Lighten your load leaving everything that’s not necessary above with your vehicle, don your comfortable shoes and stretch your legs before setting out to explore the more than 15 km of walkways and stairs that await you in Caleta Tortel.
Can you imagine a place where almost everything you see is made of wood? Houses, shingles, walkways, boats, piers, signs, and even the public squares and playgrounds; all made of wood, in this unique and fascinating little town, suspended in the air in a dreamy landscape of 1,000 hues of green and the milky turquoise of the Tortel Bay. Unique architecture, geographical isolation and cypress of the Guaitecas have forged the identity of this small village located between the Northern and Southern Patagonia Ice Fields.
Caleta Tortel was founded in 1955 when settlers arrived looking for new opportunities for livestock ranching and fishing, but instead they found a much more profitable endeavor: the extraction of cypress of the Guaitecas, an extremely water-repellent, long-lasting wood with an exquisite smell, beautiful vein and great durability. In those times, it was sold for fence posts and telegraph poles being implemented in the region of Magallanes. Little by little, people began to settle in this area, forming a small town; which, even today, bases its economy around this tree; perhaps the only coastal port in Patagonia that does not specialize in fishing or the fruits of the sea.
Caleta Tortel is enveloped in a heavy wrapping of flora; generously sprinkled with forested areas, comprised of ciprés of the Guaitecas, coigüe, notro, and a mix of short leafed and needle leaf mañío. Add in a LOT of small, and not so small, ferns, mosses, lichens, and forest undergrowth, and you have all the ingredients needed to generate the lush natural environment you will encounter along the boardwalks and trails of Tortel, filling your sight with every hue of green imaginable.
Caleta Tortel’s location between the Northern and Southern Patagonia Ice Fields makes it a great home base from which to explore this corner of Patagonia. Activities and places of interest include:
- Bernardo O’Higgins National Park: This is Chile’s largest National Park, beginning in the Aysén Region and extending south into Magallanes. It is of great scientific interest because of its diverse wildlife, glaciers and indigenous settlements. One of the last Kawéskar communities lives along the border of these protected lands. The park is home to the Jorge Montt Glacier, which descends from the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields, the largest ice mass in the southern hemisphere, excluding Antarctica.
- Baker River: The most powerful river in Chile, and one of the most beautiful in the world, with landscapes rich in flora and fauna, and with a wide range of recreational opportunities, including kayaking, fly-fishing, wildlife observation, and rafting.
- Steffen Glacier: Located in San Rafael Lagoon National Park, on the western edge of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field.
- Katalalixar National Reserve: This National Reserve is one of the most pristine wilderness areas left in the world, filled with scrub forests, composed of the Chiloe coigüe, mañíos, and tepú. Within the Reserve, you will find a CONAF (National Forest Corporation) shelter for camping.
- Pascua River: Originating on the eastern side of O’Higgins Lake, this river eventually empties into the Calen Fjord, where you can access Quetru Lake and the Jorge Montt Glacier. The sector is surrounded by lush vegetation, providing the perfect surroundings for backcountry water and land excursions. You can access this sector by boat from Caleta Tortel, enjoying a trip, which last approximately 5 hours.
- Isla de los Muertos (Island of the Dead): On this island you’ll encounter graves that are a silent testimony of the difficulties faced by early workers and pioneers in Aysén. Two hundred employees of the Explotadora del Baker Company were abandoned for months in the winter of 1906, and a total of 67 people died due to food shortages and an outbreak of scurvy. Several local captains offer 2 - 3 hour visits to the island.
A great way to discover Caleta Tortel is to “Orienteer” your way along the boardwalks.
This fun game provides you with an interesting morning or afternoon of sightseeing in Caleta Tortel. The activity is similar to the sport of “Orienteering” or “Geo-caching”, which runs along a path with the aid of a GPS to find locations of specific interest. The only thing you need is a GPS or compass, three hours of daylight and a curiosity to discover the secrets of Caleta Tortel. There are 18 places to find, including buildings, natural areas, cultural spots, and other curiosities. You set your rules; choose to visit just some of the recommended spots, or cover the whole circuit. The challenge is to learn more about each particular place you will visit. The answers will be evident in some spots. In others, you will have to be more observant. We encourage you to look around, to read, to talk with locals, to ask questions, etc., in order to get your answer.
A fun way to finish the game is to hike the Las Bandera Trail, which takes you way up to the top of the mountain behind town, providing a new perspective on the sector, with great aerial views. If you decide to take this hike, you should plan things, so that you have at least 3 hours of daylight, some water, and snacks. Bring a small backpack for extra layers of clothing and dress for Patagonia weather.
Here are some fun twists you can incorporate to make your own version of the Orienteering game:
- Take pictures of each place and post them on the Undiscovered Patagonia website.
- Buy a sample of local wooden handicrafts somewhere along the way.
- Count the number of stairs you walk.
- Feel the sea with your hands.
- Spot the highest walkway in town.
- Count or try to identify the different birds you see along the way.
- Challenge #1: Why is Father Antonio Ronchi such a popular character in Caleta Tortel? What did Father Ronchi call himself? Hint: Look for the monument carved in wood at these coordinates: LAT: S 47°48’03’’& LON: W073°32’11’’.
- Challenge #2: What is the most important tree for the people living in Caleta Tortel? Hint: Look for the dock and sign, with Caleta Tortel’s historical description, at these coordinates: LAT: S 47°48’14’’ & LON: W073°32’13’’.
- Challenge #3: What was the main transportation for the Kawéskar and, how many tiles are there on the roof of the “Plaza”? Hint: Look for the Kawéskar sculpture and Plaza Kawéskar at these coordinates: LAT: S 47°48’14’’ & LON: W073°32’18’’.
- Challenge #4: What does ECA stand for? Hint: Look for the ECA grocery store at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’13’’ & LON: W073°32’17’’.
- Challenge #5: Who built this beached barge? Hint: Look for the name on the remains of a typical barge, in the sand at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’13’’ & LON: W073°32’19’’.
- Challenge #6: Can you identify at least 5 different plants or trees? Hint: Look for the boardwalk sector with abundant vegetation and flora, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’13’’ & LON: W073°32’19’’. (and bring a book on flora!)
- Challenge #7: How many steps lead to the antennae area? Hint: Look for the boardwalk junction and the long stairway leading straight up, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’14’’ & LON: W073°32’21’’.
- Challenge #8: What is the purpose of so many antennae, and, can you spot the Isla de los Muertos and Río Baker’s mouth? Hint: Look for the overlook and mossy area, near the antennae, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’11’’ & LON: W073°32’27’’.
- Challenge #9: Can you spot a tiny carnivorous plant, named the Violetilla of the Marshes, (Drosera Uniflora)? Hint: Look close to the ground for red plants with tiny teeth, near the boardwalk sector, with abundant vegetation, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’14’’ & LON: W073°32’20’’.
- Challenge #10: What does CIEP stand for and why are they in Caleta Tortel? Hint: Look for the CIEP Laboratory, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’13’’ & LON: W073°32’19’’. Stop in and ask about their research!
- Challenge #11: Who were some of the original families in Caleta Tortel, to make a living out of cypress? Hint: Look for the Square commemorating important families, for the cypress industry, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’18’’ & LON: W073°32’26’’.
- Challenge #12: In this house, clothes and blankets are made from local materials. Can you identify the materials? Also, there is another thing being made nearby, that uses local materials. Can you identify this item? Hint: Look for the wooden house, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’18’’ & LON: W073°32’25’’.
- Challenge #13: A canoga is a hollowed out tree trunk cut lengthwise. In the early days of Patagonia, roofs were built by overlapping conogas. Can you find an example of Canogas in Caleta Tortel? Hint: Look for the old house, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’16’’ & LON: W073°32’48’’.
- Challenge #14: Can you identify what makes the ground in this area, so moist? Hint: Look for the end of the Junquillo Sector walkway, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°48’11’’ & LON: W073°32’52’’.
- Challenge #15: A ciprés of the Guaitecas (cypress) tree can reach a maximal height of more than 20 meters; and, in some exceptional cases, even as tall as 40 meters, with a diameter of approximately one meter. The Guaitecas Cypress is currently a protected species, and as a result, it is illegal to cut down healthy cypresses. How many cypress trees can you observe, in the sector of the coordinates: LAT: S47°48’06’’ & LON: W073°32’51’’?
- Challenge #16: Can you estimate the height of Cerro La Bandera? Hint: Walk to the summit, located at these coordinates: LAT: S47°47’38’’& LON: W73°32’13”, and take an altitude reading, on your GPS.
- Challenge #17: How many houses are there in Caleta Tortel? Hint: You can count the houses in Caleta Tortel from the Cerro la Bandera overlook, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°47’42’’ & LON: W073°32’14’’.
- Challenge #18: Can you identify some of the community services and agencies, present in Caleta Tortel? Hint: Look around you, at the buildings and signs, at these coordinates: LAT: S47°47’45’’ & LON: S47°47’45’’.
So, how do they maintain all of those kilometers of wooden walkways and stairs?
Well, it’s a year-round, full time effort to be sure. As with anything else, the Municipality forms contracts with companies; however, many local residents work for these firms, in the construction and care of the boardwalks. And, from time to time, they have volunteer help, from places you might never imagine! For example, in 2000 and 2001, both Prince William and Kate Middleton, spent time in Caleta Tortel, as part of their gap-year experiences, working alongside Tortelinos, to repair and expand this unique heritage. If you’re interested in pitching in during your trip, stop by the Municipality in the center of town and ask for a paintbrush. JUST KIDDING.