By Jack Christie
My first brush with the Pan-American Highway was in the 1980s. It was just north of Powell River on the Sunshine Coast. A hand-painted sign proclaimed the tiny port of Lund the northern terminus of the world’s longest highway, and a map detailed the 25,000-kilometre route along the western coasts of the Americas to its southern end in Puerto Montt, Chile.
The sign greeted me each time I returned. In the 1990s, it was altered to reflect an extension to Isla Grande de Chiloé, whose provincial capital, Castro, became the new Kilometre 0. I imagined myself visiting there one day, putt-putting to nearby islands aboard a water taxi just as I did in Lund. Scanning maps of the Chilean coastline, I saw that Castro, like Lund, enjoyed a location sheltered from Pacific swells and was further protected by an archipelago of smaller islands.
When I finally journeyed to Castro, I saw that comparison wasn’t far off the mark. Yet being there offered plenty of reminders that I wasn’t on the Sunshine Coast. For starters, the distance across the Chacao Canal from the Chilean mainland to Isla Grande de Chiloé may be the same as that from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, but spray from ocean swells never broke over the bow of a B.C. ferry as it did across the Bertina’s. Our ferry was repeatedly walloped with such force that the contents of a fish truck threatened to slop out onto my car. To take my mind off that prospect, I concentrated on a long line of iced Andean peaks that shored up the horizon, with volcanic cones as bookends. More days than not, the weather in southern Chile is bleak; a clear view of the mountains and the brightly painted homes that lined the shore was a stroke of Sunshine Coast luck.
Reaching land, the ferry simply dropped its front end landing craft–style onto a long cement ramp and we all rolled off. I stopped beside an old house of worship where a map pinpointed 39 historic wooden churches that dot Chiloé and its neighbouring islands, settled by Spanish pioneers in 1553, well before the Thulin brothers arrived from Finland to found Lund in 1889. Although I was tempted to dawdle along the Pan-American as it cut through flowering yellow broom hedges, my mission was to reach Castro, located at the halfway point on the 180-kilometre-long island, the second-largest off the South American coast.
Cathedral bells chimed noon as I entered Castro’s town square. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, at 38 degrees latitude, spring was in full riot and love was also in the air. Park benches were packed. Every young couple in the town of 30,000 seemed intent on sucking as much face as possible over the lunch hour. While their lips were locked, they also somewhat disconcertingly kept their eyes wide-open to survey passersby.