Haunted by Hitchhiking on Chiloé

by Charles Ferguson

Try as he might, a traveler visiting a Chilean island full of superstition and legend finds it nearly impossible to hitchhike to various cities… until one friendly local offers to give him a ride.

The low-riding sedan continues to roll, ill-equipped, down the muddy backroads of rural Chiloé. Ahead, grass shoots up higher than the car on either side of the track against an overcast sky. Felipe and I have been driving for almost half an hour now. My phone’s offline Garmin GPS doesn’t have these roads mapped, which gives me pause. Garmin is normally so thorough that it can identify even the hiking trails on a Patagonian glacier. Here, on Chile’s largest island, it distinguishes nothing.

The terrain, too, has remained indistinguishable since turning up into the Chiloé hills: dry reeds, tire tracks filled with stagnant water, and dead trees hosting hungry vultures. Despite a couple of delays stuck on slick inclines, Felipe assures me we’re almost to our destination.

The destination? My Spanish is not yet developed enough to have caught that detail when my hitchhiked ride explained it. All I understood was that I could make it from the remote west coast of the island back to its main town as long as I was willing to tag along for Felipe’s final stop of the day. Something about work to attend to. Not exactly flush with options on the desolate backroads, I hopped in next to my Chilean compatriot, his waist-length hair tied in a bun and a half-finished joint in his hand. 

Phone signal is at a premium on Chiloé, and its lack has left me lost for a large portion of the day. I had wanted to navigate the island purely “a dedo,” but up to this point, I had been disappointed. Trying to hitchhike had left me stranded on the roadside in drizzling rain five times in two days. Still a fledgling wanderer, I was unable to give the reins of control to the road, and each attempt at hitchhiking had resulted in flagging the hourly bus that passed by.

I had made it to the western end of the island earlier in the day in the same way, and my budget-traveler ego had taken critical damage. I glumly explored Chiloé’s national park, ruminating more on my shortcomings as a vagabond than enjoying the windswept beach forest. 

I walked out of the national park’s gates to a cloud of dust and a bus’s tail lights disappearing around a bend – my only assured ride back to the city. Mustering up any remaining resolve, I stuck my thumb out into the road once more in hopes of a ride back to the regional capital. A gray sedan screeched to a halt almost immediately: my first successful ride on Chiloé.

I’d been told hitchhiking is safe in most of Chile, but the potential for disappearing off the face of the map still felt like a real one while on Chiloé. Since setting foot on the island, I had been slowly picking up chilling bits of stories regarding the mystical island’s dark history. These tales plagued my imagination as I ascended into the backwoods.

Local legend has it that Chiloé and its archipelago were created from a battle between the water god Caicai Vilu and the earth god Trentren Vilu. The water god managed to flood the lowlands, but the earth god emerged triumphant. Unable to reattach the shattered islands to the mainland, Chiloé remained just offshore. 

Centuries later, in the late 1800s, Chiloé’s residents began trials among male citizens suspected of witchcraft. These brujos (male witches) were reportedly members of a satanic cult with a hellish initiation process involving skinning loved ones and signing deals with the devil. The witches protected their cave with the Imbunche, a mutilated child with a head attached backward and limbs rearranged to suit the needs of the cult. Besides feeding on human flesh, additional Imbunche traits include the creature’s ability to freeze anyone who makes eye contact with it, Medusa-style. 

The island’s mythology extends to include tales of salacious trolls impregnating women (used as a scapegoat for male infidelity), seductive sirens driving islanders to insanity, and a ghost ship manned by a crew of drowned fisherman and soldiers who have been carried to the vessel via a magic seahorse. 

I had successfully managed not to stumble into any satanic rituals so far; instead, the only things that had haunted me on Chiloé were my hitchhiking failures and a bus ticket I paid three different times for the same ride. 

Having momentarily zoned out imagining the legends of Chiloé against the bland landscape of its hills, I notice the truck has finally stopped. We’re in front of a lone muddy hill with a rusty metal barn atop it. Felipe hops out of the driver’s seat and moves a flimsy excuse for a barbed wire gate aside. The gray clouds have begun to swirl up above the barn in a vortex shape. I gulp and steel myself, ready for either fight or flight.

We roll further up the hill to the abandoned-looking barn. Felipe asks me if I’d like to assist him in his work today. I’m willing to take any option that gets me out of the car and oblige. Felipe leads me to the back of the car and pops the trunk, and I freeze at the sight of three “Pringles” can-sized syringes, a machete, and a pair of muddy black boots. I could use that magic seahorse as backup right about now. 

“Ready?” Felipe asks. He gathers the three syringes and hangs the machete from his belt loop. “Follow me.” 

“Ready for what?” I ask with most of my weight on my back foot, ready for a quick getaway.

“For the cows,” Felipe replies, seemingly unaware of my alert, and walks around the corner of the barn.

“The cows?” I wonder aloud. 

Keeping a safe couple seconds of distance, I round the barn, too, and come face-to-rear with a sickly bull’s behind. Beside the bull sits a portly indigenous boy and his two parents. They’re roasting some sausage and a potato in a skillet on an open fire. 

As Felipe warmly greets the family, I connect the dots that were lost in translation when originally offered the ride: Felipe is a veterinarian for farm animals. That explains the syringes, the machete, and the cow-patty-splattered boots. Well, not the machete. Some things remain best unexplained. 

Felipe consults with the teenager about the bull’s health and fills two syringes according to what ails the weak animal. The boy walks around to the bull’s front and grabs its stubby horns. Felipe then turns to me.

“Watch me,” Felipe says, pointing both fingers from my eyes back to his, a universal hand signal. 

He disconnects the needle from the first syringe, slips it between his middle and ring fingers on his right hand so that the point protrudes near his knuckles, and secures the back of it with his thumb. Approaching the steer, Felipe positions himself off the animal’s right side and lightly lays his left hand, free of the needle, but still somehow holding his joint, flat on its haunch. 

Then, with more power than I would ever expect from this Chilean Dazed-n-Confused character, Felipe raises his hand and brings it back down twice, landing two hard blows in quick succession on the bull’s rear. He strikes it for a third time, but this time with the back of his right hand. 

With this smooth sleight of hand, the needle is in. The animal roars, but is all too weak to move as the boy comforts it by stroking its head.

Felipe casually attaches the syringe back to the needle and injects the bull with its first round of meds. The needle comes out neatly. Felipe reaches for the second syringe, disconnects the needle, spins around, and hands it to me. 

“Slap it twice to desensitize the nerves, and throw the needle in on the third,” Felipe explains as nonchalantly as if I’m accustomed to driving needles through animal hides. “Just be sure not to stand behind the cow. Sometimes they kick.” 

Nervously, I slip the needle through my fingers and repeat the position Felipe had placed his hand in on the bull’s right haunch. There’s some significant muscle in this spot. Before I overthink things, I brace my hand, give the steer two hard smacks with my left, and swiftly switch hands to deliver the final blow. The needle goes in like butter.

The indigenous family gives me an overly enthusiastic ovation with whoops and claps. It’s the kind of ovation a gringo receives for doing anything remotely uncharacteristic in this part of the world. Felipe insists I finish the job and helps me attach the syringe to deliver the second injection. 

As a thank you for the visit, the family invites Felipe and me for lunch. We graciously chow on chorizo and charred potatoes. Traditional Chilean cueca music plays from an analog stereo on the ground. 

A frequent customer of Felipe’s, the farmers catch up with their local veterinarian. Attempts to bring me into the conversation are short-lived. If the Chilean dialect is already one of the most formidable to understand in Latin America, then trying to interpret the rural sub-dialect is a boss-level challenge. 

I don’t mind at all though. The staticky music, the unintelligibly fast Spanish, the simple meal. I had finally found the adventure I’d been yearning for in my fruitless attempts at hitchhiking. 

Despite the twisted tales of the island, I finally managed to battle back some of the uncertainty avoidance that had haunted me since setting foot on Chiloé. It turns out the most memorable moments come from letting the road dictate what you do, what you experience, and where you sleep. By that, I learned one of the most valuable lessons in long-term travel.

And I had stuck a needle in a cow’s ass in the process.

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