Ahh, those sad, gloomy days before Google Maps. Months of hardships, sailing from Europe to the west in search of a new route to India, only to find that America was blocking the way.
Until one good day in 1520 the Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães - aka Ferdinand Magellan - managed to pass through the stormy, treacherous strait at the southernmost tip of South America… and lived to tell!
Local toponyms give us an idea of the rather bleak experience he probably had - Port Famine, Useless Bay, Dry River, Desolation Island…
Yes, it sounds depressing, but this is precisely where my summer holidays will begin! Woo hoo!
You're kindly invited to enjoy the following nine reports. We will fly the three main local airlines (and mourn a deceased fourth), visit some never-reported airports in amazing corners of Patagonia, and… don't you miss the aerials and some jaw-dropping tourism bonuses!
This is flight 1 of 9 of this trip. You can also read the reports for flights 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Our first stop is Puerto Montt, where we (i.e. my mother and I) will board our LATAM flight at El Tepual airport (PMC). You'll find a detailed tour around the premises here.
We arrive in Puerto Montt after a comfortable three-hour bus ride from our home town, Valdivia. Puerto Montt's bus station is also a little shopping center, so we have lunch on the second floor with a nice view on the Gulf of Reloncaví.
Cruise ships are not as usual down here as in the Caribbean, but a trip around the fjords, islands and glaciers of the south of Chile should be on everyone's holidays list. Some suggestions here, here, and here.
When asking about transport to PMC you'll probably get the answer "Andrés Tour", which sounds much like "undress tour". But don't get too excited. Andrés is only the Spanish form of the name Andrew.
So, Andrés Tour will take you (with your clothes on) on a 20-minute ride to PMC for 2500 CLP (4 USD), departing from the same bus station.
The north tip of the runway is only meters from the road. Two young airspotters take advantage of this.
PMC has some relevance…
…as a domestic hub…
…for flights around Patagonia.
The three main national airlines…
…namely, LATAM, Sky, and JetSmart…
…have flights to Coyhaique and Punta Arenas…
…departing from Santiago and Puerto Montt.
Some smaller airlines flying to smaller towns…
…also have their headquarters here. Aerocord, for example, is one such airline.
As soon as we arrive we head for the check-in counter, but something is different today. When we get there…
…a nice lady invites us to use the self check-in kiosks. We tell her that we have baggage to check but have already checked-in online, so we'd rather go straight to the counter, but she insists!
When our turn comes… the check-in kiosk won't find our reservation! Said nice lady assists us in the check-in process, to no avail. The machine just doesn't want to admit us onboard…
…and we have to queue up at the check-in counter, where we originally wanted to go. Gosh.
The queue at the kiosks just gets longer and longer, and each passenger ends up being diverted to our line. Can anyone explain that to me?
After this display of inefficiency from the part of LATAM we walk to the escalators because mater purissima wants to go airside immediately. I obey.
More passengers are stuck there.
Upstairs, taking the escalator on a wheelchair doesn't sound like a healthy idea, so you better heed the advice and use the elevator instead.
It's 2:44 p.m. (in average) and flight LA285 seems to be on time. Sheer lies.
Airside, it's very quiet at the moment. PMC is well equipped…
…for a long wait.
Britshop is an ubiquitous gift shop in most Chilean airports. There's also a lounge here. I hope they offer something more than the cold ham sandwiches I saw (or rather "I will see") at CCP during these holidays.
Mater dulcissima has some problems with her blood sugar levels (no pun intended), and she has to choose between an hypoglycemic shock or the shock of paying the airport price of a chocolate bar.
Meanwhile, junior kills the time with the scarce flight-spotting that can be done in secondary airports, like this Robinson R66, CC-ATP…
…and CC-AOL, a state-of-the-art Cessna C208.
I found this video where its owner shows the components of the control panel, the Garmin digital instruments, and explains that the plane has 5-hour flight range, and that they fly from Puerto Montt to any place required by their customers.
In the distance, what looks like two mosquitos…
…are two Twin Otters…
…of the Chilean Air Force.
Another LATAM flight has pulled into the gate next to ours.
This explains why men with firm, sexy buttocks are a rarity in Chile. They do the impossible to avoid climbing stairs!
At 3:24 pm, 19 minutes before my flght arrives at PMC… What da…?? I hope those passengers had their sickness bags at hand!
Here comes CC-BEP.
I wonder if the passengers' faces will be different shades of green after such a tortuous ride.
Nothing of the sort. Flightradar24.com shows a straight line in that area for that flight now. There must have been a mistake.
Don't they look like two ballerinas finishing their performance with a révérence? Hm… too much imagination.
Watch that weight, or else - Boarding
The abolition of the traditional boarding scheme based on row numbering has given place to a range of new ways to carry out this process.
This time we have Priority Boarding for the disabled, elderly, mothers with their babies and pregnant women…
…and lines for those with/without carry-on luggage. Can you see the little counter under the monitor? There's a scale behind, and all of us must weigh our luggage before boarding. Scary!
Those with no luggage…
Here we go. LATAM's allowance is 8kg, and my bag weighs 7.5. Phew! Just for the record, Sky Airline's allowance is 20kg, but they pay more attention to the baggage size.
LATAM is offering a hybrid product, somewhere between an LCC and a legacy carrier.
I'd show you their different fares, but they already complained for some screenshots of their website in ONE of my reports. They are not nice to flight reporters (that's why I avoid them). Not the best example of good PR! No wonder their cabin crew in Chile have been on strike this month for much longer than expected. HA!
But I can tell you that they have the best seats for domestic flights, reclinable and with adjustable headrests.
Tray table OK.
This month's issue of their magazine has Rome on the cover.
Some ideas of flights you can take with them.
Even controversial Falkland/Malvinas islands, still under British rule with some help from… Chile! Yes, Pinochet's regime helped a little.
I doubt Argentines will think more of Chile if LATAM keeps placing Chilean cities in their territory. Copiapó, for example.
The routes that LATAM inherited from its TAM ancestor.
Something I love about this magazine is the art. They always highlight some aspect of South America's culture or nature. This time they show off the beauty of some local trees.
Ipé amarelo (yellow ipé), common in Brazil, and jacaranda. I have read that Harare, in Zimbabwe, is famous for its flowering jacarandas.
Arupo, common in the streets of Quito, Ecuador.
Araucaria, a distinctive kind of pine from the south of Chile and some areas of Brazil. If you search for photos of the Chilean Conguillío National Park, for example, you'll see beautiful araucaria forests…
Chileans are always proud to show off their lack of education.
Penguins, here I go!
Picturesque taxiing with Osorno volcano in the background.
The two little plane spotters must have gone home.
Km 1 of 1297.
I can't believe I'm travelling to Punta Arenas!
Did you know that the south of the Earth is closer to the center of the Milky Way than the north?
The Earth's orbit is tilted relative to the galactic plane, so you can see the center of the galaxy from the southern hemisphere. The farther south you go, the closer to the center of the galaxy you are.
So I will be closer to the center of the galaxy than ever before in my life!
That's why nights in the southern hemisphere are more spectacular that in the north.
You can see the very heart of the Milky Way!
Too bad that the weather in the far south is usually cold and cloudy. In fact, we are in the middle of summer now…
…but those clouds are threatening to spoil the view.
Some of the last things I can see before the clouds hide the landscape are Calbuco and its bridge…
…and Chacao channel…
…which separates Chiloé island from the continent.
Nobody told them that LATAM has an IFE system to which they can connect using their tablet or computer.
I like these cabins. They look very tidy, and the seats are not covered in cloth, which is LATAM's standard in Brazil.
So far, LATAM's cabins are at the lead among competitors Sky Airline and JetSmart. What about the BOB menu?
I have the impression that it's a bit more expensive than Sky's, and about the same as JetSmart's.
I'll go for the Mechada sandwich today. It looks delicious! I don't think "larded meat" clearly translates "carne mechada", though. For a traditional Chilean carne mechada recipe, see here. Get your eye of round ready!
I'm glad to see it's wrapped in paper instead of plastic.
Plastic wouldn't make much sense for something that must be eaten before three days!
So far, so good. Let's look inside.
Gee. That caramelized does not look like the one in the menu at all!
To my great joy, the clouds suddenly start to break up, and I can see the glaciers in the ice fields!!
In case you don't know it, glaciers are rivers of ice.
Snow gathers on top of a mountain…
…and its own weight pushes it downhill.
Lucky me! The clouds break just enough to see Cochrane river down there…
All these ice rivers originate at two large campos de hielo (ice fields)…
…that are the third largest fresh water reserve after Antarctica and Greenland.
A selfie hides my real intention of spying on the other passengers. Baseball cap and shades on a plane?
Unfortunately, glaciers keep melting and shrinking because of global warming…
…so we are lucky to see what's still left of them.
The receding ice carves the valleys, leaving long lagoons along the way. Sediments usually turn their water emerald-green.
Then the ice fields come to an end…
…giving place to vast plains…
…covered by forests of lenga trees.
This is the kingdom…
…of wind and cold.
The main economic activity around here…
…is sheep farming…
…in large estates…
The road from Punta Arenas to Río Gallegos, in Argentina. Chile and Argentina are closely linked here. People constantly move between both countries.
About 50km north-east of Punta Arenas…
…we find the white Casimiro lagoon. No idea why it's white. I found no information about it.
Punta Arenas is at about the same latitude as Edmonton, in Canada…
…or Manchester, in the UK.
Summer days and winter nights are much longer here than in the rest of the country. This region, called Magallanes Region, is the only place in Chile where they don't switch between summer and winter time.
…turn out to be part of a large island in the Strait of Magellan.
Isabel island is private property, as I will learn later. No I didn't get there looking for a shotcut to the airport! Not again! XD
It's used for sheep farming.
We bank to the right above the island. Upper left I can see…
…Cabo Negro (Black Cape) port, which belongs to ENAP, the Chilean state oil company.
With a clear view of the strait under my feet as we bank steeply to the right…
…little Magdalena island and its lighthouse come into view.
I don't know it at the moment, but this is the island…
…that I will visit two days later…
…to see the large penguin colony living there!
The tour consists of a short walk around the lower plains on the right, up to the lighthouse and back. That boat you see in the background probably visited Magdalena and now is going to an even smaller island called Marta (seen in the photo above), which hosts a sea lion colony. You'll also see it in today's tourism bonus. :)
We're already in final approach.
Chile is not a big oil producer. We still depend on imported oil…
Here's CC-BEP under the melancholic evening light. In fact, all days are melancholic at this latitude, and the weather doesn't help. Not recommendable if you suffer from depression!
Unfortunately, some photos might be a bit blurry from now on. My sacrosanct mother does not share my flight-reporting spirit and threatens to give me a taste of her walking cane on the head if I keep stopping every two meters, so I have to take the photos on the go. :(
It looks like the ads are working, because I can hear many languages being spoken around here.
Too much interest from the part of tourists, or too little interest from the part of the tour operator? :O
Thank goodness mom has to pay a visit to the restrooms…
…which gives me time for a better picture of the activity at baggage claim…
…and the access to the main hall…
…where taxi and transfer companies are waiting for us.
More details about PUQ in the next report. For now, we'll just go out…
…and take a taxi that charges a fixed fare of 10000 CLP (17 USD) to Punta Arenas. very convenient for more than one passenger. The transfer service charges 5000 CLP (9 USD) per person.
A Lockheed F-80C by the access to the military air base.
Puerto Natales is 3 hours to the north. It's the access to breathtaking Torres del Paine National Park, which I will visit three days later, and also the following week. I'm sure you'll love that tourism bonus!
The road runs along the Magellan Strait.
One of the products…
…of local sheep farming…
…is wool, of course.
Unlike most cities located by the sea…
…Punta Arenas withdraws inland…
…turning its back to the strait and its violent, stormy weather.
That's why you won't see fancy buildings or hotels facing the sea. Only sculptures like this, allusive to the original inhabitants of the area, who, by the way, were systematically exterminated by the European settlers.
And as abruptly as this report ends…
…we arrive at our destination when we turn right at the next corner.
Tourism Bonus - Penguins and Sea Lions
Early morning the day after our arrival we have to wait for the van that will take us to the dock where we'll board the boat that will take us for a visit to the penguin colony on Magdalena island.
We wait at the main square, the typical plaza at the center of every town founded by Spaniards. This one is called Plaza Muñoz Gamero. It's the middle of summer, but we are shivering!
In the middle of the plaza stands this monument to Ferdinand Magellan.
At its foot sits an original inhabitant of Patagonia, popularly known as the Indio Patagón. If you kiss his foot, you can be sure you'll come back to Punta Arenas, they say. Maybe if I had my hand sanitizer with me…
There are some bautiful buildings around the plaza…
…like the regional government headquarters…
…and the Catholic cathedral.
There's also the Sara Brown Palace.
Sara Braun was a Russian immigrant. She was born in Talsi, Latvia, in 1862. Her family was very poor when they moved to Punta Arenas…
…but the Chilean government was fostering immigration in those years, so they received some help.
She became a skillful businesswoman, and also a filantropist.
Where is that van? We're freezing out here!!
It eventually comes and takes us to Tres Palos dock…
…where we immediately board a fast boat.
Even before we can get off the boat…
…I can have a glimpse of our welcome committee…
Punta Arenas is warm and tropical compared to this!
Oh my. I can't believe it!
We are welcomed by a park guard, who repeats the instructions and warnings we were given in the boat. No walking outside the path, no taking anything home, no leaving anything, and a long et cetera. And we have 45 minutes to leave the island.
We are all drooling at the sheer cuteness of these little guys. They stare at us with that "WTF-are-those-things?" look.
They build their nests in the ground, protected from the chilly wind, which is making my head hurt.
The young ones have very thin feathers, that resemble fleece.
Their cawing sounds much like a donkey's bray.
You can hear them in this short video I filmed, especially at minute 1:00
Here's a slideshow with some 50+ pictures of penguins photographed from all angles while we keep climbing to the lighthose in the middle of the island.
When our walk around Magdalena island is coming to an end, some young penguins come and walk among us.
They are curious about us.
Unfortunately, we are not allowed to stay longer.
There's a limit to the number of tourists that can visit the island at the same time.
That's why we had to come so early.
The other boats have already arrived. Now we'll visit Marta island, a smaller island…
…that's home to a sea lion colony.
Back in our warm, cozy boat…
…we say goodbye to the nice park guards.
Those flags (the Chilean flag and the flag of the Magallanes region) show how strong the wind is here all the time.
On the way to Marta island I learn why we had to get up so early for this tour.
The wind gets stronger as the day passes, and the sea gets tougher. In fact, the captain has his doubt about coming to Marta.
But eventually we come, though it will be a short visit…
…and we won't be allowed to disembark.
The island is shared by a colony of sea lions…
…and sea birds.
We have a bumpy ride back to Punta Arenas. The sea is very rough.
We can see PUQ's control tower from here.
As we disembark, I think that airlines could learn something from these boats.
Our van is waiting to take us back to the city.
I'm sure that Ferdinand Magellan would have laughed if he had been told that a visit to these islands could be an unforgettable experience!
Thanks for reading!
Puerto Montt - PMC
Punta Arenas - PUQ
A very comfortable flight to the far south of the country. LATAM has the best seats compared to the other main Chilean airlines. Good BOB menu. Both PMC and PUQ are modern, efficient, and well maintained airports.
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