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Welcome to the third leg of this post(?)-Covid series of flights.
Actually, I'm not sure this is a "post" Covid flight. The thing is, today we're going to fly back to Santiago on Sky, one of the three main Chilean airlines trying to recover now that most of the Chilean population is vaccinated and infection rates are falling.
But - before we board - let me share some examples of what you can see around San Pedro de Atacama.
Baltinache is a group of seven lagoons few kilometers from San Pedro. Two of them are available for swimmers.
The funny thing of swimming in these pools is that you float easily…
…because of their high salinity, just like in the Dead Sea.
Another tour - called Ruta de los Salares - will take you along the international road connecting Chile and Argentina via the Jama pass.
At the start of our trip we meet this man herding a flock of llamas, sheep and goats.
By the way, in a previous trip to this area I learned that the main difference between llamas and alpacas are their ears. Alpacas have short ears. Llama ears are long and banana-shaped.
So these here are…
And this man… no, he's not from Paris. Paris is the name of a department store. And those goats are not social distancing!
You can see Licancabur volcano from San Pedro, but I'm particularly excited to see it this close. It's one of those landmarks I used to read about in my primary school Geography books.
The altiplano landscape is overwhelming. The vast flatland and extinct volcanoes scattered all around… Everything looks so… otherworldly.
We stop for a necessary cup of coca leaves tea. We are about 4,500 meters high now!
The Queen has Earl Grey. Chileans love their Nescafé. (Ew!) Inca kings relied on their Herbi coca bags to stay competent and rule their high dominions.
But - as I confirmed later - an infusion is not the same as chewing the stuff.
We know we are close to Argentina when we see the Chilean border facilities. We'll still go a bit beyond.
We arrive at the Monjes de la Pacana, a plain dotted with these rocks of volcanic origin. Worth a shot with yours truly.
But the main attraction in the area is - hands down - the Tatio geysers, the third largest geyser field after Yellowstone in the US, and Kronotski in Russia.
We leave very early one morning (about 5 a.m.) because the vents look their best when the cold morning air condenses the vapor.
It's a surreal experience. You see - and hear! - water boiling all around you.
Apart from the price of the trip, you pay for the admission (15,000 CLP = 20 USD for Chileans). I wonder where all that money goes, because the site is badly kept. In fact, there was nothing showing how close you could get to the vents until some years ago. Only after a series of deadly accidents someone decided to trace some paths around the vents and cauldrons…
And yes. Quite a lot of tourists have died because they got too close to the boiling cauldrons, slipped, and fell to their death… boiled alive! And the geysers seem to have a special appetite for European cuisine, as shown by the tragic accidents of this Belgian lady in 2015, a Spanish doctor in 2002, a French tourist in 1997, and a German one in 1998.
See and hear how it boils.
The road back to San Pedro from the geysers is also an enjoyable part of the tour. We stop for a refreshment.
See how the grass seems to grow in the shape of horseshoes. It's because vicuñas and other camelids chomp on grass clumps on one side only, giving the plants the chance to grow again. Isn't it amazing?
Small rivers bring life to the desert.
Adding to the magic, the road suddenly starts winding in what seems like a sea of rock that came from nowhere.
It's just rocks and rocks on either side of the road, and clumps of rock that look like droppings of an oversized dinosaur.
That volcano is to blame. A huge explosion sent part of its cone downhill in a river of lava and part high in the air in the form of incandescent missiles.
Those violent times seem far behind. Now these cardón cacti grow peacefully, providing building material and firewood. You can also buy beautiful trays, photo frames and other objects made with their wood.
As we reach San Pedro, river Puritama bids us farewell with a nice view to mark the end of this trip.
As I mentioned in my previous report, tourism is the main industry in San Pedro de Atacama, which means that you'll find plenty of hostels, hotels and travel agencies all over the place, for all tastes and budgets. But just in case you are interested, here's a link to Turismo Layana, the travel agency that took me to all these places. I promised I would mention them, so here it is.
Now it's time to go back to reality.
As described in my SCL > CJC flight, there were no serious changes to my itinerary in the six months previous to this flight. The following is the only message I got from Sky Airline informing a small change in the departure time and the flight number. A welcome change, actually, because this prevented me from having to take the transfer at 5 in the morning!
Monopolizing Transvip picks me up at my Arbnb at 9:30.
Our driver seems to be in a hurry because we race past the Cordillera de la Sal…
…and the Plains of Patience…
…and make it to Calama…
…in record time.
Here we take the next exit…
… and keep driving west around the southern suburbs of the city.
We make it to CJC at 10:25.
That's four hours before the flight.
Fantastic! I suppose I'll have plenty of time…
…for a long session of photos of the airport.
Two people are waiting at the entrance. One is a negligible carabinero (in dark green). The other is a soldier… a tall, strong soldier, perfectly tanned by the desert sun. He tells me that I can't be admitted into the hall until two hours before my flight. But he also tells me about a place around the corner of the building where I can sit and wait in the shade for these two long hours. Awww… he's cares for my well-being. I can feel the chemistry here! XD
So CJC has provided a special refuge for those passengers who must wait outside? Amazing! Let's see… Ugh!
Actually, no. Just a bench that happens to be there, used by the airport staff for a break, and that's been turned into a pigsty.
But I don't have many choices…
…so I accept my fate and spend these two hours watching people come and go, and workers loading and unloading stuff.
2:30. Time for a second attempt.
Nooo!! The tall, strong, perfectly-tanned-by-the-sun-of-the-desert soldier has been replaced with a more modest version. Boo hoo. Well, a soldier carrying an assault rifle is not exactly the kind welcoming committee that you expect at an airport, but the Army has been helping with the enforcement of sanitary protocols.
In the hall, three airlines are checking their passengers at the same time, which explains why you can't just enter the building anytime. There's a little crowd in here.
Before you can check your baggage…
…you go through the aduana sanitaria (lit. sanitary customs)…
…where you are required to produce your pasaporte sanitario - which shows where in the country you're coming from and where you are heading to, and the pandemic conditions at each point - and your pase de movilidad certifying that you have got both doses of the vaccine.
I must have been about 10 minutes in the queue. Let's go straight to the second floor…
…and through safety check. Oh, now I remember that a safety check official came and noisily threw a considerable number of stones into that black trash bin by the plant under the big yellow sign. A tourist was carrying them as a souvenir.
Ubiquitous BrittShop and their typical airport prices. But the sandwich + bebida offer is quite good. Too bad I didn't see it then.
They went a step further at CJC (further than ZAL and SCL, at least) to ensure social distancing in the boarding room…
…and eliminated all the middle seats altogether.
The signs are in Spanish, English, and Ckunza. I had never heard about that language before this trip. I used to think that this area was originally inhabited by the Incas, who spoke Quechua…
…but it turns out that the people living around the Atacama salt flat were different and had their own language. They called themselves Likan Antai. The Spanish invaders called them Atacameños. You live, you learn.
Being a Linux enthusiast I can't help grinning with schadenfreude when I see that the Windows-operated information kiosk…
…is broken. Ha.
The far end of the room hosts a souvenir shop and…
…oh Dios! Glorious Maxi K!
Some minutes later - after a nice Maxi K sandwich - I head for the restroom, where… GASP! The message is loud and clear. Not to pee.
13:45. The moment to board has come. On what looks like a quiet apron outside, a fierce fight is taking place. Two Chilean airlines struggle to recover after the worst of the pandemic. LATAM, the largest, seems to have been hit the worst. A transfer driver tells me later that LATAM "fired everyone," and outsourced all services. They are working with the Spanish Acciona now, the same as JetSmart. Sky Airline, on the right…
…was displaced by JetSmart as the second largest airline in the domestic market.
Some additional information about the flight before we board.
As the staff prepares the gate…
…I prepare myself and move to the farthest corner where…
…I can wait for my turn without being too close to the crowd. We are boarding by groups, and you are asked to remain seated until your group is called.
"Whatever happened to women? you may ask. Well, remember that copper mining is by far the main activity here, so 90% of passengers are miners.
How did he manage to bring that backpack into the cabin??
Newer seats, and not the creaking type!!
Gasp! USB charger and international electrical outlet! Sky, u tryin' to win my heart?
Safety instructions card. I'm not touching it.
JetSmart in the distance.
That lady is one of the few Sky Airline FAs that have impressed me with their good pronunciation and intonation of their own language. Sky and JetSmart usually hire people of humble extraction (of the AMIGUITA!! kind that I mentioned in my previous report), who have a tendency to "whine" as they speak. It sounds as if they were always asking questions instead of giving information. "Ladies and gentlemen??? Thanks for flying Sky Airline???" This gets on my nerves.
At 14:35 we say goodbye to CJC…
…with a view on the wind farm we drove through this morning…
…then hit the pedal to the metal…
…and soar above the driest desert in the world.
Yeah, dry as a bone.
Only the most polluted river in the world winds down from the Andes…
…giving some plants the chance to grow if they can resist its toxicity. I wouldn't eat a tomato grown there.
We fly past the Salar de Atacama, so I can see Licancabur volcano one more time, and the group of oasis where San Pedro de Atacama lies, north of the salt flat. Let's see if my cellphone zoom is enough to get a closer look.
Here it is! I had to enhance the contrast a little, but you can see the pointy cone of Licancabur volcano on the left and some long greenish spots at its foot. The largest spot is San Pedro and the smaller ones are "ayllus", smaller oasis originally inhabited by different clans or families. They sit on the north edge of the Salar de Atacama (the whitish plain)
For the rest of the flight I just marvel at the countless volcanoes…
…and salares (salt flats) scattered all over the desert. Here on the right, Salar de Punta Negra.
Not less interesting is the landscape inside. Look at that appetizing carrot muffin.
I never imagined that zanahoria…
…would need a whole YouTube lesson! 😂 The guy at the end of the video makes me think of an angry rabbit asking to get his carrot back!
A cappuccino. Serving all the stuff in a cup is a great idea to avoid the mess and to reduce contact during the pandemic. Not a great idea for the environment, though.
Add a hot cheese ham croissant.
Yummy. And all for 7,000 CLP (9.5 USD) Can you believe it? All this is tipping my balance in favor of Sky Airline's BOB rather than LATAM's cereal bar and crisps in Premium Eco.
Besides, no blocked middle seat was needed today. Hm. I should have removed the crumbs before the photo.
The rocky, colorful ground shows that we are flying above the Norte Chico, closer to Santiago.
Correct! We descend over the valley of Santiago…
…past some toxic tailings dams. Santiago is on the verge of a serious water crisis. No major investment in dams in order to ensure the availability of drinking water, but they have built lots of very fine tailings dams. Drink that.
We are in the middle of winter and I can barely see any green around here.
In fact, some crops are already dying.
16:26. A very soft landing.
Thank goodness I won't have to stay in Santiago for long. Smog gets thick in winter.
Something I learned in this trip: If you are taking an Uber, wait on the third floor, at gate 6.
Thanks for reading! :D
LATAM being the yardstick for measuring other domestic flights in my country, I have top say that Sky Airline is taking over in many aspects. Their BOB is great, and is available for all passengers for less than what you pay for Premium Eco in LATAM, which is available only for a chosen few. And a cereal bar and a bag of chips are no match for Sky Airline's hot sandwiches and muffins. As for seats and legroom, the main difference with LATAM is that Sky's seats can not be reclined. But guess what! I was told that that will change very soon!