Dining on Curanto in Chiloé

| May 23, 2011 | 1 Comment
This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Southern Discovery

Following breakfast in Puerto Varas, we took an early drive and ferry crossing to Chiloé—an island steeped in history. About 180km long but only 50km wide, the Isla Grande de Chiloé (The Big Island of Chiloé) is the second-largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego. For over 300 years, it was the world’s southernmost European settlement—and the last Spanish stronghold in Chile. Although today it’s easily accessed by a short ferry ride, Chiloé’s history, customs, and language bear little resemblance to those of the mainland—or anywhere else in the world—because of its isolation.

The Penguins at Puñihuíl

Our first destination was the Puñihuíl Natural Monument—the only known place in the world where Humboldt and Magellan penguins nest side by side—where were meant to tour the reserve by boat with local fishermen. That wasn’t to be, however, as the road was washed out. Rain was to be something of a constant during our visit to the archipelago and, in fact, is viewed as part of the appeal of the region.

1castrostreets Dining on Curanto in Chiloé

Ancud in the rain

There were three main reasons why we had come to Chiloe—its mythology, its penguins, and its curanto. Regarding the last of these, I’d read somewhere that it was the island’s specialty—a mixture of mussels, clams, sausage, chicken, pork, beef—was not to be missed. So, after our failed attempt to get to the Puñihuíl Natural Monument—two hours by bumpy road—we headed to the outskirts of Castro for a tasty lunch of traditional Chilean curanto.

Delicious Curanto

Not just lunch, this beloved Chilote meal is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat social event (rumoured to have been inspired by Polynesian luau). The food is cooked in a pit covered with both seaweed and large leaves of local ‘nalca’, a plant related to rhubarb. Chilean newspaper editor and publisher, Recaredo S. Tornero, writing in the 1870s, provides an excellent overview of the cooking process:

[Curanto] is a type of banquet or feast that they celebrate in the fresh air, always at the edge of the beach, and very frequently since there is never a lack of pretext. They select a site convenient to the edge of a pebbly beach and there they dig a hole a yard deep and equally wide and light a violent fire in the bottom.

2curanto Dining on Curanto in Chiloé

Our host prepares the Curanto feast!

When the sides of the pit are well heated, it is a sign that it is ready to receive the infinite variety of foods that make up the curanto: potatoes, ham, pork, lamb, and all kinds of shellfish, mainly clams, of which there are an abundance, requiring no more work to obtain than scratching around in the sand.  Then they cover the bottom and sides of the pit with leaves of fern or nalca, and continue adding the foods mentioned above in layers, separated one from another and with plenty of seasonings, until the pit is completely full. It seems unnecessary to add that during all this potato aguardiente [liquor] and apple chicha [hard cider] preside over the entire fiesta.

Of course, no curanto is complete without a lot of pisco sours and red wine, of which Kathryn and I took more than our fill. After our tasty lunch, we continued southward toward Castro’s majestic wooden cathedral (one of 16 World Heritage Sites), seaside palafito stilt homes and local fish market.

3fishmarket Dining on Curanto in Chiloé

The fish market

Chilote Mythology

Chiloe is famous for myths and legends with roots in its native population but with some European influence. Even though the island was Christianized by Spanish conquerors (you can visit many of the Jesuit wooden churches all over the island) its inhabitants are also very superstitious. These superstitions are formed by the myths, legends and beliefs of the people and reflect the importance of the sea in the life of Chilotes.

4crosses Dining on Curanto in Chiloé

Museo Regional Aurelio Bórquez Canobra

Since earliest times, the inhabitants of Chiloé recognized the primal forces of good and bad—and the cyclical interplay of these opposites is depicted as a fundamental battle between the ocean and the land. This story was personified by two mythical reptiles who fought with one another through aeons—and eventually little of Chiloé survived the battle. The island’s animals were transformed to rocks, people that did not reach high ground became fishes or seals and the valleys became channels or inlets between the islands and hills and mountains became islands.

Conclusion

Kathryn and I felt there was a real sense of wilderness in Chiloé that begged to be experienced beyond the couple of days we had. Given the opportunity, we’d love to go back and further explore the nature, visit the Puñihuíl penguin colony and camp under the stars!


Disclosure: At Two Go Round-The-World, we value the conversation that exists between us and our readers—and the trust on which that relationship is based. Here we’re committed to creating an environment informed by that trust. In the interests of full disclosure, we travelled with Gap Adventures, with whom Daniel works. That being said, his opinions should not be construed as representing those of his employer. For more information on disclosures and relationships, please check our ‘About Us‘ page.

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For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Check him out on Google+.

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