Chile Part 2: Caleta Tortel, the end of the road.

We arrived at Caleta Tortel and parked at the edge of this tiny town near the end of the Carretera Austral, having driven another 12 miles on a dirt side road till we reached the porous coastline of Patagonia. We strapped on backpacks with our stuff for two days, and started walking.

Walking to our hotel

There are no streets in Caleta Tortel, but a spiders web of overlapping boardwalks made from the local cypress trees. Google Maps struggles to tell us how to get to our hotel— its algorithm never contemplated this stacking of stairs and wooden pathways almost hovering over the water.

The homes we pass are tiny and wooden and weatherbeaten. One might be tempted to call them shacks but that word feels wrong. I prefer the Spanish word humilde, which suggests modesty, in the sense of being no more or no less than what is needed, without judgment. The costanera boardwalk tracks the coast for a mile or so with steps feeding off it every few feet, disappearing into the trees above.

Along the beach, boats seem to be scattered randomly, though I am sure that to the locals there is a sense and a pattern. We have entered at low tide so the boats appear to be marooned or abandoned. Some are new and freshly painted, some look ancient and appear to be disintegrating, as if they would eventually just return to the sea.

Our hotel for two nights, Lodge Entre Hielos (Between Glaciers), wowed us with a kind of rustic elegance. Maria, the owner, and her husband created the space in 2008 and built all the furniture by hand. The wooden wall and floors and furnishings are now burnished to a glowing cherry-like patina, softened with thick wool throws and rugs. The place is decorated from the land—a chandelier of twisted twigs, vases of angled driftwood, polished black stones on the window sills. Our rooms looked out over the water. I slept peacefully with the window open under thick blankets.

Lovingly handmade furniture

I asked Maria how they managed to bring in things like refrigerators and stoves, thinking perhaps there was some auto-accessible passage I had missed. Nope, everything must be carried by human power up the narrow creaky steps. “Carrying the wood stove was hard,” she said, in great understatement. I began to wonder who much less stuff I would own if I had to carry literally everything I bought up six flights of stairs.

The stairs to the hotel

Caleta Tortel was founded in 1955 but until 2003 it was only accessible by boat or plane. The town sits at the mouth of the Rio Baker, the gloriously turquoise fast-flowing river, the widest in all of Chile. The town sits amidst this swirl of rivers and estuaries and glaciers and fjords.  We could see all of this from a climb to the top of the mountain against which the town is constructed.

View of the mouth of Rio Baker from above Caleta Tortel

The Rio Baker is tidal here and when the tide rushes out to the sea, it carries with it such a volume of fresh water that for a few hours there is a layer of fresh water atop the salt water below. That explained the extraordinary sight of cows at the water’s edge seemingly drinking from the sea.

The trail had a series of boardwalks until we reached the steep rocky part—then it was a scramble to the top

Every house in Caleta seems to be offering something for sale – hand-knit wool caps, fruit, empanadas, groceries, lodging, boat tours to the nearby Isla de los Muertos. We quickly learned that a sign saying “Abierto” didn’t mean you could walk right in an open store; rather, it meant “call the WhatsApp number on the door and hopefully someone will show up soon.” In that spirit of informality, our traveling companions Stephen and Marianne asked a man working on the dock if he knew anyone giving boat tours. “Me, of course” he replied and our 4PM ride out to Isla de los Muertos was set.

Pete and Stephen on the boat ride to Isla de los Muertos

Isla de los Muertos means Island of the Dead. The dead of this island were a group of 59 workers from the Chilean island of Chiloe who were recruited in 1905 to harvest the ubiquitous native cypress that is tall and hard and very rot-resistant. When their six-month contract was up, no ship came to take them home. One by one they died, save only one or two survivors. They are now buried with rough-hewn wooden crosses on the island. As with any good death mystery, the locals have their own version of the story— the men didn’t just die of hunger and scurvy, as their industrialist bosses claimed, rather, they were murdered by greedy capitalists who didn’t want to pay their wages in exchange for the valuable timber. Even an exhumation of a grave in the 1990s didn’t settle the score— all that was found were some molars and a piece of cloth with buttons.

Graves of the dead workers

Even today, Caleta feels a bit like the tip of civilization. It is one of the southernmost inhabited places on earth. Today this place that is extravagant in its natural Beaty welcomes tourists, but I can only imagine how it must have felt to the indigenous Kawesqar people who explored these waters in canoes, the Europeans who showed up in ships, and the fishermen who started building wooden boardwalks on the soft earth.

Which way?

7 Replies to “Chile Part 2: Caleta Tortel, the end of the road.”

  1. Thank you, Sharon, for your beautiful descriptions of your adventures! I can sense how you melt into the rhythms and energy of these places. I do hope you find a wider outlet for your travel writing. So much more fun than being a lawyer, right?



  2. Sometimes I like travel writing because it gives me ideas for places to go. Others, like yours, fill me the thrills and spills that I will never experience, and it makes me happy to know they exist, and that there is a kickass woman out there doing these things. Thanks for sharing.


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