This post is part 7 of 18 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

The quirkiest stop on the Carretera Austral in the Patagonia region of southern Chile is the town of Caleta Tortel. Located on milky-green Tortel Bay near the mouth of the Baker River (the largest river by volume in Chile) and surrounded by glaciers, this windy, rainy, remote town has no roads and no cars and is connected entirely by raised boardwalks. Nearly isolated by the surrounding ocean, Caleta Tortel can seem like a frigid island, but it’s even odder than that.

Caleta Tortel Chile

Caleta Tortel hugs the slope that rises above milky glacier-fed bay.

Located near the southern end of the Carretera Austral, Caleta Tortel is shoved between the Southern and Northern Ice Fields. Inhabited by Indigenous cultures for generations, Caleta Tortel was officially “founded” in 1955.

Built on sloping terrain around a frigid bay dotted with small fishing boats, Caleta Tortel enjoyed a boom period as a hub for the extraction of local cypress.

Costanera boardwalk Caleta Tortel

Caleta Tortel enjoyed a brief book from the extraction of native cypress lumber which is what’s used to construct the raised boardwalks that wind through this roadless settlement.

Today, Caleta Tortel, which the Chilean government has designated as a “Typical and Picturesque Zone”, is home to just a few hundred people and while timber is still extracted (and used to construct the town’s iconic boardwalks), tourism is a big part of Caleta Tortel’s economy.

What to do in Caleta Tortel

Strolling along the five miles (8 kms) of raised wooden boardwalks through town and along the bay is a pleasant way to get your bearings, admire the scenery, and see how locals live in their roadless, vehicle-free environment.

walkways of caleta tortel

There are about five miles of raised boardwalks to explore in Caleta Tortel.

A few tour companies offer guided boat trips to nearby Isla de los Muertos (Island of the Dead) which is a National Historical Monument with a very dark and mysterious past.

We booked a tour to Isla de los Muertos with BordeRios Tortel Expeditions (20,000 CLP or about US$22 per person) and headed out for the 2.5 to 3-hour tour in a 10-passenger, clean, well-kept motorboat with an enclosed cabin and a gregarious Spanish speaking captain/guide.

Isla de los Muertos historic monument

A boat trip to nearby Isla de los Muertos is a popular half-day trip from Caleta Tortel.

After about a 30 minute navigation, we reached Isla de los Muertos and disembarked. Once all passengers had assembled on the raised wooden walkway constructed on the 95 acre (39 hectare) island, our captain joined us and began explaining the history of this picturesque place near the mouth of the Rio Baker in a network of fjords and channels.

isla de los muertos caleta tortel

More boardwalks on lush Isla de los Muertos.

As we walked slowly along the boardwalk, the captain (who only spoke Spanish, though some signs at stops along the 4,000 foot/1,200 meter raised boardwalk include English language translations) explained that in 1898 the island was explored by the geographer Hans Steffen. Between 1904 and 1908, the Baker Exploitation Society was established to find ways to extract the valuable cypress that thrives in the island’s distinct climate and environment. As many as 120 workers (mostly from Chiloe Islands) may have been sent to the island by the Baker Exploitation Society and tasked with felling and removing the valuable timber.

All went relatively well until a winter storm and a series of other hurdles made it impossible for a supply ship to arrive and those on the island began to run out of supplies and hope.

The macabre highlight of the tour was the small cemetery where 33 crosses (made from cypress wood, of course) mark 33 graves all dug in 1906. One additional grave, enclosed in a low picket fence, was, mysteriously, dug years later. Twenty five other workers are believed to have also died and been buried elsewhere on the island.

cemetery Isla de los Muertos

Isla de los Muertos (Island of the Dead) gets its macabre name from the dozens of workers who died mysteriously on the island.

How did all of those people die? Theories abound. One blames an outbreak of scurvy though, as our captain/guide pointed out, plentiful edible plants on the island contain vitamin C and would likely have been known to the workers. Another theory blames starvation, though most of the workers were from Chiloe Island and well-versed in how to get food from the sea. Another theory alleges mass poisoning from contaminated flour. And yet another theory blames foul play alleging that the workers were killed by their employer who didn’t want to rescue them or pay them.

Research continues and there’s already at least one book  The Workers’ Tragedy of Bajo Pisagua. Río Baker, 1906, by researcher Mauricio Osorio Pefaur) and one movie, And Suddenly the Dawn about the mysterious goings-on on Isla de los Muertos. And if you want an even deeper analysis of the role Isla de los Muertos played in the development of the Patagonian region of Chile, check out this deep dive by  Ben Wilcox on his Notes from Patagonia Substack.

Caleta Tortel aysen chile

Caleta Tortel in a brief moment of sun.

During the boat trip back to Caleta Tortel, thermoses of hot coffee appeared and we all warmed up in the boat cabin as we contemplated the fate of those we left behind in the cemetery.

Longer boat trips are also offered from Caleta Tortel to view the Jorge Montt Glacier, a fast-receding tidewater glacier, and the Steffen Glacier, the southernmost outlet glacier of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

caleta tortel mirador

A trail that winds up above Caleta Tortel delivers views of town below.

We also donned our raincoats and rain pants and headed out on a trail above town for views of the Rio Baker and the sprawl of Caleta Tortel below.

Rio Baker Caleta Tortel

The trail above Caleta Tortel also includes a view point down on Rio Baker, the largest river by volume in Chile.

The trail is sometime steep and often covered with slippery boards to keep hikers off the wet and delicate turbo (bog) terrain.

Where to eat in Caleta Tortel

No one goes to Caleta Tortel for the food. That said, we did find a few good places to eat in Caleta Tortel.

Comidas Caseras, near the top of the stairs that go up out of town and back to the parking lot, has a limited menu of well-prepared basics at decent prices (wild salmon with mashed potatoes for 13,000 CLP/US$14 for example). This place gets very crowded so be prepared to wait or even be turned away.

We also ate at El Mirador Restaurant and Cervezeria which is run by an elderly couple. They make their own beer (5,000 CLP/US$5.50 per pint) and offer the standard simple basic plates of chicken or pork with a small salad and a side (15,000 CLP/US$16 per plate). Don’t be in a hurry.

indigenous sculpture caleta tortel

Carved art depicting Indigenous life on a section of the boardwalk in Caleta Tortel.

There are a handful of other restaurants in town as well, a few of them on the waterfront. Most have somewhat erratic hours and less than ambitious menus.

Where to sleep in Caleta Tortel

The only boutique hotel in Caleta Tortel is Entre Hielos, a homey, welcoming, six room place that’s like a cross between a lodge and a tree house with exactly the ambiance that makes you want to curl up with a book as the infamous Tortel rain comes down.

Entre Hielos Lodge Caleta Tortel

The cozy living room at Entre Hielos Hotel in Caleta Tortel.

The common living room has a wood-burning stove, there’s a small bar and semi-open kitchen, fluffy wool slippers sit in a pile should you need a pair, and friendly English-speaking staff members are always around.

Entre Hielos Lodge Chile

One of the six rooms at Entre Hielos Hotel in Caleta Tortel.

Rooms, which are decorated with driftwood art, are small but comfortable with plush beds and private modern bathrooms but no TV and, when we were there, no WiFi. Breakfast (included in rates), featured homemade waffles and rolls, eggs to order, fresh juice, and local cheeses and jams.

Dinner, a set meal of three courses with a menu that changes daily, is also available with prior reservation (35,000 CLP or about US$40 per person without wine). Dishes like chopped steak tartare with diced pickle instead of capers (it worked), chicken cordon bleu with tender jerky-like guanaco ham, and pureed squash garnished with seared sliced peaches make this the most ambitious restaurant in Caleta Tortel.

There are also a few budget-friendly accommodation options in Caleta Tortel. For example, we walked past a hostal in Caleta Tortel called Entre Raices which looked comfortable and professional and may offer a solid economical option.

Caleta Tortel travel tips

If you’re arriving by car, be aware that all vehicles must be parked in the very small town parking lot at the entrance to town. Beyond the parking lot, it’s all boardwalks and stairs with no roads or vehicles at all. When we were there, it was not possible to reserve a space in this parking lot which is used by locals and visitors and can get full. The lot was quite full when we arrived, but we managed to find a space to park our truck.

staircase caleta tortel

Bring just a small bag when visiting Caleta Tortel unless you want to drag your luggage up and down staircases like this.

Caleta Tortel is built on a hillside and that hilly terrain is crisscrossed by a network of elevated wooden boardwalks and staircases that take the place of roads. With this in mind, it’s best to visit Caleta Tortel with as small a bag as possible. Some visitors bring their full luggage with them, but hauling even rolling luggage along the boardwalks and up and down the many staircases looked like a nightmare.

The tap water in Caleta Tortel is cloudy but locals swear its safe to drink.

Our Entel cell phone chip worked in Caleta Tortel, however, other carriers don’t.

No matter when you visit, be prepared for rain. We were in Caleta Tortel in January and we had rain punctuated by (very) brief periods of sun the entire time we were there.

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

 


Series Navigation:<< Photo Essay: The Famous Marble Caves of ChileLovely, Lonely Lakes – Jeinimeni Sector of Patagonia National Park, Chile >>

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