Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From the Epicenter: Chile, One Year Later (3)

In fact, the last leg of my journey through post-earthquake Chile took me farther from the epicenter, but not so far that the damage was not palpable. At the town of Curepto, for instance, virtually the entire parish church was covered with corrugated aluminum as it awaits repair, and many buildings were framed with two by fours and other supports to keep them from collapsing.

After leaving Talca, my first overnight was at the British-run Hacienda Laguna Torca near its namesake national park, a lush coastal wetland that’s home to 2,000 black-necked swans. Just inland from the town of Llico, a prime windsurfing site that got hit by the tsunami but is recovering nicely, the Hacienda suffered no serious earthquake damage, but an invasion of salt water affected its olive groves. With time and rain, fresh water is recharging the aquifer.

To the north, thanks to broad sandy beaches and the left break at Punta de Lobos, the town of Pichilemu is one of central Chile’s top seaside resorts and prime surf spots, but that also made it vulnerable to the tsunami. According to Marcel Janssen, the Dutch owner of the Pichilemu Surf Hostal, the tsunami rolled right past the bar (across the street), but the quake itself damaged the walls; it’s since been upgraded into a more stylish beachfront bar, with a deck and heated saltwater tubs for relaxation.

In and around Santa Cruz, though, the devastation was such that, at the time, the irrigation canals in some vineyards literally ran red - with wine. Where the 19th-century parish church stood facing Santa Cruz’s Plaza de Armas, there is now a vacant lot, and many other buildings are still in ruins, even if the remarkable Museo de Colchagua and its adjacent Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza have quickly recovered - the controversial Carlos Cardoén has poured money into the city, but he can’t do everything.

Some of the surrounding communities suffered serious devastation. At nearby Huique, the quake flattened parts of the historic residence of former president Federico Errázuriz Echaurren and knocked over the tower of its adjacent chapel. Other parts of the complex, already in neglect after passing into the hands of a peasant cooperative, are virtually beyond repair. At Apalta’s Bodega Neyen, where I took a tour, several hundreds bottles of premium wine fell off the shelves and shattered on the concrete floor below, but nobody was injured. The remaining stock is now protected by chicken wire that prevents it from falling.

Probably the most seriously affected was the picturesque village of Lolol, where virtually every adobe sustained severe damage and many of them still bear warning tape and spray paint tags that say “danger, total collapse.” The church is still standing, but fenced off and services now take place in an adjacent tent.

That said, the region is on the road to recovery. Amongst the devastation, Cardoén’s Museo Artesanía Lolol is an exceptional crafts museum that’s well worth a detour from Santa Cruz, and most of the wineries on the Ruta del Vino de Colchagua (whose offices appear in the photo at top) are once again open for tours and tasting. When I passed through Santa Cruz, Cardoén’s hotel was booked solid, but I managed a couple nights at the Hotel Terraviña, operated by Danish journalist Anne Sorensen and her Chilean husband.

Surrounded by its own vineyard (once part of the nearby Laura Hartwig winery, which is newly open for tours), the Terraviña opened shortly before the quake and, in its aftermath, found itself part of the relief efforts. Government officials and business travelers helped get it through the first year but, as tourist traffic has recovered, it’s become a hotel again. One of its attractions is that, though it has no restaurant of its own, two of Santa Cruz’s best - the Italian Vino Bello and the Peruvian La Casita de Barreales - are only a short stroll away through the vines.

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