Chaitén Volcano, Five Years Later, Revisited
I posted a few photos from Chaitén a couple days ago, a quick survey of some of the damage still visible in this southern Chilean town nearly five years after the massive eruption of a volcano that bears the town’s name. Below is a heftier gallery and a short bit of video from further walks around town.
My brisk explorations can be likened to dusting off a newspaper morgue’s clip file from a five-year sleep. For perhaps a week back in mid-May 2008 –certainly no more than two—the eruption received daily play in international news broadcasts, often in the context of inconvenienced travelers who were grounded in South American airports because of the 16-mile high ash cloud the volcano produced. Over the next few months, a follow up would appear here and there before the story quickly faded, forgotten like countless others. The nature of the news cycle. The story only continues in Chaitén; that’s the story that interests me.
A bit of background -
In May 2008 the Chaitén Volcano, located about 1,200 kilometers south of Santiago, woke from a 9,370-year slumber. It’s primary eruption lasted about a month; at its peak activity it blew a column of ash and gas nearly 31 kilometers into the sky and spewed ash as far as Buenos Aires, 2,000 kilometers away.
Half of the town of Chaitén, which sits 10 kilometers to the southwest, was destroyed. Most of the damage came after the main eruption when the Blanco River, swollen with rain and volcanic material, flooded its banks. The river has since been rerouted and five years later, considerable damage remains, rendering parts of Chaitén a seaside ghost town.
A heavy fog blanketed Chaiten the morning after I arrived, so I had little idea what the town and its surroundings looked like. To the west, directly in front of my hotel’s doors, the wall of fog made it impossible to gauge how far from the road, presumably a seaside road, the Gulf of Corcovado actually was. When the mist started to lift over the Gulf, first to appear was a set of ten relatively new exercise machines, forlornly staring at the invisible seas. Next, a gloomy lunar landscape began to emerge; large gray sandbars at first, then the debris they were littered with: dead trees, branches and brush of various shapes and sizes and portions of homes washed away by the raging river. When the fog dissipated, the edge of the Gulf finally appeared, about a half mile into the distance. Between the road and the coastline sat thousands of tons of ash and mud that the flooded river dumped into the gulf.
Chaitén sits in a pretty setting, tucked between mountains on all sides but to the west where the gulf forms its boundary. To the south, visible from almost anywhere in town, the stepped and pointed 2,300m (7,546 ft) peak of the Corcovado Volcano looms large. The Chaitén Volcano, pictured above, is just to the northeast and still smokes.
In the early days of the eruptions, residents were forced to evacuate; most were transported to temporary shelters in the town of Castro on Chiloe Island or to Puerto Montt, the nearest larger city to the north. Most never returned. Prior to the eruption, just shy of 5,000 people lived in Chaitén; now about 1,300 call the town home.
Javier, the owner of the popular El Quijote Restaurant and rooming house, was one of the last to leave, and among the evacuees who was most eager to return. He hints at a general mistrust of the government at the time, and even shared one ludicrous conspiracy theory that some (not him, he insisted) believed: that in the wake of the eruption, the government was intentionally trying to let the town die –“kill the town” were his words— so they could sell the land to U.S. conservationist Douglas Tompkins, who owns Parque Pumalín, a vast 317,000-hectare, or 800,000-acre, private reserve just north of Chaitén.
Tompkins, the founder of The North Face and Esprit, has long been a divisive force in Chile. Together with his wife Kris, a former CEO of Patagonia, both ardent conservationists, the couple owns more than two million acres in Argentina and Chile, more than any other individuals in the world. They have already donated two areas to the state that have become national parks, and eventually Pumalin will become a park as well. Criticism and mistrust of Tompkins has subsided since his buying spree began in the early 1990s, but his name continues to come up when passions about land are enflamed.
There is still a lack of some basic services. Residents to the south of the rerouted river have power between 7am and 11pm but have to do without at night. “No Facebook past midnight!” Javier says, smiling.
Based on walks to most areas, I’d estimate that between one-fifth to one-fourth of the buildings are not inhabitable. Many of the destroyed and damaged homes were purchased by the government, but should former residents decide to move back, Javier says, they’ll have to pay substantially more for the properties that have sat neglected for nearly five years.
Chaitén is a great jumping off point, or base, for Parque Pumalin. Check out Chaitur, operated by kind, friendly and well-read English-speaking Nicholas who organizes tours to the various areas in park, the Yelcho glacier, and to the Chaitén crater. His office is also a main bus stop; check there for both north- and south-bound routes.
Food? Javier cooks up some excellent fish dishes and serves up delicious and generous sized steaks. His restaurant El Quijote is on O’Higgins, across the street from Chaitur, a block from the coastal road. Or just come for a local microbrew and enjoy the relatively fast and free wi-fi.
Accommodations? The bed bug bites emerged midway through Tuesday’s day-long journey to Puerto Montt and are driving me mildly insane today, so the following warning is in order: If you choose to stay at the Hotel Schilling and are put in room No 5, avoid the bed on the left. Consider yourself warned.
Finally, here’s a brief video I put together…
.. and 15 more photos.
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