Chilling in Chiloe

We all know that guidebook writers love to use trite and generally meaningless adjectives—charming, delightful, beautiful, lovely. They also love to give things the title—the hottest, the swankiest, the best—as well as to make lists. Lists above all get them in the news. And Lonely Planet, being the institution that it is (read that how you will), publishes a book each year called the Blue List, which is supposed to let you in on all the best places to visit. In the process of releasing the book, they also send out a list that gets published in newspapers around the world stating the year’s top ten destinations. Apparently, this year’s list was released in October, and well, wouldn’t you know it but our last week’s destination, the Chilean island of Chiloe, ranked #3 on the list of places you must go in 2009.

I didn’t hear about this until our last day on Chiloe, unfortunately, or I would have postponed our visit until the magical year of 2009. It appears we showed up a wee bit early, seeing that it’s still 2008. I guess that must be why I’d simply rank Chiloe as, um, well an okay place to pass a few days rather than one of the world’s 10 must-see destinations. I’m certain come 2009 it will be an entirely awesome place that will have all visitors swooning.

Now don’t get me wrong. Chiloe is a nice place. Lovely really. Even charming in places. But it’s not top ten. It’s not top twenty. It’s not even top one hundred. It’s not somewhere I’d go if I just had a week in Chile, or even two weeks. It is instead a good place to go if you, like us, have many weeks to spend in Chile.

Then, you can, like us, spend an afternoon wandering along the waterfront admiring the palafitos (or houses built on stilts over the water) and snapping photos of them when the tide comes in and they reflect perfectly in the water.

You can meander inside the UNESCO designated churches and admire the fine woodworking and simple designs, all while listening to the rosary being recited over loudspeakers by what sounds like a five-year-old.

You can watch Chilean kids enjoy their favorite activity—playing in park fountains—while savoring an ice cream cone in the plaza.

You can travel across the island to the national park and search for the frogs that you hear bellowing along the forest trail, then visit the tiny workshop of a tiny man who makes wooden spoons and woolen caps, and finally walk along the foamy beach for nearly 2 hours wondering just how far you must walk before you actually reach anything worth noting.

You can take an hour-long bus ride to the even smaller island of Quinchao to visit the town of Achao, which Lonely Planet describes as “a charming destination with a landmark church, outstanding architecture, fine food and accommodations.” You can then wonder whether that was a major typo or whether it’s only because it’s Sunday that you would instead classify it as “a down-and-out town whose only attraction is the crowds of drunk men that congregate everywhere.”

You can enjoy a bowl of curanto—the local specialty of mussels, clams, sausage, chicken, dumplings, potatoes, and pork in a broth—while looking out over the water.

You can buy a bottle of Liquor de Oro—the local specialty drink made with milk, alcohol, sugar, cloves, lemon, saffron, bitter almonds, vanilla, and cinnamon—and share it with the fellow travelers at your hostel while wondering together about where you’re supposed to find the “distinct culture” that Lonely Planet says the place oozes.

And in the end, if you’re like us, you can be perfectly happy to pass a few days there. Because although it may not be what you expected (having thought it might be more like the Swedish Archipelago or the Aran Islands, where there is indeed a very distinct culture), and although there may not be a ton to do, and although there isn’t a bike path or a place to rent bikes when that would obviously be the very best thing you could do on this island that is indeed scenic but rather uneventful, it doesn’t really matter a bit. You’re still on an island in Chile in springtime without a care in the world. You have in front of you a $3 bottle of wine that’s better than a $50 bottle at home. You have a fantastic sea view from your bedroom window. You have a roaring fire in the fireplace. You have a good book in your bag. And you have the company of fellow travelers, each with a good story to tell. Really, who could ask for more?