Caleta Tortel, one of the places that I most wanted to know in the whole area due to its peculiar shape and its famous catwalks. And it is undoubtedly the town that most attracts the attention of any traveler who visits these latitudes.
It is located about 1130 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, 126 kilometers from Cochrane and 152 kilometers from Villa O’Higgins. Although the Carretera Austral directly connects Cochrane with Villa O’Higgins, half way there is a branch of about 23 kilometers that lead to Caleta Tortel. This branch was built in 2004 and, until then, the only way to get there was by boat.
Tortel is a small group of houses that extend along the shore of the fjord. Its main characteristic is that it does not have streets and therefore vehicles do not circulate through it. When you get to the entrance of the town you have to leave any vehicle parked and forget about it until you decide to take the road back.
Meanwhile, the time we are in Caleta Tortel will be spent walking on cypress wooden footbridges that connect the dozens of colored houses that make it up. The contrast of the houses with the lush and green vegetation that surrounds them is spectacular.
Many of the houses are built on stilts over the water and others on the mountainside in an almost jungle setting. The downside of this is if you go with a suitcase of wheels, as was my case, because the wheels are continually hooked on the boards and the many ups and downs of stairs are terrible if you’re loaded.
It is not a town with a lot of life. Only about 500 inhabitants live permanently and outside the high season there are hardly any people on the street. Nor are they specially prepared for tourism. We must remember that until the road opened almost no tourist ventured to get there.
Since then, little by little they have been opening up to the world of tourism and there are several hotels and restaurants that work in the town, as well as small companies that organize tours to the places of interest in the surroundings. But out of season it is very likely that you will arrive and not find an open restaurant or with provisions to serve meals.
In a gesture to improve the infrastructures to attract more tourists, in 2012 nearly 1000 meters of footbridges were improved and several covered viewpoints were built within the town itself.
In Caleta Tortel it almost always rains, and it’s no exaggeration. They told me that during the year more than 300 days rain falls and it is really difficult to find a clear day. Nothing else to see the pictures to realize that the day was totally gray, and during the morning I spent there before leaving for Villa O’Higgins I was almost all the time walking in a soft rain but without rest.
Anyway, the gray days are always quite interesting because the clouds become a gigantic light box that although dim. Everything lights up evenly and avoids the sometimes annoying shadows in some photos.
Another curiosity of Tortel is that water changes color depending on weather conditions and light. You can see some pictures with the water totally green and in others the same water has a milky hue, pulling to gray. Really curious.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN CALETA TORTEL?
When I traveled so long along the Carretera Austral for two weeks, during which time I wanted to see too many things, I could not spend 24 hours visiting the town. I would have liked to be able to visit some of the fantastic places that Caleta Tortel can reach from here, but I would have had to sacrifice other, less interesting things along the way.
These are some of the places that I missed, some of them really impressive:
Jorge Montt Glacier
The Jorge Montt Glacier is one of the main glaciers that form the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. To get there you have to sail for three or four hours in a route of great charm between fjords, where you can see a lot of mammals and seabirds and in the last section is navigated between icebergs as a result of the constant retreat of the mass of ice, which disappears at an alarming level of one kilometer per year.
A pity not having been able to visit it, at the rate that it may be on my next trip to Patagonia, it is no longer possible to do so.
If the previous one was the entrance to the Southern Ice Field, the Steffen Glacier is from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. One of the most inaccessible glaciers in all of Patagonia because to reach it you have to sail for about four or five hours, first through the mouth of the Baker and then through Steffen Glacier Bay. Once in the bay, it is also navigated along with hundreds of large blocks of ice detached from the glacier, to finally reach the Huemules River and the lush forests that surround the glacier.
This tour is expensive and difficult to do. I once read that it was possible to spend the night inside the bay, in the house of descendants of the first settlers of the region who still live there. Ideal to know first hand the history of the whole region.
Island of the dead
It is one of the most mysterious places in the south of Chile. The Island of the Dead, formed at the mouth of the Baker River, has a very dark past in which, according to reports, more than a hundred workers died more than a century ago. Although it has not been possible to prove anything of all this, apparently these workers were taken to the zone with intention to open a way that united what is now Tortel with Argentina. But for unknown reasons they began to get sick and die, being buried on the island.
It is said that they were poisoned by the company to not pay their salary. Also that was accidentally because of food in poor condition. In any case, a rather grim story for a place that is now being visited by tourists in order to see a cemetery in which there are only 33 of the 120 crosses that were counted in the middle of the 20th century.
To get there you have to sail about 15 minutes from Caleta Tortel and it is not economical if you do not join a group. In low season it is not easy to travel there.
Viewpoints of the Cerro de Tortel
What I did during my stay in Tortel, as well as going up and down hundreds of wooden steps and going along footbridges, was to walk along a path that climbs up to some viewpoints at the top of the hill where most of the houses in the town are located.
From the parking roundabout at the entrance to the town, where the tourist information point is, take a walkway that leads to the last houses in the opposite direction of the fjord. From there you take a small path that goes up on wooden boards to avoid multiple flooded areas.
Once up, you can see the mouth of the Baker River, the Island of the Dead and the Mitchell Fjord. Also mountains and waterfalls in the distance. Landscapes of great beauty, and very green.
There is no doubt that Caleta Tortel is a special place that serves as the port of entry to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, two large masses of ice that form the third largest expanse of ice on the planet after the Antarctica and Greenland, and to which belong well-known glaciers such as Perito Moreno, Exploradores, Calluqueo, Gray, San Rafael, O’Higgins, and of course the aforementioned Jorge Montt and Steffen.