In the late 1990s, when I first drove the southernmost segment of Carretera Austral in Chile through the thinly populated Aisén region, a steep-sided A-frame alongside the highway at Puerto Vagabundo – barely a wide spot in the road a couple hours beyond the town of Cochrane – grabbed my attention.
At that time, I had heard of Caleta Tortel – a coastal town founded in 1955 to exploit the abundant cypress forests here – but for nearly half a century there was no overland access. This shelter, equipped with a few benches and a wood stove, was the waiting room for a down-river launch that connected the rugged highway with the town twice a week.
A few years later, in 2003, the Chilean government opened a 23-kilometer spur off the main highway (which remains unpaved), and shortly thereafter I learned what I’d been missing. Separated from the open ocean by a series of intricate channels, this precipitously sited shoreline settlement has never had any roads or even streets in the traditional sense. Instead, it has staircases that descend sharply into town, where broader boardwalks along the contours link different sectors. The houses occupy steep lots, and even the plazas have roofs in this drizzly climate.
That said, when the weather clears – it can change quickly – the scenery is spectacular, with snow-topped summits visible from the shore. Tortel has an abundance of comfortable but moderately priced accommodations – a couple of them in the not quite luxurious category – and respectable if not quite gourmet dining options. There is also sea-based access for excursions including hikes (the town is nearly surrounded by national parkland).
Caleta Tortel remains a car-free place, if you overlook the municipal parking lot and bus stop where the road proper ends. It’s well worth a couple days’ stay for road-trippers (or even cyclists) along the Carretera Austral. The only drawback is that, almost everywhere, it involves packing your bags up and down the staircases from the parking area at least once. And, of course, it’s not exactly wheelchair-friendly for those with limited mobility.
Interestingly, at the Lodge Bordebaker, a new boutique hotel along the highway near Puerto Bertrand, about 180 km to the north, architect Ignacio Saavedra has consciously mimicked Tortel’s style.