March 15, 2010
I could never get the straight scoop on Chaiten. “It’s a ghost town”. “No one is there, they all left”. “Chile is going to bulldoze it and be done with it all”… and “No, there is no longer a ferry running out from Chaiten to Chiloe Island”.
For the past week now I have been traveling up the Carretera Austral, a curvaceous dirt road that runs between the Pacific Ocean and The Andes Mountains. The road weaves between many glacier fed lakes, and the glaciers that feed them. It is an incredibly beautiful ride and very famous with overland travelers because of it.
Chaiten is small coastal town at the northern dead end of the road, or where Chile has yet to find a way to continue the road due to the many fjords, lakes, and the “squeeze” of the nearby Argentine border. With such a small population base it does not seem to make sense anyway. Therefore, the importance of Chaiten is that it has always been a hub for the ferry going to the island of Chiloe and the continuation of the road (the Pan-American Highway actually ends at the south end of the island), leading to the mainland at Puerto Montt. However, in 2008 the neighboring Michinmahuida volcano blew its lid and annihilated the town. Two days ago, in Coihaique, I bought I ferry ticket leaving from Chaiten, so here I sit.
Walking around the town could not be more eerie. It would all make sense if a film crew were to round the corner with Wes Craven or David Lynch directing from the arm of a crane, but the only activity on the streets are two police trucks constantly patrolling the grid. It appears that people left in a hurry with doors locked up, but that’s about it. A few people have come back, and there has been an effort to bulldoze the ash and sand from the streets, but it is far from welcoming. The hum of generators is omnipresent – there is no electricity here. There is a gas station and a couple of basic market stores, but only canned and packaged stuff – no refrigeration. I approached two different hotels thinking they were operational –they looked open complete with a hanging “Abierto” sign in the window, but approaching the door, the dust covered windows and faded posters of nearby attractions is the only indicator that their clocks stopped a long time ago. The fire station still has the ping-pong table set up with two dusty paddles atop, one with a ball wedge underneath it, ready to play. The produce market still has veggies on the shelves although a bit wilted. The travel information office still has its computer monitor atop the counter ready to book a sightseeing trip.
I did find a small cabana for rent (the only hotel in town) and the ferry dock is not far away. During another time my room with a view of the Gulf of Corcovado would have offered a pleasant sunset, but now it is a rather distressing view.
I don’t know the current politics of rebuilding or demolishing, but the town has an aura of being forgotten (not helped by the recent earthquake up north). However sad that may be, it may be the right thing to do, because the smoking gun that caused all of this is still smoking.