The Magical Island of Mechuque, Chile

travel

Mechuque Island

My guide Benjamin and I depart Refugia Lodge at 10am and immediately I am reminded of why I find this island so special compared to my usual world of fast pace and technology. On Chiloe Island, children either ride a horse or walk to school. There's no need to rush and any resistance to this South American paradigm of time causes distress for the harried.

Mechuque Island

The roads on the way to our destination are rocky at first but then turn into smooth, paved roads. A mother and baby goat graze on the sides of the road. An old cow sits contentedly on the roadside grass watching the world go by.

Mechuque Island

On the street stands a statue of Peter, patron saint of fishermen. The sea plays a mythical and practical role with the people of Chiloe. Despite the fact that they are surrounded by the sea, few Chilote people can swim. The water is simply too cold to learn in.

Mechuque Island

We stop at the Feria Artesenal de Dalcahue, the artisan market at Dalcahue. A Dalca is a traditional type of Chilote boat used between islands. Dalcahue literally means "place of Dalcau" in the Williche, the original tribe of Chiloe. At the undercover market, vendors sell wood and wool items.

Mechuque Island

The woollen items in particular are beautiful, the handspun, fluffy wool dyed with local plants and roots in a variety of bright colours. All items are a set price and prices are very reasonable particularly for the quality. I buy Mr NQN a set of wooly socks that he treasures during winter.

Mechuque Island

Guillermo, another of Refugia's guides and a Chiloe Island local takes me to the nearby cafeteria where locals are enjoying a mid morning snack. A team of three women are shaping and cutting up large rings of dough that will be fried and made into donuts. Empanadas are present at every stand and we also see Torte Chilote which is a cake similar to an apple strudel. A group of men sit nursing cups of mate tea.

Mechuque Island

We take a seat at an empanada stall and Guillermo orders a couple to share. He tells me, "It's bad manners to eat an empanada with a fork and knife" - using cutlery is only for "snobs".

Mechuque Island

We start with a deep fried seafood empanada. It comes with a fierce but delicious elephant garlic and parsley sauce. Elephant garlic is so named because of its size - a head can dwarf a man's hand but it is milder in flavour.

Mechuque Island

The Milcao is a pan fried potato dough filled with potato and beef. It is soft and comforting and very filling. Potatoes are a staple in the Chiloe Island diet be it mashed, fried or made into the round cakes.

Mechuque Island

Another of Refugia's guides Ana tells me that it is also bad manners to leave food on the plate. You should also accept second servings and finish that plate of food too. Anything less is likely to cause offence.

Mechuque Island

"Women on Chiloe are larger," she says signalling a rotund shape with her hands. Many that work on farms need to lift 40 kilo bags of potatoes and can often match men with their strength. Slightness is considered to be a sign of weakness. Children are taught that if they are too small or thin, a Cara Cara bird can come and pick you up as if you were a fish.

Mechuque Island

We take the drive to Tenaun where one of Chiloe's 16 UNESCO heritage churches stand. This is where we will board the boat to take us to Mechuque, a fascinating island where time appears to stand still.

Mechuque Island

The Williche boat is Hotel Refugia's own and is comfortably outfitted in warm furnishings. Our group of four travel agents from Mexico and Turkey and a couple from Santiago are offered drinks and raw mussels to start with. The raw mussels are fabulous, not unlike raw oysters and all you need is a squeeze of lemon.

Mechuque Island

About 45 minutes later we arrive at Isla Mechuque and disembark the Williche. Stepping foot on the island, the first sign that greets us warns of a penalty for oxen crossing. "Everything is smaller on Mechuque Island," Ana says and she points to the small church and small police station.

Mechuque Island

A tiny convenience store booth requires you to ring a bell for service. If things were set back in time on the main Chiloe Island, they're even more so on Mechuque. In houses, there is only electricity in the mornings and in evenings.

Mechuque Island

Although not specifically named, Mechuque Island is said to feature in Isabel Allende's book "Maya's Notebook". It's easy to see how this enchanting island could feature in books. The chill and mist lend the island an other worldly atmosphere.

Mechuque Island

Around the water, colourful houses are built on stilts. Ana asks me "Do you believe in witches and wizards?". When I answer yes, she explains the legend of Caleuche, the ghost ship, popularised since WWII.

Mechuque Island

"The ghost ship brings light and music to the sea and the favourite channel for the ghost ship is Mechuque's," Ana begins. Legend has it that the first thing that the ghost ship feels is your breath so you need to put something in your mouth to prevent them seeing you. Otherwise you may join the ghost ship crew permanently!

Mechuque Island

Realistically speaking, Ana explains that the ghost ship may have been one of the Nazi submarines that sailed around the channel looking for provisions but Chiloe's Islands are cloaked in mythology. A wizard bird or a Huiaravo's appearance is said to signal an impending death. Ana tells me that in her experience, "Almost always a someone passes away," after she sees one.

Mechuque Island

We pick fresh blackberries from brambles outside house that looks like it could be made out of gingerbread before crossing the bridge and visiting one of the museums. The first museum is closed, this holds a traditional Chilote house display.

Mechuque Island

The second museum , Museo Historico Don Paulino holds relics and tools from village life including a stone grinder for grinding wheat into flour and fishing shoes for weighting down divers.

Mechuque Island

The only other people that we see are a few tourists and some small kids on bikes. I'm fascinated by the houses with curios in the windows and hand made doors.

Mechuque Island

We return to the boat where plates of canapés are waiting. There are fish topped croutons and bite sized polenta cakes topped with ham. The first course comes out and is served with a choice of Chilean white or red wine. We start with a beetroot soup which is smooth, sweet and earthy.

Mechuque Island

Lunch is served buffet style and includes succulent roast beef, potatoes and sautéed onions with cheese. What is really fascinating are the potatoes. Potatoes are said to have originated in Peru and Chiloe Island and the island boasts 400 varieties of potatoes.

Mechuque Island

Potatoes, not sausages on the bottom left of image

There are three types served at lunch: a purple sweet potato, a dried white potato that resembles yam and a curled potato that resembles a sausage. This is dry but tastes similar to a roast potato that you might get in Australia.

Mechuque Island

A little surprise from Refugia is a serving of the freshest mussels. Just nearby Hotel Refugia is a mussel farm and they cook them here with white wine, herbs and garlic. They're beautifully fresh and briney and the richly salted broth tastes of the sea.

Mechuque Island

Dessert is a pavlova - meringue isn't new to Chile as many of their desserts feature meringue. Here it is topped with poached fruit and cream.

Guillermo brings us some bad news. A storm front is coming so we can't go kayaking in the tunnels as planned and have to head back to the lodge. The rain is heavy and we can barely see through the windows.

Mechuque Island

Still that doesn't mean that the action stops. As we look outside, a fishing boat sails past, it's presence signalled by the flock of opportunistic seagulls flying above. Our boat captain waves to the fishing boat to tell them that he wants to buy fish and the small boat pulls up alongside ours.

Mechuque Island

The fisherman shows us an enormous conger eel that they've just caught. The captain buys this for the equivalent of about $16AUD and a hake for $10AUD. These are destined for an upcoming lodge dinner.

Mechuque Island

During the rest of the three hour ride, we enjoy small squares of fantastic chocolate brownies studded with nuts as well as warming cups of tea.

Mechuque Island

Maru and Jorge from Mexico ask for some traditional music and that is the cue for a traditional Chilote dance from Ana and Guillermo, their feet moving quickly and sweeping us all into the spirit of dancing. It is not long before we are quickly persuaded to participate ourselves.

Even though it is a three hour trip back to the lodge the camaraderie between everyone and the warm presence of our guides makes it pass quickly. We learn that Guillermo rides a horse to work every day, the route either along the beach or on the road depending on how late he is.

Chiloe Island Hotel Refugia

Before we know it, we are back at the hotel. The rain is pelting down as we rush from the boat and warm drinks, cocktails and the kitchen staff greet us as we rush in from the cold. A refuge it is.

Mechuque Island

Everyone gathers in the main room settling themselves on the lounge. We all decide to have dinner together. But first cocktails are in order. A quick mention to Refugia's General Manager Andres of a Terremoto cocktail results in guide Benjamin going into town to buy some ice cream so that we can all enjoy one. It's just part of the wonderful level of service that the lodge provides.

Mechuque Island

Wooden platters of oysters are handed out along with devilishly hot halved jalapeños stuffed with cheese and bacon. These fabulously hot little morsels are best chased with a Pisco sour or a sip of Terremoto. When the oysters run out, another platter appears as if by magic.

Mechuque Island

Chard soup

Around 9.30pm, we have dinner. I eagerly take a piece of the potato bread and slather the hot bread with butter. The soup is a chard soup, bright green with goodness and four croutons floating on top.

Mechuque Island

Pullmay

I've saved my stomach for the pullmay, a version of the Chiloten curanto. A curanto is like a hangi where food is cooked underground. When the weather is good, there is a pit with stones just outside the hotel's dining room where they make the curanto. The pullmay is a version cooked in a pot where the precious soup is saved and served to guests instead of evaporating into the ground.

Mechuque Island

Milcao potato pancakes

In this pullmay there is a juicy piece of longaniza sausage, soft smokey pork, chicken, clams and mussels. It's all tied together with the wonderfully warm soup and two round milcao served on the side. The milcao or potato pancakes are filled with pork. I ate both of them dipping them into the soup. After a not so rough day at sea, the soft comforting texture was just what my body craved.

Mechuque Island

Coffee panna cotta

To finish there is a coffee panna cotta in a sweet, frothy cream. It is soft and wobbly and very hard to say no to. Much like the mystic appeal of Chiloe Island.

So tell me Dear Reader, do you believe in spirits and witches? And have you ever tried raw mussels? Do you think you could cope with having electricity in the mornings and evenings only?

NQN visited Chile as a guest of LAN Airlines and Hotel Refugia

LAN Airlines

LAN Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN launched the new air connection to Chiloé Island in November 2012, enabling travellers to connect to and from the island in Southern Chile more easily. www.lan.com

Hotel Refugia

San Jose Playa, Castro | Casilla 217, Castro, Isla Chiloe, Chile
www.refugia.cl/‎