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Exilian Articles / Re: The Edge of the Edge of th...
Last post by Jubal - July 14, 2024, 09:26:27 PM
I particularly found the folklore bits of this interesting: South American folktales and folkloric creatures are something I'd love to read more about. Thanks for writing it! :)
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by Jubal - July 14, 2024, 09:20:30 PM
Quote from: indiekid on July 14, 2024, 09:18:04 PMLooking good! not really related but my "Exilian" title graphic is still showing up all Christamsey - is that a permanent thing now?
Might still be the flowery midsummer one?

If so, press cnrtl + f5 to "hard refresh" and you'll be back to the normal logo, we had that up for a couple weeks around midsummer so it may still be cached :)
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by indiekid - July 14, 2024, 09:18:29 PM
Also I like that Reply is easy to access at the bottom now
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by indiekid - July 14, 2024, 09:18:04 PM
Looking good! not really related but my "Exilian" title graphic is still showing up all Christamsey - is that a permanent thing now?
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by Spritelady - July 14, 2024, 08:31:51 PM
Yes definitely more phone friendly, can confirm!
Forum Games - The Beer Cellar! / Re: Word Association
Last post by Jubal - July 14, 2024, 03:16:58 PM
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by Jubal - July 14, 2024, 03:16:45 PM
Ooh, yes, I forgot to mention that we're supposed to get a phone responsiveness upgrade with this too :) I'm glad it works well, I've not tested it yet myself!
Forum Games - The Beer Cellar! / Re: Word Association
Last post by Tusky - July 14, 2024, 03:09:31 PM
Announcements! The Town Crier! / Re: Welcome to SMF 2.1
Last post by Tusky - July 14, 2024, 03:09:02 PM
Yay! Looks nice. Plus works nicely on a phone now. Don't have to keep zooming in and moving the viewport 😃
Exilian Articles / The Edge of the Edge of the Wo...
Last post by indiekid - July 14, 2024, 02:58:22 PM
The Edge of the Edge of the World
By rbuxton

The Pacific beckoning over the beach.
"Have I reached the Edge of the Edge of the World?" The thought crossed my mind as I looked across a wide beach to the Pacific Ocean. In the distance I could see great breakers throwing up spray against a cliff. Beyond the breakers was nothing but ocean – nothing until New Zealand, that is. It was 2017 and I had been backpacking in Chile for about two weeks. I had left my travelling companion (my brother) far behind and I was running out of food. I realised, nevertheless, that my assessment of the beach's remoteness owed more to my own point of view than to geography. The world does not have an "edge" but my understanding of it does, and in this article I hope to push that edge back just a little further.


As a child I was taught that Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas in 1492, ignoring the 50 to 100 million people who already called them home. I'm pleased to say that this narrative has changed over the past couple of decades, but as an Englishman I can't escape the fact that my country is, typically, printed centrally on world maps. To help recreate the eye-opening nature of my journey I'd like you to humour me by opening Google Maps. Go on, it's not that difficult, even if you're reading this on a phone. Type "Chiloe" into the search bar but don't panic if you misspell it – you'll probably still end up in Chile.

You should now be looking at Gran Chiloé, the second largest island in South America and the largest of the Chiloé archipelago (I'm going to be lazy in this article and refer to it as Chiloé, since I never made it onto the smaller islands). Zoom out a little and you will notice that Chile itself is an odd shape: 4300 km long but never more than 350 km wide. Its border with Argentina is defined by the Andes mountains, which I'd like you to follow south for a little while. You will find that "mainland Chile" almost ceases to exist, breaking up into a multitude of lakes, fjords and islands. You'll see very few settlements but a host of national parks. In fact, the region is so dominated by the sea and a few pesky glaciers that these last 1000 km lack a continuous road. Residents of Punta Arenas typically fly to visit other cities. This makes the island of Chiloé the end of what I'm going to call "easily-navigable Chile", and we'll return to that idea later.

The calming presence of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.
To the east of Punta Arenas you'll see that South America's largest island, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), is shared by Chile and Argentina. It was named, somewhat foolishly, by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520. While navigating between it and the mainland, through the strait which now bears his name, Magellan saw smoke which turned out to come from cooking fires (he, or at least his crew, went on to circumnavigate the globe). Trace your cursor along the strait from the Atlantic side – it's easy enough for us, but for Magellan it was 570 km of very choppy sailing. He was so relieved to find a calm ocean on the far side that he named it "Pacific" – one wonders if his ability to name things improved at all later on. Before we move on, try retracing your cursor through the strait in the opposite direction. While the Atlantic side had a very clear entry point, you'll notice the Pacific side is a labyrinth – one which has claimed the lives of many sailors.

For the next part of the tour, zoom out until you see a patch of white at the bottom of your screen. That's right: it's Antarctica, about 1000 km from South America. I'm told that a change in wind direction on Tierra del Fuego can bring about a dramatic change in temperature. Not far from Argentina you'll see another large archipelago: Las Malvinas, known to the British as the Falklands. For our last stop on this tour, scroll or drag yourself to the very top of South America, to the border between Colombia and Panama. What do you notice? That's right: there's no road linking the two. The wild "Darién Gap" has never been developed; this has been a boon for wildlife but a disaster for migrants attempting to cross it. It's physically impossible to drive from North America to South America, but this does not stop people travelling the Pan-American Highway.

Before I talk about the highway I'd like to mention the wider idea of Pan-Americanism. In hindsight, the abrupt end of colonial rule in the Americas in the last few centuries provided an unusual opportunity: a chance to re-define the term "country". Are countries, and their associated borders, even necessary? My understanding of Pan-Americanism is that it was a somewhat romantic (and very socialist) effort to unite all the former Spanish colonies of South America into a single entity as part of the re-organising process. I believe the former Portuguese colony of Brazil was excluded, perhaps because of the language barrier and perhaps because its population was already greater than that of all the other countries combined. Proponents of Pan-Americanism held talks (on a variety of subjects) with leaders of countries in the North and they agreed, in principle, to build a single road running the length of the two continents. The road never saw the light of day but the idea of it remains. Adventurers make a point of following it south from Alaska, though there are now many branches and possible end points. One of them is in the south of easily-navigable Chile: on Chiloé. So although the island is not the Edge of the World, it has a pretty strong claim to being the End of the Road.

An Island and its People

Palafitos - traditional wooden fishing houses - on Chiloe.
Let's now scroll or slide back to Chiloé, pausing to admire once again the sheer length of Chile (all the more impressive when you consider that the capital, Santiago, is home to one third of its population). Chiloé is rugged, wooded and sparsely populated – home to a little over 180,000 people according to recent projections. According to legend, it was formed during a mighty battle between two elemental serpents: Trentren Vilu (Land) and Caicai Vilu (Sea). Its air of mystery is enhanced by the mists and rains which often engulf it. Chiloé, like much of Chile, experiences colder weather in general than might be expected from its latitude. This is due to the cold air brought to it by the Pacific Humboldt Current – an effect comparable to that of the Gulf Stream in the British Isles. Chiloé is sufficiently removed from the mainland to have developed its own unique flora, fauna and cultures. British travellers sometimes compare Chiloé to Scotland's Outer Hebrides, but with penguins.

According to Wikipedia Chiloé has been inhabited for over 7000 years. By the time the Spanish arrived (there's my European lens again) there were broadly two cultures living there: the Huilliche, the southernmost people of the Mapuche macroethnic group, and the Chonos, a tribe of nomadic seafarers. Many indigenous traditions survive on Chiloé, including stone and wood representations of folkloric characters. These are a colourful bunch: in addition to the aforementioned elemental serpents there's La Pincoya, the mermaid; El Caleuche, the ghost ship and Voladora, the crow-shaped messenger of the witches. Perhaps spookiest of all is the Rumpelstiltskin-like troll El Trauco who lays ambushes for unsuspecting travellers in the forest. In so doing he performs a useful social function: he acts as a scapegoat for any unexplained pregnancies on the island.

You may have noticed some similarities between the above characters and those of European folklore. This is not a coincidence: "Chilote" culture is considered one of the most egalitarian fusions of indigenous and colonial cultures anywhere in the Americas. In addition to Spaniards, Chiloé was colonised by Germans and Czechs. The colonisers were very impressed by the natives' skill in crafting boats of larch and cypress. In combining these skills with European architectural ambitions, the people of Chiloé (under the influence of the Jesuits) built some extraordinary wooden churches. These churches vary across the island but have some features are common: arched porticos; towers which seem to change shape from base to top; and objects typically made of stone, such as pillars, reproduced faithfully in wood. Sixteen of them have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). This, for the benefit of British readers, puts them on a par with the likes of Stonehenge. One of them – I forget which – has a painting of Christ surrounded by the aforementioned folkloric characters.

My Ancud Adventures

A view through the windows of the Convento.
My base for my week on Chiloé was Ancud, the island's second largest town. It is situated on a sheltered part of the north coast, close to the ferry port. It is a sleepy place of low wooden buildings, with a square full of stone statues of the local folkloric characters.. I enjoyed walking down to its rocky beach and visiting the weekend market, where some of the island's brightly coloured potato varieties were on display (it's possible the potato originated on Chiloé). During one of my walks I encountered a marching band of school-age children, and followed them, along with a growing crowd, to the town centre. We joined a number of other parades in the grounds of the former Convento de la Immaculada Concepción. It turned out to be the celebration of the life of a Chilota nun who had famously travelled to Germany; I was told she was a saint but, frustratingly, I've been unable to find anything about her online. The convent's museum is dedicated the island's wooden architecture, and I remember being impressed by the sheer variety of wooden joints on display.

With the help of the staff at my hostel I booked a place on a penguin-watching tour. We drove directly onto the beach at Puñihuil and boarded a small boat. The sand, sea, rocks and drizzle were all grey; the penguins' coats, I suppose, averaged to grey. The most striking animals, therefore, were the bright orange starfish, revealed on the rocks as each wave receded. Given that Chiloé is an important colony for both Humboldt and Magellanic (named after the explorer) penguins I was a little disappointed with how few we saw, but they were very cute. A second tour from Ancud took me into the forest to watch tough pangue leaves being collected for curanto. Our guide then took us back to the garden of his restaurant where this traditional dish was ready to be cooked. A number of white stones had been heating in a fire for some time, and these were placed in a pit. They were then covered first with shellfish, then chicken, pork, sausages, purple potatoes, dumplings, the pangue leaves and, finally, earth. The resulting mound steamed cheerfully for two hours, at which point it was gutted and the curanto served. The fresh shellfish, positioned at the bottom, seasoned the meal to perfection. Our host and his daughter then showed us some traditional salsa-like dancing.

The Penguins of Puñihuil.
The next day I set off early to hunt for wooden churches. I followed the Pan-American Highway for a bit then turned off for the town of Dalcahue. Before long I was picked up by another bus and arrived in the old port (the dalcas which lent their name to it were a type of ancient canoe.) I walked along the seafront and admired its handicraft stalls, in particular the woollen clothing. Striking inland (churches were often built on hills to serve as navigational aids) I soon found the beautiful Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, which was built at the end of the 19th Century on the site of a former Jesuit chapel. It was tastefully painted blue and white, with an elaborate pattern of archways at the front. The interior was calm, quiet and very much like the churches I was used to at home.

I went on to Castro, the capital and largest town of Chiloé. Facing its main plaza was the Iglesia de San Francisco, the largest wooden church on the island and the only one (as far as I'm aware) painted in vomit-inducing yellow and pink. It was closed for renovation during my visit so I took a walk to see Castro's famous palafitos. These wooden fisherman's houses were built on stilts to better withstand the island's extreme tidal ranges. Afterwards I caught one more bus to the nearby town of Chonchi, where I visited the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario. This one was pretty but I was a little alarmed by the hefty pieces of wood leaning against one wall and apparently holding it up: the churches, it seems, need a lot of maintenance.

In the National Park

Curanto: from festival meal to tourist feast?
A series of national parks dominate the west coast of Chiloé; I left Ancud for Cucao, gateway to the Parque Nacional Chiloé. In true backpacker fashion I turned my nose up at the "luxury" hostel by the lake and headed towards the village in search of an alternative. I pushed open a gate and followed a long, sandy path to a series of wooden cabins by the river. Despite being equipped for large groups (each cabin was stuffed with triple bunk beds) the place seemed deserted and it took me a while to find someone to pay for a two night stay. With accommodation at last secured I crossed a bridge over the river to what passed for the village centre. The only shop had a sign in its window reading No Hay Pan (There Is No Bread). It looked like it had been there for a long time. I bought some crisps to complement my remaining pasta and lentils. I returned to my cabin and sat down under a weak electric bulb with my diary. "I feel a little lonely and unprepared," I wrote, "Here at the edge of the edge of the World."

I was not as alone as I had first assumed: in the morning I met Diego, a keen birdwatcher, and "Snorty", a sea lion who liked to chill in the river around breakfast time. My first stop of the day was a nature trail showcasing some of the endemic plants unique to Chiloé (the island is home to unusual "temperate rainforest" habitats). I found it quite disconcerting to approach a clump of vegetation which, from a distance, looked familiar, only to find every plant completely alien to me. After the nature trail I followed the beach north and, with a bit of unplanned paddling, located the start of a hike I had read about online. The sun was shining brightly on this occasion and I set off in high spirits along the bank of yet another lake. I passed a number of small wooden houses, all of which seemed to have some cute puppies, piglets or similar outside. When the path turned inland, and into the rainforest, the going became significantly harder. I was beginning to see why the website had recommended hiring a guide. I decided against trying to reach the viewpoint at the end of the hike; as I prepared to descend I was rewarded with the sight of a small brown object hanging in the air. Despite its darting into the trees I recognised it as a hummingbird – I had never seen one in the wild before.

Some of the fluffier residents of Cucao gathering to bid farewell to our correspondent.
My objective for the following day was to reach the village of Cole Cole, deep in the national park. I had to make several enquiries about getting there and found myself grumpily standing on the main road at 7:30 in the morning. I had been told to wait for a man to walk past then bring the bus around; I had already paid a rather large amount for a ride, so I hoped he would appear. Fortunately everything worked as promised, and I was soon bumping along dirt roads in a minibus. We didn't stop to pick up any other passengers, and after about half an hour we emerged onto a beach and continued driving north on it. We passed strange rock formations on either side; I couldn't see anything else because the rain was by now quite heavy. I had to admit to myself that spending all day around Cole Cole, getting rained on until the bus returned at 4pm, did not sound very appealing.

As we approached the village – I could only make out a few wooden houses – I prepared to say something to the driver in Spanish. One of the biggest parts of learning a language, especially when you're short on vocabulary, is working out how to twist the words you know into an understandable sentence. Telling the driver that I had changed my mind and, having fought so hard to reach Cole Cole, I wouldn't be getting off the bus was a new challenge for me. I managed to make myself understood but I think what I actually said translated as "I want to stay with you forever". Shortly after this resounding success we finally stopped and picked up a hoard of children. This shouldn't have come as a surprise: of course the bus serving a remote village twice a day would double as the school bus! The children had a lot more energy than I and, though they were speaking Spanish, from their appearance I guessed that they had very little Spanish ancestry (one shouldn't make judgements like this, of course, but it's hard to avoid). The children took no notice of me throughout our journey back to Cucao and I learnt an important lesson that day: no matter where you are in the world, kids on a school bus behave like kids on a school bus.

A few bus rides later I was back on the ferry to the mainland. I was sorry to be leaving Chiloé but I had a date with my brother at the "third most photogenic" volcano in the world. This, at least, was how it had been sold to us, but I still haven't worked out how "photogenicity" is actually measured (Japan's Mount Fuji apparently tops the list). On the ferry I was, ostensibly, looking out for whales, but my eye kept being drawn back to Chiloé. The island's hills rolled into the sea in a blur of grey and green; it was easy to imagine the two great serpents locked in battle for eternity. I thought of Diego, Snorty and my friends from the hostel in Ancud. I thought of curanto: once reserved for weddings and special occasions, now mostly cooked for tourists. I thought of the wooden churches and how easily they could succumb to rot, fire or earthquake. In this, at least, we can be grateful to UNESCO for supporting conservation efforts and raising awareness of "intangible cultural heritages" worldwide. It's thanks to organisations like them that we live in such an open and well-educated world; a world which goes on for ever and ever and has absolutely no "edge".

Thank you for reading this article; most names have been changed. I couldn't rely on my memory for this one so I'll include some of the websites (besides Wikipedia) I found useful below. There are likely to be a few factual inaccuracies in the text so please point them out if you see them!


For Chilote folklore: and
For identifying penguins: (highly recommended!)
For the wooden churches: and

Editor's notes: Pan-Americanism is a topic complex enough for many historical dissertations, but some short notes for the interested reader follow. The early South American pan-Americanists to whom indiekid refers arguably pre-date socialism in its modern sense: Bolivar's Congress of Panama which aimed to unify all the former Spanish colonies in a supranational union happened when Karl Marx was still just eight years of age and a good twenty years short of writing his most notable works. Since then, pan-Americanism has shifted somewhat chimerically between a Bolivarian revolutionary ideal transcending statehood and, notably in the form of the Monroe Doctrine and its developments by men like James G. Blaine, a very grounded foreign policy tool often driven by the United States as the hemisphere's richest country. The concept of a Pan-American highway perhaps owes more to the latter than the former, being an idea pushed first in the form of a railroad in the 1880s and then, from the 1920s, as a road highway: construction eventually began in earnest from the late 1930s onwards, though large sections, as noted in the article, were never completed.

More of indiekid's travels in the Americas can be found in a two-part article with part one here and part two here.