So what if the tap water is brown? It is not for fault of filtration or cleanliness, but rather that Asunción island’s fresh water lagoon has a proliferation of tepú trees that indelibly color the water. Melinka (population 1,411, with an additional population of transient workers of around 200), is the largest town in the southern Chilean Archipelago, specifically the Archipelago Guaitecas, nestled in a setting of endless verdant, pristine islands ideal for fishing, sailing, boating and sea kayaking.

And no matter how rustic, boring and dumpy the town may be, it is still a whole lot better than run-down, dilapidated places in Chile like coastal Tirúa (population 9,606, lower 8th Region), whose only claim to fame was that its plaza de armas was swept away by the tsunami on February 27, 2010. Chile is loaded with “second world” ugly towns, and even some ugly cities, viz. Calama, Talcahuano and Osorno. So Melinka is hardly unusual in this sense (see town photos below). Some structures are not too bad, albeit still nothing to write home about. Regardless of its bleak urban appearance, the internet works remarkably well in town, even with plug-in USB “modem” devices. The same thing is true for cell phones. So at least one can stay connected with business and the outside world.

Like its (smaller) sister 11th Region island towns of Puerto Gala/Isla Toto (population 300), Puerto Aguirre (serving several islands with area population 1,850, settlement photo here), Puerto Gaviota (population 346) and Puerto Edén (population 176, 12th Region archipelago, 385 nautical miles further south)–all being the major settlements of the huilliche indians or chonos (distinguished from their more dominant distant mapuche cousins and aymaran indian tribes further north in Chile). There are minor settlements even further south into the 12th Region, such as Puerto Ramírez (at about the same latitude as Puerto Natales). The archipelago consists of over one hundred islands of varying sizes (about three dozen of them qualify as “larger” islands and have been named), a veritable paradise for those who like to explore by boat and then by hiking unspoiled natural island areas. When one is in the Santiago, Valparaíso or Concepción metropolitan areas, the mining areas of the north, or the farm belt of central Chile, he probably reflects little about the fact that a large mass of Chilean territory is made up of seemingly endless broken mountains resulting in sparsely-populated, isolated, fragmented islands, devoid of snakes, llama or puma, along with any real semblance of civilization. Imagine over seven hundred miles of islands with fewer than five thousand total inhabitants. That’s a lot of coastline! To say that Chile is remarkably diverse is a radical understatement.

The southern Andes range and volcanoes can be seen in the distance while one boats through the archipelago. If it looks cold, even on this summer day in February 2013, it is! Melinka and its islands are not for the faint of heart or those who do not like the cold. All year round is jacket and sweater weather.

Melinka is a very isolated fishing town, with its only access to the rest of Chile being ferry boats, especially the ones that come a couple times a week from Quellón (population 21,823), on the south end of Chiloé and the end of Ruta 5. Melinka’s port is so small that the main passenger ferry (the Don Baldo), which makes several stops through the islands region, has to anchor in the harbor while a little boat takes ten passengers at a time to shore. The passenger transfer takes about an hour to complete. Melinka is working on a new pier that will allow the Don Baldo to dock and avoid the hassle. The ferries are rarely on time. The Don Baldo ferry leaves Quellón at 1 a.m. on Tuesday and picks up return passengers from Melinka on Thursday around 10 a.m. In addition, there is the Alejandrina cargo ferry, much less comfortable, leaves Quellón on Sundays and returns on Wednesday or Thursday, but the schedule is never certain. The trip takes about four or five hours. Be sure to bring along sea sickness pills and a sack lunch. Food on board is expensive and generally not very good. One key thing about visiting Melinka is not to miss your ferry lest you be stranded for up to a week! The ferries carry vehicles but the Don Baldo, at least, cannot offload them in Melinka. So do not try to bring a rental car or pickup to Melinka. There is no point in doing so anyway since there is hardly anywhere that one can drive. There are small planes which fly to Chiloé, Puerto Montt and Coyhaique as well. Melinka shares the island of Asunción with a few spread out villages. Images of nearby Repollal Bajo, Repollal Alto and the road to these villages are seen below:

The remote island town and villages receive few tourists every year, and everything touristic worth seeing can be seen in a well-planned, long day. These sites include the plaza and walk around Melinka and Repollal Bajo, the lookout at the top of the hill in Melinka (overlooking the island all around and the airstrip) and the public minibus service (USD$0.75 each way) to the nearby villages of Repollal. The minibus leaves the Melinka plaza next to the church at 8 a.m, noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., making its two hour round trip to the villages on the north shore. If the driver knows you are tourists he will leave a little extra time for one to take photographs along the way and stretch his legs. Like water service and electrical power service, which is provided by generators only from the hours of 8 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., bus service is subsidized by the government. There is no gas station, but ferries bring fuel to a large tank, which can in turn be put into containers and used to fill up vehicles. There is little one can drive to anyway, so fuel can last a long time.

However, the best tour is a small boat ride to nearby islands which feature sea lions, penguins, jumping dolphins and (in season) whales and seals for a cost of about US$110 for 3 hours. It is especially marvelous to watch the moving mass of sea lions plunging into the sea all at once as the tour boat nears their rocky home. See the video of the sea lions below–called lobos marinos or “sea wolves” in Spanish. (The boat ride is private and can be arranged by hostel personnel.)

A decent place to stay is the Ruca Chonos Hostal (email: contacto@alapatagonia.cl) near the port embarkation (USD$80 per night), pictured in the third image from the top. The service is great but be sure to bring a flashlight in case you have to use the bathroom at night. Recent tourists to the hostel have been from the United States, Russia, Israel, Denmark and Japan, principally for whale watching and some plate tectonic and other scientific studies.

The lion’s share of Chileans which come to stay in Melinka are government school teachers, navy personnel or bureaucrats–all of whom receive regional-privilege grade stipends for their trouble that effectively doubles their pay. For example, a school teacher in more populated parts of the country might receive 500,000 pesos per month (just over USD$1,060), but in Melinka they are paid as much as 900,000 pesos. Melinka has about ten college-educated teachers. There are also a lot of migrant day workers for the salmon and seafood industry, who earn up to 35,000 pesos per day (compared to 8,000 to 20,000 pesos elsewhere). A bus ride plus ferry ride from Puerto Montt runs about 15,000 pesos each way, and a small bed can be had for a few thousand pesos per night, making the trip cost to Melinka worthwhile for many workers. There are not many other professionals. Once a month a general medicine doctor, a gynecologist, a dentist, and at times a psychiatrist and a physical therapist, visit Melinka. One of the physicians remains on the island for fifteen days and then returns. Other professionals, perhaps five in total working for the government, include social workers, architects and accountants, along with business, veterinary and marine science professionals which work for the nine salmon, fish and seafood concerns. The images below capture a few other local businesses: trash collection, private mail service Chilexpress, a typical store and the town soccer stadium.

A few photos of Melinka’s plaza are included below. The blue house located on the plaza is for sale for 8 million pesos (about USD$17,000).

The system pictured below, curanto, is used to cook fish, seafood, potatoes, sausage and other meats. A fire is used to heat rocks and the food is set upon the rocks after they are very hot. This curanto was found in Repollal Alto.

It rains incessantly on the island, and even has winter snow accumulation some years. Some elements of the cost of living are high in Melinka, other than taxes, housing and items which can be had from the tax free zones further south in Punta Arenas, and to a lesser extent in Puerto Aysén and Coyhaique (especially used cars, pickup trucks and imported goods). Fruits and vegetables are very expensive, and few things besides some apples can be grown in the island’s generally acidic soil. The same is true for meat or grocery store items like bottled sodas or detergents, and household goods like furniture. Unfortunately, there is not much for tourists to do or see in town or on the island, other than wait for the next ferry to come by. As previously noted, one can walk to the refurbished plaza, go up to the lookout point with radio and cell towers, or take the aforementioned boat ride past the paved airstrip and hopefully see leaping dolphins, whales and jellyfish swimming near the surface of the crystal clear sea. But all of those excursions can be completed rather quickly.

There are some vehicles in Melinka, and while I was on the island they had a rally with some souped-up little cars for the dirt road race between Melinka and the village of Repollal Alto about 15 kilometers away.

Medical care is very remedial, but there is a posta in town to serve basic medical needs.

The town has a Catholic, Pentecostal (Methodist; Assembly of God) and straight Evangelical (Alliance) churches. Most churchgoers, mainly women, are Evangelicals rather than Catholics. There are a few local-client bars along the waveless, south-facing coastline, and one benefit of not having electricity at night is that there is no noise, ever, from nightlife activities. In fact, Melinka is one of the least noisy places I have ever been. Lots of stars on rare clear nights and no noise other than occasional dogs barking. The town is also very dark at night after 1:30 a.m., as one might imagine, and the glow of one’s notebook computer running off its battery becomes a significant light source that can be seen from a distance. There is very little crime, and the town has a couple of permanent carabineros which maintain order. Locals worry a little bit about the bad influence that migrant workers might bring with them. On a closing note, for anyone looking for a business opportunity in Melinka besides tourism, seaweed cultivation and processing might be considered.

As the ferry approached to pick us up, and a hundred people (most without tickets) scrambled to get one of the sixty available seats, I had the strange sensation of what it must be like to be stranded on a desert island. The ferry brings life. Without it, everyone would not be able to continue life as it now exists since there is no significant agriculture, animal husbandry or manufacturing in Melinka. It was a weird feeling of total dependency and the fragility of life. I suppose if one were wealthy enough he could overcome the harshness of isolation by installing his own air or sea transportation: large yacht or boat with deep-water dock, or a plane with an airstrip hanger, both with sufficient repair facilities and spare parts. If one had the staff to run the required services, and let’s add a satellite uplink, power and potable water generation to the list, and an adequate warehouse for tools, equipment, goods and supplies, he could certainly make a go of it. With its strong desire to settle the area, the Chilean government would probably be willing to grant autonomy and allodial concessions to colonists–libertarian or otherwise non-communist and non-fascist–which attempt to establish settlements on unpopulated islands. That fact is savory food for thought.

At least in the summer months, Melinka is a great place to get away from it all for a while and, for certain people, to be away from people on a permanent basis by setting up their home on an island with its accompanying simple life. But could you tolerate the short days, long rainy nights and icy, relentless, hard winds of winter? Or would it be a Patagonian nightmare for you? To get an overall feel for the country, I recommend that you buy and read both of my books on Chile (see below) to better inform yourself about Chile. Others have also recommended that you re-read them six months after living in Chile, too. Best wishes as you sink deeper into oblivion in the “land of the free” or socialist Europe! Just remember that as things sink, you could be investing in a better, freer, saner place, growing inflation-proof produce that will always be in demand. Moreover, as bad as Melinka might be, it still beats the boxcar which is coming soon to your northern hemisphere country.

      Dr. Cobin’s book, Life in Chile: A Former American’s Guide for Newcomers, is the most comprehensive treatise on Chilean life ever written, designed to help newcomers get settled in Chile. He covers almost ever topic imaginable for immigrants. This knowledge is applied in his valet consulting service (see http://www.chile-consulting.cl), where he guides expatriates through the process of finding a place to live and settle in Chile, helping them glide over the speed bumps that they would otherwise face in getting their visas, setting up businesses, buying real estate, investing in Chilean stocks or gold coins, etc. The cost is $49. If you have problems getting the book through the Overseasradio.com site, since the ORN Store is sometimes closed for maintenance, please use the PayPal info noted below.

     Dr. Cobin’s sequel book, Expatriates to Chile: Topics for Living, adds even further depth on important topics to expatriates who either live in Chile already or who have Chile on the short list of countries where they hope to immigrate. The book deals with crucial issues pertaining to urban and rural real estate transactions, natural disasters, issues pertaining to emigration and its urgency, money and the quality of life, medical care and insurance, business opportunities, social manifestations (including welfare state and divorce policy concerns), Chile in the freedom indices, social maladies (lying, cheating, stealing and murder), as well as discussion of a few places worth visiting and some further comments about Santiago. Note: If the link to buy the book at the Overseasradio.com site does not appear, since the ORN Store is sometimes closed for maintenance, just send US$39 by PayPal to jcobin@policyofliberty.net and send an email or PayPal notice that you have completed your order. A download link will be sent to you directly. 

    The Overseasradio.com website also has Dr. Cobin’s abridged book (56 pages): Chile: A Primer for Expats ($19), or the little book can also be obtained directly by following the aforementioned PayPal steps.