Almost every year, when I head to South America for the summer, I look forward to revisiting the Chilean port of Chaitén – in reality, a modest ferry terminal that connects the major port of Puerto Montt with the Carretera Austral, the southern highway that winds through an area as wild as the Alaska Panhandle.
I first saw Chaitén in 1992, while updating a guidebook, and the view of the Andes rising steeply behind the shoreline was unforgettable. At that time, the town and its surroundings had only about 3,600 inhabitants, but it would soon become one of the access points to Parque Pumalín, the audacious forest conservation project of the late environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins. I revisited regularly, but there was a hiatus in 2008, when a surprise eruption of the town’s namesake volcano forced its evacuation.
For a time, Chaitén was a Chilean Pompeii – the volcano did not set the town on fire, but waterlogged ash flowed down the Río Blanco to bury many of its wooden houses under two meters or more of cement-hard debris. The Chilean government tried to move the settlement north, to a more protected area but, while visiting Futaleufú a year later, I drove to Chaitén for the day and found, to my surprise, that a quite a few residents had decided to return. The mountain was still smoking, and many houses and vehicles barely showed beneath the ash, but several residents had cleaned up their properties – including a couple waterfront hotels – and forced the government to provide tanks of potable water.
I’ve had my doubts about Chaitén – and probably wouldn’t invest in local real estate – but seven years later I’m impressed by the effort to rebuild. Last January, I saw a new regional airport, new ferry installations, a new park and playground along the river, and private initiatives including a sparkling new hostel, restaurants, and even an appealing food truck (not so long ago, its espresso would have been unthinkable here). There’s a trail to the top of the volcano now and, while Chaitén is no luxury destination, it’s a rewarding one. I look forward to returning again in November.