I had no idea what I was to witness when I took a bus trip from Puerto Montt, Chile, to San Carlos de Bariloche. Put quite simply, I experienced the bus ride of a lifetime. What was astounding were the things I saw through the windows of the bus. This post recounts the highlights of the that unforgettable trip.
The sun had just begun its ascent into a cloudless sky when the bus left Puerto Montt’s dingy, depressing bus terminal. Anticipating my journey to Argentina the night before, I hadn’t slept well. I was groggy. I reclined in my bus seat and began listening to a Spanish lesson on my iPod. Soon I was fast asleep.
Luckily I awoke when the best part of the ride was just beginning. As I stretched and yawned, the bus began its journey past Chile’s lake Puyehue. The waters of Puyehue sat in a depression created by a massive glacier of long ago. Forested rolling hills ringed the lake, and further in the distance massive mountains loomed. Taking in the beauty of the scenery, my pulse quickened, and I was wide awake.
As we reached the eastern end of Puyehue, large craggy mountain peaks came into view. The lake disappeared quickly behind us as the bus headed into the densely forested Puyehue National Park. The road began to climb slowly and steadily as we continued east toward the border with Argentina.
The road we were on, Route 215, travels through the Cardenal Antionio Samoré Pass. Pretty much any of the passes from Chile to Argentina offer amazing landscapes to see. However, I had no idea about the mind-blowing spectacle I would soon witness while going through the Samoré Pass.
As the bus chugged along winding road and steadily climbing road, I began to notice a grayish-brown substance coating the trees. Soon I saw what looked like dirty snowflakes floating in the air. The road itself took on an ashy color, coated with a substance that I couldn’t yet identify.
Lively chatter began amongst the passengers on the bus. I was sure they were remarking on what we were seeing outside the bus. I tried to understand the Spanish flying back and forth between the other passengers. As my mind struggled to process the cocophony of rapidly-delivered, vigorously-punctuated Spanish words, I continued staring out the windows of the bus. Soon I noticed what looked like piles of dirty snow along the roadside. The leaves, branches and trunks of trees were coated in a grayish substance. The forest floor was covered in the same substance. That’s when I heard the words “volcan” and “ceniza” – “volcano” and “ash”.
I was looking at a landscape covered in volcanic ash. I knew that in 2011 there was a volcanic eruption in Chile that caused the cancellation of thousands of plane flights around the world. I also knew that this volcanic eruption was still taking place to some extent. But I was clueless that the bus trip to Bariloche would take us through the very heart of the ash field from the main eruption. I also was clueless that the ash from the eruption was being carried eastward by the prevailing winds and toward Argentina.
When we arrived at the Chilean border control station, ash was falling like snow onto the pavement. We disembarked to go through the immigration control checkpoint. As I walked toward the entrance to the border station, ash fell onto my jacket. I touched some of the ash which landed on my jacket sleeve, and it smeared into a gray blotch, some of it coating my fingertips like velvety chalk. The ash felt smooth and soft.
Getting processed through Chilean immigration didn’t take long. Soon we were back on the bus and heading towards the Argentine border control station. As we continued on, the ash became thicker and thicker. Everyone sat spellbound by the ashy landscape.
Piles of ash on the roadside now measured meters high. The thick ash covering the vegetation prevented sunlight from falling onto the surface of leaves. Trees and shrubs were robbed of their ability to photosynthesize. The bus now passed by kilometer after kilometer of mostly leafless and dying trees and shrubs. The scene looked like a nuclear holocaust. Tens of thousands of hectares of trees were being choked to death by ash.
As we approached the Argentine border control station, huge rocky peaks of the Andean cordillera came into view. These massive mountains were shrouded in beige ash. Normally one would see snow atop these the giants. However, the snow was well-covered by heaps and heaps of ash.
Processing took a much longer at the Argentine border station. After I was processed for entry, I walked around the station taking pictures of the ashy Armageddon. It was beautiful and horrifying all at once. I realized I was witnessing something that few would ever see, and something that I would never forget.
The 2011 volcanic eruption in Chile emanated from the Cordón Caulle fissure, part of a volcanic complex in east-central Chile. In the aftermath of the eruption, airports all over the world cancelled flights due to the airborne volcanic particles that were circulating around the globe. In depth information about the eruption can be found in the following wiki article: