Chaitén - a ghost town

Chaiten Travel Blog

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incredible

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.

the volcano is still casting a cloud of smoke over Chaitén
As we replied Chaitén in unison the Chilean gave us a look that suspected madness in our undertaking. “Chaitén no existe” (Chaiten doesn´t exist), he said with great certainty. ¿Cómo? I asked in my limited Spanish. And that´s when he explained to us what had happened to the town of Chaitén. And that´s when my memory finally started to come back. It was on 2 May 2008 when the 1122m high Chaitén volcano (which lies just 10km northeast of the town of Chaitén) started to erupt.  The sight must have been apocalyptic. The volcano spewed a great amount of ash and lava into the air. Immediately the evacuation of the town was ordered. Almost 10,000 people who lived within the danger zone had to leave their home. And they had to do so quickly, thus the people were able to take only their most necessary belongings.

 

- “¿Entonces no es posible ir a Chaitén?” I asked.

road washed away
(So it´s not possible to go to Chaitén?)

- “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.

standing on a car
” (I´ve seen it on TV.)

 

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.

Chilean flag in front of mud covered houses
Let´s just say that at times there were more potholes than flat ground. And when you´re sitting in a rusty, rickety, old mini-van that is falling to pieces your ass will complain about every single one of those goddamn potholes.

 

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.

roof-high mud
And then, out of nowhere, on 2 May 2008 it erupted violently sending a column of hot ash and gases some 12 miles into the air. It erupted with such force some scientists warned of an even more damaging eruption that could race the town much like Mount Vesuvio destroyed the Roman city of Pompei in AD 79. Initial eruption had spared the town, then less than two weeks later the rains came. Swelling with rainfall and volcanic material the river overflowed its banks. A sea of falling trees and great mud swept over the town destroying half of Chaitén within a few days.

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.

never was it that easy to touch the roof
  They returned even though it is still forbidden by the government to do so. Now those few brave men and women are wading through the mud and digging out their belongings in the hope that one day they are able to return back to a normal life.

 

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.

 Seven months after the initial eruption, the volcano is still active sending huge clouds of smoke into the air making the sight even more impressive. You don´t often get a chance to see a town having been destroyed by a volcanic eruption with the volcano still smoking. Therefore I was even more happy about having been able to make it there. It was in all ways a unique experience.

 

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.

my bed in the waiting room of the ferry terminal
Therefore there is no hotel, no hostel, no supermarket, no nothing. Merely a little shop with some basic food (mostly cans) sells supplies to those who´ve returned. Therefore Alister and I spent the night in the waiting room for the ferry which fortunately still does the trip to Puerto Montt. The ferry terminal is a bit outside of the town centre and therefore it was spared from the devastation.

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...

Annele says:
did enjoy reading. thank u
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012
naomi_rae says:
really good blog!
Posted on: Oct 12, 2009
montecarlostar says:
This blog is Awesome. It reminds me of the town of Paricutín, in Mexico, buried by a volcano in the 1940's.
Posted on: Apr 12, 2009
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incredible
incredible
the volcano is still casting a clo…
the volcano is still casting a cl…
road washed away
road washed away
standing on a car
standing on a car
Chilean flag in front of mud cover…
Chilean flag in front of mud cove…
roof-high mud
roof-high mud
never was it that easy to touch th…
never was it that easy to touch t…
my bed in the waiting room of the …
my bed in the waiting room of the…
there was no time to save the furn…
there was no time to save the fur…
Yo quiero Chaitén
Yo quiero Chaitén
road washed away
road washed away
cars covered in mud
cars covered in mud
no more cooking in here
no more cooking in here
the deranged coast
the deranged coast
houses were swept into the sea
houses were swept into the sea
the flooding river took its toll
the flooding river took its toll
deserted street
deserted street
road swept away
road swept away
Naturaleza extrema - the sign coul…
Naturaleza extrema - the sign cou…
Chaiten as seen from the ferry ter…
Chaiten as seen from the ferry te…
end of the world?
end of the world?
this direction doesn´t exist anym…
this direction doesn´t exist any…
the huge cloud of smoke coming out…
the huge cloud of smoke coming ou…
cloud of smoke
cloud of smoke
Chaitén
Chaitén
Chaitén from the lookout
Chaitén from the lookout
the collapsed dome of Chaitén vol…
the collapsed dome of Chaitén vo…
me in Chaitén
me in Chaitén
deranged coastline
deranged coastline
no more strolling on this street
no more strolling on this street
mud, mud, mud
mud, mud, mud
where´s the entrance?
where´s the entrance?
covered roof-high
covered roof-high
darkness sets in
darkness sets in
the waiting room
the waiting room
finally the ferry arrives
finally the ferry arrives
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Chaiten
photo by: Morle