So this morning we woke up to the first white cloud opening up above the tent in about three days. We scurried to organize the tarps and the backpacks, still wary that it would return. Mochilas heavy with damp clothing, we put some tea in a thermos and left for the hut that serves as a bus station.
We boarded the bus, and nestled in our seats, I could finally say with a breath of relief, “nos VAMOS de Chaitén!”
30 seconds and 50 meters later, the bus, laden with backpacks and backpackers, shuddered to a stop.
My heart sank. I knew there was no way of leaving this tiny little ensnaring town.
I remember wondering within the first few days of arriving why so many people pass by here, what brings people to Chaitén.
Two weeks later, I’m no longer asking myself that question. I see the mobs of people that flood in here, and consequently, who get stuck here. Everyone that passes through the northern part of the Carretera Austral passes through here and must spend a few nights waiting for the next available bus or ferry. It’s the first real sort of civilized town, gravel roads and all; it’s the gateway to the rest of Patagonia.
After a four hour bimodal journey from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, boat-bus-boat-bus-boat-bus, you arrive on the longest stretch of 50km gravel road most likely of your entire trip. 100-some backpackers and hitchhikers arrive daily in the high part of January, and the only cars that board are packed to the ceiling with their own adventure vacation gear. No one, not even the buses, stops to pick you up. We ended up walking 35km of this stretch of the Carretera over two days, followed by flies and lulled by the monotony of the flat dirt path, until a kind soul in a Volkswagen beatle picked us up at the campground outside of the volcano Chaitén, about 15km from the town. In the pueblo, finally, you can rest and stock up on food or gas or whatever else you ran out of in the days you got stuck in the Parque Pumalin, wandering past thermal springs and senderos and alerce trees.
Two weeks later, I’m no longer asking myself how how the 1.500 or so people who live here maintain themselves for the year wth only about 4 months of the summer tourist season. I see the $10.000 plates of food in the few restaurants that exist and the $4.000 per kilo laundry service that doesn’t promise dry clothing and the spews of desperate travelers arriving late at night looking for housing in a town that’s stuffed to the brim with tourists and tenters and foreigners. With the rain storm, the municipality opened up the gym at night for people to sleep if they needed. But with the families who relied on cabañas, many were housed by gracious temporary hosts or yelled at by my worn-out boss to “go sleep in your cars already, there’s nothing left in this damn town!”
In actuality, it’s a quaint little town. In 2008, the volcano eruption caused an entire evacuation, but since then the town has rebuilt itself. There’s nothing to complain about being stuck, because in good weather there’s a lot to do. Hikes ranging from basic 30 minute senderos to the more demanding 3-5 hour Volcán Chaitén, the cheap public thermal springs, the fascinatingly eerie ruins from the eruption, and the beaches with toninas, can keep an explorer content. However, in the Mapurungu language, chaitén means “basket of water”. And our last few days in this pueblo really highlighted the accuracy of the name of this town. It’s nestled in between the feet of the cordillera and the cold winds of the playa, with maybe 3.000 meters width between the two. The clouds collect in this microclimate, colliding into puffs and fluffs and airy cotton balls, until the snowy white turns a gloomy grey and the skies suddenly dump the baskets of water onto Chaitén in its passing to the sea.
We weathered 3 days of this downpour in our tiny tent, sharing wine and stories with other travelers. When the clouds cleared this morning and we secured three passages for the 12:00 bus, we happily realized we could finally continue our trip.
Luckily, within a few moments the tire is fixed and we are headed on our way. The bus veers off the Carretera for an equally gravelly and winding path towards the interior and Argentine border. We head off to Futaleufú with hopes for bluer skies.