This Dreamy Chilean Island Is Home to Colorful Houses, Stunning Scenery, and the World's Smallest Deer

It’s Chile’s best-kept secret.

Chiloé Island colorful houses
Photo: chaolik/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

Chile is famous for its varied landscapes, from the cracked, dry sands of the Atacama Desert to the snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes of Patagonia. But it’s off the lanky country’s southern coast (and just a short two-hour flight from Santiago) that you’ll find a true secret respite, charmingly quaint and ripe for exploration by intrepid travelers: Chiloé Island. The largest island in an archipelago of the same name, this frequently overlooked destination is an adventure lover's dream.

Chiloé’s misty emerald fields peppered with fuzzy sheep and cows along with its coastal bluffs will have you wondering if you’ve suddenly materialized in Ireland. But the island’s rich culture, steeped in a blend of Jesuit Christianity, native mythology, and its long-standing fishing traditions, firmly roots it. This unique mix is on full display at its many UNESCO World Heritage Churches. Constructed in the 17th and 18th century, the churches reflect the craft of the shipbuilders who erected them. The result is a distinctive style you can’t find anywhere else in the world, foremost because they are built entirely out of native wood, right down to the shingles on the roofs and the wooden pegs used instead of nails.

Blue and white church with steeple
Germán Vogel/Getty Images

Similarly singular are the colorful houses on stilts painted in rainbow hues dotting the water’s edge in the capital city of Castro. Here, travelers can also stroll through the Plaza de Armas, shop for souvenirs at the craft fair or local shops, and sink their teeth into the burgeoning culinary scene. One spot not to miss is Restaurante Travesía, which elevates traditional island recipes with modern gourmet touches.

For those looking for outdoor adventures, Chiloé offers ample opportunities for hiking. Head west to Chiloé National Park for stunning ocean views and an abundance of wildlife, from foxes to the shy and elusive Pudú, the world’s smallest deer. Daring hikers might enjoy the long and strenuous trek to secluded Cole Cole beach, where pristine white sands all to yourself are the reward for working up a sweat. Or, hike along hilly bluffs overlooking the ocean to the “Pier of Souls,” a wooden platform built on a cliff edge by a local artist that leads to nowhere but promises cinematic views. For those looking to take in the scenery in a less strenuous way, head to Bosquepiedra, where sparkling lakes, verdant forests, and waterfalls await. Meanwhile, Parque Tantauco offers the chance to explore a remote wilderness of evergreens, bogs, and rivers, and features over 80 miles of hiking trails to choose from.

Tierra Chiloé hotel near lake
Courtesy of Tierra Hotels

The ideal home base is found at the all-inclusive Tierra Chiloé Adventure and Spa Hotel, the newest property in the Tierra portfolio. Despite recently adding additional rooms, the property still feels remarkably intimate. Rooms feature simple, but elegant décor with a local flavor, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer sunset views of the quiet bay below. Cozy copper fireplaces and oversized couches in the common areas create an ideal setting for sipping a glass of exquisite Chilean wine. Meanwhile, the spa and heated outdoor pool are paradise for tired muscles after a long day out trekking with the knowledgeable hotel guides on the numerous tailored excursions offered. Not only will foodies delight in the delicious menu options, but eco-conscious travelers will also take comfort in the hotel’s sustainable mission.

Penguins on a rock on Chiloé Island in Chile
roevin/Getty Images

Perhaps one of the best perks of Tierra Chiloé is easily spending a day out on the water on the hotel’s boat, the Williche, which whisks guests off in comfort to discover everything from unusual graveyards to local basket weavers on nearby islands. Smaller zodiacs also allow for prime marine life viewing opportunities. It’s not uncommon to see colonies of sea lions sunning themselves, or for playful dolphins and Chinstrap penguins to come right up and splash you. For those not staying at the hotel, companies like Quilun Ecoturismo Marino and Chiloe Natural still offer opportunities for similar boat tours. Kayaking is another idyllic way for visitors to get out on the water. Chepu, the northern region of Chiloé National Park, is an untapped haven of wildlife and beauty, and floating through its drowned forests by kayak is an unmatched experience.

January through March offers the best weather, with warmer temperatures and less rain. It’s easy to make Chiloé part of a longer itinerary that includes Santiago, Patagonia, and other parts of Chile, but it isn’t necessary — this island paradise is a worthy destination in its own right.

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