Welcome on board my trip to the very heart of Patagonia, i.e. the southern tip of South America.
Under Down Under
Patagonia's complex geography turns flying into the best (oftentimes the only) way to travel around the area. It's a scarcely populated corner of the world, where the weather is cold and rough most of the year.
I have already visited Chiloé island, in the north end of Patagonia. (Reports here and here) This time my destination is the town of Coyhaique, which is served by Balmaceda (BBA) airport. LATAM and Sky Airline have several daily flights from Santiago to BBA with a stop in Puerto Montt (PMC). PMC is where I'm boarding my flight after a three-hour bus ride from my hometown.
Fun fact: Seen from BBA, Australia is to the north!! The red line shows Coyhaique's latitude. It's literally "under Down Under".
Fun fact 2: The distance from the tip of BBA's runway to the border with Argentina is shorter than the runway itself!
Cambia, todo cambia
Late Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa was right when she sang "Cambia, todo cambia"(Changes, everything changes) * You won't believe how much things changed in the six months before this flight! For one thing, I bought my ticket from LAN… and ended up flying LATAM!
The airline's seat reservation policy also changed. I tried to choose my seat online as soon as I purchased my ticket last April only to be reminded that I had to wait until two days prior to departure. Just for fun, I tried again three months later (still a couple of months before the flight)… and it worked!
LATAM's baggage allowance for domestic flights changed, too… slightly. Starting August 29, they still allow 23kg of checked baggage altogether, but in one piece only, not two.
And I changed, too!! Now I'm much of a Sky Airline's fan after my last four trips with them. But, who knows. LATAM might still be able to lure me with some fantastic extra legroom… or an oversized muffin… ^^
As for the ticket price (about 70 USD) I think it's OK for a one-hour round trip considering LATAM is not an LCC, and that the boarding fee is included. Besides, I am not being charged for my hand luggage or the onboard snack, either.
Check-in that makes you a better person
Definitely, LATAM's checking-in process was not designed with speed in mind.
Checking the box next to your name is only the first step to a series of stages numbered from 1 to 5, each one on a different page that will take ages to load.
So If you value patience as a godly virtue, LATAM's online check-in will take you one step closer to heaven both literally and spiritually. Besides, if you were patient enough to go through the whole process, waiting for your turn to deplane when sitting in the very last row will pose no challenge at all.
A joke of a trip
I start my journey with a three-hour trip to Puerto Montt. It's an enjoyable ride watching green fields…
…and the omnipresent Osorno volcano.
As soon as I make it to Puerto Montt bus station I head for stand 38. Oops. The announcement on the window reads Back in 10 minutes. In the meantime I read the job ads on the window: Drivers and bus assistants needed. Hm… I can't drive, I can't carry heavy bags… I think I'll have to stick to my current job. Andén is the word for bus or train station platform. I must board the transfer in one of the platforms numbered 10 to 14.
According to this schedule, bus and flight times are synchronized. However, am not asked what flight I am taking, so I choose an earlier bus in order to have more time for my flight-reporting duties. ^^
Still some minutes for the transfer to leave. There's a sort of (poorly maintained) promenade at the back of the bus station. It's great that you can wait for your bus while sitting right there by the sea.
Aahh… the breeze, the sounds of the sea…
Five minutes later I am sitting in the bus. I have no doubts that transfer buses are a serious business. However, something funny suddenly happens… literally!!
All passengers are rather quiet at first. A clown in a transfer bus is something unusual. But soon we are laughing our asses off at jokes about mothers-in-law. The guy is good!
At the end he asks for a voluntary tip, of course, but he also offers a large chocolate to those who are generous enough to give him a luca (1000 CLP)
And that's how I got my huge chocolate! Well, you don't get a bar of real chocolate for little more than a US dollar, of course. It's just chocolate-flavored candy… of the worst quality.
We make it to the airport at around 1:30. The head of the runway is only meters away from the road.
It feels very quiet at the airport after all the laughter. Hey, ma'am! Can I tell you a joke about a mother-in-law?? Hm… I'd rather not.
I'm pretty sure that Klaus (my dog) would strongly protest at the sight of this sign.
I usually travel very light, but I've been told that Coyhaique is rather cold in October so I'm taking some warm clothes and will have to check a bag this time.
I don't understand why the simple fact of approaching the counter triggers the printing of a boarding pass. I checked in two days earlier and already have my pass on my cellphone. The system should notify this to the staff. I can't even keep this flimsy piece of thermal paper as a souvenir of my trip! It's a waste of paper.
There's this lonely gift shop in the corner, opposite the counters. There's a similar one airside.
Let's have a look at the landside restrooms. They're OK.
It's time for a tour around the premises. I saw this weird-looking contraption outside the terminal as I arrived in the transfer. Art attack?
A little further there's a wire fence. From there I can see this visitor, who seems to be coming from Utah.
Oh! Who's leaving? LA66 to Santiago, I think.
I am very impressed at the architecture of Chilean regional airports. It looks like a lot has been invested to update and renew them recently. Most of them share the same interior design, with the same beige hues, large spaces, lots of glass, and lots of natural light flowing in. The premise seems to be "let's make them simple, practical, and beautiful."
The parking lot opposite the terminal.
This transfer stand was not here the last time, but no one is in it at the moment. The reason why the transfer office in some Chilean airports (like this one) is airside, inside baggage claim, is still beyond me. I had a problem the last time I was here at PMC because I had to find someone to open the baggage claim door from inside for me so I could go back and get my transfer ticket!
Back inside the terminal, some more views of the first (ground) floor before going airside: The check-in counters for LATAM and its rival, the LCC Sky Airline.
The main hall seen from the counters area.
There was a time when the sequence was "LAN, LAN, LAN, SKY". Now it's "LATAM, SKY, LATAM, SKY". It might soon become "SKY, SKY, SKY, LATAM" unless LATAM makes some serious improvements.
The airport's ground floor. Darker blue means airside.
The transfer office, inside baggage claim! Unreachable from landside.
Time to climb the stairs.
So this is what they look like inside!
From the top of the stairs, the view to the right (check-in counters)…
…and to the left (elevator and arrivals)
On the second floor, still landside, a small waiting area…
…toilets and a cafeteria.
I think it's time to go airside. I head for security check. Talk about having fun at one's job! I want to drive one of those!
Not a long queue. I am through in two minutes. Immediately after security check is this shop.
The atmosphere is very relaxed today.
Some passengers have just arrived and are heading to baggage claim at the bottom of the stairs on the right.
My door is number 4 over there on the left. On the way I see the Pacific Club lounge on the right.
According to the FIDS everything is OK.
And flightradar24 confirms this. My plane today will be CC-BEG and it's already descending into PMC.
I have 13 minutes to look around. Outside, Osorno volcano quietly sits in the distance, ready to spoil some flights, as it has done before.
Not much to see for a plane spotter. I only see this tiny military aircraft landing.
Am I right when I say it's a Twin Otter?
Finally, beside door 4 is this stand selling smoked salmon, butter, cheese, and other local produce.
Chanco cheese. My favorite! It's a Chilean type of cheese with a rather strong smell. As my mother puts it, it smells like pat'e milico (a military man's foot) Ew!
And then… there he comes!!! (Sorry, but I can't get used to calling planes "she")
Gorgeous CC-BEG. He's barely one year old!
And he boasts good ol' LAN's livery! Thank you, God. Thank you! Tears of joy are rolling down my cheeks. LOL. I just didn't want to fly in an ambulance.
I >BEG< he's more comfortable than his LATAM brethren I have met so far. ^^
He pulls up to the gate…
…and what looks like an army of Oompa-Loompas jumps into action…
…as the jetbridge is pulled in by this skillful lady.
The passengers to BBA start to gather by door 4 while those coming from Santiago are deplaining. Many of them are French speakers! Is October a holiday season in France, perhaps?
We line up orderly according to our rows and categories. Preferential boarding goes first. As we wait, a couple of jet fighters dart into the sky in front of our eyes with a loud roar. I guess it's some kind of exercise. We had heard them zooming past above our heads several times in the last hour. Unfortunately I'm not prepared and I can't take a photograph of them. I'm amazed at their speed at takeoff.
Off to Patagonia
We make our way along the bridge. I'm excited. Will this time be better than my last experiences flying LATAM, with those old, thick, baggy, dark-blue seats, that minimal legroom, and claustrophobic cabins?
Typical modern, rude youth, unable to realize that they can hit someone in the face with their backpacks when on the public transport. That didn't happen when I was young! We had to take them off or the bus driver would give us a reprimand.
Is it OK to leave the keys in the switch? What if a child tampers with them?
The crew are extremely friendly. There's a male FA. All of them are wearing a pink ribbon on their lapels symbolizing their adherence to the International Breast Cancer Awarness Month.
Time for the truth, and…. wooooow!!!! I like what I see!! Not only the colors are more lively and welcoming, but the new seats are thinner and make the trip much more bearable, as you'll see further down. Besides, the air is fresh and breathable even though the plane was full only minutes ago.
My seat is in row 4.
The cabin has some nice touches of color, like this strip across the front panel. According to LATAM, those colors and textures are representative of Latin American cultures. Bullsh*t, but nice anyway.
I take my seat. This is the view from my window: LATAM's worst nightmare, within Chile at least, and lately to some destinations in Peru, Argentina and Uruguay.
The new seats allow for much more legroom. Great!
They are also fitted with charging ports. The IFE boxes might be an inconvenience for passengers in the aisle and middle seats. They're not too bulky, though, and they are not present under the window seats.
At this point something weird happens. The guy sitting next to me sort of complains in a passive aggresive way that I am sitting in what he says is his seat. I am taken aback at first but then react and smile. He doesn't know he is talking to a flight-reporter, HA!, and that I have been planning this trip since last April, so I'm COMPLETELY sure that the window seat is MY seat, and if he wats to take it he will have to do it OVER MY DEAD BODY!!! But then he quickly assumes a condescending attitude and says that he does't really care and that I can stay where I am. I see no reason to take this quarrel to the next level, so I stay quiet and get back to my flight-reporting business. I think I can see the reason for this guy's confusion in the next picture. If you look carefully right next to that person's nose and mouth, you'll see that LATAM displays the seat letters from aisle to window: C B A, and J K L. This guy probably assumed that if C, the aisle seat, was before A, L should be before J, and so it would be the aisle seat. Messy way to show seat numbers, LATAM. Then the guy sat in the middle seat all the time, even though the aisle seat was free. God.
Continuing with my inspection, the tray table is clean… sort of.
I have seen cleaner trays… and dirtier ones, too. Don't forget someone was sitting here minutes ago.
The seatback pocket is well designed and magazines in it don't get bent as in the old ones.
The safety card is a little mistreated.
This is LATAM's new magazine, replacing the old IN. The new name is Vamos, which is Spanish and Portuguese for Let's Go. Remember that LATAM resulted from the fusion of the Chilean LAN and the Brazillian TAM. On the cover, the (overrated) Paine Towers in the southern tip of Chile. IMHO, the place I'm visiting now, halfway between Puerto Montt and the Paine Towers, beats them in beauty.
The magazine is in Spanish and Portuguese, but some sections of pink pages are in English. Here are the instructions on how to use LATAM's entertainment system, that I'm not using this time because it's a short flight and there will be much to see out of the window.
The male FA stands in the front of the cabin while the safety video is played.
Curtains pulled closed.
The map is… in Portuñol !! Origem is Portuguese for origin, and Asunción would be Assunção in Portuguese.
The armrests also show some improvement as compared to the old ones, which only had the button to recline your seat.
A short taxi to the runway…
…and off we go.
Aha! That's a military base, and those on the left are the jets that have been zooming around this morning.
More military planes.
We quickly head south-east…
…above the forests…
…and suburbs around Puerto Montt…
…and over the Reloncaví Gulf…
…where the salmon industry is a crucial activity.
The fishing town of Calbuco gets in sight as the land breaks into islands….
…and we reach the open sea.
In the distance I can see the Chacao Strait, which separates the large Chiloé island from the continent.
Soon I catch sight of Castro, the town that I visited last April. It's right under the thickest part of that cloud.
More and more islands parade under our feet. Then a very special one calls my attention. What is that at the bottom of the photograph, next to Chulín island? Is it some kind of man-made building?
Zoom in. Wow! It seems to be a huge block of rock. Looks too big to be man-made. It's really weird-looking! I find it on the map later, but information about it on the Internet is scarce. I find out that it has a name, Nihuel Islet, that it's unhinhabited, and that it is a nesting place for sea birds. But I don't know if it's a reserved area, or of it can be visited. Two good pictures here and here.
As we leave the H-shaped Talcán island behind…
…the FAs begin the snack service. Yummy… I'm eager to get my muffin, as announced on LATAM's website.
Muffin? My ass.
My bad. A reading comprehension problem. LATAM clearly says the muffin is for international flights. >Sigh< Wouldn't it be better for LATAM to set up a BOB service instead? I mean, this meager piece of candy is better than nothing. After all, they could just decide to give no snack service at all. But I wonder if this kind of service is not doing more harm than good to LATAM's image. Just consider the service on this short domestic economy class flight on Garuda Indonesia.
I eat my humble candy in contemplative silence as I get my first glimpse ever of Corcovado volcano. It's a superb view…
…and it means we have reached the continent again.
From here onwards it's all natural reserves and national parks. Nature at its finest, almost untouched by human hand… only by global warming, which is drying off this area like many others around the world. An unspeakable tragedy that torments me. In the photo, lakes Jimena and Trébol.
Queulat National Park.
Inside Queulat National Park are three large green lakes. I searched for their names, to no avail. I went to the local office of the National Tourism Service in Coyhaique, and a kind lady searched on detailed maps and on the mother of all maps in the service's digital archives… unsuccessfully. Hm… I guess I could name them myself.
In this picture you can see two lakes in the foreground, and the tip of a third lake in the background, behind a mountain. That lake is fed by Queulat glacier, which is fed by all that snow that you see on the right. I'll go on an excursion to that lake during this trip. Don't miss the tourism bonus in the report on my flight back home.
The Andes are much lower in this area, and they do not only meet the Pacific ocean, but also sink in it. They no longer mark the border between Chile and Argentina.
We are now reaching the east side of the mountains.
Suddenly, I see a series of lush, green valleys.
The town of Villa Mañihuales is in one of them. I'll visit this town on my way to Queulat glacier.
Then a new valley stretches southward.
It widens more and more, and…
…Coyhaique comes in sight!!
The town lies at the foot of Mount MacKay.
We continue flying south-east, past Mount MacKay towards Balmaceda, which is right on the border with Argentina.
The landscape becomes dryer and dryer…
…as the forests give place to the flat Patagonian steppes.
The contrast is shocking! In a matter of ten or twenty kilometers, most trees are gone.
Now we are flying over Argentinean territory. We are going to land from south to north. The plane makes a steep U-turn and descends abruptly. It's so steep that I'm scared that something went wrong and we are falling! I take this picture thinking it might be my last one! BBA airport is there.
But the plane stabilizes and we are fine again. Phew! This meandering river is River Simpson, and marks the border between Chile and Argentina here. That farm house is in Argentina.
I don't know how I would feel if I moved to the end of the world to live in the middle of nowhere, looking for some peace and quiet, and then my neighbors came up with the idea of building an airport in my backyard.
We reach the runway. Hey! They are making some improvement here, it seems.
Yes. More than some improvements.
It looks like they are building the whole airport again!
The view on the side opposite the terminal.
A cemetery. See those little buildings that look like dog houses? The guide in one of the excursions I took during this trip said that, instead of gravestones, people here used to build little houses resembling those the dead had lived in.
Hm… needs some paint.
A future runway, it seems.
We approach the terminal amidst intense building work.
We come through a jetbridge into baggage claim.
The people at the transfer stands waive tickets at us. You just pick one from either of them and show it to the drivers, who are waiting at the airport exit. You pay to the driver at the end of the trip.
The ticket. And yes, I always keep the in-flight magazine. ^^
A shy welcome sign at floor level. Not very expressive these Patagonian people.
A last view of CC-BEG on the apron before I leave.
This terminal looks quite older than the other Chilean airports I have seen so far. No wonder they are upgrading it.
I show my transfer ticket to the drivers at the exit and one of them takes me to the van.
I'm sitting comfortably in it when I see these signs posted on the airport windows: Paro nacional. Yikes! That means National strike!! Will this leave me stranded in Coyhaique for longer than expected? I have to go back to work!
But as we drive across the tiny village of Balmaceda, the driver explains that this is only the way the staff are showing their support to other public workers on strike. They are not going on a strike themselves. Our socialist government has quickly run out of money to fulfill their promises.
Relieved, I watch as the flat, dry landscape…
…gives place to the green hilly ground as we drive north-west towards Coyhaique. The beginning of a trip that will be marked by a single word that I'll repeat once and again…
Tourism bonus - Marble Caves and Puerto Aysén
I stayed in Coyhaique for four days. On each day I visited a different wonderful place. Here are some photographs from days 1 and 2:
Marble Caves Two hundred kms south of Coyhaique is lake General Carrera. It's the second largest lake in South America, and is shared by Chile and Argentina, where it's called lake Buenos Aires.
Some sections of the shore are made of a kind of soft marble that has been eroded by the lake.
The stone is white…
…but when the sunrays hit the water…
On the way from Coyhaique to lake General Carrera you find Cerro Castillo, meaning Castle Hill. The reason for the name is obvious.
Cerro La Campana (Bell Hill) is nearby.
Finally, the way to Puerto Aysén, 65km west from Coyhaique, is also very picturesque. Coyhaique can be seen here, at the foot of mount MacKay. You can also see the river Simpson, which borders the town.
Hope you had fun. Thanks for reading! ^^
Puerto Montt - PMC
Balmaceda - BBA
LATAM's new cabin was a great surprise. They got rid of that dark, industrial look, and changed it for brighter colors. The new seats are comfortable and allow for more legroom. Their catering could definitely be improved, though. I think a BOB would be much more of the passengers liking than a little piece of candy you can get for 0.2 USD in the shop around the corner.
* By Chilean songwriter Julio Numhauser
Note: All photographs on my reports are in the public domain, as long as they are not used with any purpose involving any kind of discrimination or attack against any individual or groups of individuals based on their gender, gender identity, religion, nationality, political views, etc.
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