The heartland of Chilean folklore, greener than Washington and Oregon, Chiloé is a rain-soaked archipelago whose wild western woodlands are darker than the Black Forest and traversed by trails that lead to secluded ocean beaches with rolling dunes. Its cultural landscape is a mosaic of field and forest, and its seas yield some of Chile’s most diverse seafood.
Chiloé is the archipelago and the associated mainland area that is not accessible overland. The main island is the Isla Grande de Chiloé. Some 180 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide, one of about 40 islands in the group, the Isla Grande is not only Chile’s largest island, but South America’s second largest—only Tierra del Fuego  (shared between Chile and Argentina) is larger. The sheltered inlets on its more densely populated east coast are ideal for sea kayaking, linking peasant villages with a unique vernacular architecture of elaborately shingled houses—a handful of them palafitos on stilts—and churches.
Chileans have always acknowledged Chiloé’s uniqueness, but global recognition finally arrived in 2001, when UNESCO named 14 of the archipelago’s churches a collective World Heritage Site. These buildings are prime examples of what Chilean architects call the Escuela Chilota de Arquitectura Religiosa en Madera (Chilote School of Religious Architecture in Wood), but they’re just a few of the archipelago’s 150 or so churches and chapels.
Originally inhabited by Chonos and Huilliche Indians, aboriginal Chiloé quickly converted to Christianity after the Jesuit order succeeded the initial Franciscan and Mercedarian missionaries in 1608. The Jesuit missions, with their skillfully built wooden chapels, literally and figuratively laid the foundation for the archipelago’s architecture. Even after their expulsion from the Americas in 1767, the style they pioneered survived.
The UNESCO designation brings recognition, but authorities hope it will also encourage donations toward the estimated US$2 million needed to help restore the churches and promote interest in the archipelago. According to Sernatur chief Oscar Santelices, Chiloé’s churches are not a historic anachronism, but reflect “the unique nature of the island, its people, and their culture and landscape.”
Though it can rain at any season, summer is the best time to visit, as the days are long enough at least to hope for a break in the drizzle. On the Pacific side penguins—the ranges of the Humboldt and Magellanic species overlap here—also breed in summer.