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Our guide book was a little behind when referring to Chaiten- the town devastated by a volcano in 2008.  Although we’d heard stories about the small community struggling to carve a life out of the ashes, I was completely stunned by the emptiness and melancholy chill in the place.

Chaiten was a thriving town of 3,200 before the volcano towering above started spewing ash two years ago.  Now, only about 100 people live there, still surrounded by grey ash, empty houses and shops, and deserted streets.

The Chilean government wanted to relocate the town 10km north to Santa Barbra to ensure the safety of the people, but some refused to leave. The government then failed to re- connect running water to the remaining townspeople, or to supply electricity. The few people left struggled on. Each house or business has a generator, and water tank. When there is a fire, there is no fire engine, and no water to fill it anyway. When a hostel burnt down not long ago they threw ash on the flames to stop it spreading.

It’s a sad place. So grey and cold, deserted and forgotten. There are a few little hostels operating intermittently, a few supermarkets with a poor supply of fresh goods, and a restaurant or two.

We stayed two nights here, and took a day tour with a strange American tour guide – Nicolas. He showed us the ‘blast site’ of the volcano from the highway leading out of town and through the national park (that is now unusable with small creeks running though it – another way of disconnecting the town). From here we could see the massive lava dome, which rather than flowing over the side, solidified in the core as the lava was of a denser variety. Nicholas explained that the problem was the huge amount of ash that rained over the entire area, filling the river so that the ash spread through the village, completely submerging some of the houses on the river banks, and washing others into the sea. The people were evacuated by boat as the volcano showed ash and glowed a fiery red, and no one was injured in the event.

An unusual, and very worthwhile addition to our Chilean route. After our volcano tour we relaxed in the hot springs not far from town, then raced back to catch the vivid sun set on the ashes.

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