Visiting Chaiten

There is probably no better time then a lazy Sunday morning to try and catch up on my blog, which is hopelessly out of date. I spend so much time on my computer for work during the week, that I try desperately to avoid it on the weekends. But, I am feeling inspired right now to put fingers to keyboard to share with you all one of the highlights of my family’s recent visit to Chile.

Although Chile has had numerous volcanic eruptions over the centuries and each one has its own stories, like the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle eruption in 2011 which caused havoc around the world with flight cancelations and the covering of tourist towns in Argentina in a thick layer of ash from which they are still recovering today. But probably one of the most famous volcanic eruptions of recent times is that of Volcan Chaiten (a rhyolitic volcano) in Northern Patagonia on 2 May 2008.

There is nothing that Chileans like more then regailing tourists with stories of dramatic personal experiences of earthquakes and volcanoes and so very early on in my time in Chile I heard about the eruption of Chaiten. Thanks to all the stories I had heard and a little bit of investigation I had done, I was determined that one day I would visit Chaiten and see this now infamous town and volcano for myself.

First a bit of background information – the last time Chaiten erupted was about 9500 years ago, and so in 2008 when the town of Chaiten started feeling some earth tremors, they thought it was actually another volcano in the area called Michinmahuida. They soon realised it was Chaiten, situated a mere 3km to the northeast of the town. Within 24 hours of the first eruption, approximately 4000 people from the town and surrounding area had been evacuated. Four days later the intensity of the eruption increased dramatically, and according to Wikipedia, an aerial survey of the volcano showed that the two original cones of the volcano had been blasted open into one crater measuring more than 800m in diameter.

As usual, the ash cloud which rose more than 3000m in the air, caused more damage in Argentina than in Chile due to prevailing winds. But the disaster that struck Chaiten was to happen 10 days after the eruption began. Forest on the slopes of the volcano and nearby mountains were burned by the pyroclastic flow. The debris of trees and ash mud blocked up the Blanco river and when it eventually broke its banks, it destroyed a large part of the town. Over the following weeks, the river diverted its course straight through the town causing more damage.

The intensity and destruction of the initial eruption and the fact that volcanic activity continued for more than two years (and it is still emitting fumeroles today) lead the government to try to abandon the town altogether and relocate its residents to a site about 10km away from the volcano. But Chaiten’s residents would have none of this, and before long they started to return to the town where they lived for more than two years without water or electrical services from the government. Although the current population is about 3500, in comparison to the 7000 people in the area before the eruption, the town is slowly but surely being rebuilt by its very hardy and determined residents.

Needless to say that since hearing this story, I have been eager to see Chaiten for myself, and the perfect opportunity arose when my brother and his girlfriend Beth visited us from Zambia for three months at the end of last year. Since my brother is a fly fishing fanatic, there was no way I could not take him to visit Patagonia, one of the world’s best fly fishing regions. So I planned a two week trip starting in Chiloe and then heading across to Chaiten from Puerto Montt in an 11 hour ferry ride. This was an experience worth sharing in itself and so I will hopefully write a blog post soon about our night on the Pincoya Ferry.

Sailing towards Chaiten at dawn, we were greeted by a spectacular view of the coastline and our first glimpse of Volcan Chaiten, although at the time we were not sure whether it was Chaiten or not.

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Although it may not bee too clear in this photo, on the far right there are fumeroles rising from the mountains. At first I was sure it had to be clouds, but we later confirmed that it was Volcan Chaiten.

Soon we sailed around a small headland and were greeted with our first site of the town of Chaiten.

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Chaiten, a welcoming site after 11 hours on a very cramped ferry.

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We walked into town looking for a place to have a cup of coffee and hopefully a bite of breakfast, but the fact that it was about 6:30am meant that it was basically a ghost town. 

The town is not that big at all and so before long we found what seemed like the only place open. It was a pizza place, but thankfully it served breakfast. I wish I could remember the name of the place, as I would love to recommend it to anyone visiting Chaiten. The owner was a lovely lady, who took the time to answer all our questions about the town and the eruption and she was happy to share her story of the evacuation and life after the eruption.

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My brother enjoying the early morning sun in Chaiten.

We had the morning to explore Chaiten because Coni, our friend who lives in Palena, was due to meet us at about 11:00. We went wandering around and came face to face with the reality of the disaster, which is still very evident more than 5 years after the eruption.

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My brother investigating the ashes in front of an abandoned house. Almost straight above him you can see Volcan Chaiten and its fumeroles joining with the clouds.

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I am not sure what the beach looked like before the eruption, but I can only imagine that it did not include debris from the forest. 

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A close up of the previous photo

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The Blanco River changed its course during the disaster and now flows through the south of the town. Basically everything around this area was destroyed and has not been rebuilt.

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I think this was a school, but I am not totally sure.

Sadly we only got to spend a few hours exploring the town before moving on to Futaleufu, but what struck me the most about the town and its few inhabitants with whome we were lucky enough to chat, is their sense of belonging and determination to reconstruct their town and life and carry on as normal. Chile is an incredibly centralised country, dominated heavily by what goes on in Santiago. But most of the nearly 7 million Santiaguinos have never ventured so far south in their own country and have no idea of what it means to live in such isolation.

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This sign hanging about the door of a mechanics shop, says it all: “Chaiten is a paradise that will continue to live”. 

I salute the people of Chaiten who returned to their town and are slowly rebuilding it. I am so glad I got a glimpse into life in this corner of Norther Patagonia, and as with most places in Chile, I really hope to visit again some day and explore the area more.

P1180901 (1024x768)About to hop on the bus to Futaleufu. Coni is kneeling down a little to try and show the sign on the door which says “isolated Zone”. In such isolated places the bus fares are subsidised by the public transport system in Santiago. 

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4 Responses to Visiting Chaiten

  1. Esme Solomons says:

    Fascinating as usual – thank you so much… Love, Esme

  2. Beth Pound says:

    Thanks for the wonderful memories Ingrid! I will show this to the Geography teacher for the upper classes 🙂 Also, the lovely lady who had the restaurant we had breakfast in was writing a book, with some help from the Patagonia Sur Foundation all about Chaiten before and after 2008. I must find out from Coni what her name is! For anyone interested in visiting Chaiten, it is a very beautiful and interesting place to visit and the arrival by ferry is worth it! x

  3. Coni Gómez says:

    The name of that fantastic Pizza Place in Chaitén is “La Reconquista” , which means “the reconquest”.. because it was opened after the eruption. The name of the lady is Cecilia Illanes, and she is the most fantastic person!!!

    • ingridckoch says:

      Thanks so much for the details Coni. I hope everyone who reads this post goes and has breakfast or a pizza at La Reconquista! Cecilia is a fantastic person, I totally agree 🙂

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