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Isle of Steeples and Legend Revels in Its Remoteness

Isolation has made Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, what it is today: a world apart.

Chileans call it the Big Island - and they aren't talking about Hawaii. What they refer to is the emerald, once-densely forested Chiloe, the second-largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego.

Yet while Chile considers this land of salmon and timber, striking wooden churches and legends, wholly Chilean, the island residents, called Chilotes, don't always return the favor.

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"This is Chiloe, this is not Chile; they are two completely different things," says Hediberto Macias Aguilar, mayor of the Chiloe community of Quemchi.

About the size of Puerto Rico, and a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, Chiloe is the first island in Chile's south where the Pacific coast of this toothbrush-shaped country starts to break up into hundreds of small islands.

Its differences start with family names. "You'll notice they're almost all Spanish names," Mr. Macias says, "not like the rest of Chile where you run into so many German and English names. We're Spanish."

That has to do with Chiloe's history as South America's last enclave loyal to the Spanish crown. Chile achieved independence in 1817, but Chiloe remained Spanish for nine more years, becoming for a short time a refuge for Chile's former Spanish governors and loyalists.

For more than 100 years after Spanish conquistadors claimed the island in 1567, Chiloe and its few hundred colonists depended on one annual shipment of goods from Lima, now the capital of Peru, where the Spanish viceroy sat.

Chilotes like Mayor Macias say their island's "difference" is still felt in an absence of urban ills; slow-paced, tranquil living; and at mealtime. (Lovers of fish, shellfish, lamb, and potatoes, Chilotes traditionally eat four meals a day.)

That isolation allowed a culture and architecture distinct from the rest of Chile to flourish. One can still find stone-carved statues of Chiloe's mythical figures in local markets, such as Trauco, a peg-legged, reed-covered, satyr-like being.

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Chiloe is also known for its witches, much like Salem, Mass. Toward the end of the 19th century, local officials of the dominant Roman Catholic Church, impatient with the way local legends and beliefs were hanging on - especially those involving witches - moved to have them suppressed.

According to legend, a local witch, who was jailed for - among other things - flying around invisibly, managed to get himself freed by taking the form of a dog, cat, or owl at night. He then would pester the incarcerating judge out of his night's sleep.

Chiloe is also distinctive for its wooden churches, some of which were already a century old when Charles Darwin visited the island in 1838. Perhaps the grandest of these is the lilac-and-tangerine colored cathedral, built in 1906, that dominates the main square of Castro, Chiloe's capital.

Along the streams and waterfront of Castro, one can still see the old houses on stilts, called palafitos, that were long the favored residences of local fishermen.

Today, traditional fishing has been overshadowed by the arrival of large salmon farms that dot the island's bays like offshore stockyards. Another innovation is seaweed harvesting, a popular summer activity on the relatively poor island. According to government statistics, Chiloe's per capita income is about half the national average, and both poverty and unemployment are higher than for Chile as a whole. Those higher unemployment and poverty rates have led most Chilotes to open their arms as the salmon farms, timber companies, seaweed-seeking Japanese, and wealthier mainlanders have moved in.

Still, many Chilotes are ambivalent about a plan to build a $300 million bridge that would connect Chiloe to the mainland in 2005. Proponents argue a road link would help bring the island economy up to the level of the mainland.

Islanders agree that fewer of their children might have to follow their brothers, fathers, and grandfathers off the island. But what about our tranquility and the Chilote difference, they say?

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