The fairy-tale vibe on Chiloé Island in Chile is an exercise in foreboding—there’s a hint of malice in the magic, like a gingerbread house appearing before hungry children lost in the woods.
The island of Chiloé, the second largest in South America and Chile’s largest, is a place where it’s easy to imagine magical creatures exist. Lichen carpets spindly trees under the cover of a stubborn silver mist. The low, fast moving tide rushes into bays where brightly colored houses stand on stilts, recedes as if regularly spooked by the land. When storms roll across the island with electrifying charge and splash rainbows across the sky in their wake, the display of weather is so typical that grazing farm animals barely run for cover. No sense trying to stall the island’s mystical charm from soaking in.
The island’s seclusion has cultivated a strong sense of cultural identity, facilitating the persistence of the folklore and the lingering fear that still possesses the locals. Fewer than 150,000 people live on Chiloé, but the residents seem to agree on one thing: do not trifle with the brujos, or wizards, lest you suffer their real-world wrath. And that’s not even the half of it: a whole posse of sorcerer-adjacent homies haunts the island.
Fear not, curious traveler: the enchanting mythology enhances the exploration of Chiloé Island, and the spooky vibe amplifies its unique beauty. They’re only stories, after all. But what sort of travel guide wouldn’t prepare adventurers for a possible supernatural experience?
You’ve been warned.
The Wizards (Brujos)
Arrival on Chiloé Island (pronounced Chee-lo-way), or “land of seagulls,” involves an ocean passing. The water and isolation have shaped the world of its inhabitants, and the mythology reflects that. The separation is deliberate, as locals still resist plans for a bridge to the mainland (though a new airport was recently built).
“The family of the deceased must guard the grave for three days after a death or the wizards will dig up the corpse and steal the skin…”
Long-time resident Juan Pablo Mansilla Espinosa, a Trip Specialist with Chiloétnico, warns me almost immediately of the wizards. We have plenty of time to talk on our 30-kilometer bicycle ride from the tiny town of Chonchi to Chiloe’s National Park. Rolling past vast pastures and crystal clear lakes, we pass a brightly colored cemetery dotted with colorful crosses. It looks oddly hospitable.
“The family of the deceased must guard the grave for three days after a death,” he tells me, “or the wizards will dig up the corpse and steal the skin to make a coat for flying.”
The legends and superstitions of the original indigenous inhabitants mixed with those of colonial Spain to create a unique lore that permeates the island today—a lore that locals are quick to cop to. Chilotes state that strange lights, noises, and feelings indicate the presence of brujos, or wizards, the most prominent of magical creatures on Chiloé, must be nearby.
“What do the wizards want?” I ask, unsure of what to be afraid of.
“To make trouble,” he warns me ominously.
Trouble is a nice way of putting it. All sorts of terrible developments have wizards to blame, from the slaughter of livestock to the enchantment of women and men. The most famous story regarding the brujos was one in which a sect was unveiled to the public via trial in 1880, and was popularized by author and traveler Bruce Chatwin, who wrote the classic travel book In Patagonia. Chatwin’s research unearthed the story of Mateo Coñuecar, a former wizard who testified at trial his allegiance to a magical leadership group, La Recta Provinci, or the Righteous Province. According to their own statements made in what was possibly the last significant witch trial of history, “male witches” who exist “for the purpose of hurting people” admitted to running protection rackets on the island and disposing of enemies by poisoning or sajaduras (magically inflicted “profound slashes”).
The wizard mafia had been demanding “an annual tribute” of residents to ensure the safety of their livestock and crops from magical mischief. Chilean authorities sentenced members of the Righteous Province for crimes such as manslaughter, racketeering, and membership in an “unlawful society.”
This hardly put an end to the wizardly shenanigans.
“Where are the wizards now?” I ask, watching the clouds gallop across the sky.
Like everything else on Chiloé Island, the answer, of course, is the sea.
Fewer than 150,000 people live on Chiloé, but the residents seem to agree on one thing: do not trifle with the brujos, or wizards, lest you suffer their real-world wrath.
Juan Pablo and I explore the Chiloé National Park from Cucao, the park’s main epicenter in the south. We wander through the unique flora and fauna which contribute to the enchanting atmosphere. Valdivian temperate rainforests, characterized by dense understories of ferns and bamboo, create a layer of roots that serve as the “ground’s” false shelf. Beyond the trees, peat bogs and swamps gurgle and bedevil. It’s easy to get lost in the thick of the flora, but if you do manage to hide in the trees, you might spot endemic fauna such as Darwin’s fox, the world’s smallest deer (the pudú), mountain monkeys or the Chilean shrew opossum.
“If you are hiking in the forest,” Juan Pablo warns me, “never go so far that you can’t hear the ocean. That is a sure sign a wizard is near.”
The low hum of the ocean is near-constant, so I’m not worried. But these wizards seem so capricious, I must know the reason for the rule.
He smiles at me like I’m a schoolchild. “The brush here is so thick. Even with a machete, it’s easy to get lost among the plants. If you can no longer hear the ocean, that’s no good. The moral is, don’t go too far from the ocean.”
So this mythology is all just an excuse to discourage behavior? Sounds pretty Catholic to me.
Pablo scoffs. “The creatures of Chiloe have much more to do than bother with humans.”
Since life on Chiloé depends on the sea, much of the magic and mythology of Chiloé occurs in the waters surrounding the land. The ocean’s influence on the inhabitants of Chiloé is reflected in many aspects of their lives—in church ceilings modeled after ship hulls and the naval-inspired architecture of the wooden homes; in the seafood-based diet served at every meal and sold in every market stall; in the dramatic coastal views and pervasive smell of the ocean. But no more is it reflected than in their total reverence of the sea and their submission to its nature—a generous provider or a furious overlord. On Chiloé, the sea rules the island, and a royal mer-family rules the sea.
Deep Waters, Dangerous Grounds
An entire magical monarchy lives beneath the waves, a magical hand shaping the tides, harvest, and health of the ocean. Typical patriarch El Millalobo acts as the boss, supervising his enterprise: the climate of the ocean, the development of the fish and shellfish, the ushering of the dead to the wizards’ favorite hangout, El Caleuche.
El Caleuche is a sentient ship that hosts a party full of lights and sounds (yacht rock?) aboard. Carrier of drowned sailors and transport of wizard goods, just the sight of El Caleuche can turn a man into a sea lion or a seal, or trap a sailor as crew. Ruler of the sea El Millalobo appears as a barking sea lion-man cloaked in gold; he shepherds the drowned to their ghost ship. His wife, La Huenchula, is protective of her seas. She is quick to punish any land creature who might mess with her surf—which includes the fisherman of Chiloé who might get greedy with the shellfish.
Their mer-son, El Pincoy, looks like a sea lion with a handsome human face. His song makes his sister-wife La Pincoya dance, which makes for a fertile sea. Chilote sailors hope to catch a glimpse of her busting a move—it’s going to be an abundant year for fishing, a smooth tide for sailing. They fear her turning her back to them—seafood is sure to be scarce. The baby of the family, La Sirena Chilota, is a mermaid responsible for caring for all the fish in the sea. This trio of siblings also help usher the dead to El Caleuche ghost ship party.
The mer-family aren’t the only things worth searching for in the ocean. Gaze out over the crisp blue and watch dolphins, penguins, sea lions, otters, and if you’re lucky—blue whales. The options to sea kayak in the water channels and hike the rugged coastlines are plentiful—but beware what you spot in the sea.
But it’s too cold for swimming, too windy for kayaking, so Juan Pablo and I decide to end our day horseback riding through the park.
“Are we safe here?” I wonder. The view of endless ocean has been replaced with undulating pastures. Bucolic and serene, I can’t imagine anything truly harming me here, though the horses do occasionally seem spooked.
“Wizards are mysterious,” he says, and proceeds to tell me the story of his most recent encounter, one that has left him flabbergasted. Pablo, his wife, and his son went for a long bicycle ride and stopped to check out at an abandoned house for sale. The family had ridden past the house many times and couldn’t understand why it had been for sale so long. So they hopped off their bicycles to check it out. A strange chill came over each family member as they explored the house, and wary of the supernatural, decided to high-tail it from the house.
The ride home, not unlike the one we had taken this morning, was quite far, but nothing a family of bikers wasn’t used to. The peculiar feeling of sheer exhaustion overcame the family one by one, causing each of them to stop, lay by the side of the road and fall asleep. A regular route became a debilitating crawl home—not unlike Dorothy, who fell prey to the poppies on her way to the Emerald City.
“I will never step foot in that house again,” he declared. “Not even near it. But I know it has not sold.”
I peer around the trees. What else is out there? El Trauco, for one. This hobgoblin wears clothes made of shrubs and lives in the forests of Chiloé. Despite his disgusting appearance, he has quite the effect on ladies: literally no woman can resist him for sex. Any woman who has sex with El Trauco is considered blameless, which helps if she’s unmarried or gets pregnant. El Trauco’s better half is a troll-lady named La Furia who arouses desire in, has sex with, and then kills men.
Warding off Evil
I still can’t reconcile this idea of magical creatures.
“But what about Harry Potter?” I can’t help but asking. “How does one become a wizard? Is there a school?”
Juan Pablo laughs and shakes his head at my foolishness. “Nothing as cute as that.”
Full Members of the wizard sect participate in various extracurriculars including killing animals, cursing enemies, and roasting flesh of human babies for a great feast.
He isn’t kidding: just a few malevolent rituals will make one magical, but they are doozies. The first ritual is cleansing: 40 days spent bathing in a waterfall should wash away any trace of baptism. Once fully unholy, the next step is to assassinate a loved one. A purse should be made of said loved one’s skin—this is where a wizard keeps a book of spells, and maybe chapstick because it’s very windy on the island. Then the magical fun begins. Full Members of the wizard sect participate in various extracurriculars including killing animals, cursing enemies, and roasting flesh of human babies for a great feast. Locals know that just because you can’t see a wizard doesn’t mean she isn’t to be feared—wizards can cause illness and death from afar, and just love to make general mischief.
But as for the folks of Chiloé without sinful intentions, there are ways to protect oneself from a wizard’s black magic. A surefire tell: throwing wheat chaff on a fire will make him cough. Wizards are known to take the forms of birds and stray dogs. Calling out a wizard’s name will cause him to fall from the sky if he’s flying by. Be careful out there.
Despite the integration of modern practices and Catholic influence, Chilote mythology endures, infusing the island with a mystical spirit to match its natural grandeur. Though once used as a means to make sense of natural unknowns, the legends persist today due to the strong sense of identity on the enchanting island. The locals are the first to welcome—and warn—you: the fantasy is alive and well in Chiloé.
“I’m not worried, but I’m careful,” Juan Pablo explains. “I don’t just dismiss what I can’t see.”