Tortel is brilliant. Population around 500, anywhere else but the deep south of Patagonia it would have been ‘heritaged’ and touristed out of existence, turned into a caricature of itself like Dubrovnik or Venice (I know that will cause outrage amongst the Ennis’s, but seriously, when tourists outnumber locals and you have to go searching for ‘real life’ that’s not somewhere I want to be).
Tortel is a remote (but then again what isn’t around here) village on a fjord that (eventually) connects with the sea. It’s a fair detour off the Carretera Austral, but it was the closest village after the ferry coming from Villa o’ Higgins, and I’d heard from another traveler it was beautiful.
First I have to mention the drive up to Tortel. In a place of jaw dropping scenery, this was some of the most spectacular. If you ignored the snow on the mountains, you could imagine you were in Thailand – steep craggy limestone (?) cliffs falling directly down to azure water of lakes and rivers, with lush, richly green vegetation. It was raining and not great visibility and I was tired and frankly Lauren was losing patience with my photo taking, but still…. beautiful.
Once you get there, the entire place is built of wood, around a series of shallow coves, clutching onto the steep sides of the mountains. There are no cars, as there are no roads – everything is connected by (steep!) wooden walkways. We were told we could park up for the night at the town parking on top of the cliffs and set off to try to find a late lunch.
The small houses are built out of wood, on stilts, and burn wood fires. We saw one bakery, and one grocery store. The main ‘street’ is a wooden walkway hanging over the edge of the lake, on stilts, with incredibly steep side-walkways disappearing up the mountainside to residences and small shops. There are a number of ‘squares’ (wooden platforms over the lake, often with monuments and sculptures, and once with outdoor gym equipment). The main square has a naval building (wooden, two-story, locked with a sign in the window with the phone number of the guard on duty), a local council building, a library (every village seems to have a well-equipped library) and a school. Along the shore there were plenty of boats, some functional, some clearly long since left to rot. There was even a wooden cabin which was the ‘Department of Glaciers’ for a Chilean university, a few kayaks parked up outside.
We didn’t have much luck at first finding somewhere to eat, we did pass a few comedores but they were all closed, and we were almost resigned to trekking back up the hill for pasta (again) in the van. We agreed to one last push up to a restaurant signposted from the main walkway. It was a steep climb, in the rain and I was seriously beginning to wonder how the residents of Tortel ever go anywhere, when we saw smoke coming from the restaurant – surely a good sign? We tried the door but it was locked, although we could see a couple eating in the gloom….. maybe they were the owners having an Easter Sunday lunch ….
Despondent, cold, and wet, we started back down the hill to walk the significant distance back to the parking area, by this time 3 coves away.
Suddenly we heard a voice from above – a guy of about my age with a shaggy beard and big woolly jumper was urging us back up the steps, telling us he was open.
We didn’t need telling twice.
Once seated it became clear there wasn’t a menu as such – he told us we could have conger eel soup or steak. We went for the steak, naturally. The place was like someone’s living room, with jazz playing on the stereo, easy chairs and tables, rather random artwork around… comfy, warm and welcoming.
I didn’t have high hopes for the food, but the steak was delicious, perfectly cooked as we asked (I order medium rare then I eat the outside bits and give Lauren the middle, bloody bits that she loves), beautifully seasoned, and – joy of joys – actually came with vegetables. A whole avocado between us (I got it all, Lauren says its yucky), sweetcorn, tomato, shredded carrot, beetroot and roast potatoes. What a feast. We have definitely been starved of veggies. I even got a berry smoothie.
The owner (he of the shaggy beard, even shaggier jumper and it turned out even shaggier dog) came over to chat – telling us he was from further north but fell in love with Tortel and moved here on a whim, barely breaking even but ‘enjoying the beauty’. He told us to connect to the wifi and stay all afternoon, to stay warm and enjoy the peace. So we did, downloading a few audiobooks and enjoying being warm.
Around 5 the weather cleared, we bid farewell to our new friend and went for a walk down to the edge of the village and the beach, before heading back to the van for an early night.
We both have very warm memories of Tortel – such an unusual place but totally its own place – not tarted up for tourists (we saw no other foreigners there at all, and no Chilean tourists that we could identify), just getting on with life in its own, sleepy, way.
And of course, Tortel fed us well. That always helps.