If you know anything about Chile you have probably heard about: the 33 Chilean miners that were trapped after a cave-in (and subsequent movie detailing this drama), Chilean sea bass (which is just a marketing gimmick and not actually a thing), and the number of earthquakes this country experiences. In fact, the largest earthquake EVER recorded is the 1960 Valdivia earthquake with a magnitude of about 9.5. In comparison, the 2011 Virginia earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument (and upended patio chairs everywhere) was a 5.8.
And when I say lots of earthquakes, I mean pretty much every day somewhere in Chile you can feel an earthquake. It is such a (beloved?) part of their culture that they even have a drink named after these famous terremotos: a sickeningly sweet blend of dessert wine, ice cream, and grenadine that will cause you to stumble around like the earth is moving underneath you. Pretty much every Chilean drinks this classic cocktail all September long during the celebration of fiestas patrias.
I actually felt my first earthquake in my first week here in Maria Elena. I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting on my bed relaxing when I felt a noticeable shudder. My host father, when asking me later if I felt it, said “Bienvenidos a Chile!”
Since then, I have felt a few quivers and quakes and on Halloween night there was one big enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. But fortunately, I have not experienced one that resulted in any major injuries or property damage. A previous volunteer here was not so lucky. In 2007, my host family hosted their first English Opens Doors Program volunteer (I am their third). That is the year of the big Maria Elena earthquake.
Although from what I have heard there were not any deaths here in Maria Elena, much of the town was leveled and it took quite a while to rebuild. My host family talks about how frightening it was, and you can still see signs of the damage. I live in the “chalets” on the edge of town, single family homes that are allocated to bosses over at the mining company. Many of them are boarded up and abandoned. I assumed this was because there were fewer people living in town overall as saltpeter mining continues to wane in importance. But no. These houses were damaged during the earthquake and never got repaired.
Again, I am lucky. The biggest inconvenience I have experienced due to an earthquake is the cancelling of a tour. Over the long weekend November 1-4, I went to Iquique and signed up for a tour on November 2 to go out and visit the red lakes. On the evening of November 1, an earthquake struck near the red lakes area, causing lots of rock and rubble to fall on the road. It was impassible, and we could not go on the tour. Fortunately, the tour company refunded my money with a shrug saying “eso is Chile.”
All was not lost, though. I ended up hanging with two other volunteers from the program (one who lives in Tocopilla and one who is living in Iquique). We ended up going out to Humberstone, Pica, and some thermal baths out in this desert oasis. And of course, barbequed some meat. Although I do not think I will have another chance to visit these red lakes, which is a bummer, it ended up being a lovely time. I wonder what adventures await me next week…