Saturday, 14 March 2009, Isla Chiloe, Chile
One week ago we left Chaitén by ferry for Puerto Montt. This was the finale of an incredible 800km journey, which began when we crossed to Chile Chico and then headed for the Carretera Austral. Although it may seem a little unusual, this time I am going to begin our report at the end. We were shocked, disturbed, surprised, moved, unsettled, amazed, touched, overwhelmed, astounded, enlightened, and definitely very affected by our time in Chaitén. For this reason, I feel like sharing this experience first.
In May last year, the Chaitén Volcano erupted for the first time in thousands of years. (Anyone interested in all the ins and outs can find masses of information on the internet.) The town of Chaitén, which is situated virtually under the shadow of the volcano, was evacuated. While reading this report, bear in mind that we had no opportunity to watch television reports of the event, so what we saw on entering the town was all new to us. We had no preconceived ideas of what to expect. All along the way we had hoped to be able to drive into Chaitén and take a ferry from there to Chiloe or Puerto Montt in order to complete the Carretera Austral. But we had conflicting reports about the possibility. In El Chalten we had heard from Shreesh and Neena that it was possible - they had taken a ferry into Chaitén and continued south from there. Just before we reached Coyhaique on the Carretera Austral, we met up with Juergen and Eli, whom we hadn't seen since Bogota. They told us that it was not possible to get into Chaitén because there had just recently been another eruption (which they had experienced in Futaleufu, about 100km away). In Coyhaique the tourist information told us that Chaitén was not open for visiting, no-one was living there and no ferries were leaving from there. They sent us to a travel agent who would be able to give us information about alternative ferries leaving from other places. She told us that ferries were indeed leaving from Chaitén and would continue to do so if the volcano remained relatively quiet. She also told us that we could not sleep in the town - we would have to sleep in El Amarillo, about 20km south, and drive in early to catch the ferry. Her information was that everyone had been evacuated from the town and those who went in during the day all left for the night.
Armed with this sketchy, and somewhat conflicting information, we arrived in El Amarillo where a policeman stopped us and took Juergen's particulars. He also told us we were not permitted to stay in Chaitén but must return there for the night. As we were driving into El Amarillo we had noticed what looked like fine white sand on the edge of the road. It took us a while to realise that it must be volcanic ash. After the police post we were driving across the bridge in El Amarillo and saw the river absolutely clogged with the stuff - a truly unsettling sight. Going towards Chaitén, we saw very little traffic except a few trucks coming from the town that appeared to be loaded with someone's household possessions. We were stopped again at the entry point of Chaitén. These police really didn't want to let us in but, when they couldn't answer our questions about the ferries, they let us in to see if we could find anything out at the port, but told us again that we had to leave for the night.
Entering Chaitén was quite shocking: there is ash everywhere, clogging most of the streets, the river is full of it, some houses nearby are almost buried in it. We followed the one cleared road to the beachfront and then along the beachfront until we found a sign pointing ahead to the embarcadero (where the ferries should leave from), and a road that has ceased to exist. We stopped and walked over for a closer look. A woman coming out of the immaculate looking Hotel Schilling stopped to chat. She still lives a few houses up the street and has a water tank and a generator. She doesn't find it dangerous to stay and, according to her, there are around 40 people still living there, though there had been 70 before the latest eruption 2 weeks before. She called someone out from the Hotel who had a ferry schedule and we discovered there should be a ferry to Puerto Montt the next day (Saturday), another on Monday and the one we knew about to Chiloe on Tuesday. We decided to take the one on Saturday if it went, rather than waiting around until Tuesday. She also told us it was perfectly all right for us to park in town and stay for the night and that the police wouldn't send us out once we are in. She invited us to go around the town and look and take photos, especially by the river.
Since it was quite warm at that time, we decided to accept her invitation and take a walk around the town. All along the shorefront the sea is clogged with ash and debris, including a few houses. When we got to the river, we could see that it was the worst hit place, with houses covered halfway up their walls in ash. Some of them are almost destroyed. The road leading to it had all its concrete power poles blown over. It was quite disturbing to see that some parts of the town look totally normal while others had suffered such dreadful damage. I met another woman climbing out of a fence with a bowl of blackberries, a couple of apples and something green. She had obviously been collecting whatever fresh food she could find. When asked, she told us she had lost everything but was still living in town, we think, with friends. Juergen suggested to her that it is very bad there and her answer was "depende". She believed that there were more than a 100 people living in town.
Further on we were stopped by a bearded fellow who asked us in strongly American accented English if we were the Australians, as he had seen our camper parked down the street. He introduced himself as Nicolas, a Canadian-American-Chilean who had been living in Chaitén for 10 years. He talked to us for a long time about the situation in the town. According to him: people had been offered 12 million Pesos to leave the town and set up lives elsewhere (this is around $A30,000); the government talks about building a new town for them but has done nothing about it; 10 months on and it has still not been declared a natural disaster and has not been allocated the appropriate funds for such an event; machinery for cleaning up the town has been in situ since the beginning but the workers have to constantly wait for orders before they can do anything; a company of military engineers nearby could clean up the town in a few weeks but they have no orders to do so; just 2 weeks ago they closed down the only fuel station, so now the people who have stayed have to travel around 150km to get fuel for their cars and their generators; there might be as many as 200 still living there; some of those who have stayed have contributed their own, sometimes meagre, resources and brought a class action against the government and various individual officers of the government - he says it has at least got some things happening with the machinery that has been there so long.
On signs around the town the locals refer to the town as "zona cero - cero luz (electricity), cero agua (water) and cero apoyo del gobierno por salvar el pueblo (support from the government to save the town)". Those that have chosen to stay, against real pressure from officialdom, show their pride in their town. Not only are they tending to their own property, but the whole town square had been cleared of ash and was very obviously being looked after. As Nicolas told us, these people have been making their lives here for 3 generations and they love their town. But is it safe to stay in a place with a rumbling, threatening volcano forever in the background? Last time the lava came within 6km of the town - how close will it come next time? We certainly couldn't share their optimism and we are not really sure if it is optimism or stubbornness.
As we walked back to our camper, we could hear at least one generator going and it wasn't yet dark, so we decided to drive out of town to the embarkation point of the ferry and sleep there. Once again we were stopped by a policeman, who took down all of our details and then allowed us to pass. It was obviously ok with him if we wanted to sleep at the ferry dock. Since the ferry was due to leave at 10:00, we would have had to be there at 8:30, so it meant not needing to be up so early in the morning. On the ferry the next day, Juergen found a pamphlet about emergency and safety procedures in Chaitén - the area near the ferry dock is listed as an evacuation point for half of the town, so I guess we picked one of the safest parts of town to sleep in.
Continuation on > Page 2 > !