If you want to test your definition of ‘bleak’, head to Puerto Montt in Southern Chile. Stand on the harbour where a pallid sea leaks into an insipid sky. Eat your tepid empanada as a three legged dog watches you through its one good eye. Search for words to describe the place, and realise that anything other than ‘grey’ is an overstatement. Then get on the next ferry out of there to the Isla Grande de Chiloé.
In the native Mapuche language, Chiloé means ‘seagull place’. It has a reputation for being somewhat mystical, its culture and identity set apart from the rest of mainland Chile and influenced uniquely by its isolation and its close reliance on sea. I was excited to experience it for myself. I imagined strolling along narrow streets obscured by heavy-hanging mist, strange old sailor types loitering in doorways smoking pipes, sealions lolling lazily on rocks, rusting anchors, seaweed-strung ropes, other maritime cliches of your choosing…
In reality, it was very different.
After spending two nights there, I have mixed feelings about Chiloé. Parts of it reminded me of an ageing British seaside town, limply clinging to life. Colourless skies hung over weathered buildings. The streets of shops were run-down and nondescript. A faint sense of resignation filled the air.
Away from the towns and out into the national parks, it had its own beauty. As I walked along the very Western edge of the island, scrubby grassland merged into smooth sands and cattle grazed idly as the Pacific ocean tore at the shore mere metres away. “Cows on a beach!” I exclaimed, to no-one in particular.
That night, I sat on the deserted top floor of my hostel watching the sun set over the sea and wrote my favourite blog post to date about my time in Uyuni. For a few hours, I had no competing demands and a small window of solitude to immerse myself fully in what I was writing. I realised that I wasn’t writing this blog just to keep friends and family updated, I was doing it for me, because it gave me great pleasure just to remember and record my experiences.
Chiloé wasn’t what I expected but it taught me a much-needed lesson about travelling. Up until then, I’d been tearing from place to place, FOMO nipping at my heels, expecting everything from everywhere. My two days in Chiloé taught me that sometimes places don’t meet expectations. Not everywhere is amazing just because it’s elsewhere; sometimes another place is just another place.
At times like these, the introspective element of travel steps forward and provides a gentle reminder that alongside the things you see and do, travel is also about the time and opportunity you have to think and reflect. For me, this means working on writing, reading books, discovering new podcasts and listening to music I’d never usually have the time to. As I get further into my time travelling and the initial novelty of living ‘on the road’ is beginning to fade, it’s this side of travel that I am enjoying more and more.
I arrived in Chiloé with a sinking sense of disappointment but left feeling rejuvenated with a fresh perspective. The next day, I took the ferry back to the mainland. As I stood on the ferry deck, peering out at the watery horizon, I caught a brief glimpse of penguins, their heads bobbing curiously above the surface of the chilly water. I smiled to myself. There, at least, was something that was worth me travelling a bit futher than Bognor Regis for.