The islanders who don't want a bridge to the mainland

By Lucy Daltroff

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A group of islands once visited by Charles Darwin could soon find itself at one end of Latin America's longest bridge. But not everyone in Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, is happy about it.

It's a grey day on Chiloe but as the rain stops and the mist clears, a pair of black-necked swans elegantly glide past, not even giving a glance to the colourful houses on stilts - palafitos as they are called here - which come gradually into view as they swim by.

"We don't mind the rain," says Benjamin, our guide. "We just get on with it, dress accordingly and enjoy our surroundings."

He's right of course. Even Darwin alluded to the bad winter weather in this archipelago two-thirds of the way down Chile's long, rugged coastline, in his journal The Voyage of the Beagle.

Nevertheless he enjoyed the unique wildlife and the kindness of the locals and it was while exploring Chiloe that Darwin witnessed a rare volcanic eruption, which increased his understanding of geology. This helped with his later important work on the formation of volcanic atolls and coral reefs.

Today the 30 islands make up a fiercely independent community with its own distinct identity. The older generation still has faith in the magical legends and stories that have been passed down for many years here.

There's one about a ghost ship called Caleuche carrying the souls of wrecked sailors - and then there's Trauco, a repulsive gnome who can kill with just a look, but is irresistible to young virgins.

The Jesuits first brought Catholicism to these islands in the 17th Century. I can't help wondering if their religious strictures meant that these fantasies became a great way to shift the blame for unmarried pregnant girls or drunken young men.

The many churches here also result from the missionaries' visits. Previously, local building skills had been used mainly in making fishing vessels, so the 160 colourful wood basilicas scattered predominantly along the coastline were constructed with the framework of an upside-down boat.

Sixteen of them have now achieved Unesco World Heritage status. Later, houses were made of the local wood, with distinctive stucco patterns, which are completely different from colonial architecture in the rest of Chile.

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image captionThe church of Nercon in Chiloe has Unesco World Heritage status
image copyrightThinkstock
image captionThe wooden churches were first built by Jesuits and the tradition was later continued by Franciscans

The capital, Castro, dates from 1576, and is full of character, despite some destruction from an earthquake in 1960 that completely destroyed the port.

In the bustling Yumble market, any fluent Spanish speaker would detect a distinct Chilote dialect. Unlike in other parts of South America, goods are traded in an orderly controlled way.

Gleaming varieties of shellfish tumble over bulging stalls. Fishing is still one of the main occupations.

Nearby, the fruit and vegetable stands, with their giant garlic cloves, are dominated by potatoes - more than 200 local varieties grow here, ranging in colour from mauve to yellow. They are still sold in almuds, 5kg bundles, an old unit of measurement left over from the Spanish invasion and no longer used in any other part of the continent.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe earthquake that hit Chiloe in May 1960 was the largest recorded in the 20th Century

But now change is in the air, and not everyone is convinced that it will be a good thing. The government has decided to build a bridge to the mainland, which would be the largest in South America.

Two years ago, Lan Airways inaugurated four regional flights a week into the tiny airport near Castro, but the main access to the rest of Chile is still by the romantic 30 minute ferry that leaves from nearby Pargua, south-west of Puerto Montt. The new plans would turn the trip into a boring, three-minute car ride.

"There is a big division here," explains Andres Bravari, architect and general manager of a new hotel.

"We have been told the bridge would let us get to better health care on the mainland, and the general consensus is yes, we do need that… but instead let's just put a small proportion of that budget into building a modern hospital here. The truth is we weren't really consulted."

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The health risks were highlighted last year by the case of 35-year-old Miriam Marcela Santana. She was 25 weeks pregnant and suffering from a brain haemorrhage. The small local hospital could not treat her adequately so the decision was made to seek out better medical care. But the three hour journey to a mainland hospital was just too long for her to survive.

Apart from the health benefits, supporters also expect the bridge to boost tourism and increase investment and business opportunities on the island. Opponents worry about habitat degradation, land and marine pollution and an end to their uniqueness as a community.

A new shopping mall in the historical centre of Castro has not had a great reception; repeated legal disputes have meant it hasn't even opened its doors yet. The bridge could run into problems too, especially if the pessimistic predictions about its effect on the ecosystem turn out to be true.

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