Steeped in magic, shrouded in mist, the 41-island archipelago of Chiloé is that proverbial world apart, isolated not so much by distance from the mainland as by the quirks of history. Almost all of the island's 130,000 residents are descendants of a seamless blending of colonial and indigenous cultures, a tradition that entwines farming and fishing, devout Catholicism and spirits of good and
evil, woolen sweaters and wooden churches.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Chono people, Chiloé was gradually taken over by the Huilliche. Though Chiloé was claimed as part of Spain's empire in the 1550s, colonists dismissed the archipelago as a backwater despite its strategic importance. The 1598 rebellion by the Mapuche people on the mainland drove a contingent of Spanish settlers to the isolated safety of Chiloé. Left to their own devices, Spaniards and Huilliche lived and worked side by side. Their society was built on the concept of minga, a help-thy-neighbor spirit in the best tradition of the barn raisings and quilting bees in pioneer America. The outcome was a culture neither Spanish nor indigenous, but Chilote, a quintessential mestizo society.
Isolated from the rest of the continent, islanders had little interest in or awareness of the revolutionary fervor sweeping Latin America in the early 19th century. In fact, the mainland Spaniards recruited the Chilote to help put down rebellions in the region. When things got too hot in Santiago, the Spanish governor took refuge on the island, just as his predecessors had done two centuries earlier. Finally defeated, the Spaniards abandoned Chiloé in 1826, surrendering their last outpost in South America, and the island soon joined the new nation of Chile.
These days, the isolation is more psychological than physical. Chiloé is just over 2 km (1 mi) from the mainland at its nearest point, and some 40 buses per day and frequent ferries make the half-hour crossing between Chiloé and Pargua, near Puerto Montt in the Lake District on the mainland. Meanwhile, a $10 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank will be used for improvement of sustainable tourism here, with a portion slated to restore Chiloé's historic Jesuit churches. Thirty-five of these rainy islands are populated, with most of the population living on the 8,394-square-km (3,241-square-mi) Isla Grande de Chiloé.