It was raining when we got on the local bus leaving Puerto Monte (population 200,000) for the small town of Hornopiren (pop 1, 200). It had been raining for four days and there seemed no end to it.
Puerto Monte marks the northernmost point of Patagonia – Cape Horn at the end of Tierra Del Fuego – the southernmost.
The bus ascended into mist enshrouded mountains. A section of the mountain road had been buried under a landslide and whilst workers had cleared the road, our bus moved at a crawl.
The four hour trip to Hornopiren – with a ferry trip on the way – took longer.
Darkness was descending as we arrived…..
We got down, pulled the hoods of our waterproof jackets over our heads, eased our rucksacks on and began walking. We had booked an apartment for two nights and written down directions how to find it, but in the darkness, rain and cold, it was almost impossible to know what was what. Although the town was small, it had no perceptible centre and was very spread out. None of the houses had numbers. We walked in one direction, realised it was probably wrong and then turned around and retraced our steps.
We came to a town square, on one side of which was a supermarket (or rather, supermercado). We went in there to buy some supplies and ask for directions. Inside we found a large, poorly lit place with a high ceiling, like a warehouse. It seemed to have an excess of space and a shortage of goods. There were four shelved aisles. One of them was stacked, from top to bottom and on both sides, with bottles of wine and spirits: a familiar sight in areas of the world where people lived under cold grey skies and where the sun was an infrequent visitor.
Our apartment was a small house near the water’s edge. In the darkness and rain, the view was restricted, but we could make out on our left a deep bay, like a fjord, and sheer wall of forested mountains rising out of the water. Directly in front of us near the rocky shore line, small fishing boats were anchored.
On the following day we went for a walk to the nearby Pumalin national park. It’s not a park as such with an official entrance and office, park rangers or officially designated trails. It’s a vast area of native forest which cannot be developed or farmed. We found an unsealed road leading to a high altitude lake and began walking. After a few hours, glimpses of the sun in the grey sky were blocked out by a heavy cold mist. As we ascended in a light rain, the road became a rock strewn track and the higher we went the colder it got until we found ourselves battling wind swept snow. We turned around and went back and by the time we reached Hornopiren – after 6 hours of walking – we were wet and cold.
Late in the afternoon, as we sat inside our little house with the fire going, the cloud lifted somewhat and for a few minutes the sun appeared, casting a haunting light over the ocean and mountains. The beauty of this spectacular landscape was ephemeral and when it appeared in between long periods of arctic cold and grey, it was spellbinding.
From Hornopiren we head south to a town called Chaiten.
We got on a bus which drove on to a ferry; the ferry trip was 5 hours. Constant rain fell and it was windy and cold on the deck and most people stayed inside. On our left were forested mountains soaring into the air, their peaks laden with snow; on our right, a succession of steep sided islands covered in heavy vegetation and tall trees rising straight out of the water, like massive icebergs.
The bus alighted from the ferry and began the hour drive to Chaiten.
The road to Chaiten took us passed endless rainforest with huge ferns and creepers and dense thickets of trees and undergrowth, a part of the Pumalin national park.
There are many national parks and reserves in Patagonia and as such, it forms one of the last great wilderness areas on the planet. One of the other great wilderness areas, also in South America, is the Amazon in Brazil – but this is a pale shadow of what it once was and is now under threat of complete annihilation due to large agro-concerns which keep clearing more of the Amazon – and murdering anyone, including the native Indians, who protest their vandalism.
Patagonia has been spared this kind of gangster farming, one of the main reasons being – besides the inhospitable climate – wealthy American conservationists who during the 19th century, bought up huge areas of Patagonia and maintained them as reserves; later, some of the biggest of these reserves were donated to the Chilean government. It’s been a blessing for Patagonia – and the world – whose benefits can’t be understated.
Arriving in Chaiten late in the afternoon in the rain, I got the same end- of- the -world feeling that I often got in a country town in outback Australia: wide straight streets lined with single level homes, a few shops and small supermarkets. In 2008, a good deal of the original town of Chaiten was destroyed by an eruption of the Chaiten volcano. The volcano was considered to be dormant. There was no record of it ever having erupted and so its sudden explosion in 2008 took everyone by surprise.
View from Chaiten looking in the direction of the volcano
On the following day, Anya and I took a bus to the base of the volcano and followed the well-marked tourist trail to the top. The Chaiten volcano was 23 kilometres outside Chaiten and I found it hard to believe that at such a distance, it could have threatened the town. The sheer destruction of an erupting volcano is beyond the imagination. The ash and smoke from a volcano can reach upwards into the atmosphere for 7,8, 000 metres. When the Chaiten volcano erupted, the town was showered with hot ash, metres deep. The cycle of night and day vanished in a pall of darkness. The population was evacuated. When the eruption was over, the government’s plan was to move Chaiten further south, but the residents moved back to the original site and began life anew.
A decade on and much of the forests and undergrowth in the area of the volcano had recovered. Nevertheless, everywhere we looked, we saw the blackened remains of once tall trees. Many of the nearby mountain tops were covered in the stark forms of dead trees, etched on the sky like an army of skeletons.
The Chaiten Volcano erupting in 2008 – photo taken from the lake which today forms a part of the picturesque view from the peak.
Burnt trees with the volcano peak in the background
Strangely, there were few other walkers on the trail to the crater. The trail to the top of the volcano was a popular tourist attraction (on the unsealed road at the base of the volcano was a fair sized car park). In season – January, February – there was one long line of people ascending and descending.
The walk up there was not so easy; it was very steep and consisted of steps reinforced with wooden beams. Many of the steps were high and required a scramble.
At the top of the volcano, we met another couple. They were sitting on a basic seat consisting of a long pine plank supported by pine posts.
He was Chilean, in his 30’s, a little overweight, with a head of grey brown hair, regular facial features. His friend, Argentinian, was younger, with short black hair and round face and a button nose. They were a very friendly couple and spoke some English.
They were holding plastic beakers of wine poured from a cardboard box – an article commonly available in most Chilean supermarkets. They offered us some wine.
The boxed wine was a lot cheaper than the bottled article and considering the price difference, it wasn’t bad at all…..
The view from the volcano top
He was a telecommunications technician on a job in Chaiten; she was an office worker in Puerto Monte who had got time off and come down to stay with her friend. They’d been together a while. They talked about travels in the north of Chile and Argentina. The flowers in the deserts of northern Chile.
We told them about The Netherlands; a country beneath sea level.
The sun shone, there was a fantastic view of mountains, rainforests and lakes all around us. A Patagonian Garden of Eden.
It was one of those times of complete stillness, of being transfixed in one place, becalmed by time. There I was with my best friend in the company of two welcome strangers.
Behind us the crater of a volcano which a decade before, had turned the Patagonian Garden of Eden into Hell.
And might one day do the same again.