Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rebuilding Chaitén, Rescuing the Fu

As the southern hemisphere spring approaches, the Chilean town of Chaitén remains off limits after the eruption of its namesake volcano in May, and that is likely to affect travel along the northern Carretera Austral for the entire season. Still under tons of ash, most of its buildings severely damaged by flood (as pictured here), the town seems unlikely to be rebuilt at its present location.

Under normal circumstances, Chaitén is the port for auto/passenger ferries from Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé but, given the volcano's continuing activity and the massive cleanup still necessary, it seems equally improbable that ferry service will be available this season except for the Navimag ferries from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. This, of course, deposits travelers at the highway's approximate midpoint, so that it will be impossible to travel the length of the Carretera Austral without backtracking or, alternatively, entering via the Argentine province of Chubut to Futaleufú.

Futaleufú, of course, has its own problems. While not so directly affected by the volcano, it lay in the path of prevailing westerlies that deposited huge amounts of ash even though the town was not completely evacuated. A recent photo essay in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín depicts the accumulations of ash, the need for masks and even respirators to venture outside, and the impact on domestic animals, whose feed and water have been contaminated.

Futaleufú, of course, takes its name from the Río Futaleufú, one of the world's top whitewater rivers, and several international adventure travel companies have camps for rafters and kayakers in the vicinity. In last month's National Geographic Adventure, Jon Bowermaster summarizes the situation in an ecological and economic context in which Chile, a country dependent on mining and desperate for non-petroleum sources of energy, could use the image of a destroyed ecosystem to justify a huge hydroelectric project - similar to the one that drowned the legendary Río Biobío in the 1990s.

Ecosystems, though, can be resilient, and recovery from the 1994 eruption of Volcán Hudson, near the town of Chile Chico south of Coyhaique, was surprisingly quick. Bowermaster quotes whitewater operator Eric Hertz, of Earth River Expeditions, to the effect that if the 4,000 anticipated rafters and kayakers don't show, the "confusion over the river’s actual condition 'will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano.'"


Anonymous said...

I am thinking about Punta Arenas and/or Ushuaia in January. Do you think that the winds will blow the ash that far south or is it safe to plan on a visit at that time?

Wayne Bernhardson said...

It's only the northernmost part of the Carretera Austral that should be affected. I expect it will be impossible to reach Chaitén, but Futaleufú shouldn't be a problem - though it might require frequent air filter changes for automobiles. This is several hundreds miles north of Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, which should have no problem whatsoever.

Patagoniax said...

There is at present (Sept 2008) ferry ship service to Chaitén, I think twice a week now. You can't stay overnight in Chaitén but you can pass through it on the way south. Only vehicle traffic is permitted - no pedestrian or bicycle passengers. You must carry enough fuel to get you to the gas stations at La Junta. Carretera Austral to north of Chaitén apparently still closed and there is talk of not running the ferries there in the coming austral summer. Regarding ash - the prevailing winds blow generally to the east and not south toward Punta Arenas. Hope that helps answer questions.

Wayne Bernhardson said...

Thanks very much for sending this info, Roberto. I had been trying to phone Naviera Austral without luck, but this is a positive sign. Did you visit Chaitén since the eruption?

Anonymous said...

Hello, Wayne, I just got your Patagonia guide through Amazon and found my way to your blog. I'm leaving in two weeks to make my first visit to the Southern Cone, two weeks focused on kayaking the Futaleufu, and between your book and your blog, I probably won't get any "real" work done for the next couple of days. I can't wait!

I'll be blogging my trip and will link to here for my (meager) readership. Anyway, I just wanted to say "thank you" for helping this gringo get ready for the trip of a lifetime!

FWIW, I'm paddling with Expediciones, and they routed me through B.A. to Bariloche to Esquel. I was kind of hoping to see Chaiten (I'm something of a geology geek), but oh well. They probably don't need tourists like me rubbernecking around, sightseeing their tragedy.

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