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Chaitén, the capital of the La Palena Province in Chile’s Region X Los Lagos, was once a Patagonian transportation hub. The small city was packed with hostels, hotels and restaurants; the markets bustled with fishmongers and artisans; couples strolled the seafront promenade. Tour agencies took visitors on the Futaleufú River, to soak in the hot Termas de Amarillo springs or through the pristine forests of Parque Pumalín. This was the place to embark on a journey down the Carretera Austral or to rest before returning to “civilization” in Chiloé and Puerto Montt. Was. Until May 2, 2008.

The land had been shaking for a few days. Everyone thought the rumbles were coming from Volcán Michinmahuida. But when the volcano blew, everyone—even volcanologists—were surprised to see that it was Cerro Chaitén, a hill that didn’t even make it on maps. Chaitén had been dormant for 9,400 years. The government ordered an evacuation of Chaitén, and 7,000 residents left as coarse ash began to fall over the city. The Río Blanco, blocked by ash and lahar (an ash-cinder-mud mixture), broke free of man made restraints and returned to its original course through the center of town. (To view a chronology of Volcán Chaitén’s eruption and photos, see

For three months, ferry services from Chiloé Island and Puerto Montt were suspended. After the ferries began to run again, this southern sliver of Chile was finally reconnected with the rest of the country. Some people began coming back to protect their properties and retrieve belongings. The scene that welcomed them was one of utter devastation. Homes had ash up to their first-floor windows; those near the river were covered to the roof. Inside, the ash was at least 30 centimeters (one foot) deep. Outside was a wasteland of damaged buildings and the twisted wreckage of trucks.

By January 2009, about 100 Chaiteninos had returned, cleaning out their businesses to welcome weary ferry travelers. They reopened hostels and stores, despite the lack of electricity, water and land telephone lines.

Chaitén, though, once more had to be evacuated of townfolk and tourists on February 18, 2009, when one of the volcano’s lava domes partially collapsed. The Chilean government officially declared the village off-limits for overnight stays. It later announced Chaitén would be rebuilt near Santa Bárbara to the north. The town of Futaleufú was declared the new capital of Provincia de Palena.

Ferry services continue to bring tourists to this part of Chile’s northern Patagonia, but passengers must immediately move on. The nearest lodging is in El Amarillo and Puerto Cárdenas on Lago Yelcho. El Amarillo also has camping, as does Ventisquero Yelcho. Since the initial 2008 eruption, Parque Pumalín has been closed to visitors.

The wood-shingled church on Chaitén’s main plaza was not damaged. On the square is an impressive monument to the town’s victims of the 1973-1989 dictatorship. The bridge over Río Blanco has the best view of Volcán Chaitén, which looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings. From its ragged slopes billow clouds of steam and ash. It continues to build at astounding rates. Between May 2008 and January 2009 the volcano more than doubled its original height. Volcanologists consider the volcano, only 10 kilometers (6 mi) from town, to be extremely unstable. Volcán Chaitén yet is active, pumping ash clouds into the skies above the Carretera Austral. A third lava dome has formed.

Before embarking on any journey to Chaitén, check with the nearest Carabinero post to see what the present conditions are and to assure ferry services are not disrupted. The latest on the volcano’s activity can be scoped out at (in Spanish) and (in English).



Other places nearby Chaitén: Puerto Bertrand, Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Caleta Tortel, Villa Cerro Castillo, Puerto Cisnes, Puerto Chacabuco , Puerto Sánchez, Cochrane and Parque Nacional Queulat.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

22 Jan 2010

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