Tracking the trauco: the myths of Chile


By Bridget Cowan

«We’re only staying if there’s good food, witches, sunny weather and lashings of pisco,» my friend and I promised each other as we waited by the road, on our way hitch hiking to Quecavi, a hamlet on the eastern side of Chiloe Island.

We´d been warned that the pace of life on Chiloe was slow, but four horses and a salmon truck passing by in the course of four hours was really something. Our mission was to find the witches’ caves rumored to be in Quecavi, and to get to the bottom of the infamous Chiloe myths.

Chiloe, a half-hour ferry ride from Puerto Montt across the Chacao Canal, is geographically over 1,000 km from Santiago, and culturally eons away. The main island is about 180 km long, but only 50 km wide, with smaller islands dotted around the edges which make up the archipelagic Chiloe.

At the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Chilotes have for centuries made a subsistence living from fishing and extracting shellfish from the multitudes of rockpools on the island’s shores. Chilotes also gather seaweed left at low tide into bundles which they either eat or sell to the Japanese as food or to cosmetics companies.

The myths are entwined with the remote geography and extreme weather of the island, and our first stop on the myth mission was the museum at Ancud. A fortress town founded in 1767 to defend the Chilean coastline from foreign invasion, its museum houses statues of mythical Chilote creatures.

El Trauco is probably the most famous. Hideously ugly, the half-man, half-beast wandered through the depths of the forests which still cover the island, hitting a tree three times with his ax. The resounding echo through the trees would warn any lone unmarried woman that the Trauco was near, and to flee before he raped her. The ones who didn’t get away were able to maintain their honor by blaming the mythical Trauco for their fatherless babies.

We were quite certain that the Trauco was still up to his tricks, but we were more interested in the witches. Rumor had it they used to meet up in Quecavi to weave their wicked spells and carry out initiation tests. A would-be-witch had to kiss the bottom of a goat, and carry dirt balanced on a twig.

Any villager who ventured too near to the caves would be scared off by the Imbauche, a fearsome creature which growled and grunted, hopping round on its hands and its left foot, the right one having been broken and pinned to its left shoulder by the witches. The Imbauches were babies stolen from their cribs by witches, who then prevented them from ever returning to their families by handicapping them physically. This mythical security system more than likely hid the truth about deformed babies who disappeared soon after birth. It was also a convenient story to keep nosy neighbors away from the midnight deeds of smugglers.

Once we finally arrived in Quecavi, no one seemed too surprised by our request to find the caves, which turned out to be a short drive away. Down by the river they can only be reached by a dense path. We found them suitably dark and gloomy, but with no sign of the witches. The little boy who showed us the way said to his knowledge the only people who had inhabited them were soldiers on the run from the government in the 1970s.

We then visited the Mache, a traditional wise woman. Her home is set aside from the village – a short walk along the beach on a wooden plankway – and surrounded by flowers alongside a freshwater stream. She told us that she learned her herbal healing and midwifery skills at the beginning of the century from a visiting doctor. Unfortunately, in her old age her ability to gather the plants is failing and with her many of the recipes will be lost – the age of modern medicine has no need of natural remedies. The Mache herself said she goes to the doctor when she is ill and uses modern medication, the proof being a packet of aspirin lying on her nightstand.

For 1,000 pesos a night, we camped in the company of piglets and chickens scratching for food under the apple trees in the orchard of the «white house,» easily distinguished because there is only one such house in the hamlet.

From the tent we had a spectacular view of the sea, with mountains from the mainland on the far-off horizon. Although the water was calm on this night, it can be treacherous and is largely responsible for Chiloe’s cultural isolation. In the days of sailboats people rarely crossed over to the «continent,» as the mainland is referred to, because with at least 150 stormy days on average a year the chances of an easy crossing were slim. Stuck out at sea in bad weather, fishermen might have had the misfortune to see El Caleuche, a phantom boat which appeared at the height of storms. Thinking it was guiding them to safety, they would follow the lights, only to dash themselves to smithereens against the rocks.

The danger of sailing curtailed outside influence, thus allowing the distinct mythical culture to develop. Most Chilotes we spoke to did not believe the myths, but their legacy is omnipresent all over the island, in the names of restaurants, bars, local theater productions, and in the annual fiestas. For example, in days gone by La Pincoya was an entrancing mythical woman who would sit far out to sea, combing her cascades of hair. If her back was to the beach then the shellfish harvests would be minimal that day, but if she faced the harbor then it would be a bountiful collecting day. These days La Pincoya is a great seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor in Ancud, where a superb paila marina, a fish soup bursting with prawns, whitefish and shellfish, costs $6000 for two.

Whatever you are looking for, the best time to visit Chiloe is between December and February. You may want to go soon, because the government is planning by 2006 to complete a bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Punta de Gallardo, 50 km southwest of Puerto Montt. Great as this may be for business, it is bound to wear on Chiloe’s unique cultural threads.