September 18th is the National Day, commemorating Chile’s independence from Spain, the most important fiesta in the calendar. We came to Tortel hoping to join in the festivities and learn to dance the cueca. Unfortunately Tortel is in mourning. A mother and her young daughter disappeared a few weeks ago while collecting firewood and it is thought they fell into the sea and drowned. All parties have been cancelled out of respect for the family.
As customary, we visited the Navy Harbour Master office to show our ‘zarpe’ (navigation permit). We met the only navy representative in Tortel, who, as usual, was friendly and helpful. I still haven’t got used to Chilean men. When I ask a question, they always answer looking at Franco as if he had spoken, he has to listen politely to the response even though half the time he isn’t interested in the topic. Strangely enough, when Franco isn’t around, I have their full attention!
Our friend showed us around ‘town’ and helped us book an evening meal.
Tortel (Rincón Bajo - Low Quarter), note the boardwalk along the shore
A research annex of the University of Concepcíon
Although six times bigger than Edén, Tortel is a sleepy little place. The houses are spread out around the bay, nestling wherever possible, between the cliffs and large boulders. Most are made of timber, some are large modern chalets, while others are charming tiny hovels. Miles of timber boardwalk, often hanging out over the water, connect up the different quarters. At intervals wooden steps climb up the steep hillside to a higher walkway, where you would run to in case of a tsunami.
Wood is the ‘raison d’être’ of Tortel, the site was chosen over a century ago by a lumber mill. Cypress* was harvested from the islands and processed back in Tortel. The work must have been gruelling as the islands are steep and rocky and most of the trees are Nothofagus with just a scattering of cypress. The mill has gone but the people stayed and, surprisingly, continue to earn their living from wood (though tourism is increasing). The trees are felled on the islands and collected by small boat. They are converted into fence posts using chainsaws, then shipped to Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas. Not surprisingly the church is dedicated to ’Nuestra Señora del Trabajo’ (Our Lady of Work).
With so much timber around, fire is a serious hazard and despite their proximity to the fire station, two separate houses have burnt to the ground fairly recently.
The fire engine
We haven’t yet found out how the village got its name, a ‘tortel’ is a type of cake made with puff pastry and shaped in a ring. It certainly isn’t for the frequency of patisseries, though the river running through is the Rio Baker.
A memorial to the logging industry
We were looking forward to be going out for dinner, for us this is an opportunity to try new dishes or taste good food, and to socialise. A meal (boiled mutton) was cooked for us. It wasn’t quite the experience we had hoped for.
Back at the dinghy, a little surprise awaited us, the tide had gone out leaving a large strip of mud. We had wrongly presumed that the jetties were built to ensure access to the water. Luckily, on the far side of the bay, someone had installed a floating pontoon and the boardwalk was just wide enough for Ding to pass. We launched without muddying our dinner jackets.
Tortel Bay, Caramor is at the far right of the photo
Dancing was off the cards but we could go walking, a real treat. The steps at the head of the bay took us up to a road and car park. It felt as if we had walked right out of the Canales into ‘normality’. We couldn’t face traipsing down the dusty track so cut up towards the ridge above the village … only to find another boardwalk, which went all the way to the summit of Cerro Bandera.
Kath and Franco at the summit, note t-shirts and sun hats!
Looking inland, the Tortel airstrip by the Rio Baker, one of the largest rivers in Chile
Interest increased on the other side as the boardwalk was replaced by a rough path descending along rocky ridges and through muddy wallows. There were no longer any other footprints. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, we came to a mini boardwalk and followed it.
Franco on the jungle path
Suddenly the slippery walkway came to an end on the banks of the emerald green river Baker. We followed the flow towards the sea without any idea where we would end up, or whether we would have to swim to get back to the village.
A branch of the Rio Baker
We plodded along cattle paths, ducking under branches for some time, and arrived at the picnic / free campsite spot by the beach. A ‘state of the art’ boardwalk awaited us and we walked home unscathed.
Ancho Beach from Plaza Morel, a pretty boardwalk ‘square’
* It is a member of the Cupressaceae family but I have yet to identify it.