home sweet palafitos, palafitos, houses on stilts in Gamboa Barrio of Castro, Chiloé Islands, Chile, colors, Return to Chiloé 2, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Christy, Melissa Travis, Catherine Marshall, Kasey Giard, The Story Sanctuary, review, homes, travel, stories

Home Sweet Palafito

One of the most iconic scenes in southern Chile’s Chiloé Islands must surely be the alley of palafitos, picturesque houses built on weatherworn posts, that rises from a tidal flat to the right of the highway as you drive into the provincial capital of Castro. After lunch on the first afternoon of our anniversary trip back to Chiloé, we headed for our own home sweet palafito.

A sweet palafito? I never thought of them that way when we lived in the islands. In fact, the outhouses perched at the end of their backyard “terraces” and the reek of raw sewage as we drove by put me off. I never entirely realized, at that time, how unique and emblematic of Chiloé they are. After we left, this (for me) ordinary vista of houses-on-stilts turned up everywhere in the country. Postcards, souvenir shops, even films.

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” –Coco Chanel

Castro has several palafito neighborhoods besides the one at the entrance to the town. Some you’ll find down on the main waterfront, past the Naval Administration. Along that same pot-holed street you’ll see the Blue Unicorn, a rambling hillside hotel dressed in pinks and lilacs. It’s a classic riot of Chilote color which I’ve always hankered to experience. Don’t remember why we didn’t. Maybe it was booked up, better luck next time.

Oh, and the unicorn? I can’t tell you where that logo sprouted from. Perhaps some imaginative islander modeled it on the Camahueto, a mythological marine bovine who transports witches to the ghost ship Caleuche.

Sweet Palafito

But as it happens, palafito tourism has become quite the rage in Chiloé these days. Of course, the plumbing’s updated and the kerosene lanterns rewired now. Efficient but still charming (slow-combustion) Boscas have replaced the belching kitchen stoves. I’d made a point of booking into as many different places as we could during the six days we had. So, naturally curious, we wanted to try out a home sweet palafito.

Below the big glass-roofed Hosteria (a traditional hotel), ours was located in another fabled palafito neighborhood crowding the muddy estuary of Barrio Gamboa. The Palafito Azul (Blue Palafito) was a sort of rustic boutique apart-hotel (as they’re called here) and wins the blue ribbon—our favorite of all the places we stayed on this trip.

In the old days, palafitos wore the colors of seafood and salad: Pea-green, mustard-yellow, paprika, salmon, fiery piure orange. Usually faded and peeling. Today, their great variety of Chilote cedar shingles often maintain the dark gray of driftwood, with an annual paint job on the doors and window frames. You’ll see turquoise and moss, lemon and fuchsia, perking up the trim. But if the shingles glow bright and resinous, you know they’re brand new.

“The interior peace of the woman was reflected so faithfully in her surroundings. Even the selection and arrangements of her possessions gave an aura of uncluttered calm.” –Catherine Marshall, Christy

The Palafito Azul boasted sky-blue double front doors, set in a perfect silver-wood jewel box, divided into four apartments, each consisting of bedroom/bath and kitchen/dining/living area. Everything—floors, ceiling, walls, cupboards, and closet—was made of the same natural light wood, but instead of monotonous, the monochrome felt…soothing.

Peaceful Palafito

The “décor” consisted of a trio of stained-glass windows in the bedroom and long skeins of handspun yarn dangling from hooks in the hall. Dyed in lichen green, mushroom, and shades of woodsy browns, they blended seamlessly into the landscape.

The owner’s daughter, a cheerful young woman fresh out of tourism school, lit the Bosca stove and left us toasting French bread for sandwiches. We took our tea snuggled under Chilote wool throws on a wide daybed next to the picture window. The sharp-arched window, fitted with a balcony railing at the bottom, overlooked shallow milk-chocolate water and stepped out into…nothing.

But for a long time, we gazed at the sweeping vista of battered rowboats and fishing launches tipped on their sides in the mudflat. One by one the town’s lights popped out. You could look across the inlet to the warm golden twinkle of Castro. And it was so quiet.

“The devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds. He will not allow quietness.” –Elisabeth Elliot

We spent the evening reading, relaxing, resting. In the midst of writing The Sea-Silk Banner, I decided to word-paint the carved doors of Nicolás’s house the same heavenly blue as the Palafito Azul’s. If you’ve read Destiny at Dolphin Bay, you know that particular story home isn’t a seaside palafito. But something of that perfect evening’s calm wove itself into the “dream house” scene of Book 6.

Romantic Palafito

However, Destiny at Dolphin Bay does feature a street of palafitos in the fictional town of Mellehue. One of them, a rickety boarding home for students from the outer islands, collapses in the earthquake/tsunami mid-plot. Which leads Melissa, the main character, to involvement with the victims, a gaggle of traumatized little girls. No sweet palafito, that one.

“I could also see just by looking around me how we tend to over-romanticize history. Life in those other centuries had not been all knights-and-ladies stuff. There was nothing romantic about cottages where eight or ten people slept in one room with no privacy; where there were no bathrooms, not even outside privies—even if the cottage did happen to have picturesque thatch on the roof…” –Catherine Marshall, Christy

But Leonel in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light inherits his legendary great-grandfather’s grand palafito and uses it as a carpentry workshop—and refuge. A mystery whispers from the attic there…

For some (totally unplanned) reason, a lot of my recent reading has highlighted different types of historical and ethnic homes: Wigwams in colonial Maine, igloos in Alaska’s not-so-distant past, the vast sheep ranches of the Argentine Patagonia worked by Chilote peasants for (often) European proprietors. The nomadic Yaghans who practically lived in their kayaks on the icy channels of Tierra del Fuego.

Shouldn’t we all find sanctuary in our own home sweet palafito? Coni flees to a cliff-hugging A-frame cottage in Swan Island Secrets. Valeria seeks refuge in a Spanish alcázar (fortress-castle) in Winds of Andalucía. And a century-plus ago, the Tierra del Fuego missionaries lived an abject existence in a land awesome in its barren beauty and merciless cold, their only sanctuary God Himself.

Palafito Sanctuary

I’m delighted to share that Kasey Giard at The Story Sanctuary recently reviewed Destiny at Dolphin Bay. You can check it out here. Among other comments, she compares my book to Christy by Catherine Marshall. I’m fall-over-backwards awed.

Because you see, Christy was one of THE important and influential books of my teens. Another Catherine Marshall book, Adventures in Prayer, (figuratively) saved my life in the summer of ’76. During that difficult period, God suddenly came through for me. For the second time in my life, He was real.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Catherine Marshall’s work, let me mention in passing that her husband, Presbyterian pastor Peter Marshall, died of a heart attack at age 46 while serving as chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Her second husband was editor of Guideposts magazine. Christy is a classic work of historical fiction based on Catherine’s mother’s life as a mission teacher in rural Appalachia one hundred years ago.

You’re probably wondering what on earth that novel has in common with Destiny at Dolphin Bay. I can’t speak for everything Kasey meant, and there are of course some differences: Melissa, my main character, isn’t a teacher or any kind of authority figure, but rather a teenager. She doesn’t claim to offer any spiritual example or counsel. In fact, she’s “escaped” from trouble back home to sanctuary with her sister in Chiloé.

Palafito Stories

But that said, I can see a few similarities:

  • Genre – Both stories are “old-fashioned” historicals. I didn’t write Destiny at Dolphin Bay as historical fiction, since it’s set in my own lifetime. Yet 1990 now puts it squarely in today’s past, illustrated by Chiloé’s palafito culture. They’re no longer home-sweet-shacks hovering over fetid mudflats but lucrative inns catering to those who would like to try living in a boathouse.
  • Setting – Both stories take place in a rustic area, beautiful but isolated. At times frightening, at times as inviting and inspiring as a country retreat.
  • Protagonist – Both stories feature a female lead character from a privileged home. Both are idealistic but naïve, used to their shiny bubble world. (I liked Christy so much, however, that I believe I unconsciously gave a variation of her name to the main character of Linnebrink Light.)
  • Secondary Characters – In general, both stories picture the people of the “new world” as unsophisticated, uneducated, ignorant, and superstitious. They range from kind and generous to mean and ugly. Most are simple in the best sense of the word: sincere, unpretentious.
  • Spiritual Content – Both stories relate a significant spiritual journey for the main character as well as for others. Both tell a tale about the “God of love and beauty…in small ways and in large.” Melissa certainly doesn’t see herself as anyone special, yet like Christy, God has sent her to a place apart for a reason.

“For a few, the concept that life did not have to be all starkness and misery was slowly taking root. Tentatively, timidly—constantly encouraged…some of the women were at last reaching out for light and beauty and joy.” ―Catherine Marshall, Christy

Palafito Symbols

While the symbolic home of Chiloé, the palafito, has mutated into a popular icon of the good life in the islands, my husband and I found the Palafito Azul a restful break for our busy lives and harried souls that day. Thank God for an old-fashioned home sweet palafito.

On the other hand, I’ve learned that if the sanctuary isn’t in my heart, it’ll be hard to find. Home is where the Lord is, whether that’s a castle in Spain, a cabin in the mountains of Tennessee, or a palafito by the Pacific. Like Christy and Melissa, let’s pray for God’s destiny, always so much better than any design of our own.

“Dear God,’ I said inside myself, ‘when I came here, maybe I was partly running off from home for fun and freedom and adventure. But I have a notion that You had something else in mind in letting me come. Anyway if You can use me here…well, here I am.” ―Catherine Marshall, Christy


  1. Awwwwww. What a great post. All of your stuff is so good, but this was . . . poignant. Yes, poignant. Loved it!

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