The pretty churches of Chiloé: island architecture in southern Chile

The simple and elegant wooden churches of Chiloé rival the beauty of any European cathedral.

Southern Chile´s Chiloé Island is famous for these churches, with more than 50 structures surviving – 16 of which were named as World Heritage Sites in December 2000, preserving the island’s unique culture and history.

The architecture of Chiloés churches, along with the island society in general, was directly influenced by the Jesuit missionaries who lived there until being expelled in 1767. Franciscan missionaries continued the evangelical legacy, respecting the architectural traditions and the culture of the island people, known as Chilotes.

The churches of Chiloé are more than religious sites for the Chilotes, however – they are second homes to the residents of this island.

In these sacred structures, the Chilotes have historically met to discuss important social and political issues, and to celebrate a variety of fiestas. Since the churches are typically the largest and safest buildings in the islands villages, they are additionally used as communal refuges during the extreme storms that can be common in southern Chile.

The churches of Chiloé are representative of a unique school of architecture, called Escuela Chilota de Arquitectura en Madera (Chiloé School of Architecture in Wood). According to this style, buildings are constructed with particular native species of impermeable wood; as a result, Chilote structures are capable of surviving for centuries – no small feat in the midst of seismically active region.

For these reasons, UNESCO designated the lovely churches of Chiloé as World Heritage Sites.

Here is a guide to several of Chiloé’s World Heritage churches, but we recommend visiting them all!

Church of Achao: Dates to 1765 and is the oldest church on the Archipelago of Chiloé. This church is on the island of Quinchao, in the plaza of the town of Achao. It has been a National Monument since 1951.

Church of Our Lady of Dolores de Dalcahue: Constructed in 1858 in Dalcalhue, on Chiloé’s Isla Grande (Big Island). It has been a National Monument since 1971. This church occupies a space where there once existed a missionary chapel.

Church of Our Lady of Rosario de Chonchi: This church was initiated by the Jesuits and finished by the Franciscans, at the end of the 1700s, in Chonchi, close to the city of Castro. The church was restored in 1849, and was declared a National Monument in 1971.

Church of Santa María de Rilán: Dates from 1658, but this church was actually rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century. Located in Rilán, within the Castro city limits, it has been a National Monument since 1971.

Church of Our Lady of Gracia de Quinchao: Built in the 18th century, in 1993 this church was badly damaged by a storm, and it is currently supported by wood braces. The church became a National Monument in 1971.

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Church of Our Lady of Rosario de Chonchi (Photo by Gretchen Stahlman)
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Church of Our Lady of Rosario de Chonchi, Interior (Photo by Gretchen Stahlman)
By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel
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