“….the truth is I never left you…” although technically we have! We crossed the border into Chile on the early bus from Esquel bumping up and down on what looked more like a farm track than a highway. We climbed for over an hour up into the high pass. From here after a bit of bus swapping we reached the cosy, quaint little town of Futaleufu, a beautiful alpine style village surrounded by towering peaks and lush forests. The western side of the Andes gets a considerably more rainfall and is much more green and vibrant than its eastern neighbour. The gardens of the traditional wood shingle houses are full of vegetables and fruit trees all fully laden with apples and pears. It’s the first time we’d seen that for a long time.
Futaleufu is becoming renowned for white water rafting and kayaking on the river of the same name. Everything here is very seasonal however, so most places were closed but we did find a cosy B&B in one of the traditional wood shingled houses with a very welcoming family who we couldn’t understand at all. Chileans mumble worse than your average British teenager! The house was heated by the huge wood-burning range in the large family kitchen, the top covered in pots of simmering stock, boiling potatoes and sumptuous soup – the smells were divine. From our bedroom window we could look out over the town and watch the chickens with their chicks scratching in the dirt of the vegetable garden and the kittens playing on the tin roof of the shed.
We took the 6am bus to Chaiten, passing past Park National Cocovado with its towering snow capped summits amazing rock walls – requires a definite future visit! At Chaiten we glimpsed our first sight of the Pacific Ocean since we flew over it from New Zealand over a month ago.
Chaiten is a small town that was formerly the capital of the region until the local volcano erupted in 2008. The town was evacuated as it lies only 10km from the Chaiten Volcano and a few days later a Lahar (an ash laden flood) swept through the town changing the rivers coarse, sweeping over 50 houses out into the bay and completely reshaping the coastline. The Chilean government stalled for over 2 years on its response, meaning no infrastructure was replaced and those that chose to return had to fend for themselves. Now with a new government they have promised to help rebuild the town but everything takes a very long time down here.
The volcanic eruption itself was very unusual as it was the first major explosive eruption of rhyolite magma in nearly a century. Molten rhyolite is rarely found at the surface, therefore this eruption has been of immense interest to volcanologists.
We went for a trek with a Canadian guide, Nicholas, who has lived here for over 30 years. He showed us the volcano, the damage caused to the temperate rainforest by the pyroclastic flows and the lahars. The damage to large parts of the forest was evident, charred dead trees stood like natures’ monuments to the volcano’s victims. However, nature is returning.
Nicholas talked us through the natural regeneration that is happening in theses damaged areas which are full of giant hogweed and fuchsia bushes nearly 12 feet tall, all full of busy bees. The young beech saplings are starting to thrive and the mosses and lichens with them. He has been working with researchers including volcanologists and botanists who have been studying the volcano’s activity and the regeneration post eruption. This is all based in the privately owned Parque Palena. The remainder of the park is in pristine condition, having never been touched by people it is one of the best examples of pristine temperate rainforest in the whole world and with a much higher biodiversity than other temperate rainforests in USA, New Zealand and Tasmania.
The park is also home to some of the oldest trees on the planet, the Alerce tree. They are only found in the Andes Mountains of south-central Chile. Using tree rings, scientists found one giant to be 3,620 years old. Though these Patagonian cypresses can reach 150 feet tall, they gain only a millimeter in girth each year, and can take a thousand years to be full-grown. The Zoroastrian Sarv and the Llangernyw yew are thought to be older, but the Alerce is the second oldest tree to have its exact age calculated.
There is huge potential for outdoor enthusiasts and lovers of nature in this stunning untouched area of southern Chile; jungles, mountains, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, rivers and very old primary forest. Much of this area is untouched, just waiting to be explored.
Our Posada, one of many traditional houses in Futaleufu - with non traditional satellite dish
Even the church has shingles
I'm not sure who lives here but I love it, complete with crooked stove pipe
The coastal town of Chaiten. In the distance one of the many volcanoes within close proximity to the town. On the right is the ash and mud deposited by the volcanic lahar that swept through the town extending the coastline another 500m further out to sea. The former sea wall promenade is now completely landlocked!
Shingled houses are still the norm, unfortunately many have been abandoned or severely damaged
Volcano Chaiten 10km from town. The lava dome can be clearly seen, one of the fastest growing ever recorded during the time of the eruption. The damage from the pyroclastic flows can be clearly seen marked by the dead and felled tree trunks.
The regrowth contains slow growing southern beeches, giant hogweed and beautiful fuchsia trees some 12 feet tall! Spot the bee?
Here we are on the edge of one of the lahars that swept through the valleys destroying everything in their path
As well as being a very unusual rhyolitic eruption Chaiten Volcano produced huge amounts of obsidian - volcanic glass - this is produced when felsic lava with a very high silica content become very viscous and is extruded rapidly, cooling quickly and therefore has minimum crystal growth giving it a smooth glassy appearance.
Behind the people you can see the layers of ash and volcanic rock that were deposited from the lahar, pyroclastic flows and ash fallout
Alerce trees - these ones are quite young, maybe only 1000 years old!
The temperate rainforest is pristine, trees adorned with layers and layers of mosses, the thick vegetation cover means the temperature plummets to a cool 18 degrees
There are plenty of hidden waterfalls fed by clear andean mountain streams
These mosses appeared to be stretching to find the light
This is a close relative of the national flower of Chile the rosea
More Alerce trees
These ones are much older, maybe over 2000 years old
Nicholas serenading Chris after a hard day of exploring on the traditional Andean Charango, a 10 stringed lute with strings grouped into 5 pairs. A big thank you must go to Nicholas who was a wealth of knowledge on the volcano, the forest and almost everything else you could care to ask!