Friday, December 31, 2010

Chaitén & Pumalín: Open for Business

It took longer than anybody expected, but Naviera Austral's ferry Pincoya finally reached the ramp at Chaitén (pictured below) around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday - roughly seven hours late. As it happened, we sailed on time from Puerto Montt at 9 p.m. Tuesday, but the aging shallow-draft vessel (in service since 1971) could not handle the Golfo de Ancud’s high winds and surging tides. Instead, it anchored for the night and, when we awoke the next morning, we were still well short of our destination.

One of my companions on the voyage was Nicholas La Penna of Chaitur, who runs the bus terminal and only left town briefly after the eruption of Volcán Chaitén in May of 2008. For those planning a trip on the Carretera Austral, with or without their own transportation, he’s the first source of information on accommodations, food and transportation into and out of town - including visits to Parque Pumalín, which reopened to the public December 20th.

Chaitén itself is coming alive, if slowly, thanks to the government’s decision to restore utility services in most of the town despite its proximity to the volcano which, however, was emitting only occasional wisps of steam (as opposed to my visit in March of 2009, when it was sending out clouds of steam and smoke). Several accommodations and restaurants have reopened, air-taxi flights are arriving from Puerto Montt, and bus service has resumed to and from the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique, though it’s limited as yet. The Copec gas station has reopened, supermarkets have fresh food, and the place is looking far tidier than it did last year.

Still, it’s not likely to reach the population figures it had before any time soon - at present, Chaitén has perhaps ten percent of the 4,000-plus residents who lived here before the eruption. While the government has also decided to relocate provincial government offices from their temporary quarters at Futaleufú, it faces some difficult questions - primarily, what will be the line of demarcation for residents who want to reoccupy their houses? Clearly those along the Río Blanco, whose ash-clogged waters nearly destroyed them, are beyond salvation, but others will be tougher calls.

Meanwhile, the road north to Parque Pumalín has reopened though, if there’s another eruption, it would soon be obliterated again. Still it’s an object lesson in the effects of vulcanism, as the southern beeches on and around the slopes of Volcán Chaitén have turned a ghostly grey with the effects of the eruption and the ash fall. At the same, some of the streams are starting to run clear again, and rhubarb-like nalcas are colonizing the ash falls.

All the park’s campgrounds have reopened, as have Caleta Gonzalo’s seven stylish cabañas, which I stayed in for the first time - while they’re on the small side, they are truly stylish and cozy, and some have lofts that can accommodate up to half a dozen visitors. There is now 24-hour electricity from a turbine, and the acclaimed café (pictured below) is serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Things figure to get busier when the Naviera Austral ferry from Hornopirén starts service on Sunday.

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