No matter where you are in Chile, a panting perro wants to be your friend. Look away for a moment and you’ll find a tail-wagging mutt at your heels trotting your direction, whichever way that may be. Some are remarkably healthy, some are a but scruffy, but so far all have seemed friendly and ingratiating.
On a tour of Chiloé, many of the dogs we saw were doing something funny. Sitting on top of a doghouse like snoopy, or lying in pairs directly in the middle of the road – for no other reason than to keep life interesting. They seem not to be just hanging around but actively planning mischief. It’s possible someone owned these dogs or thought they did. As we passed one house, a perro escaped through narrow bars, squirming a bit, but slipping out and down the street as if running an errand.
Our new rental car, a Chevy this time, rattled over more rough gravel on our way to visit the famous churches of Chiloé. We started early, Chiloén time, the rental agent showing up late to give us our vehicle. As I signed my name – and thoroughly checked the car for damage – I made sure to tell him we needed to drop it off the next day at precisely 8:30, we had a bus at 8:50 to Puerto Montt, from where we had a plane to Punto Arenas. Sí, Sí, claro, he insisted. I looked at him skeptically, “Es muy importante.”
“Sí, Sí.” He said.
A steady light rain fell as we boarded a little ferry to the island of Quinchao. The landscape was very familiar, it closely resembled the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. But while the San Juans are mostly free of rain in the summer, it is likely raining somewhere all the time in Chiloé. Plus I believe I remember a sign on Orcas Island declaring any stray dog would be exterminated immediately which on Isla Quinchao was definitely not the case. The ferries were so basic they were admirable. Platforms raised and lowered at concrete jetties that run at an angle into the water. The ferry runs aground every time it docks. In a country where prices are generally similar to the US, the ferries were cheap: roughly $4 for a car and two passengers.
Once on the other side, the ferry slid up onto the jetty accompanied by the sound of grinding metal on stone. We reversed off the ferry’s slick steel deck, did a seven point turn on the narrow concrete dock then made our way up onto the island.
We spent the morning rising and falling over comically tall hills and deep hollows. We twisted down rutted gravel roads, plunging hundreds of feet into verdant valleys opening to the water. More often than not a little town could be found in these valleys, nestled in greenery, twisted trees and flowering rose bushes. Even the most decrepit shacks, all with painted wooden shingles, grew roses under their windows. Sometimes they matched the color of the house.
The churches were uniform and potentially not that interesting. The interiors were more ornate though, decorated with a melange of Spanish and Chiloéan imagery. One famous painting incorporates the face of Jesus with a few of the island’s mythical beasts of old: an ugly troll who mysteriously impregnates virgins, a beautiful siren, an angry horse, and some mean wizards. Basically the story of the Nativity.
The real attractions are the little remote villages and their weatherbeaten textures, stately old buildings in disrepair, and the antics of the town mutts who are far more in evidence than the residents themselves.
When we returned to the main island we stopped at an artisans market selling crafts made of wool and wood. These tend to be repetitive, so we made a beeline to a collection of food stalls on the other side. All of the stalls were crowded, but we were told to head straight for #8, which is where we found our friend Fred from New York standing, looking cheerful.
It was funny to have a reunion with someone we’d only known for a moment, but it seemed like we were old friends. We sat and had lunch together, using our skills as New Yorkers to body check a very small old woman who was trying to steal our table. (Seriously – she was going for it. It had to be done)
Fred then invited a young couple with a very young baby to sit with us, and proceeded to glean their life story in Spanish. The rain, which had been with us constantly started to clear, and as we finished a delicious plate of fish the sun broke through. Magda was chomping at the bit to leave, but the waitress was taking her time, everyone was, it was crowded and cozy and Fred’s congenial energy calmed her. He bought us empanadas.
We even stopped to get a traditional Chiluéan pastry or two. When we tried to pay for this though, the ladies behind the counter became curiously occupied. With Magda getting antsy as the last rays of sun got eaten by a cloud, Fred yelled to the ladies, “Oi yay Gaupa!”, hey beautiful!, getting their attention and bringing down the house.
Fred made us promise to slow down. Something we learned on our last trip but was hard to get back to. Magda is by nature always in motion and it takes some doing to make her check herself before she burns out – burning me out too by association. We promised, and left Fred to slowly peruse the craft market. As soon as we were out of his sight we were running to catch the next fleeting patch of sun.
The rest of the day was spent tracking down more churches, negotiating perilous mud and gravel passages, and avoiding getting our windshield broken by oncoming cars. There were fewer cars on these back roads than there were perros, sunning themselves on blind corners and occasional giving chase with lolling tongues.
We returned to town and to our little Palafito, having decided at the last minute to stay there one more night. Magda wanted to go to a local cafe for empanadas, so we found a dingy dockside establishment and I waited outside like a getaway driver. Occasionally her face would appear at the single, cloudy window in the door, grinning from ear to ear. At one point a drunken local staggered out to look in the car. I waved.
The empanadas were better than the clientele, who had given Magda several tempting propositions. They were downright delicious when washed down with wine by the little stove. Outside the sky opened up once more and thrummed on the roof.
In the morning I dropped off Magda at the bus station with our bags and went to return the car. Naturally my friend wasn’t there, and naturally we missed the bus. When the agent finally ambled towards me up the street I was furious, and gave him what-for with my terrible Spanish. “Where are you?” I demanded. “I have bus now! The bus only!” He was very apologetic and asked what time the bus was. Ahora! I yelled, pointing to my watch arm where a watch might have been.
‘Vamanos!’ He yelled, and together we hopped into the Chevy, tearing through Castro’s puzzle of one way streets to the bus station. When I jumped out to grab Magda, she wasn’t there, only our backpacks were sitting on the bench. “They’ve taken her!”, I thought, until a friendly woman sitting nearby pointed inside. She was watching our bags while Magda exchanged our tickets for a bus we hadn’t known existed, only slightly later than the one we missed.
I returned to tell the rental agent, who again offered to drive us to catch the first bus. I declined, still angry, but softening to his apologies and his repeated offers to chase our bus down.
Magda was oddly calm. Maybe it was because she saw I was so riled up, maybe because she had solved the problem successfully, but either way we agreed it probably wasn’t good to separate when we both had a feeling the agent was operating on Island Time.
Our peaceful two days in Castro had come to a somewhat stressful end. We’re currently on the second bus, taking a detour around a car accident. We have a plane in three hours. We’ll see how that goes.
(We made the plane with time to spare and are now in Punta Arenas)