In the wee hours of February 27, a massive 8.8 earthquake shook residents of south-central Chile awake. The epicenter. Located off-shore from Maule, was 100 km (60 miles) NNW of Chillán, 105 km (65 miles) WSW of Talca, 115 km (70 miles) NNE of Concepción and 325 km (200 miles) SW of Santiago. Within 20 minutes, a tidal wave swept coastal villages off the map. The damage is astounding, mounting into the billions of dollars. Over 200,000 homes were damaged. The final official death toll rests at 507. Thanks to Chile’s level of preparedness and building codes, more people did not die.
For weeks afterwards the earth continued to tremble. In recent weeks the frequency and intensity of the aftershock has decreased substantially. The earth changed quite substantially with this jolt. Geologists estimate the city of Concepción moved three meters (10 feet) to the west and Buenos Aires about an inch. The February 27, 2010 tremor rates as the fifth strongest in the world since 1900, when seismic activity could be measured.
More than two months after the earthquake, southern Chile is still a lonely place. Few travelers have wandered over the border from Argentina. Doubts swirl through their minds like the autumn fog. Is Temuco okay? Can you climb the volcano in Pucón? How’s Valdivia? Santiago? Viña del Mar? Is it possible to sample the wines at the bodegas?
Communities are slowly rebuilding. Some cities were slightly damaged, while others will need five years or more to get back to the beautiful towns they once were. The furthest south notable damage was done, is in Valdivia. There, a stretch of the riverfront costanera buckled and cracked. The Corporación Cultural Metropolitano has moved to one block away, at Libertad and Yungay. The Sernatur regional tourism office has its temporary home in the Edificia Seminario, behind the Spanish fortress tower Torre los Canelos (Yerbas Buenas 181, piso 1). Tour boats are departing from aside the Feria Fluvial. This famous fish market and the Mercado Municipal across the road are both functioning normally.
May 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the largest quake in modern history, a 9.5 that destroyed Valdivia and other cities in southern Chile. Valdivia will be observing the event with a month of activities, including conferences, exhibits, oral histories, films and other events. The local newspaper, Diario Austral, already is publishing testimonies of Valdivianos who lived through the catastrophe. On May 25, 2010, a tsunami evacuation drill will be held in Niebla and other coastal villages near Valdivia.
In the rest of Región de los Ríos, everything is tranquilo. Travelers can hike through the nature reserves and soak in the many hot springs in the Siete Lagos region. Huilo-Huilo Biological Reserve experienced minor damage. It is now open, as are its Magic Mountain Hotel and Baobab Hotel. All border crossings into Argentina are open.
Our next stop will be Temuco, Pucón and the other wonderlands of Chile’s Región de los Lagos to the north.