After Saturday's historic earthquake, Chile is returning to functionality, if not yet normality. The death toll has risen to more than 700, tens of thousands are homeless, and President Michelle Bachelet has declared a state of catastrophe in the regions of Maule and Bío Bío, south of Santiago. Yet the capital’s Metro has resumed service, and ATMs and credit card systems are up again after a brief shutdown - yesterday in Buenos Aires, I had lunch with a Chilean friend who was able to pay with his bankcard from across the Andes.
Assessing the Damage
From La Serena (about 500 km north of Santiago) to Puerto Varas (about 1,000 km south of the capital), friends have written with mostly encouraging information. According to Ted Stevens, who lives just south of town, “We are fine…woke to pretty good shaking but no damage.”
On the other hand, according to Martin and Lissette Turner of the Valparaíso B&B The Yellow House, “We are fine and after a dreadful shaking The Yellow House survived without problems. The situation here in Valparaiso (pictured above in a pre-quake photo) is difficult, however, as many of the older buildings have structural damage and almost everything is closed. We have no water and no electricity and no internet at the moment, nor do many other parts of the city. It is particularly difficult for the dwindling number of tourists in the city as they cannot leave as there are no flights…” In neighboring Viña del Mar, authorities called off the annual Festival de la Canción (song festival) before its climactic concluding night.
Yerko Ivelic of Santiago’s Cascada Expediciones, which runs adventure travel excursions throughout the country, had similar concerns. In the Andean Maipo river canyon town of San Alfonso where he lives, “There was a lot of movement but no damage. We have no electricity, telephone, cell phone or Internet. This morning I drove down to my office in Santiago to see how to solve the problem of clients who are in Santiago and other cities waiting for planes. We hope the airport opens soon, as that’s the only logistical problem we have.” According to Brian Pearson of Santiago Adventures, however, the airport is due to reopen Wednesday.
Some Santiago neighborhoods have done better than others. In Providencia, writes my longtime friend Hernán Torres, “Our apartment withstood the quake and everything is working (water, power, Internet, etc). Some of our books fell down, and a few kitchen items, but nothing major. The neighborhood did well also, as we have a supermarket with basic supplies.” Likewise, in nearby Ñuñoa, Becca Lee writes that “My friends and I were in my oldish Ñuñoa house that didn't even bat an eyelash. In fact, three of my friends are still here because their apartments are trashed!”
Enzo Paci, of the Pachamama by Bus tour company based in Barrio Brasil’s Casa Roja, says their place is their fine with only a few cracks in the walls, but the nearby Happy House Hostel “lost a wall on the third floor…thank God the wall fell outwards into an adjacent empty plot of land. One Pachamama by Bus group was down in Pucón and we could only get in touch with them a couple of hours ago…We had to cancel a couple of trips until things go back to normal.” Manager Pablo Fernández, of the barrio’s purpose-built Hostelling International facility, says it suffered no damage whatsoever.
In Valdivia, nearly destroyed in the epochal 1960 quake, Lionel Brossi of the Airesbuenos Hostel wrote me that “We felt the quake and it really frightened us, but the hotel is fine and city suffered just a little damage along the riverfront.” That’s not true, though, of the cities of Talca and Concepción, closest to the epicenter, where numbers are still sketchy, and I’ve had no answers from friends to whom I’ve written. Concepción, where most foreigners are exchange students at the highly regarded local university, has seen some deplorable looting, not by people in search of food and water, but rather plasma TVs and similar electronics; there is now a dusk-to-dawn curfew. This, though, is the exception rather than the rule.
Contradicting previous reports, as well, there has been tsunami damage in a few places, such as Talcahuano (the port of Concepción), the village of Dichato (40 km north of Concepción, where one small fishing boat was carried 400 meters inland), and the town of Constitución. That said, the damage has been nowhere remotely close to that wrought by the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people.
The Immediate Future, and Travel to Chile
In the short run, Chile’s challenge is to get basic services running again. In the medium run, it’s to find housing for those displaced by the quake and, in this at least, the weather should cooperate. In central Chile’s Mediterranean climate, this is the dry season, and significant rain is unlikely for the next two months at least.
Fortunately, Chile is a well-governed country and, unlike Haiti, has experience dealing with earthquakes, most recently a 7.8 that hit Santiago in 1985. While it’s an oversimplification to say that this is more an economic than a humanitarian disaster, at least some Chileans would agree with that. According to Becca Lee, “A Chilean friend of mine who was with me during the quake, as he imagined talking to world about it, said ‘Keep sending your money to Haiti, we'll be fine!’"
For those wondering whether or not they should travel to Chile, I personally would suggest postponing it, but not for too long - the prime destinations of Torres del Paine and San Pedro de Atacama, for instance, are well beyond the damage zone, and even Santiago is likely to be up and running pretty soon. As a guidebook author, I’d rather see Chile make headlines because of its geographical beauty and gracious people than for natural disasters, and staying away will not help its recovery.