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Day 95 – It’s the Wood That Makes It Good. Also Jesus. (Churches of Chiloe)

January 13, 2011

Location: Tour bus to Chiloe, Chile

Date: Thursday, January 13, 2011

Take a Spanish language tour of Chiloe and you will discover the enchantment of the Chilean isle. Sitting on a bus of Chileans who’ve come to visit this mystical place is a treat, especially when you’re mashed into a van early in the morning and they all start singing along to Chiloean folk songs that wax eloquent about life on the island. It made me think Chiloe is Chile’s version of like Los Angeles’s Compton—you may never visit the place, but through familiar lyrics everyone knows that it’s a wild, untamed place.

The warmth Chilean’s feel for Chiloe is due in part to the island’s unruly history. A large part of that history is captured in Chiloe’s churches. They’re old. They are made of wood. Thus, they are made of: old wood.

The whole wood thing is a big deal. It is an organic link to the island’s past. Their style is a mix of Bavarian, Hungarian, and Transylvanian architecture which was combined with local craftsmanship and materials. Back in the 1600s the Jesuit priests and subsequent Franciscan monks selected the finest indigenous woodworkers to build Los Iglesias de Chiloe. In a bold move, these woodcraftsmen chose tobuild out of: wood.

There’s a lot of the stuff on this lush, rainy isle, the western portion of which is made up to temperate rainforest.

The resulting churches have a style all their own. They are large with high, pitched roofs, and a large bell tower. Each is fronted by an esplanade or large open area–a uniquely European feature. Some of the esplanades have been turned into squares and while others have merely become fenced in spaces filled with hip-high wild grass. Esplanades originally surrounded fortress or city walls to provide cannon defenses with a clear line of fire on assaulting forces. Here, the church trained its spiritual guns on the indigenous pagan population.

Beyond providing Jesus warriors with shelter from the rain, the churches were constructed in other strategic ways. For example, they were built on hillsides near the coast. This allowed the bell tower to serve a dual function: (1) as a high place on which to mount a giant cross (God beacon) and (2) as a miniature seaside lighthouse (a sailor beacon). If the winds were right, the priests could kill two birds with one stone and nab a godless sailor.

The hillsides offered another advantage: it lowered the chances the churches would flood. Doors usually faced south to shelter from the typically northern storms. A large entrance gave rain-soaked worships enough space to dry off before they were converted.

On our visit, the rain cleared and provided a cloud-filled blue sky as a backdrop. The sunshine enlivened the colors and gave the edifices the feel of life-size dollhouses.

We visited an overgrown cemetery near one church. Dead flowers and other offerings jutted out of a rusted 50 gallon barrel and reminded us that, for all its charm, every cemetery is really just humanity’s rubbish bin [LINK: SA Day 51].

Colorful, waterside stilt houses added to the island’s charm. So did the three-tiered town of Chonchi and its cozy museum of accordions tended by a little man who serenaded us with songs whose lyrics I barely understood. A couple broke into dance in the cramped space as the rest of us clapped along.

A walk through a marsh and part of the temperate rain forest hinted at just how wild this place must have been when the Spanish arrived. The island’s strategic military and commercial location assured that the colonizers would tame it some, though the island remained sufficiently unruly that the native genocide that swept through much of the rest of Chile never reached its final solution here.

A quick trip to a rocky, western beach gave me a chance to skip rocks into the churning surf. When our bus stalled in the middle of a giant puddle trying to exit the beach and turned our transport into our own waterlogged blocking sled, I couldn’t be bothered to ruin the day’s tranquility by complaining.

As we headed back to Castro near sunset, the CD of Chiloe folk music once again found its way back into the player. Once again everyone sang along. This time the lyrics felt familiar and yet somehow more mystical.

When it comes to Chiloe there’s nothing big. Nothing grand. Nothing overwhelming. There is no Eiffel Tower. No Big Ben. No Empire State Building. There aren’t even overwhelming Torres or humbling glaciers.

What Chiloe’s got is charm. A mountain of little things that, together, set it apart. A sense that ancient Christian churches might be build out of faerie wood. That nymphs and witches might be out in the rainforest dancing to the strains of accordion music. That, in thriving, modern-minded Chile, there’s still a place for magic.

GALLERY: Click here to see a few bonus pictures of colorful houses and charming churches, if you can stand it.

One Comment leave one →
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