Chaiten – experience the lows to appreciate the highs

28 May

Sometimes when you travel you have to experience lows to appreciate the highs. When you’re on the so called ‘trip of a lifetime’ you unconsciously put yourself under huge pressure to have a fantastic time all of the time but when you travel over a longer period it’s just not possible to be on cloud nine all of the time and sometimes you can hit rock bottom.

For us, our lowest point so far has been the time we spent in a Chilean village called Chaiten. Situated on a glistening bay and surrounded by snow capped mountains, steaming volcanos, thermal pools and with excellent trekking in Pumalin National Park right on the door step, sounds like a small slice of paradise right? Well, that’s what we thought until we arrived to find that the area had been desolated by an eruption just 5 years earlier, camped in an abandoned building for 4 nights and barely saw a break in the rain until the day we left. Stranded in the village until our ferry (which we hadn’t realised only went once a week out of peak season) to the island of Chiloe departed, we did absolutely nothing but sleep, eat, drink and feel very sorry for ourselves.

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The village was devastated by the eruption of Volcan Chaiten in 2008 which had previously laid dormant for 9,500 years. The eruption lasted for 3 months and caused havok all over Chile and Argentina. The area was evacuated, flights were grounded, water contaminated and crops ruined. The residents of Chaiten were advised to leave their homes and not permitted to return until the all clear was given.

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The lava flow didn’t reach the village, however a layer of ash up to a metre high in places smothered the village and flood waters from mealting ice at the volcano’s summit caused the village’s river to break its banks and wash many houses out to sea. Many residents never returned and a village of four thousand people was reduced to nine hundred.

The village now has a ghost town feel to it. Houses lay empty, some with children’s toys left in the garden just as they were when the evacuation happened.

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Many of these empty homes still have a thick layer of ash throughout the rooms and collected at the side walls. The beach is scattered with twisted wood and metal, with the remains of some houses half-submerged in the sand. A large proportion of the village has been declared unfit for habitation by the Chilean government and the rest is making a slow recovery with a small school up and running, several family run guesthouses, grocers and local style cafes/restaurants.

Our first stop in the village was with a tourist agency called Chaitur which is run by a very knowledgable Canadian called Nicholas Penner. As we were keen to keep our costs down, Nicholas suggested that we could camp for free in an abandoned craft market just along the beach front and which would offer us some shelter in ‘rainy Chaiten’. So this became our home for the next few days. Our plan was to use the free days, before taking the ferry, to visit Pumalin Park which is covered in pristine rainforest and filled with hiking opportunities to lakes and stunning views over active volcanos however, the persistent heavy rain meant the road leading up to the park was virtually inaccessable and all views were obscured by low-lying cloud. Our ‘home’ for the next few days was certainly ‘unique’ and something we will probably never experience again.

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The building had two long corridors running off a octaganol reception area.

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Along the corridors there were rooms of various sizes where local producers once sold their crafts. The wooden floors were sturdy and intact, however nearly all of the large glass windows had been broken so it was a little drafty!

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Somehow horses had found their way into the building so once we’d decided on a room in which to camp and before we put up the tent, we had to clear the floor space of dried horse manure! The ‘side step scrape’ manoeuver worked well!

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A friendly couple from France became our neighbours in the building, along with several dogs and their puppies. Among the dogs we found our loyal friend and guard dog, ‘Boobie’ (pictured left below), who stayed with us wherever we went.

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We whiled away the days reading, playing cards, popping out for coffee and cake and sleeping. The days passed slowly as we waited for our ferry and for the rain to stop, which it never did! Check out the knee deep puddles of water!!

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One afternoon we decided to cheer ourselves up by going out for a beer and also using the opportunity to charge up our laptop. We found a small restaurant filled with locals and sat down at a table. We ordered two beers and two empenadas and waited patiently.

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After 5 minutes we agreed that our order seemed to be taking a long time as they simply needed to heat up the empenadas but we thought nothing more of it, however after 10 minutes the waitress returned with cutlery and asked who was having the paella – fish stew! Frought with concern at what was cooking in the kitchen, we frantically tried to explain in Spanish that all we wanted was two empenadas and no fish stew! The waitress seemed to understand and we breathed a sigh of relief…until fish stew, steak, egg and chips and two empenadas came out! Being two people who love their food, this would normally mean that a mistake of this kind would be deemed a fantastic result, however after the few days we’d had and having had our hearts set on something simple, this turn of events seemed pretty catastrophic. Our mood turned grey as we pushed greasy chips around the plate and dunked fishy bits in the pale liquid and then it turned black when the bill for 18,000 Chilean pesos (nearly 37 USD) arrived!!

The morning we took our ferry was one of the brightest, sunniest days we could imagine and we weren’t sure if this was a peace offering or a final kick in the teeth. We eventually settled on the first option as despite the foul weather, despite the desolation, despite the lack of anything to do…we’d actually become just a little bit fond of this place we’d called home for the last few days.

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The mountains glowed, the sea looked rich blue and even the debris on the beach looked more tidy. Chaiten volcano let out huge plumes of smoke high above the village and birds circled around the green rainforest.

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Our loyal companion Boobie came to see us off at the ferry and looked confused as to why the captain wouldn’t let her on board. She stood on the pier looking after us as we waved at her from the deck and wiped a tear from our eyes. The ferry slowly chugged away from the shoreline, cutting a channel through the still sea.

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Four dolphins from the bay chased after us and jumped playfully in the foaming waters churned up by the ferry.

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Passengers ran around the deck like madmen trying to capture the dolphins on camera.

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The further away from the shore we got, the more dramatic the scenery became with three volcanos coming into view. Eventually we could see Chaiten no more and we glided on the open sea towards our next destination, Chiloe.

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During our short time in Chaiten we felt pretty frustrated that things weren’t going our way and at times a little depressed. However, looking back now it doesn’t seem so bad and we’ve actually had a pretty good laugh at some of the situations we found ourselves in. We hope that we’ve learnt that things aren’t always going to go our way on our travels and its the way we handle these disappointments and annoyances that can make or break a trip. When influences out of our control such as the weather or lack of transport conspire against us in the future, we hope we won’t waste our time feeling angry or sad but instead we’ll use that time postively and productively. OK – perhaps that’s too saintly – just a little moan is always good for the soul and then we’ll get on with it!!

2 Responses to “Chaiten – experience the lows to appreciate the highs”

  1. Carla May 28, 2013 at 5:23 am #

    Love your stories. Read them every time, although I don’t always leave a reply. Hope you are not anywhere near that volcano that’s about to erupt. Keep enjoying en keep making us jealous! Lots of love, Carla

    • latinchattin May 29, 2013 at 12:46 am #

      Thanks Carla – really pleased you’re enjoying our Latin American stories. It’s been great fun putting together the posts and remembering our adventures. We’re nowhere near the volcano that’s erupting in Chile at the moment but it would be very cool to see. Hope you guys are well?! Look forward to hearing what you’ve been up to. Lots of love and hugs, Kate & Dan x

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