Have you read Destiny at Dolphin Bay yet? Though sales mean a lot, I’d love even more to connect with readers who love my books and story “universe” as much as I do. So today I’m launching us on a virtual trip to Chile’s southern islands. Like the character Melissa Travis from Desert Island Diaries, I longed to go back to Chiloé after a long absence.
Oh, not to live. I admit I’m now spoiled in Chile’s sunny central valley by blue skies, export-quality fruit, and beaches with, ahem, actual sand (as opposed to stones and gravel). I enjoy summer clothes and sandals, salad season, and sizzling Christmases. And oh yeah, the malls.
But for a visit, no place charms the heart like those picturesque islands. In the first decade after we moved north in 1992, we traveled back to Chiloé regularly. At least often enough to get a feel for the changes, hold the occasional class, watch the neighbor kids grow up, and check the old saltbox house hadn’t fallen down yet. We kept caught up on the old friends and introduced new ones to our passion for the place.
Not anymore, though. We hadn’t been back to Chiloé for years, not since we christened the latest launch, Mensajero III, with our muddy footprints. And only once since Zuni and Talo’s marine wedding where we drove the newlyweds around town for their post-ceremony getaway (a Chilean tradition!) and the reception began so late our daughter fell asleep over the abalone appetizers. Never mind making it to the midnight cake-cutting.
Almost definitely, we dreaded going back to Chiloé after our old home burned down. We’d never had the chance to bid it a proper good-bye, and somehow that was okay. It felt like it was still home. Like we’d never really left, only gone on a long furlough.
Jumping Off the Continent
But now… Things were changing a lot, and we hadn’t visited in more than ten years. In the midst of writing The Sea-Silk Banner, the third book of the First Mate’s Log series and the finale of Melissa and Nicolás’s story, I sensed the need of a refresher.
We had a significant wedding anniversary approaching. A more perfect opportunity would never likely present itself. I wanted to go, BUT… I’d spent the past four months ill and under-functioning. I was afraid to take the leap and end up miserable the entire trip.
However, my husband booked the plane tickets and car rental and encouraged me to plan the rest of our six days. (Division of labor there.) I did so, still wondering how it would all turn out.
“Rise up, my darling! Come away with me…” –Songs 2:10 (NLT)
A miracle: One morning, just a week or two before the trip back to Chiloé, I woke up with all pain vanished. We packed in high anticipation and flew out of Santiago on an early morning flight.
…And into the port city of Puerto Montt on the mainland. There’s an airport on Grand Chiloé now, located between Castro and Dalcahue, the perfect hub for our touring adventure. But practical considerations won out as we earlier weighed the cost of rentals out of the mainland compared to the small island airport. Besides, we’d get more of a glimpse of the countryside this way and a ferry ride to boot.
We always liked Puerto Montt anyway. I’m still looking for those statues of the original German colonists that someone told us mark the “jumping-off point” to Chiloé. (The immigrant families featured in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light. 😊)
Crossing the Channel
Neither did we find the parade of colorful concrete grottos, choked with smoking candles, that used to hedge a couple of alleys heading to the highway.
But guess what? Puerto Montt’s no longer the quaint little city, hugging multiple hills, that we once knew. It’s grown into a sprawling, cosmopolitan megalopolis. I think we got lost, in a good way, winding out of there toward Pargua and the ferry dock. “Terminal,” it never was—and still isn’t.
Officially it was spring, though barely, and (we knew all too well) early spring in Chiloé is basically still winter. Yet we prided ourselves on being good Chilotes who wouldn’t melt in the rain. We boarded the ferry under typical gray clouds and drizzle and felt right at home.
Despite traversing the Chacao Channel countless times before, we climbed out of our rental car to explore. After all, the characters Cole and Linda Peterson meet Coni Belmar’s parents on such a voyage. Later that story summer, Melissa arrives for the first time in Chiloé via bus and ferry. And years after, Marcos Serrano conducts her and the Seagull Operation on a dangerous mission via this crossing.
The Chiloé ferries, run by two main companies, often boast names from Chilote mythology: La Pincoya, El Trauco, etc. This one resembled dozens of others we’d traveled on over the years.
That is, until we discovered the addition of a novel passenger “lounge.” The long narrow cabin had a row of brightly-painted wooden tables anchored to the deck and beadboard walls papered with posters advertising Chilote tourism: The gastronomic delights, the new national parks, the heritage-church restoration program. If it all seemed a little garish and grimy, hey, in the old days, you’d have been hard pressed to find a toilet aboard.
Hitting the Highlights
You didn’t notice the differences immediately on arrival on Chiloé. The beacon, the pier, the Coast Guard office…all looked the same as always. Maybe the building had been enlarged and renovated, even rebuilt? And thanks to Sernatur, a lovely new BIENVENIDOS A CHILOÉ sign scrolled over the entrance to the island.
“Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God…” –I Peter 1:18 (MSG)
It takes over an hour to drive from the ferry to the town of Castro. Like horses galloping for the barn, we raced by Ancud—colonial capital of the archipelago and Castro’s rival—planning to stop on our return. For us that day, back to Chiloé meant back to El Sacho.
And we were almost late for lunch. We rolled into town, barely glancing at the burgeoning growth and transformations, and beelined for Thompson Street. Hoping and praying that our favorite restaurant still existed.
It did! At the end of a quiet side street, the Restaurant Sacho still nestled in its cloak of cedar shingles, this year’s colors hydrangea blue with lemon yellow trim. The antique stone anchor that the rustic café takes its name from still swung overhead.
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” –J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
We pushed open the double French doors. So much remained the same, true to iconic Chilote architect Edward Rojas’s original design. The glistening waxed wood floors, the lime linens and eclectic assortment of chairs, the polished slab counter beneath huge, mullioned windows painted like stained glass with scenes of Chilote life and legends. The Bosca stove blazed in the corner near the wooden staircase, and…
As we mounted the stairs to the main room, we saw our favorite waitress. “Sandra!”
Unbelievably, she was still here. She recognized us in an instant, abandoned her tray on a buffet, and ran to hug and kiss us. Like the memories of a dream, we reminisced about…
- Our first visit to El Sacho decades ago when we ordered apio at Sandra’s suggestion—without a clue we’d get celery!
- The years of Friday lunches and anniversary dinners, and the many times the Sacho girls hurried the menú del día so we could get our kids to school on time…
- And the kids ordering fried eggs and steamed mussels instead of something more interesting from an adult point of view; their regular visits to the kitchen to say hi to the grandmotherly cook; the napkin sketches…
- The ivy that poked its way inside and crept along until it blanketed the wall beside “our” window table. “Gone now.” Sandra shrugged. “It was taking over.”
- The saffron-haired hostess, equally comfortable in her clicking high heels and battered pickup, greeting us warmly… “Ah, la dueña… Señora Isabel passed away last year,” Sandra said. “But the girls and I pooled our savings and bought the business. We’re keeping it going.”
She dashed down to find the two other former waitresses who now co-owned El Sacho. They, too, traipsed upstairs to smile and welcome us back to Chiloé and our old stomping grounds where we’d all once been young and new at our work.
“Humans, not places, make memories.” –Ama Ata Aidoo
After the reunion, we were seated in the familiar, light-filled dining room. The same pine walls, carved wood panels, and woven figurines. Updated with sparkling white trim, sapphire tablecloths, and a collection of baskets and wicker-clad bottles. I missed the trailing ivy, though.
The meal at El Sacho wouldn’t be soon forgotten. I had locos mayo, cold abalone with lemon and mayonnaise, and congrio (conger eel) fish and chips. My husband, of course, stuck with his old-faithful lomo a lo pobre, “poor man’s” steak and fries with fried eggs and onions. We ate ever so leisurely, watching the rain drip off the zinc roofs outside and the fishing launches huddled in the harbor below.
This is the setting, removed to a nearby village in my story world, where Captain Serrano invites the students from the Desertores to celebrate their big music festival win (see Linnebrink Light). Here Melissa meets Señora Pía and befriends the loner Nathán Valencia while teaching Bible classes (in The Seahorse Patrol). It’s where one day she’ll plan her wedding…
Mingled with the nostalgia that afternoon at the Restaurant Sacho, I remembered why I’d come back to Chiloé. I recalled the many things I loved about the islands and the south of Chile. The soft and steady melody of falling rain, the lonely screech of gulls, the crackling fires, steamy windows and cuddly sweaters. I realized I love warm wood so much better than cold bricks and tile. And I prefer the aroma of mint sprigs to tea bags.
When we told the Sacho ladies it was my husband’s birthday, they treated us to the most exquisite cake I’ve ever eaten. Raspberry meringue as smooth as silk. We savored every bite.
An awesome beginning to our trip back to Chiloé.
“What if we still ride on, we two, with life forever old yet new, Changed not in kind but in degree, the instant made eternity?” –Robert Browning, The Last Ride Together