attraction in Castro (/Chiloe Island itself, in fact) is the row of 19th century Palafitos, which are the famous colourful wooden houses on stilts along the river. This is actually situated a little out of the centre, so you have to head down the road called Diego Portales, which leads you downhill to the river. From there, it’ll be obvious where to go 🙂 It’s best to visit when the tide is in; you’ll get a very different view in the day! The road is very steep, so if you have difficulty walking you may want to organise a taxi to and from the Chiloe palafitos.
Crossing the bridge to the Chiloe palafitos, there isn’t a huge amount to do this side of Castro other than soak up the vibes, but once you’re walking along the rows of them you’ll see that there are a few (pricier) coffee shops and restaurants in which to leisurely pass the time. Though once cute little fishermen’s houses, the purpose of this street is now definitely to drive tourism, though this absolutely does not ruin the feel of the place. It still feels very quiet walking down past the Chiloe palafitos. You can also stay in one of the many hostels and hotels along this street. If you don’t fancy the difficult hill, there are miradores (viewpoints) at the end of Gamboa and on Chacabuco, closer to town.
Raise a glass in Nercón
There are a fair few bars in Castro, Chiloe Island’s best spot for real craft beer is in Nercón, another small town 4km down the coast. It could have been an easy bus ride, but we decided to walk it, taking 45-60 minutes (we refuse to hike but apparently more than happy to walk for beer). In the tiny village of Nercón, there is not only a beautiful little wooden church with cemetery, but also a craft beer house called Pioneras, with an excellent range of beers and decent food considering it’s in a place that’s home to only a few hundred people.
Shop artisanal goods in Dalcahue
Dalcahue is a small town 19km north of Castro. Chiloe Island has many markets, but it’s Dalcahue that takes the crown for the best artisanal market (Feria Artesanal de Dalcahue), which is held every Sunday. It’s a popular stop for day tours, and the perfect place to have a gander if you’re looking for woven souvenirs to keep you snug. Just down the road, you can also find the Feria Artesanal Manos Chilotas which is definitely worth a pop by. Buses leave the Castro bus terminal a few times and hour and take around 30 minutes to get to Dalcahue.
Catch sight of some penguins
Yep, that’s right, you don’t have to go all the way into Patagonia to see penguins in Chile! In fact, there are 10 of the world’s 18 species of penguin living around the Chiloe Archipelago, including the endangered Humboldt penguin. The small islands of Puñihuil is where they hang out and generally try and keep themselves from becoming extinct between November and March. If you’re super lucky, you may even catch sightings of blue whales here. To access the colony on Puñihuil, you’ll need to first get to the town of Ancud, which is still on Chiloe Island so an easy $4 bus from Castro bus terminal. This takes an hour, and the buses leave from Castro about every 30-40 minutes. Just outside the Ancud bus terminal, there are plenty of penguin tour agencies with which to get a small boat to see the colony, so you can book this on the day you want to go. Make sure you find a penguin tour boat that provides clothing to keep you dry; Chiloe Island weather is not too forgiving!
Can you visit other islands in the Chiloe archipelago?
Yes! Luckily, to relieve the lack of things to do in Castro itself, there is plenty to see around Chiloe Island and beyond. Buses and ferries go to almost all of the islands surrounding Chiloe Island, and there are many! We went to Achao on Quinchao Island, which took around an hour on the bus from the Castro bus terminal for just a few dollars, including a ferry from the town of Dalcahue – which has a popular artisanal market on a Sunday, by the way. At the ferry crossing, we just stayed on the same bus and carried on the journey on the other side of the water without having to pay any more.
Achao was a lovely place to spend an afternoon immersed in small fishing town vibes, and getting a cheap Menú del Día from one of the many family-run restaurants. The empty beach is almost spotless and there are plenty of hiking opportunities around the lush green hills (though we gave that a miss because we’re mega lazy). The church is really beautiful in its true-to-Chiloe style, and there are lots of stalls to browse for cheap clothes and food in the market on the pier. We were able to see the ‘mainland’ of Chiloe Island from Achao, as well as a few smaller islands. For those with a little more time to spend on Isla Quinchao, Curaco de Velez is another often visited town on the island, where the quaintness of the 3000-population town is simply adorable.
Where to stay in Castro, Chiloe Island
We checked into La Minga Hostel (mostly because of the name), and although basic we were pleasantly surprised by such a friendly vibe. The beds are pretty comfy, the location is fantastic and the owner is a really lovely young woman who really takes pride in her little place. Alternatively, you can opt to spend a little more and get a hostel amongst the Isla Chiloe’s Palafitos themselves. Palafits is the only budget option under $50 per night for two people in the palafitos area.
Top tip: Don’t miss sweet treats in Castro, Chiloe Island
On the corner of Plaza de Armas, across the junction from the yellow church, you’ll see a small street food van that sells coffee, sandwiches and churros rellenos con manzar. DUDE, BUY THE CHURROS. Frickin’ fantastic. Further down the road towards the bus station you’ll also find an empanada stall that sells flavours we’d never heard of before, including sweet ones. Lozzy tried an apple empanada and it was the closest thing to Mr Kipling’s Apple Pie that we’ve had in 3 months.
Can you visit Chiloe Island as a day-trip from the mainland?
Technically, yes, if you were staying somewhere in the South of Chile, like Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas. Doing it independently, you would need a very early start to be able to make the most of your day, bearing in mind a bus from Puerto Montt takes over 2 hours each way, including a 45 minute ferry to from Pargua to Chacao. The things to do on Chiloe Island are spread pretty far apart, so you’d need to be selective about what you tried to see, though there are several tour agencies who offer 8-hour tours that whisk you around the island at an impressive speed. Take a look at these options for full day tours to Chiloe Island from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt to take care of the logistics for you: