How to Visit Chiloé Island: Insider Advice
Chiloé is the largest island entirely within Chile and a popular trip from the Puerto Varas lake region. Full of old churches, German style architecture, seafood and palafito houses on stilts, Chiloé has a distinct culture from mainland Chile. I’ll talk about how to visit Chiloé Island and some of the island’s must sees.
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How to visit Chiloé Island by car
A trip to Chiloé is best done by driving. You can rent a car in Puerto Varas, Puerto Montt or directly on Chiloé Island in larger towns like Ancud and Castro.
Driving from Puerto Varas to the Pargua ferry port will take around 1 hour, 10 minutes. Ferries leave frequently and you don’t need a reservation in advance. Prices are per vehicle, not per person. However, if you’re uneasy maneuvering the ferry with a rental car and rusty Spanish skills, take a public bus to Ancud and rent a car there.
Chiloé is safe and easy to explore with a car rental. Bring a GPS and Google translate with you, if you don’t speak Spanish, and you’ll be good to go!
Distance between destinations on Chiloé Island
I’ve put together a table of the distances (in kilometers) between different destinations on Chiloé Island. This will be especially useful for you if you’re driving, since you’ll have the freedom to take detours to sites that buses don’t frequent.
|Chacao||Ancud||Quemchi||Castro||Dalcahue||Curaco de Vélez||Anchao||Chonchi||Puqueldón||Quellen||Quellón|
|Curaco de Vélez||113||86||141||36||12||0||6||51||71||103||130|
How to visit Chiloé Island by Bus
Traveling to Chiloé Island from Santiago
Cruz del Sur runs daily buses between Santiago and all the main hubs in Chiloé. This includes Quellón, the furthest accessible destination by road on the island. The ride from Santiago to Castro, Chiloé’s capital, is approximately 15.5 hours.
Traveling to Chiloé Island from Puerto Varas
Cruz del Sur runs multiple buses per day between Puerto Varas and places like Ancud, Castro, and Dalcahue. You can buy your ticket at Cruz del Sur’s Puerto Varas bus station or online.
I recommend purchasing your ticket in advance, particularly if you’ll be traveling during the high season. If not, you could encounter a sold-out day, which was the case for me. Thankfully, if the same happens to you there’s the option to take a bus to Puerto Montt. From there, you can hop on a separate bus to Chiloé Island. Let’s dive into this more.
Traveling to Chiloé Island from Puerto Montt
Heading to Chiloé Island from the Puerto Montt bus terminal offers the greatest number of departures and destination options. I opted to take the bus from Puerto Montt on my way to Chiloé, since it had better departure times. As you already know, on my way back I was forced to travel through Puerto Montt because the buses to Puerto Varas were sold out.
The good news?
Buses between Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt run every five minutes or less! It’s common to be walking around Puerto Varas and see a Puerto Montt bus picking people up and another one already coming down the road. The cost is 900 pesos and you’ll travel by means of the Panamericana, which is the road that goes up to Alaska, USA.
Bus companies on Chiloé Island
Now that you know all the ways for how to visit Chiloé Island by bus, let’s talk about these buses.
There are four bus companies that run between mainland Chile and Chiloé:
- Cruz del Sur
Of these companies, Cruz del Sur and Queilen are the dominant ones. Cruz del Sur is more expensive, but I found the Queilen buses to be just as nice, if not nicer, than Cruz del Sur.
Travel Tip: Cruz del Sur receives special treatment in Chile with its bus terminals oftentimes being in a different location from the other buses. In some cases, such as in Ancud, this works in your favor because it gets you closer to the center than the regular bus terminal.
You’ll be asked which seat you want when purchasing your bus ticket online or in person. They’ll show you a screen with available options in either case. No need to fret about securing a certain side. Both sides of the bus have beautiful views of the countryside.
Travel time between destinations
The list would be long if I tried to spell out times between all the destinations in Chiloé Island. There are just so many worthy stops!
It’s common for a single bus to start on mainland Chile and makes stops all the way down to Queilen. However, to give you a general idea of some of the most common bus routes from Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, below are some examples:
|Puerto Montt||2 hr 10 min||3 hr 20 min||5 hr|
|Puerto Varas||2 hr 50 min||4 hr||5 hr 45 min|
All about the Ferry to Chiloé Island
The ferry is an important step in understanding how to visit Chiloé Island. You can expect the crossing to take about 20 minutes from the Pargua port on mainland Chile to the Chacao port on Chiloé Island. You have the option to stay in your vehicle or wander around.
The trick is arriving when a ferry is already there. If you’re taking a Cruz del Sur bus, they’ll have you covered. Cruz del Sur runs their own ferries and coordinates ferry departures according to their bus schedules. That said, any other bus or private vehicle is allowed on the ferry, too.
I took a Queilen bus and waited about 20 minutes for a ferry to arrive. Not too bad, although there isn’t much to see at the port so most people stayed on the bus.
Once on the ferry, and if the weather is nice, I recommend getting off the bus, if only for a brief stroll. There’s a narrow viewing platform on just one side of the ferry. The area gets uncomfortably tight when lots of people are there. However, I found that far fewer got out of their vehicles on the way back to mainland Chile than going to Chiloé Island.
Make sure to keep an eye out for marine life in the water…we passed a frolicking sea lion!
In addition to this narrow indoor and outdoor viewing area, the same side of the ferry also has restrooms and a small cafe. Just don’t expect anything luxurious. The ride is short, so the ferry isn’t spruced up with amenities.
How long to spend on Chiloé Island
Due to the travel time involved from traveling from mainland Chile to Chiloé Island, I recommend spending at least one night. You can easily spend two or three nights, depending on how much of the island you want to see. People who spend multiple nights on the island typically do so to either visit as many of the churches as possible and/or to explore the national parks, especially in the southernmost part of the island.
That said, it’s possible to visit Chiloé Island in one day from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. Lots of tour companies offer full day excursions from these destinations, although you can easily do so yourself by bus. Most commonly, these full day tours cover Ancud and Castro.
I personally spent two days on Chiloé Island and traveled via public transportation. Even if I had visited in one day, I still could have gotten around well with public transportation, since the island is well connected with frequent bus departures.
Places to visit on Chiloé Island
Now that we’ve got you to Chiloé, let’s talk about the beautiful places to visit! During my two day stay on the island, I covered four of some of
Chiloé’s most popular sites. Let’s take a closer look at how to visit Chiloé Island to help you make the most of your visit.
Ancud is the second largest town on Chiloé Island and the first stop for many since it’s located near the Chacao port. It offers a great introduction to the island with its Church of San Francisco, among others. The oceanfront promenade is the perfect place to feel the pulse of the town.
If you’re driving, park your car and explore by foot. If you’re taking a bus, the Cruz del Sur terminal is located in town. All other bus companies stop at the main bus terminal which is about a 20 minute walk from things of touristic importance.
The walk is an easy, straight shot into town, so if you’ve got the time, I wouldn’t plan your schedule around taking a Cruz del Sur bus. Taxis are also available at the bus terminal.
While in Ancud, make sure to visit the San Antonio fortress. This will get you a bit higher up for nice views of the coast.
Ancud is a great place to try out a traditional dish from Chiloé Island. Curanto is a seafood, meat and potato dish cooked by hot rocks underground. Nowadays, many restaurants cook it in a pot, but even so I found it to have an earthy flavor. Make sure to arrive hungry or with friends- the portions are enormous!
After an hour or two, you’ll likely be satisfied with your visit in Ancud. So now let’s talk about the most popular side trip from Ancud, the Islotes de Puñihuil.
Islotes de Puñihuil
If you’ve seen pictures of penguins hanging out on Chiloé Island, these were likely taken at Islotes de Puñihuil (Puñihuil islets). Protected by local fishermen, the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins migrate to the area from September – April. That said, the months of December – February typically have the highest density of penguins.
Normally, I’m all about taking public transportation. But for Puñihuil, this was my guilt-free pass to sign up for transportation and a guided tour.
The reason? Buses are close to non-existent and only save you a few dollars compared to the tour.
Should you like to give the bus a go, it leaves twice daily on weekdays (12:00pm and 4:00pm) and once on Saturdays (1:00pm). Once at Puñihuil, you’ll need to walk down to the beach, catch the next boat to the islands, and then walk back up to the road, all before the same bus circles back around. You’ll have about 1.5 hours in Puñihuil.
Regardless if you take the bus or tour, make sure to sit on the passenger side when traveling from Ancud to Puñihuil. This way, you’ll get to enjoy ocean views!
I signed up for a tour with Chiloé Turismo Verde for 10,000 pesos. My expectations were low, but even if they were high I would have been impressed. A brand new vehicle and friendly driver accompanied us for the tour. For the record, I paid in full for my ticket and Chiloé Turismo Verde had no idea I was going to write this post.
Taking the boat to see the penguins
After a beautiful 30 minute drive, you’ll arrive to the beach. If you’re with a tour, your driver will arrange the time for your boat departure with the local fishermen. If you drove yourself, you’ll need to do this on your own. Just walk up to any one of the many little stands along the beach.
Important: Puñihuil is not known for its English speakers. I didn’t see any tours from Ancud that run in English. Also, the fishermen who give the tours only do so in Spanish. Please don’t be discouraged by this- Spanish or no Spanish skills, you’ll still get to enjoy seeing the penguins!
Getting on the boat is an entertaining experience. The fishermen will load you up onto a cart and wheel you into the water. This way, you can get on the boat without getting your feet wet. Life jackets are provided and required.
The boat was comfortable and holds around 30 people. Boat departures are closely monitored by the fishermen and work on a rotating schedule between different companies. This way, penguins get just one visiting boat at a time.
You aren’t allowed to get off the boat, but the fishermen do a nice job of getting close to the islands. Even so, bringing a camera with good zoom is ideal to get the best pictures.
Travel Tip: Although the fishermen rotate the boat between sides so that everyone gets a close up view of the penguins, due to the nature of the route around the islands, sitting on the driver side of the boat has a slight viewing advantage over the passenger side.
Weather & penguin sightings
I was lucky to have a clear, calm day for this tour. However, waves can get rough in the area when the weather is bad. In this case, the boats don’t run. Since it isn’t necessary to book this tour in advance, I recommend aiming to make your decision about taking the tour the day you’re in Ancud.
They say that a greater number of penguins can be spotted in the early morning and late afternoon when the penguins aren’t out searching for food. Since the earliest boat departs at 11:00am, you may want to aim for late afternoon. That said, there are almost always a good number of penguins around at any hour, so I wouldn’t go rearranging your day because of it.
After your visit to Puñihuil, you can either spend the night in Ancud or head further south. In my case, I went straight to Castro. I took an early evening Cruz del Sur bus for 2,500 pesos which took around 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Castro is home to palafitos– houses on stilts. There are a couple of places to see these houses, with the easiest being Palafitos de Gamboa. This is because you can admire the palafitos from land. Most other areas require a boat to view the palafitos. Even better? Palafitos de Gamboa is just a 10 minute walk from Castro’s main square.
You can even spend the night in a palafito house! I had an incredible stay in the warm and cozy Palafito Hotel. They have both small dorms and private rooms (some with balconies over the river!). Breakfast was included and is a great way to chat with all the other guests staying at the B&B.
Visiting the palafitos by boat
If you’re looking for a different kind of palafitos experience, hop on a boat and you’ll be able to view the stilt houses from the water. There are boat rides of varying length and price, but departures are regular. Simply walk down to the port and ask around. Here again, English is not widely spoken; however, they’ll get your drift if you say “palafitos”. The average price seemed to be 3,000 – 4,000 pesos for around a 30 minute boat ride. There was also a boat excursion offering a one hour tour that included both a boat ride and walking through the palafitos.
Travel Tip: The best pictures of the palafitos are taken at high tide when the reflection of the houses can been seen in the water. Be sure to check the tide schedule, if this is important to you. Alternatively, spend a full 24 hours so that you can be guaranteed a high tide. Of course, sunny weather is also ideal to help with those palafitos reflections!
San Francisco Church
Aside from seeing the palafitos, the other main attraction in Castro is visiting the UNESCO San Francisco Church. It’s located in the main plaza, in front of the Cruz del Sur station. You won’t have to worry about accidentally passing by this pastel yellow and purple marvel.
Take a look!
While I enjoyed seeing the San Francisco Church and palafitos, my overall impression of Castro was that it’s more industrialized and run down than other parts of Chiloé Island. Being the capital of the island, it also has the largest population.
Castro definitely deserves a pass through. However, especially if you’re renting your own vehicle, you’ll be able to find more attractive areas in the countryside of Chiloé Island.
Dalcahue is tied with Puñihuil as my favorite place on Chiloé Island. This charming seaside town is the quintessential image I had of the island. Most of Dalcahue’s attractions are along the seaside boardwalk. Here, you’ll find picture-perfect views of boats along the shore, ceviche sold at local stands and an artisan market. Heading a block inland, you’ll come to the main plaza with…its church, of course!
While meandering around Dalcahue, I stumbled across another gem. A crooked house!
In order to get to this house, walk to the end of the block behind the church on San Martin Street. Then, take a left onto Ramon Freire. The house is located three buildings down on the left hand side (after Punto Market). Slightly further down to the right you’ll see the outdoor bus “terminal.” However, you can grab a bus anywhere along the oceanfront boulevard in Dalcahue.
If you’re exploring Chiloé Island using public transportation, Dalcahue is an easy side trip from Castro. In Castro, you’ll need to go to the “Terminal Rural de Castro.” When you arrive to this terminal, walk past the ticket counters and out to the buses. The indoor ticket counters are only for longer distance buses. Dalcahue is about 25 minutes from Castro and you’ll be able to pay your driver directly.
Make sure to get on a bus that reads Dalcahue por Pukeman. This will get you to where you need to be in the shortest time possible. The bus costs 800 pesos and runs every 20 minutes. You can tell your driver to let you off at “La Feria” (the artisan market) although getting off anywhere along the boardwalk will do.
Chiloé Island is filled with charming places to explore. Visiting by car will give you the most flexibility, but bus connections are frequent if you visit the island by public transportation. I hope this post has given you more insight on how to visit Chiloé Island.
Have you been to Chiloé Island? I’d love to hear about your own experience and tips.
Laura’s love for traveling started with a trip to Jamaica. Since then, she’s spent over five years living in Latin America and four years wandering the globe. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.