Chaitén - a ghost town
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I only had a vague memory of seeing pictures of Buenos Aires being overcast with a yellowy cloud of ash. I saw it on TV on a day in early May 2008. But after that I totally forgot about that again. It didn´t seem important. That was until I arrived in Villa Cerro Castillo in the middle of the Carretera Austral in southern Chile. I was currently travelling with a Kiwi called Alister. We had just met the day before on the ferry from Chile Chico to Puerto Ibáñez across Lago Argentino. So it was in the small village of Villa Cerro Castillo - which is beautifully set in a lush green valley with the 2675m high Cerro Castillo (meaning „castle“) overhanging the town with its jagged rocky peak - where we first heard about the tragic fate of Chaitén.
We stayed at a homely hostel in town when Alister and I were asked by a guy from Santiago where we were headed.
- “¿Entonces no es posible ir a Chaitén?” I asked.
- “No, no puedes, no hay autobuses que van, no hay hoteles, no hay nada para comer, no hay agua, no hay electricidad, no hay nada!” (No, you can´t, no buses, no hotels there, nothing to eat, no water, no electricity, there´s nothing there.)
- “Que terrible! ¿Estuviste en Chaitén? (How terrible. Have you been to Chaitén?)
- “No, nunca en la vida.” (No, never in my life.)
- "Okay. ¿Entonces por qué sabes que no hay nada en Chaitén?" (So how do you know that there is nothing in Chaitén?)
- “He visto en la tele.
This was the first time that Alister and I were told that Chaitén doesn´t exist anymore. And on our way north along the Carretera Austral we heard the same everywhere we asked. People said it wasn´t possible to go there, that it was dangerous, that there´s nothing there anymore. But the more we heard it the more we wanted to go. We thought there had to be at least something. And if not, at least it would be a big hole of nothingness. But we wanted to see exactly that and every time someone tried to convince us of not going there we got only more encouraged to do the opposite. We already decided to go so there was no way back, no matter what.
However, the road to Chaitén was not an easy one. The road conditions - if you could call it a road at all - were among the worst I found in South America.
Yet after some bone crushing buses, hitched rides and many asked questions with even more confusing answers (Chileans never say “I don´t know.” Instead they make up some answer even though they don´t know shit) we finally arrived in Chaitén on 18 December 2008. The sight was spectacular. I experienced the town as one of the weirdest places I´ve ever been.
Imagine this: For more than 9,300 years the Chaitén volcano was a sleeping beast.
Many of the houses are filled to their roof with grey mud. So much that you could often step onto a house´s roof without great effort. Doors of the homes are open and allow a glance at the devastation and the loss of its former inhabitants. When the approximately 5,000 people of Chaitén were evacuated shortly after the eruption they only had time to take with them their most important belongings or whatever they could carry. Everything else had to be left behind and subsequently has also been covered with mud.
Only a handful of people have returned to their houses or at least to what is left of them.
Chaitén is a ghost town. It feels eerie when you are walking through the mud-covered streets of Chaitén. It looks a bit like a bomb had hit the town and now what we see is the aftermath. Only that it wasn´t a war, it was nature with all its power. The town feels very deserted and all sounds that are normally heard in every town are sensibly absent in Chaitén. It is the sound of silence.
The only thing that isn´t silent is the volcano itself.
In fact, on 19 February 2009 the dome of the volcano partially collapsed sending pyroclastic flows down the Chaitén river valley. The ash once again reached Futaleufú and parts of Chubut province in neighboring Argentina. The people who were in Chaitén were strongly urged to leave and all but 25 people who refused to leave were evacuated again that day.
It is not yet allowed again to do any kind of business in Chaitén.
So while sitting there on the shore, telling stories and eating canned fish we watched the dark, deserted town of Chaitén wait for a new morning...