Stop 2 on the Carretera Austral: Chaitén
Population: Varied Estimates between 1,000 and 3,000 (4,500 pre Volcano Eruption)
We knew the town of Chaitén had been affected by the eruption of Volcano Chaitén back in 2008, but we had assumed that by now, 6 years later, the town would be completely rebuilt and functioning. But that wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, it is the first settlement after a full day bus/ferry ride from Puerto Montt, making it a necessary stop for us.
The short and quick version is that Volcano Chaitén caused a lahar (a strong mudflow with volcanic debris), which cascaded through the existing river and then plotted a new course through the center of town, bringing a river of cement-like mud through every building in its path. Luckily, the town was evacuated well before the lahar flowed through, resulting in zero casualties, but the devastation was massive and pervasive, and the government took the stance that the town should be completely relocated, instead of cleaned up and reconstructed. The Chilean government refused to provide power and running water to Chaitén for 2 full years. For 2 full years, the small fraction of the town who came back (the majority of the original population relocated, mostly 10 hours away in Puerto Montt) had to stall rebuilding efforts in order to just survive. They created a system to get running water in town from a nearby river and used generators, propane gas and wood for heat and electricity.
What’s left now is really only a partial town from a town that wasn’t very large to begin with. There weren’t many options for places to stay, nor were there many restaurants. Interestingly enough, it was what we would come to expect in all the towns along the Carretera.
The rain and grayness that we had for the two nights we stayed there seemed fitting, as everywhere we looked the damage from the volcano and the abandonment still prevailed. The half of the village that was cut off by the post-eruption river course has been completely abandoned, with the homes and buildings still standing, but left with severe damage from the lahar. We learned about all of this, and much more, from our guide Nicolas, who spoke perfect English and is the only source of information for tourists passing through town. He’s a nice guy, although a bit verbose and eccentric, and he is very passionate about rebuilding the town. Rita, the Señora of our hospedaje, shared the same sentiment, and she seemed to be a strong force in telling the story of Chaitén in hopes that those who relocated will see the progress and return. They have a ways to go, but in the short time we were there, it seemed that reconstruction and clean up were the main job of any man or woman capable of work. And the people we met there were all so kind and so optimistic, we hope and expect they will succeed.
- Met a new travel buddy from Germany, Konrad, and along with our friend Ian, who we met in Cochamó, the 4 of us stayed together at the same hospedaje and shared in quite a few meals.
- The 4 of us, lead by our talky guide Nicolas, hiked to the top of Volcano Chaitén, in nearby Parque Pumalín, and peered down into the smokey crater. It’s amazing how much the forest has regenerated in the past 6 years having been completely dead after the eruption, suffocated by the ash.
A small selection of photos from Chaitén is below. For our whole Chaitén album on Flickr, click here.