Tied into a life of adventure.

Careterra Austral: El Camino Duro

The Careterra Austral is a hard ride.  I´m just a bit more than half way down the road and excited to be stopped for a day with time to eat a decent meal, clean my clothes and check email.  Tomorrow I go to Conservación Patagónica.

Sunday I took a ferry ride from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, a town recently destroyed by a volcanic mudslide, where I would start my trek down the road.  Chaitén is in an area that is classified as temperate rainforest.  It´s beautiful, but the rains never seem to abate.  When I arrived it was cloudy and dry, giving the impression of good weather, cruelly lifting my hopes.  Here´s the view from the ferry when I arrived:

Chaiten from the ferry

I deboarded the ferry and ran into Nicolás, a resident of Chaitén, who spoke perfect English.  I mistook him for a Californian expat like you find in Baja.  He owned Chaitur, www.chaitur.com, the only bus/tour/eco travel company in Chaiten before and after the eruption.  Nicolás offered to get me to town and help me however he could.

Always suspicious of people at bus and ferry terminals, I denied Nicolás´ first offer, then realized he was a nice guy and my only option.  I rode into town with him, dropped my bags in his office and got oriented.  I learned that the next bus south to Coyhaique wasn’t leaving for another 2 days.  I had time.  Then Nicolás told me that he was doing a tour that same day to Parque Pumalín, Doug Tompkins´and Conservación Patagónica´s first project.  I decided to join.  What else would I do in a destroyed town of 80 people with no electricity and water for the day?

We left town on the gravel Careterra, passed the Chaitén airstrip, a widened portion of the main Careterra Austral, and soon entered Parque Pumalín.  The flora was dense and thick and so too were the bugs.  I had never seen anything like it.  Soon we arrived at a clearing of dead trees that extended miles outward and upwards to the tops of the mountains surrounding the road.  We´d arrived at the blast zone of the volcano.  Nicolás stopped his rickety blue van and we all hopped out for a short walk to learn about the area and its recent destructive history.

The blast zone of Chaiten Volcano in Parque Pumalín

Despite obliterating acres of temperate rainforest, only two years after its eruption, the region surrounding Chaitén Volcano is already recovering with ferns and other small flora.

From the blast zone we continued onward to discover parts of the park filled with lush flowers, mosses, thousand year old alerce trees and countless waterfalls.  We walked the trails transfixed with the area´s beauty.   Had it not been for Tompkins  and Conservación Patagónica´s work, the place would be filled with silver and gold mines.

Parque Pumalín

As the light lowered on Parque Pumalín, we returned to Chaitén for the night.  On the bus I met a Brit and fellow photographer, Andy from Liverpool.  We chatted nonstop about photography and our travels and decided to join forces in search of a suitable place to throw out our bags for two nights in Chaitén.  We found an abandoned, ash-covered churchyard shielded by bushes a few blocks from Nicolás´office and laid our sleeping bags out for the night.

We awoke to a depressed sky and rain in the surrounding valleys.  We gathered our things, found a house serving an expensive, scant breakfast of bread, butter and Nescafe and sat for a few hours. Andy has traveled the world as a deckhand on boats and suggested finding an abandoned house in case we couldn´t camp out in a rainstorm.  I hesitated out of respect for those that lost their homes and a bit of fear of getting in trouble.  We finished breakfast and walked about town, surveying what was left.

Store window. The Chilean government has only recently offered help and support in reviving Chaitén. Still, the town lives without water and electricity.

As we walked east and approached the Rio Blanco, the river that flooded during the eruption with volcanic ash and mud, we began to notice more and more homes with broken windows, filled with ash and grey mud.  We saw one with an open door and entered.

Inside were a few pieces of furniture, but what struck me were items left on the walls.  Posters, knick knacks, hanging garlic and even calendars from 2008, the year of the eruption, hung on the walls as though people had left yesterday.  One small message grabbed my attention:

“For God nothing’s impossible.”

We left this house and continued towards the river.  Andy needed to wash clothes and I needed to get water to cook some food.  Houses along the river were not only flooded with ash and mud up to their second floors, they were knocked off of their foundations.  As we cleaned, cooked and built a fire, it began to rain.  With no choice, I gave up my reluctance to squat in a house and we found an open, destroyed green house on the side of the river.  It was well-ventilated and would offer shelter from the storm, so we entered.

A night´s refuge

We spent the rest of the miserably rainy afternoon and night cooking, chatting and listening to music.

I awoke at dawn unsettled and determined to get out of Chaiten.   I couldn’t spend another night in a dusty, destroyed house.  I focused on securing a seat on the bus to Coyhaique.  Coyhaique is the only major town in Chilean Patagonia between Chaitén and Puerto Natales and it was over 300km to the south.  There is only one bus per week that goes directly from Chaitén and I would be damned if I didn´t get on it.  Luckily, Andy and I easily landed two seats and by 11am, we were off for Coyhaique.

The ride south was slow, wet and bumpy on the Careterra.  At times I wondered if sections might be closed or washed out.  Occasionally we stopped in small towns for a break or to pick up other passengers.

The long ride down the Carreterra Austral.

The long ride down the Careterra Austral.

Then after reaching the town of Puyuhuapi, the weather began to break and we even traveled over sections of paved road!  What success!  My spirits brightened enormously, despite knowing that I wouldn´t arrive to Coyhaique until around midnight without any place to stay.

Church in Villa Amengual

Andy and I arrived to Coyhaique  around 11:30pm.  We found a bed in an old man´s home, Luis, where we stayed the night and where I´ll stay again tonight.  It´s overpriced and nothing special, but it seems safe enough and there´s hot water.  I´ll take it.

Tomorrow, I will catch my last bus for a few weeks to Conservación Patagónica.  Finally.  The ride down has been fantastic and an adventure.  I´ve been amazed by the beauty of Parque Pumalín, the resilience of the few remaining folks in Chaitén and pleasantly surprised by the locals who praise Doug Tompkins and Conservación Patagónica.  I´ve also wept at the destruction of Chaitén and never felt dirtier for sleeping in the ruined home of a family that I´ll never know.   It´s time to do some good.

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2 responses

  1. Bryan

    Just read your post and had to laugh about your encounter with Nicolas. My wife and I had the exact same reaction upon arrival in Chaiten, Nicolas welcoming people with a ride into town, us saying no, then eventually agreeing. Nicolas offering to take us on a tour that happened to be going on that day. Great memories. Thanks for the information on Chaiten after the eruption. We were there in 2006 and have often wondered if the town survived. Not surprised that Nicolas has persevered or that the Chilean government ignored the tragedy.

    January 23, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    • Thanks for the comment, Bryan. Slowly but surely the town is getting back on its feet. No one ever has any idea when they arrive that his tour is the ONLY thing going on in that town that day–or probably for two days–so it’s best to just pay the money and hop in his van. I met some cool people on the tour that ended up being life savers for the rest of the ride down the Careterra.

      January 23, 2012 at 3:14 PM

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