Traditions in Chile's Archipelago of Chiloe: Recipe for Curanto and Palafitos Houses on Stilts

Read more about the food and architecture of Chiloe at

The waitress sets the two earthenware crocks of steaming curanto on the table. They aren't bowls actually...they are more like giant soup tureens filled to overflowing with mouthwatering meats and seafood. Bottomless soup tureens, it seems. I look at my husband and grin sheepishly, "Wow, that's a lot of food." Frankly, it is a ridiculous amount of food on that platter, and quite a bit of it that is staring back at me, I don't recognize. I'm not a fish lover by nature, but we have come to this lovely island of Chiloé specifically for the local specialty, el curanto. And I've returned with the recipe.

Meaning 'stony ground' in the native language of the Mapuche Indians, this 'kurantu' is the traditional food here in the Los Lagos region of south Chile, in a Pacific Ocean archipelago just off the mainland. Refined down through the centuries, this hodge-podge of meat, vegetables and seafood is still prepared by the chilotes (local residents) the indigenous way--over heated rocks in a pit oven, covered with nalca leaves (ferns), a second overlay of stones, then sod, and left to simmer to succulent perfection in the earth.

CURANTO en olla (Serves 8)

In huge pot, cook garlic, onions and peppercorns in1/2 cup oil. Add chicken bouillon cubes, dissolved in 1 cup warm water. Add the mussels, clams, barnacles, and wine. Cover with layer of cabbage leaves. Add the whole chicken, sausage, smoked meat, and potatoes on top and cover with a second layer of leaves. The milcaos and chupaleles will be arranged atop that 2nd layer of cabbage, and then covered with all remaining leaves of cabbage. Put a lid on the pot and bring to the boiling point. Reduce heat and steam for 1 hour. Transfer to serving plates.

MILCAOS (Potato Pancakes) and CHUPALELES (Potato Dumplings)

Milcaos: Boil 6 potatoes, peeled, in salted water until soft. After draining, put the potatoes in a large bowl and mash. Fry 4 oz. salt pork until crisp, about 15-20 minutes, and drain. Grate 2 raw potatoes finely and squeeze out excess water. Put in second large bowl.

To the RAW potatoes, add half the mashed potatoes, along with 1 Tbsp. lard and salt. Divide into 8 balls. Put 1 tsp. of the fried chicharrones (salt pork) inside each ball and seal tightly. Flatten.
Chupaleles: Add Tbsp. lard to the remaining mashed potatoes, season and mix well. Knead in 1 to 1 1/2 cups wheat flour until smooth. Form into square dumplings.

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Ferry Crossing to Ancud for the Curanto

On Sundays and special holidays, you can go to the small town of Ancud to find the curanto being steamed in traditional the ground. Take the short 90km (55-mile) drive from Puerto Montt, the nearest big city, to the ferry crossing at Pargua. For 10,000 pesos (about $20) and 30 minutes of your time, you can surge across the Chacao Channel on a school-bus yellow Cruz del Sur transbordador (transport). More than likely, sea lions will be swimming alongside, eager for a fish dinner of their own.

If you can't make it down for the communal cookout, the other days of the week curantos are cooked in gargantuan pots, using cabbage leaves to cloak the heat, and served in restaurants all across the island as 'polmay'. Restaurants like El Curanto, overlooking the waterfront in Castro, stick with the original name for the main dish on their menu. To get to the island's capital, simply follow the lone coastal highway from Ancud. Littered with fishing trawlers and colorful outrigger boats, the shoreline soon gives way to tranquil bays and pastel-painted houses on stilts, called palafitos by the Chiloé locals.

After returning with spare plates -- for the shucked shells -- and small cups filled with broth, our mesera (waitress) finally retreats and leaves us to the business of eating. My husband has already popped open one of the picorocos barnacles (a species of large barnacle native to the coasts of Chile); a dab of shellfish swill threatens to dribble onto his shirt. I have already stabbed my fork into a spicy sausage and am eyeing the pair of unidentified 'bread-like' patties floating in my dish.

Milcao is the darker of the two -- it turns out to be the equivalent of a potato pancake. The other -- a chapalele -- is a potato dumpling made with wheat flour. Both are indescribably delicious. To my delight, so are the mussels, and the chicken, potatoes and onions.

Palafito Houses of Castro

Through the enormous window panes overlooking the pier, I barely notice the goings-on down below: children on bikes trundling over the gravel ... street vendors hawking scarves ... fishermen hauling in the morning's catch. I am too busy prying open a clamshell with my knife.

After lunch, we walk along the water's edge and admire the palafito homes, Chiloé's other claim to fame. High above the pilings along the shore, the rainbow-colored maritime structures, constructed of planking and larch tile, stand on spindly pillared legs, oblivious to the rising and the ebbing of the tides. Moored beneath the houses are fishing boats in all degrees of sophistication, which bob gaily in the current. Meanwhile, the sunlight plays off the reflection in the bay, casting mirrored images of the palafitos across the water.

Unesco World Heritage Churches and Chilotan Architecture

We turn down a side street and duck into a pastry shop advertising chocolates and galletas (cookies). We pile back into our rental car, but before taking the Llao-Llau coast road back towards Ancud and the ferry, we take a quick detour towards the Square (Plaza de Armas). To see one of the famous cathedrals...the ornate Iglesia San Francisco de Castro, a Unesco World Heritage site since November 2000.

Unlike its sister churches, originally some 150 of them throughout the Chiloé islands, Iglesia San Francisco exhibits a neo-gothic facade, and is frequently re-painted in glaringly-bright colors. Construction on most of the smaller churches was begun in the 17th century at the behest of Jesuit missionaries. The chilote carpenters fashioned them completely from wood, with nary a nail to be seen; even the styling of the jointing in the towers was heavily influenced by ship-building techniques.

This merging of European artistry with indigenous craftsmanship and the use of native trees like the alerce created a style of Chilotan architecture entirely unique to the archipelago. The fact that so many of these houses of worship still stand is a testament to both their impressive woodcraft and symmetry, as well as the dedication of the Catholic priests and Franciscans who have been ministering here through the ages.

A land of boundless beauty, the island of Chiloé has remained untouched and pristine, in spite of centuries of civilization. In the hundreds of years since the conquering by the Spanish conquistadores, little has changed. Evangelization of the islands brought Christianity to the land, yet it failed to obliterate some of the pagan mythology that still lingers in the folklore of today. Legends of a hideous troll, El Trauco, who lures women to his lair deep within the forest ... and a beautiful mermaid, La Pincoya, who claims dominion over the abundance gleaned from the oceans. Fact or fable, the chilote residents still rely on the bounty of the sea for sustenance, as evidenced by their time-honored culinary skills. Right down to the curanto steeped in tradition... and layers upon layers of nalca fronds.

Learn more about Chiloé at Chile.Travel.En and about ferries at Visit Chile-Ferry

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Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her 13-year old son.

Photos by Vickie and Gustavo Lillo

Published: August 21st, 2014
Updated: August 23, 2016

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