Tortel: The Wooden Town in Chile, and Volunteer Cleanup After a Fire
Tortel is a small Chilean port town built mostly on raised wooden platforms. Constructed at the base of a mountain above the water below, the pathways are made of wooden planks, sidewalks are boardwalks, and public spaces are either gazebos or wooden patio plazas. It had been recommended as “a town on stilts,” and a good place to stop on the way north from O’Higgins.
Most of Tortel can be easily explored by foot, the wooden steps and walkways provide quick passage between the small neighborhoods. There are no cars, nor roads, with the exception of the eastern entry point cul-de-sac where people park their vehicles before entering town. At the water, a small number of wooden docks extend into the bay from the boardwalk. One of the centrally-located docks contains a small boat filled with fire hoses and water pumps, a necessary precaution given all the wood.
The narrow and limited pathways connecting the town make chance encounters common. Valentina, a German woman I had previously met in O’Higgins, sees me while on her way to the hiking path on the other side of the mountain and extends an invitation. The hiking path starts out easy, but soon becomes steep and muddy. At the top of the mountain the entire surrounding landscape is visible, it’s surprisingly picturesque given the lack of views from town. The mountains appear perfectly placed in the water like stones in a garden.
Valentina is discussing Angela Merkel’s approach to refugee immigration, but she stops mid-sentence. She’s looking south over the mountain, a dark plume of smoke is climbing towards the sky from town. We can’t see the fire itself, although it’s no danger to us given the lack of trees nearby. The smoke continues as we speculate about what might have happened. We know that area of town has no cars, so the fire is likely from a building or a boat. There’s not much we can do from here, and we need to get off the hiking path before it gets dark outside. We continue forward towards the other side of town, in the opposite direction of the fire.
Arriving back to the wooden platforms after dusk, the town is almost completely dark. All water and electricity in Tortel has been turned off due to the fire. The firefighters are still at the burnt structure, which they extinguished earlier. We learn that a small house and hostel caught fire, the building was completely destroyed. Thankfully nobody was hurt, the blaze was stopped at the front stairs. The wooden walkway in front has surprisingly suffered no damage. Pedestrians carefully walk past using their phones as flashlights, as there are no alternative routes.
In the morning my local host family and I briefly discuss yesterday’s events, as they mention the lack of utilities. People are saying that some clothing had caught fire as it was hang-drying near a heat source. I leave with my full backpack to find breakfast, there wasn’t much food available yesterday evening, as most stores in town closed after the electricity went out.
It’s a surprisingly quiet morning in Tortel. Anchored in the middle of the bay is a large cruise ship that was not there yesterday. A small motorboat shuttles the passengers to the central gazebo for a privately catered breakfast. The servers are two young locals dressed in traditional Patagonian attire, which they are wearing specifically for the occasion.
Walking past the small burnt building in the daylight, there are a few people sorting through the wreckage. One of them gives me a familiar smile and wave. It’s a French woman who works at the café on the other side of town, we briefly met yesterday. As she leaves to go to work, she tells me that her coworker’s sister lived in the house that burned down. I ask if they could use my help cleaning up.
The bus to Cochrane is scheduled to leave in six hours. That’s enough time to be helpful, but I need to eat first, otherwise I’ll be useless. At a nearby diner I meet Maritza, who is resetting her kitchen appliances after the power outage. She says she can make me a quick breakfast and agrees to hold onto my backpack for the day. As I’m eating, she tells me she was working yesterday when they were alerted to the fire in the neighborhood. When I ask if fires are common here, Maritza reluctantly nods her head.
Arriving at the cleanup site, I carefully ask the two young men if my help is needed, aware that this may have been their home. They explain that they are making two piles, one of burnt wood (the structure and siding) and one of scrap metal (the corrugated tin roof, mattress springs, and other metal). As we’re tossing blackened beams onto the wood pile, one of them asks where I’m from. I respond that I’m from the United States, and I ask if they’re from Tortel, but I quickly realize they are not. “No, Mexicanos” Enrique replies. He and Ángel are traveling by bike to southern Chile, they’re travelers helping out like I am.
As we pull pieces from the wreckage, there is almost nothing to be salvaged. Much of the fragile burnt structure pulls apart by hand. The only tools we have are two axes, an eighteen-inch crowbar, and a machete. The burnt wood leaves black marks on my gray shirt, but Ángel somehow manages to keep his green Mexican soccer jersey clean. A middle-aged man from town arrives and asks us to take a break so the police can photograph the wreckage. After they take some photos, he joins us in the cleanup.
The four of get back to work. We pry off the corrugated tin roof from the fallen wood support structure. Ángel and I pull out a heavy metal stove from the wreckage, and we empty a large burnt freezer of thawed fish and produce before adding the remains of both appliances to the scrap metal pile. Before long we’ve cleared most of the fallen wreckage, leaving only the charred front of the building standing upright. Ángel gives it a push to see if it will fall on its own, but it’s being held up by what remains of the side wall. We take an ax to the four pieces of burnt wood holding the corner together, each one easily breaks with one hit. When I chop through the forth piece, the entire front wall collapses backwards onto the burnt platform that was once the ground floor.
In the afternoon, the local gentleman tells us the neighbors have prepared us a late lunch. Once we reach a good stopping point, the four of us head into the neighboring house. Three women kindly serve each of us soup and a plate of rice covered with seasoned Chilean beef. They jokingly mention that it won’t be spicy enough for the two Mexican guys. As we eat, one of the women watches a TV news report of the Backstreet Boys reunion concert that they performed last night in Viña del Mar. It’s getting late and I have to leave for my bus. I say my goodbyes, and quickly stop by the diner to get my backpack from Maritza.
I enter the small bus at the cul-de-sac. The other bus passengers, including a Chilean couple I met on the ferry from O’Higgins, are talking about the fire. A backpacker from Santiago tells us he was inside the hostel when the fire started. He lost half the contents of his backpack as they spilled out when he ran from the building.