Friday, February 19th thru Sunday, February 21st
Caleta Tortel is a town that has no roads. Built on a steep hillside, the houses and shops that compose this coastal fishing village are connected by a web of wooden walkways and staircases. All of the town's buildings and public spaces are built on stilts.
|One of the public plazas at Caleta Tortel.
We debated whether to visit Caleta Tortel. A town built amongst boardwalks sounded interesting. But we were concerned that we'd be turned off by the tourists. Plus, the town required a 40 km roundtrip detour off the Carretera Austral on a road that has a reputation for being in eternally poor shape.
When we arrived at the turnoff for the village, we had just come off a most glorious descent that had plastered ginormous smiles on our faces. How could we say "no" to Caleta Tortel when we were in such stellar moods?
The first few kilometers along the road to Caleta Tortel were what I would describe as a not-to-worry-bumpy. But as we pedaled further along, the road worsened; the gravel became larger and the tread became softer. At one point, we passed a maintenance vehicle that was grading the road. While a newly graded road may be fantastic for automobiles, it's a nightmare for bicycles. What was an increasingly bad road became even worse--teetering on downright dangerous. I took a spill on the road. Fortunately, my panniers absorbed most of the fall, and my only injury was a scraped elbow. "Suck it up and keep pedaling," I told myself, "we're almost there."
We had heard from another cyclist that we could find free camping near the airport, on the outskirts of town. (Keep in mind that this is a rural part of Patagonia, and so "airport" simply means a rustic airstrip.) Prior to 2003, when an extension of the road was constructed from the Carretera Austral to Caleta Tortel, the town could only be accessed by plane or boat. In those days, the airport was likely fairly well used. But now, the airport looked as though it might see a plane only once every week or two.
A heavy rain started to fall as we turned into the airport. We spotted a few small cabana-like shelters in a grassy field alongside the airstrip. All but one of the cabanas was occupied by a rowdy group of Chilean backpackers. Less than excited about the camping options, we rolled our bikes under the last shelter to claim our stake.
The shelter was so small that it wouldn't cover our entire tent. Plus, there was a puddle that was already forming beneath the roof. The conditions were rather grim. In the distance I spotted a roof. Closer inspection revealed that the roof covered a set of bleachers. Under the roof was a bare, raised platform, perfectly-sized for our tent. Score!
|Sports fields provide excellent camping opportunities, all the world around.
We set up the tent and had our clothes hanging on a line to dry in time for lunch. We originally thought that we would explore the town in the afternoon, but the rain continued to fall...relentlessly. Huge puddles formed on the playing field, and the puddles became more pond-like as the hours passed. We saw no point in going out in the rain, and so we spent the remainder of the day reading and watching a various assortment of horses and cows as they meandered about the soccer field.
The rains continued to fall through the night, and halfway into the next day. By early afternoon, sun beams began to pierce the clouds. Though the rain didn't stop for good, the weather transformed into a series of alternating spells of flirtatious dryness followed by teasing mist. Not wanting to leave our belongings without a guard, Brian and I took turns exploring the town. Brian went first; I followed.
I was curious to see the town and curious to see these infamous boardwalks. I imagined having to make huge leaps over every third board, which was surely missing or in a state of disrepair. Surprisingly, the boardwalks were in immaculate shape. Apparently, wood is in abundance in nearby cypress forests. In addition to providing the boards for the walkways, these forests also provide one of the main sources of revenue for the town.
The map below shows a satellite view of the area. We camped just beyond the airstrip. The "5-Minute Boardwalk" indicates the flat boardwalk (shown in the photo below the map) that took five minutes to cross while walking at a rapid pace. The red lines indicate the far reaches of town. It took more than an hour to walk from the airstrip to the far end of town.
|A satellite view of the Caleta Tortel area.
|A long boardwalk connected the airport to another staircase at the north end of town. It took five minutes to walk across this boardwalk at a fast pace.
|The main part of town, from a distance.
|A bit of the town's infrastructure, up close.
|Even the playgrounds are built on wooden platforms.
|Tsunamis, of course, are a concern. Numerous signs indicating evacuation routes are posted throughout the town.
|Being a fishing town, there are boats everywhere.
|Many boats were submerged.
|Like other towns in Chile, Caleta Tortel has its share of street pets. I loved this tough little fuzzball, who I spotted roaming beneath the boardwalks.
|And there were boardwalk doggies, too.
|A wooden sculpture in one of the town's many plazas honors the Alacalufes, the original inhabitants of the area.
As I explored the town, two thoughts kept crossing my mind:
- How does one manage on crutches or in a wheelchair? The ADA would definitely not approve!
- As there is only one way to enter the town on foot (via the far northeast corner), there surely must be a lower incidence of obesity amongst those who live in the far reaches of town.
I truly enjoyed visiting Caleta Tortel. It was well worth the detour, as there is no other town quite like it.