Chaiten

I wake up at 8, two hours before the bus is due to arrive, and start throwing everything in my bag. Running downstairs I scarf down some breakfast meat and guzzle some instant coffee, the breakfast table is bouncing this morning and some of the other scarfers start asking me where I’m from, what I’m doing, etc so I get some Spanish practice between mouthfuls of coffee-ham. I square up with the owners and head over to the bus stop.

The bus stop doesn’t sell tickets to Chaiten, I have to flag down the bus as it drives by and pay the driver. It’s about 15 minutes late but I jump on without a problem. It costs 6000 pesos (about $10 USD) but it’s jampacked, I have to stand in the aisle. I get ready for the rough ride down the one-lane dirt track I hiked up the other day but for some reason we’re headed in a different direction… What the heck? We roll up to a boat ramp where a ferry awaits. How did I not see this boat ramp walking around town? This seems to be the main route out of town, no wonder I had so much trouble hitchhiking the other day. I ask the driver how long the boat will take: four hours! Nice!

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As the boat rolls out the scenery is awesome. I climb several sets of stairs and lay out on a bench while the boat slowly winds between the mainland and the archipelago that runs parallel to it. I’m lucky I did this trip today and not two days ago in the torrential rain. The islands look like mountaintops jutting out from the water, and the hillsides to both my right and left are verdant, the only gaps in the green being the occasional cabin or waterfall.

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We reach some VERY small fishing villages, small as in less than 10 buildings a piece. There are large orange flat-topped buoys surrounding them, and atop of those are seals doing some serious lounging. Shortly after I notice the seals I notice that there are a couple dozen raptors whizzing circles around the boat. I don’t know what they are – maybe some kind of hawk? – but they’re mostly brown with a few large white stripes. They don’t seem to be diving for fish, mostly swooping at each other. Their game is unclear.

The coastline grows steeper and the waterfalls more frequent and higher. Soon snow-capped peaks and bare rock faces are the norm.

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I hear the boat’s engine losing power. We’re slowly approaching a boat ramp on a completely wild shore. (I saw our route on a map inside the ferry and this is Parque Pumalin, one of Chile’s privately-purchased but publicly-available wilderness reserves. This one was bought by Douglas Tompkins, the founder of The North Face and ESPRIT.) I jump back on the bus and we spend maybe twenty minutes on a dirt road before reaching another boat ramp. This second boat’s a quick one, maybe half an hour.

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Unload off the second boat and now we’re bombing down a narrow dirt road. We’re no longer in the park but it’s still almost completely undisturbed forest aside from the occasional campsite. The driver hits the brakes at one point; slowly walking off the road is an odd-looking fawn. (I looked this up after the fact and as best I can tell, it was a Patagonian Huemul.) Some folks start asking the driver to let them off when we reach some cabins, and a fair number get off when we reach a small town called Santa Barbara. Ten kilometres down the road we hit Chaiten and the rest of us load off.

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Chaiten is kind of weird. There are some buildings which look almost brand new, or are very well maintained, but interspersed among them are buildings that have obviously been abandoned for years and are totally decrepit. In the middle are buildings that look like they were abandoned but have been recently reclaimed.

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I found out why: Six years ago the previously-dormant volcano just outside of town erupted and forced the evacuation of town, leading the government to begin relocating people to a new town that became Santa Barbara. A few years later they cancelled their plans and began redeveloping Chaiten. Some parts have been maintained or reclaimed while others continue to wait.

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In addition to volcanoes, there’s also a tsunami threat. Truly a Danger Zone.

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I grab a room in a hostel, throw down my stuff and immediately find the ferry office. They hit me with a brick in my face – there’s only one boat leaving south from here and it left today. It doesn’t disembark again for a week. And, even if I’d caught it, they claim there aren’t any more boats from that port that will get me to TDF. They suggest I backtrack to Puerto Montt (a boat for it leaves in two days) and then get a cruise liner down to Puerto Natales. That HAD been my plan before talking to a guy a few nights back who told me that there were mucho barcos from Chaiten south… The employees at the bus station also suggest I won’t have any luck with buses further south.

Back in the room I find a webpage saying there are two buses a week from Chaiten to Coyhaique, which is well into the south. Out the door to the bus station. Holy SHIT! There’s a bus RIGHT THERE that says Coyhaique on it! Do I run back to the hostel and grab my shit?? I talk to the driver and he’s just getting in from Coyhaique, he doesn’t hit the road again until noon tomorrow. Sweet. I ask if it’s busy, do I need a ticket? Probably not, but he says I can buy one at a coffee shop across town if I’m worried about it. If I miss this bus the next one south isn’t for four days, so I hoof it over and buy a ticket.

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