When the Earth Sank

A heron sleeps

In 1960, the region around the town of Valdivia in Chile, was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. It is believed to have been between 9.4-9.6 on the Richter scale and affected an estimated 400,000 square kilometres (for context, the UK is only slightly over half of that in total surface area). Needless to say, tragically, thousands died and the region was affected in more than one way, some of which continue to haunt it now.

One of the most interesting affects occurred on the island of Chiloe; the largest island in Chile and a popular holiday destination for Chileans. It was also somewhere we knew we wanted to visit as we travelled down through Chile and so we took the bus from Pucon to Puerto Montt, where we transferred to another bus to Ancud, on Chiloe.

We were fascinated to hear about Chiloe’s mysterious history, interwoven with witchcraft and a deep folklore that still resonates today. Something that seemed almost palpable as we took the ferry over from the mainland and watched a sea lion playing in the straits. Unfortunately we had chosen to arrive during the busiest week in the Chilean summer holidays and so the island was heaving with tourists. This meant we had to travel a bit deeper into island, away from the crowds, to get a real sense for the magic.

The best way to explore the sunken forest
The best way to explore the sunken forest

We’d heard there was an ecolodge in a place called Chepu, a tiny settlement which seemed to have a population of about 25 and really nothing to it except the ecolodge, one tiny restaurant and a national park.

What makes this area truly special is, as a result of the earthquake, the landscape here was irrevocably changed. Huge swathes of the land sank by up to two metres, causing massive quantities of sea water to flood into a freshwater area, killing off a forest, creating a salt bog and changing the shape of the landscape so that it resembled something from an African savannah, rather than a Valdivian forest.

Best of all, the ecolodge we were staying at, Chepu Adventures, offer a sunrise kayak through this sunken, dead forest. This is a fantastic way to get up close to the landscape and the animals that live there.

Awkward kayak selfie
Awkward kayak selfie

Waking up well before dawn, with the mist still lying heavily across the land, frost starting to melt, we kitted up, donning wet suits, life jackets and waterproof jackets, trying to ensure every join was as sealed as possible. A short walk down to the water and after heaving our kayaks into the water, we were off. Being self-guided meant we had freedom to explore the multitude of inlets off the main river and to go at our own pace, instead of trying to follow a guide and sticking with the group of around eight people.

Soon the group had broken up and with kayaks disappearing off into the mist we were soon alone, or in groups of two or three kayaks at most. Given the aim was to see as much wildlife as possible and to explore somewhere that lent itself to silence, we paddled along as quietly as possible and with our voices kept to a muted whisper. Soon this began to pay dividends as we spotted herons perched on dead trees, their grey feathers camouflaged ideally in the near monochrome of the early morning, mist-filtered light, and kingfishers flitting from dead tree to dead tree along the water’s edge.

The sunken forest in the grey light of morning
The sunken forest in the grey light of morning

We were looking for something more elusive though – we’d been told the river was home to otters and coypu. We’d also been given a few pointers on how to distinguish between them and what to look for when they are swimming, and the fact that otters are curious, so like to swim past behind the kayaks to see what’s going on. Slowing our pace, we drifted and fell back a bit, ensuring we had the river to ourselves, which promptly paid off as a few minutes later, we spotted the distinct movement of an otter in the water behind us. It may have been brief, but it was hugely satisfying to have seen such a beautiful creature in the wild.

After another hour or so of exploring inlets and getting lost among all the reeds we started to head back to the lodge, thinking of hot showers and some food. Being the first to make this call, we paddled ahead and were rewarded with a clear and extended sight of a coypu cleaning itself on the bank and an incredibly tame kingfisher letting us get close enough to take a picture with my phone.

Kayaking in the early morning light
Kayaking in the early morning light

Our expectations exceeded, we followed the flow of the river back downstream and drifted back into the pontoon where the kayaks were stored, a lot colder and wetter, but very, very glad to have had such a magical experience. As the last traces of the fog burnt off and the sun started to warm the land, we looked back out over the sunken forest and couldn’t help but wonder if the earthquake’s destructive forces had in fact been creative.

Chepu Adventures ecolodge
Chepu Adventures ecolodge from the water

We camped for two nights at Ecolodge Chepu Adventures. It cost from CP$6.000 (approx. £7) per person per night for a camping spot and use of the outdoor toilets and showers. If you are planning to camp, be prepared with cooking equipment and food as there are no shops in Chepu and the ecolodge doesn’t have a kitchen available for guests to use. Dorm beds cost from CP$10,000 (approx.£12) per person per night on a B&B basis. You need to bring your own sleeping Additional meals are extra.

 

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