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Trip 39 — Quinchao Walk

Sunday, 24 December 2023

A thousand kilometers south of its capital, Chile fractures into bits of land all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. The northernmost archipelago comprises the Chiloé islands: the comparatively giant Isla Grande, also known simply as Chiloé Island; the second-largest but much smaller Quinchao; and about three dozen smaller islands.

Chiloé's remoteness resulted in unique traditions that lasted through the late 20th century. Perhaps the most distinguishing was the minga, a custom of reciprocal labor that kept islanders looking after each other. If a family needed help with a potato harvest or building a house, neighbors — perhaps an entire village — would show up to aid, knowing that the favor would be returned when it was time. To show their appreciation, the hosting family would provide food during the work, which upon its completion would segue into an extended party with food and dancing.

The indigenous groups of the archipelago were the Chono, nomadic people who took their food from the sea and transported themselves by easily disassembled and reassembled boats called dalcas, and the Huilliche, who largely stayed put and survived by agriculture. The Spanish colonists had a weak influence in Chiloé as they struggled to survive in a rough habitat, were neglected by their leaders in Santiago, and were cut off after an uprising in 1598 resulted in a gap of controlled land north of Chiloé. For many aspects of life, the Spanish had no choice but to respect the earlier traditions, such as diving for shellfish in the cold waters, and bartering rather than cash was the main form of transaction.

The history of Chiloé (whose name derives from a term for "place of seagulls" in the language of the Huilliche) and its people is brought to life in "Memories of Earth and Sea," by Dr. Anton Daughters, an anthropology professor at Truman State University. He lived in Quinchao's main town in 2006 and has returned many times since, continually interviewing Chilotes and witnessing the influences of the mainland and the changing environment.

The most severe economic change in Chiloé came from salmon farming, which began in the 1970s and grew to such a degree that two decades later the archipelago was responsible for 80% of the country's salmon exports. The proliferation of salmon farms took many people away from their own lands, and the sense of community, with its mingas and bartering, gave way to one in which people sought individualism and a living wage. This wage required long hours and repetitive tasks, and Chilotes today have differing opinions whether the change was a positive one, with older residents often nostalgic over the loss of unity, younger ones seeing opportunities for financial stability, and everyone acknowledging that there are pros and cons to both ways of life.

The political upheavals of 50 years ago have also left their mark: The coup of 1973 and resultant dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet resulted in a regime of suspicion and torture even in the peaceful archipelago where people had sustained themselves virtually independently of outside governance for centuries.

Until the Mocopulli airport on Chiloé Island opened in 2012, reaching Quinchao by air involved flying into Puerto Montt on the mainland, covering the 55 kilometers south to Pargua, taking a ferry to Chiloé Island, heading a couple hours farther down the road to Dalcahue, and hopping on another boat for the short ride to Quinchao.

My arrival on Quinchao will thus be straightforward once I'm done with the flying, as Mocopulli is close to Dalcahue. But there is only one ten-hour nonstop flight to Santiago daily from New York, a striking paucity compared with the multiple options for reaching places much farther afield such as Hong Kong or Tokyo. The scarcity of flights, the end-of-year fares, and the relative lateness with which I booked this trip meant that it was more affordable and interesting to make a day stop in Panama, a country whose land I have seen cruising through its canal but on whose earth I have not set foot.

That day stop is tomorrow. Reassured that the metro would be operating, I then wondered whether I would find anything to eat, but the presence of a Chinatown or two suggests a high likelihood of my having a customary Jewish Christmas lunch of dim sum.

Go on to day 1