Late last week, I was planning a trip to Uruguay and looking forward to writing about the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento (pictured here), where I’m spending a few days before heading to the capital city of Montevideo and then the fashionable beach resort of Punta del Este. All of these destinations are part of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, which I am currently updating.
Yet, as the smoke and rubble clear from Chile’s historical earthquake, I think it’s still important to provide some additional information - and testimony - from first hand sources there. I can’t report my own impressions until I return to Santiago in a couple weeks, but I can relate what my contacts there are saying.
We have learned that the impact on coastal communities, where the Chilean navy failed to broadcast an alert even though some local port officials did, was devastating, even if the fatalities are a minute fraction of those from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. According to Todd Temkin, whose work with the Fundación Valparaíso contributed to the city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “We came through OK, but there is LOTS of damage in Valpo and the South, as you know, will never be the same. The coastal towns of the 7th and 8th regions (Constitución, Pichelemu, etc) no longer exist as we knew them.” Some landmark Valpo buildings, including the Iglesia Matriz and the Iglesia San Francisco, have suffered damage, but the tourist hill neighborhoods of Cerro Concepción, Cerro Alegre, and Cerro Bellavista have come through well.
Pichilemu (whose beaches and breaks have made it one of South America’s top surf spots) is especially vulnerable to a tsunami. At Constitución, perhaps best known for a classic narrow-gauge railway that runs from the city of Talca, my friend Marializ Maldonado had been lunching only the afternoon before: “Everything, including the restaurant, disappeared that same night. In that town there are already 300 deaths…I’m telling you this, but I can’t comprehend it, it’s as if I were vaccinated against fear, treated for nerves. You know that in Chile we have earthquakes in our DNA, but even then it isn’t easy.” Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet has expressed similar sentiments in a New York Times op-ed piece.
My Pucón friend Alan Coar was in the countryside north of Santiago, “picking up the pieces in the Río Ligua valley, where I've been trying to help my kid's grandmother with her avocado farm crisis. Lots of damage to old adobe structures generally here. Power and phones coming back on line for the most part.” Things in Pucón itself are fine, except that it’s difficult to travel overland to Santiago.
According to Verónica Araneda of Travel Aid Pucón, “Many tourists just ran away through Argentina, because of the horror stories of the Panamericana on the Chilean side. We still have some shakes everyday, but they are getting farther apart and also less intense than the first two days.” In nearby Villarrica, Glen and Bev Aldrich of Hostería de la Colina tell me that the “worst damage was a carving in the reception that fell off its stand and knocked a small hole in the floor. Other than that, all the whisky bottles were left on their shelves in the bar, glasses in the kitchen remained standing, all is well.”
From the Epicenter
Only a short while ago, I got my first report from someone within the most heavily stricken zone. Franz Schubert of Trekking Chile, a tour operator just outside of Talca (where he also operates the Casa Chueca inn) say that, “Considering the situation of thousands of homeless people and hundreds of deaths in the region, we can’t complain. Casa Chueca and its 30 guests were more than lucky. With water from the pool and vegetables from the garden we had everything we needed. The guests themselves helped us for days, moving the rubble, arranging the furniture, and preparing food. Eventually we got them all to Santiago.” I’ve taken the liberty of including one of Franz’s photos from Talca here.
He was more worried about his employees and others in the region and, at present “We are hauling food, water and mattresses to the coast, where the people have much more serious problems. Today we got the water back and one of our buildings has electricity; the telephones work on occasion. We’ve visited our employees in their houses and everyone’s OK. With or without power, with or without water, we’re not going to close Casa Chueca for one minute.”
Meanwhile, I also heard from Andrea Ilabaca, who works for the MontGras winery in the Colchagua valley north of Talca, who reported that “ all MontGras Properties’ workers and their families are accounted for, and in general, are fine, although some have lost or suffered damages in their homes.” When the quake struck, she was in her 21st floor Santiago apartment and “I honestly thought I was going to die. Luckily, the building resisted, although my apartment does have damages, it can all be fixed! I ran down the stairs so fast I was the 3rd person out of the building!! I’ve been staying at my Mom’s but I just heard that we now have water and electricity... so as soon as clean up is finished by the end of the week, I’ll move back in!”
According to Andrea, “Our wineries are operating and will be able to receive the coming vintage. Our Visitors Center will be working normally from next Monday, March 8th. Regretfully, many neighboring wineries are not that well off... We do hope they recover soon.” Her advice for those who wish to help: “The best way to do so, is by purchasing the products and wines of Chile. This will be of great assistance to our country.” On the surface, that might sound self-serving but, in the long run, economic continuity is one of Chile’s greatest strengths.