The town of Coñaripe is an interesting place. Located about 700 km south of Santiago, it sits on the shores of Lake Calafquén and in the shadow of Villarrica Volcano – one of South America’s most active. Coñaripe is a popular holiday spot for Chileans who can’t afford to stay in the flashier town of Pucón, on the other side of the fire breathing mountain, which caters to international tourists.
While Pucón has a neat grid of boutique hotels, bars and manicured parks, Coñaripe has a pot-holed main street that is dotted with cabins for rent and cheap-but-cheerful restaurants that churn out traditional favourites like pastel de choclo and cazuela. One thing both towns have in common is tourism companies. Lots of them. You can’t go for a five minute walk without being asked if you’d like to climb the volcano, go rafting or relax in the termas (natural hot springs).
Throughout the summer months, these tour companies are the life blood of the local economy. And the star attraction that keeps them coming is the volcano. But, being active, it’s not just a force for good. Especially in Coñaripe.
When I visited four years ago during the peak of the February holidays, I experienced the fun that the town had to offer. I visited the beautiful Rincón Termas and climbed up to the glacier that almost caps the top of the smouldering Villarrica Volcano. It was an exhilarating place to be. However, it was also frustrating – and slightly eerie.
Every night without fail, all the lights along the long main street of the town and in the cabins and restaurants flickered and went out. In Coñaripe, these regular blackouts are a part of life. One night when I was p slurping at my cazuela in one of the local diners, I asked a local what was wrong with the town’s power supply.
“It’s because of the volcano,” he said. “Nobody wants to invest in infrastructure for a town that could disappear.”
You see, the Coñaripe of today is not the first Coñaripe. In 1964, the original town was wiped off the map by a mudslide following a powerful eruption from the peak next door.
Just around the lake from the spot where we pitched our tent, was a memorial with a crucifix and a simple wooden notice that read:
In this place the current town of Coñaripe pays tribute to the memory of the 22 locals of the old town of Coñaripe who tragically disappeared on the night of 2 March 1964 as a result of a violent eruption of the Villarrica Volcano.”
So when I woke this morning to the news that Villarrica had erupted once again, my thoughts turned to the strange town of Coñaripe. News reports from Chile revealed that schools had been closed and all 3,000 residents and tourists had been evacuated.
Almost 51 years exactly since its most devastating day, the town so accustomed to blackouts was once again plunged into darkness.