Chased by the rain all the way to Chaiten

Chaiten, Chile, a ferry port to Puerto Montt, was devasted by a volcano in 2008.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

The rain chased us all the way to Chaiten. The name of the little village in southern Chile didn't ring a bell. It should have.


For my sister and I traveling the steep and curvy gravel Carratera Austral in the rain, the concept of the village was a respite -- the end of the long journey of gravel. From there we were going to take the ferry to Puerto Montt where we would no longer have to travel for days on gravel.

About 15 miles south of Chaiten, the road turned to pavement. My grip on the steering wheel loosened. I no longer had to worry if I was really going to be able to make it up the steep, loose-gravel mountain roads. We tootled along and crossed a muddy river into the village.

"What happened here?" my sister frowned as we looked at the empty houses on either side of the road. Some houses were shifted off their foundations. Some had mud flowing out of their windows. We began to notice big red marks on the sides of some of them.

"Looks like they've been condemned," I commented.

We stopped at a hardware store. We had to buy a wrench. We wouldn't be able to set up our tent until we had a wrench to move the seat backs.

Rain was coming down in sheets with the wind, puddles were everywhere, and a waterfall poured off the tin roof of the store. But they had a wrench. We asked about a campground. Some pointed toward the ocean. Some shrugged.

When we got back in the car, I pulled out Lonely Planet. "Wow! Listen to this!" I read the explanation of the ghost town of Chaiten. Back in 2008 a volcano had blown its stack. The village of about 8,000 people had been evacuated, just in time before the volcano unleashed the snow and glacier into the river, causing it to race down the mountains and crush the poor town of Chaiten. A few people, about 400, had returned. There was one hotel, three restaurants, and the store. And, of course, the ferry terminal.

We searched for a campground and couldn't find one. Finally I ducked between raindrops into the hotel to see if they knew of one. I explained our predicament, and apparently I was talking to either the owner or manager of the hotel. She put her arm around me and said we were welcome to park in the hotel parking lot for the night and use the bathroom situated right inside the back door.

I profusely gushed thanks.

Then she told me of a great restaurant. We ran through the rain to it and were the only ones there to eat a fantastic meal. Apparently the restaurant had only been open for a couple weeks. The owner moved here to take advantage of the low prices of the ghost town, hoping it would someday spring back to life.

The downpour continued the next day. We were stuck here. The ferry wouldn't leave until 10 a.m. the following day. I didn't want to sit in the hotel parking lot all day, so we headed back down the road to a hot springs. I shriveled up into a prune lounging in the hot water with buckets of rain pouring on my head. But it was fun meeting new people, even a teacher family from Minnesota who was on leave teaching in Bariloche. They, with their two small daughters, had biked here, and had the wounds to prove it! In fact, we met a lot of people bicycling the Carretera Austral. And I thought driving was difficult. We even met a group of motorcyclists from England and Australia who had driven from Barrow, Alaska!

I finally had to remove my thoroughly hydrated skin from the hot water and we headed back down the road to find a campground the Minnesota family had told us about. It was early, so I put up the tent in the rain and we ate our hard boiled eggs and jelly sandwiches.

We were the first in line for the ferry the next day, and the only vehicle in line for almost an hour. We watched others come and go. The wind was howling, so the nasty thought that the ferry wouldn't run in such horrible weather slipped into my mind. I put it aside. I didn't want to spend another minute in Chaiten.

Finally we saw the orange and white boat chugging up in the distance. Relief was on its way -- or so we thought. Surely by heading north we would soon be out of the rainforest, and therefore out of the rain.

Check back next week for more of Polly's perils.