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Days 19-21: Chaitén

January 31st, 2011 by *MoonDogg*

There is a volcano outside the city of Chaitén that is also called Chaitén. It erupted a few years ago, and while a majority of the ash was blown east to Futaleufu, Chile and Esquel, Argentina, there was a great deal of destruction done to the city of Chaitén as a result of a river overflowing. It wiped out something like 6 city blocks, dragging whole houses out into the ocean. 

As we walked into town I had an eerie feeling. I realized later it was partially due to the lack of electricity. There were no lights on anywhere. It was early morning, but after sunrise so it was plenty light out, but still you expect to see some lights. Porch lights. Living room lights. But there really weren’t any. And also, I didn’t notice it at first, I think subconsciencely I did, but the power lines were all missing. The poles were still standing, but no wires. 

As we were walking down the street, looking down each block, the town just seemed dead. A ghost town. 

Then a van pulled up, and a man named Nicholas started asking my dad some questions. Turns out he runs a small business in town, Chitur, with a variety of services, primarily as a guide to the Pumalin park, but also other hikes, transportation, bus tickets, etc. He’s a little eccentric, but a nice guy and really knowledgable about the area and the volcano. He helped us find a place to stay, and urged us to join the group he was taking out that day to go hiking. We weren’t sure we wanted to but he kept telling us he was going to be busy the next day and today would be best. As it turned out, he would urge us to join him on the next days outing as well… Just a guy trying to make a living I guess.

We had breakfast at a little restaurant. There were no lights on inside. Many places had generators for electricity, but still kept the usage to an absolute minimum. Fortunately our cabanas kept their electricity on for all but a few hours in the early morning. Supposedly they had an agreement of some kind with the gas station where they received free or discounted gas for their generator. They also had plenty of water, which was not the case at the first place we stopped. That place had no water, and didn’t know when it would return.

We got settled in and ready to go our a day hike with Nicholas. While we were waiting I decided to walk further down our street to where the river overflow damage was. There were whole blocks of houses partially buried in about 4 or 5 feet of gravel and sand. Many of them still had their furniture inside, curtains in the windows, etc. Basically sitting the same way they were when the volcano erupted. It was quite saddening to think of all the families and lives that were abruptly interrupted. (Side note: I have heard two conflicting stories. One was that the entire town was evacuated on week before the eruption. The other was that many people were there when it happened. I’ve not had time to research and find the truth.) There were some excavators moving around some large boulders shoring up the sides of the new river.

Basically, the river used to run north to south on the east edge of the city, parallel to the coastline, with the city in between. After the eruption, the river broke through the middle of the town toward the ocean. The “beach” is now much bigger that it was, and littered with debris, old tree stumps, parts of houses, clothing, shoes, etc. I imagine there is a ton of glass and other sharp objects just beneath the surface. I don’t think it’s going to be a safe place to walk barefoot or swim for a long time. There was no sense in trying to force the river back the way it used to go, so now they are just reenforcing the sides of it. The part of town still standing to the South of the new river is below sea level and still considered dangerous and not many people live there. At least until the new river is properly built up.

I guess the government gave homeowners vouchers to buy houses anywhere in the country, and many took advantage, but many decided to stay, and fight to keep the government from forcing them out. There are conspiracy theories about the discovery of gold or other minerals in the area being a primary reason why the government wanted to get everybody out. But in the end, the citizens prevailed and they are slowly bringing the city back to life.

Our guided tour of Pumalin park, a privately owned nature preserve owned and built by the founder of The North Face, started with a long ride on a dirt road. There were several people simply getting a ride to a campground. Others of us we’re going hiking. We stopped a few times to take a look at the damage caused by the eruption. Some of the trees that looked dead in the area that were obliterated, were actually growing again. We were told that the kind of growth they are seeing was not expected for 10 years. 

Along the dirt road where we we’re looking at the volcano, there were these giant flies that were just absolutely annoying and apparently attracted to black, which I was wearing. There were two kinds, and both of them liked to bite, through your clothing. What was interesting about them is they were not really afraid. You could actually grab or flick them off without any trouble, but there were so many, it was futile effort.

Also, there was this crazy huge dragon fly that landed on my foot. I was able to get it to walk onto my hand. It had a broken front leg, but I don’t think it was much of a hindrance for it. Once I started holding it and playing with it, it started acting like a dog. By that I meet it kept following me around, landing on my legs, my shoulder, my arm. It was doing tricks and even, and this is not a lie, it rolled over and played dead. I have a picture of it. It also landed on the leg of another girl named Laura who was with us, and she walked  Some 50 yards with it there. It was the coolest thing. I love dragonflies. Always have. This one was like a pet and I wanted to take it home.

My pet dragonfly playing dead

Our first hike was short, and on a trail that led to several large trees. Called the Alerce, they were only recently designated as protect by law, and are the second oldest trees in the world,  behind the Bristlecone. They used to be cut down quite often, and there are not nearly as many as there used to be.

The second hike was a bit longer,  about 2 hours, and went to some waterfalls. Both hikes were very beautiful, and the trails themselves were very impressive. Lots of wood bridges, stairs, ladders and elevated sections. The area is a rain forest, and very lush, with lots of birds, frogs, babbling brooks, etc. I constantly felt like I was listening to one of my rainforest ambient sleep tracks.

At the very top of the longest hike were two couples, each with infants, one only two months old. I was impressed that they carried their kids that far, especially since many parts of the trails were pretty sketchy.

The second day it rained most of the day. Khristian and my dad did some walking around the destroyed neighborhoods taking a lot of photos, while I hung out at the tourist info center talking to the woman who worked there, Barbara, asking a lot of questions about the area. There I also met John from Canada, who tipped me off to go rafting in Futaleufu. 

That afternoon we stayed inside and tried to watch True Grit on my iPad, but the speakers on the iPad are weak sauce (as are so many other features of it) so it was really difficult. Especially with the wind roaring outside. We had to sit around the dining table and and sit with 3 feet of it. I had to construct some sound deflection and still I had a hard time hearing. I think having some small travel speakers would be nice. But even with the sound difficulty, it was a good movie. 

That night we had spaghetti and I think I had a bottle of wine to myself. I slept well.

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