Just south of Pumalin Park is the town of Chaiten.
There are not many large towns in Patagonia, and we thought Chaiten would be one, but we were wrong. It feels like half a town, as it was completely obliterated by the Chaiten volcano in 2008 and is recovering very slowly. Much of the town still has destroyed and condemmed buildings with massive amounts of ash. The town decided to preserve a block of them for the memory of what can happen, as the Chaiten volcano is still considered active. The town seems quite forlorn and forsaken.
We met an incredible tour guide in Chaiten, Nicholas. He is an over the top friendly person, with Canadian, US and Chilean family. He is extremely well read and has taken an active interest in the volcano. Though we wanted to trek to the rim of the volcano with him, the weather just did not permit it, but he guided us to the blast zone. The Chaiten volcano is a rare one, evidently because of its rhyolitic obsidian lava dome. As a result, Nicholas spent a lot of time guiding famous vulcanists from around the world, including many from the U.S. who have studied Mt. St. Helens.
From the blast zone you can see the rim above and the main lava dome. (Link to Chaiten info here). The blast zone gives you a close up picture of the massive damage and a good view of how the forest recovers. On the mountain slopes you see sticks of dead trees, but also the lower green bushes that are growing back. In the lower parts of the blast zone you walk through a morass of fallen and snapped trees, all pointing downhill, massive numbers of new bushes and plants. In the river bed there is a braiding stream with ominous mounds of river sand and ash all piled up with
large boulders and dead trees all around.
So what happened to Chaiten? At first it was fine. The volcano exploded at 1 am and there was no ash in the air. But the explosion of the volcano sent pyroclastic materials streaming down through the river valley that winds its way into Chaiten. We were told that a lot of this material completely mixed with river water, creating a thick soup that captured things in its way like fallen trees, creating various dams. But eventually these dams broke and all the ash, river soil, rocks, pyroclastic
debris etc. went streaming down the valley, and inundated Chaiten and demolished most of the town. Today, there are many buildings that have just been condemned but not torn down. There is a huge alleuvial fan of ash in the bay, which forms a deserted beach especially when the tide is out.
How did the government respond? Evidently poorly. The Chilean government tried to get the people to relocate to an “eco village” which would be built a few miles north, where
danger of a future eruption would be minimal, but there was really nothing there but promises. The government also refused to turn on the water and electricity because it would be “dangerous”. After 2 ½ years, the townspeople took control, broke into the water plant, and turned it on. The water ran fine… and clean. Now the town continues to recover, but to a visitor it feels kind of deserted.
We were there on New Years Day and Eve, which happened to be during a very cold and rainy period. Everything was closed except one restaurant (which fortunately was very nice). The weather and emptiness of the town did not help create
a very celebratory mood, but perhaps it is a New Year that will be well remembered. We heard NPR coverage of New Years in New York and all the perky partiers were saying how festive it was, and thought “On what planet is that happening?”! We did get a beautiful rainbow on New Years Eve; maybe there’s a pot of gold somewhere. The best part of our New Years was the aforementioned guide, Nicholas, who was always willing to help us out, take us on a (free) tour of the town, and provide a friendly warm personal touch.
When we toured with him, we also drove to a beach nearby. As we sat in his car watching the storm, he pulled out an instrument called a “charango”, which is a very small guitar with 10 strings, and played and sang for us. He even taught Char a few chords.
Shopping and Spanish language miss-communication
Chaiten is a town where if you look in all the nooks and crannies, you find what you need. We found AA batteries in a small hardware and homegoods shop, and an air mattress in a clothing, shoe, and small appliance shop (the Macy’s of Chaiten), and an unusually nice fruit and vegetable market. We think the air mattress was probably there since before the volcano, as it was more than a bit dusty. About the batteries, we thought the Spanish word for battery was “bateria”, so we asked the shop owner for baterias. It turns out ”bateria” is only used for large batteries,
such as car batteries. The shop owner smiled and showed us these giant batteries when we asked for them. We laughed and said no, “demasiado grande para un camera”, and she was very puzzled. But it turned out we were standing right next to some AA batteries. They are called “pilas”. She thought it was quite funny that we asked for baterias.
The inspiration of the Patagonia logo
We met some people who are bicycling the Carretera Austral – the only main road through this region – and mostly gravel. They showed us the logo on a Patagonia jacket and said that it had been inspired by the profile of the mountains in Chaiten. What do you think?
Other Photos of Chiten: