From the 30th April 2008, Chaiten, a port town towards the north of Patagonia (and the end of my cycle ride along the Carretera Austral), was hit by a series of low and medium intensity earthquakes. The 7000, or so, people of the town began to worry. At half past midnight on the 2nd May 2008, their worries were validated. A loud bang jolted them awake and they felt, and saw against the night sky, Volcan Chaiten erupt. The volcano, thought to be extinct, was 10km from the town and the plume could be seen 180km away. The water supply to the town was soon cut off to prevent poisoning.
The largest evacuation in Chilean history, involving navy ships, left about 1000 people in the town that night. On the 6th May there was a secondary eruption and by that night there were only 20. The rivers filled with ash and the town was flooded. A new branch of the river formed and wiped away hundreds of houses. Of the houses left, many are severely damaged by the mounds of ash.
Now, 20 months later, Chaiten is a ghost town. But people do live there. About 150. A few supermarkets are open. A few hospedajes and a few restaurants. A man I spoke to said, for the first 6 months after coming back he had not unpacked, just in case he had to go again at short notice. The government have now decided that Chaiten will not be rebuilt and instead Santa Barbara, about 6km away, will be expanded to replace the town. As yet few new houses have been built in the region.
On a miserable grey morning exploring the town, feeling self-conscious, I took photos of the destruction and graffiti. Here are some examples with my attempts at translations.
EL GOBIERNO NOS NIEGA LA LUZ Y EL AGUA. AQUI ESTAMOS HACIENDO PATRIA.
The government refuses us light and water. We are making our homeland here.
CHAITEN NO MORIDA. VOLVEREMOS.
Chaiten is not dead. We will return.
ZONA 0. CERO LUZ. CERO AGUA. CERO APOYO.
Zero Zone. Zero light. Zero water. Zero support.
ESTA PROPIEDAD NO SE VENDE AL FISCO NI A PARTICULARES
This property is not for sale [not sure about the “al fisco” bit.]
CHAITEN NO MORIA SEGURIREMOS CONSTRUYENDO. PATRIA AL SUR DEL MUNDO, POR ESO EXIGIMOS. CAMINO CHILE, AHORA!!!
Chaiten will not die, we will keep rebuilding. Our homeland is in the south of the world and for this we demand a Road of Chile now. [This refers to a proposed extension of the Carretera Austral through Pulmin Park which has shelved since it gained sanctuary status.]
RECONSTRUCCION CHAITEN VIVE!!
Reconstruction. Chaiten lives.
VIEJO PASCUERO: EN ESTA NAVIDAD TE PIDO LA LUZ Y EL AGUA. CHAITEN VIVE!
Father Christmas: for this Christmas I ask for light and water. Chaiten lives.
NO ROBEN. Don’t rob us.
SENOR, PROTEGENOS DEL VOLCAN, DEL RIO Y DE LOS MALOS POLITICOS. AMEN.
Lord, protect us from the volcano, from the river and from the bad politicians. Amen.
As it lashed down with rain I headed towards the sound of a generator, and sure enough, found a supermarket. I bought a packet of biscuits and was munching away when a minibus came along. They were heading up to visit the Volcano and wondered if I wanted to come along. I said I didn’t really have the money and the tour guide asked, “What else are you going to do? Sulk around here?”
So we drove along the last section of the Careterra Austral and into Pumalin Park (officially trespassing as it is now closed to the public). We drove across a part of the road that has been widened as a makeshift airstrip. A cartoony cherry-picker control tower, made everyone chuckle. As we drove, the sky cleared up a bit and we had a sight of the decimated forests. Our guide pointed out that the giant rubarb plant I have seen everywhere is edible, even raw. We came to a point were the road is destroyed and stopped. From here we had to walk. The first thing I did was get some giant rubarb and eat it. Its disgusting just so you know. The road was split into several sections by landslides and rivers was strewn with volcanic rocks. Lumps of glassy black Obsidian were everywhere along with the solidified white frothy lava: pumice stones. After crossing and recrossing the newly appeared river, we reached a view point for the volcano and waited patiently for the clouds to part.
While we waited, I asked our guide about the Pumalin Park. The area, which has a unique ecology, has abundant mineral wealth and so industrialists wish to exploit this and also develop forestry. This is one of the primary reasons to extend the Carretera Austral: to better facilitate the industrialization. The granting of sanctuary status has forestalled this threat for the moment. I also asked about Chaiten and tried to piece together the events of the eruption. I asked about insurance. People were fighting in the courts but many companies refused to pay out. Many people did not have home insurance. Also many complex issues. The town people had to fight in the courts to have the river properly levied. On the way back from the volcano we stopped off at Santa Barbara which is a lovely little secluded beach, overshadowed by a forested hill called Vilcun. I tried to imagine it growing to the size of Chaiten. The guide pulled out a charango and played a few songs, including one he had written about the beach, and “Don’t worry about a thing” the Bob Marley tune.
I went for dinner in a place called Turco, one of the few open. Miranda and Pete, who’d also come up to the volcano, were there so I joined them for a good chat, a few beers (lukewarm as fridges don’t work) and a big plate of fried salmon. They are a pair of teachers working in Colombia and very friendly. Feeling very happy and content (full stomach, faith in human kindness) I walked back to the Don Carlos Hospedaje in starlight (street lights don’t work).