My first brush with the Pan-American Highway was in the 1980s. It was just north of Powell River on the Sunshine Coast. A hand-painted sign proclaimed the tiny port of Lund the northern terminus of the world’s longest highway, and a map detailed the 25,000-kilometre route along the western coasts of the Americas to its southern end in Puerto Montt, Chile.
The sign greeted me each time I returned. In the 1990s, it was altered to reflect an extension to Isla Grande de Chiloé, whose provincial capital, Castro, became the new Kilometre 0. I imagined myself visiting there one day, putt-putting to nearby islands aboard a water taxi just as I did in Lund. Scanning maps of the Chilean coastline, I saw that Castro, like Lund, enjoyed a location sheltered from Pacific swells and was further protected by an archipelago of smaller islands.
When I finally journeyed to Castro last month, I saw that comparison wasn’t far off the mark. Yet being there offered plenty of reminders that I wasn’t on the Sunshine Coast. For starters, the distance across the Chacao Canal from the Chilean mainland to Isla Grande de Chiloé may be the same as that from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, but spray from ocean swells never broke over the bow of a B.C. ferry as it did across the Bertina’s. Our ferry was repeatedly walloped with such force that the contents of a fish truck threatened to slop out onto my car. To take my mind off that prospect, I concentrated on a long line of iced Andean peaks that shored up the horizon, with volcanic cones as bookends. More days than not, the weather in southern Chile is bleak; a clear view of the mountains and the brightly painted homes that lined the shore was a stroke of Sunshine Coast luck.
Reaching land, the ferry simply dropped its landing craft–style front end onto a long cement ramp and we all rolled off. I stopped beside an old house of worship, where a map pinpointed 39 historic wooden churches that dot Chiloé and its neighbouring islands, settled by Spanish pioneers in 1553, well before the Thulin brothers arrived from Finland to found Lund in 1889. Although I was tempted to dawdle along the Pan-American as it cut through flowering yellow broom hedges, my mission was to reach Castro, located at the halfway point on the 180-kilometre-long island, the second-largest off the South American coast.
Cathedral bells chimed noon as I entered Castro’s town square. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, at 38 degrees latitude, spring was in full riot and love was also in the air. Park benches were packed. Every young couple in the town of 30,000 seemed intent on sucking as much face as possible over the lunch hour. While their lips were locked, they also somewhat disconcertingly kept their eyes wide-open to survey passersby.
Among the pleasures of Chilean cuisine are small buns, pancitos. Spying La Piazza, a patio restaurant with an outdoor wood-fired stove, I stopped to sample a freshly baked tray. The owner, eager to practise English, dissuaded me from heading any farther south. True, the view at the very end of the Pan-American Highway, 50 kilometres beyond Castro, was panoramic, but the fishing village of Quellón had little else to recommend it. Instead, he pointed out a back road that led around the steep-sided harbour, past rows of tidy bungalows on stilts that overhung the ocean. Follow it to the town of Dalcahue, he instructed me, then take a short ferry ride to Quinchao Island. There I would find the best-preserved church of all, in the village of Achao. And afterwards, enjoy some cream-filled pancitos that a local baker would be hawking on the return ferry.
Unfortunately, when I arrived in Achao the church was locked. Constructed entirely of wood (and without a single nail) from the alerce tree, a species whose status in Chile is similar to that of the western red cedar in B.C., the Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto started taking shape in 1730. Its weathered exterior was shingled in the distinctive fish-scale pattern characteristic of many coastal homes here.
In hopes of a better perspective, I headed to the adjacent park. Seated among pairs of after-school smoochers was an elderly man who chatted quietly with two giggling penguinos—owing to their black-and-white uniforms, Chilean students are affectionately nicknamed “penguins”. He detected my interest in the church and asked where I hailed from. When I replied “Canada”, he switched from Spanish to French and offered to show me inside. Certainement!
The keeper of the key turned out to be Padre Joseph Mairlot, a warm-hearted priest who came to Achao from Belgium 41 years ago. Opportunities for him to speak French were rare. For the next hour, he kept me engaged in conversation as we toured the hand-carved interior. Even if my spiritual bent was not enthusiastically ecclesiastic, I marvelled at the accomplished folk-art detailing of the altar figures, as well as at the girth of the smoothly hewn alerce pillars that supported an arched ceiling.
As we walked back to the plaza, I asked if the kids who were kissing were a sign of spring. “It’s primavera year-round in this country,” he said with an amused smile and a slightly disapproving eye. We kissed goodbye on both cheeks as we marvelled at love, the true Pan-American sentiment.
ACCESS: Lund lies 160 kilometres north of Vancouver. For information, visit thesunshinecoast.com/lund/. Castro is 1,150 kilometres south of Santiago. Ferries to Isla Grande de Chiloé from Pargua, 50 kilometres south of Puerto Montt, cost about $20 one-way. Round-trip ferry service to Quinchao costs about $10. A good source for travel information is Chilepros (600–890 West Pender Street; 604-678-3525; chilepros.com/?).