The land south of Puerto Montt crumbles into pieces to form the rural archipelago of Chiloé. Linked to the mainland by frequent ferries, the Isla Grande de Chiloé is a magical place of dense evergreen forests, undulating hills, small farms and picturesque fishing villages. Along its eastern shore are several tiny islands, many of which remain uninhabited. Being somewhat isolated and strongly influenced by colonial settlement and Huilliche indians, it's quite distinct from the rest of Chile. Spending a few days there will allow you to soak up its rich local culture, visit its unique wooden churches, sample excellent seafood and buy some cosy hand-knitted woollen jerseys.
While the people of Chiloé are unmistakably Chilean, they are also definitely Chilote. They have a rich folklore with many mythological animals and spirits (sit down with one of the locals to hear their fascinating stories). The Spanish, who arrived in the 16th century, and the Jesuit missionaries who followed, constructed hundreds of small wooden churches in an attempt to bring God to a pagan land; the result was a mixing of Catholicism and pagan beliefs. These unique buildings have been designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
More than half the population relies on subsistence agriculture. Farms are very small, and cattle-drawn wooden sledges are used to transport hay and dried seaweed (which is sold to be made into plastic). Farmers, especially those on the islands of Lemuy and Quinchao, cultivate both the land and the sea. There are now an increasing number of salmon and oyster farms which take advantage of the sheltered waters. Traditional boat building and handmade knitwear are also important industries. Although the islanders are generally poor, they're some of the friendliest people you're likely to meet.