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April 15, 2009

Punta Arenas to San Pedro de Atacama

Filed under: Chile 2009, Travel — anotherheader @ 5:41 am

Familia Kusanovic

Familia Kusanovic

The phone rudely rang with the 4:30 am wake-up call as the wind pelted a cold rain against the windows of the room.  After another particularly unsatisfying dose of Nescafe and a quick shower, we checked out of the warm cocoon of the hotel.  Downstairs we rustled our awkward array of bags into a taxi waiting in the predawn darkness of Puerto Montt.  It was shortly after 6 am when we arrived at the small Puerto Montt airport.

“The counter is closed,” the LAN agent said as we pulled our mass of belongings through the empty line to the baggage counter.

We were confused.  Our flight was at 7:00 am, or so we thought, and we were nearly an hour early for a Chilean domestic flight.  It seemed too early to close the check-in.

The agent quickly relented, however, and took our bags and checked us in.  “The flight is boarding now,” she finished.

The cemetery in Punta Arenas

The cemetery in Punta Arenas

We looked at the Departure Board and sure enough our flight, LA 296, was boarding.  The Departure Board also reported that the departure time as 6:30 am.

“Did I screw up the sheet?” I asked Becky yet another a question she could not possibly answer.  I was referring to the single sheet printout of the microscopic 4.5-point font barely readable Excel spreadsheet that included all of the vital information for our trip.  Fortunately she saved me the snide answer that I would have quickly given her if she had asked me the same question.

Hotel Jose Nogueira in Punta Arenas (HDR)

Hotel Jose Nogueira in Punta Arenas (HDR)

We passed hurriedly through the Chilean airport security, which did not require a boarding pass or identity documents, nor did it require shoes to be removed, liquids to be in a plastic bag, or laptops to be taken from their cases.  The start of the boarding line for our flight was at the immediate end of security checkpoint, so it was obvious that we were going to make the flight.  Now it was time for us to hope that our jumble of bags would find us at the end of our day’s travels.

Still confused about the flight time, I pulled out the confirmation email from LAN.  It showed that our flight, LA 296, departs at 7:00 am.  I had talked to a LAN agent before our departure, approximately 3 weeks before this flight, and they had not mentioned a change, though they had mentioned a change to our next flight.  At the same time I had set the seats for all of the domestic Chilean LAN flights, but that didn’t seem to matter.  None of the seats on the LAN flights were as I reserved.  We almost rechecked our seats yesterday, but the LAN office in downtown Punta Arenas had closed just before we passed by.  I suspect that reconfirmations close to our departure time will become a standard procedure for us.

Kiosco Don Bosco just has a nice ring to it

Kiosco Don Bosco just has a nice ring to it

While in line for our flight we heard a horror story from another passenger.  The driver of the taxi she took to the airport lost key to the trunk and hence access to her luggage.  After a half hour of searching, the driver finally whipped out a crowbar and used it to open the trunk.  The passenger then scrambled to reach our flight at the last second, just like us.  Remind us to add checking whether the taxi driver has a key to the trunk to the list of things to do when traveling.

Tio Rico

Tio Rico

Our plane stopped in Puerto Montt.  This time we didn’t debark and were denied any further opportunities for Puerto Montt Tony Bourdain sightings before we continued up to Santiago.  Once at the Santiago airport, Becky moved faster than I have ever seen her move as she bee lined her way to Starbucks.  And she doesn’t even like Starbucks.  I guess the Nescafe infusions had gotten to her.  Perhaps her talk of formulating Nescafe into suppositories should have warned me of her desperation.  We had a long 6-hour layover at the Santiago airport until our flight to Calama departed.  I figure that by the end of our visit to Chile, the Santiago Airport will be in our top five destinations in terms of time spent.  Not that the airport is bad on the scale of airports, but is not going be on our top five lists of places to visit in Chile.

Our next flight took us to Calama.  We boarded the full flight amongst a few tourists, a nerdly looking crowd, and Chileans who were invariably packing multiple flats of Dunk’n Donuts that they purchased at the airport outlet near the Starbucks.

The penguin colony near Punta Arenas

The penguin colony near Punta Arenas

Our day’s flights covered over 2,100 miles and took us above the Tropic of Capricorn.  (The Tropic of Capricorn is the furthest point south that the sun appears directly overhead during the year.)  We landed in Calama as the sun was nearing the horizon.  Calama is purported to be the driest population center on Earth with an average of just 5 mm or about 1/5 of an inch of precipitation a year.  In most years, rain never reaches the ground.  It has only rained 4 or 5 times in the last 80 years.  Calama lies in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth.  There are locations in the Atacama that have had no rainfall in recorded history.  The only place on Earth that is drier is the South Pole.

After the confusion over the departure time at the start of our day’s trip, we were concerned about our luggage arriving with us.  In the small Calama airport, we waited amongst the Chileans and their slats of donuts, the sprinkling of tourists, and the mass of astronomers collecting their impossibly large amounts of luggage and technical equipment on the baggage conveyor.  The small baggage belt at Calama circulates between the outside and the inside of the airport terminal.  Outside, where the bags are loaded onto the belt by the ground crew, the luggage is unprotected from the skies.  There is no awning or roof covering as it rains so rarely that covering the conveyor outside was purposeless.  The astronomers that were collecting their masses of baggage were heading to ALMA, the high altitude site of the installation of what will be the world’s largest sub millimeter radio telescope.  They were distinctly not tourists and were carrying a particularly large amount of gear.  We waited as load after load of cargo was disgorged from the small Airbus A319.  Still our bags did not appear.  Finally the last load from the plane was shuttled to the conveyor.  We watched as the bags and boxes continued passing by.  Outside, the ground crew, having dropped their last load on the belt, drove away.  Just as we gave up hope, our bags, the last to appear, popped through the conveyors portal from the outside.

A last look at Torres del Paine

Another look at Torres del Paine

As the small airport was rapidly clearing, we found the van driver for our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama outside the luggage claim area.  Along with a family from New York, we passed through an improbable traffic snarl at the microscopic airport’s parking lot and headed to San Pedro in the hotel’s van.

The sun was setting as we moved on to the highway.  It wasn’t comforting to have read that the hour or so long stretch of road between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama had a reputation for being deadly and particularly dangerous in the difficult light of the setting sun.  We moved out of Calama’s basic suburbs, past a dry, dusty, and windblown landfill, and out into the parched, sandy plains.  Shrines for those lost on the highway lined the road in the sandy soil.  There was no vegetation visible.  It was bone dry.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

It had turned dark by time we reached the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama at 22 degrees, 55 minutes south latitude.  From the van in the low light, the town appeared dusty and brushy.  We would have to wait until tomorrow to get a better assessment.

When our van pulled up to the gates of the beautifully lit hotel, Tierra Atacama, the staff met us at the entrance and helped us with our bags and check in.  We asked, but no one on the hotel’s staff could verify the location of the Southern Cross in the night sky for us.  We were still looking for a Chilean who could.  The hotel itself was beautiful.  The great room was open to the night air and calming, at least to me.  Becky had a different first impression.

“I don’t belong here,” she said later at dinner.

“Uhm, why not?” I replied, knowing that there was no answer to her statement.  It was what was.

I learned later that, aside from being tired, Becky was not enthused about the barren, treeless, vegetation-less moonscape that we passed on the way in.

Torres del Paine in the morning light

Torres del Paine in the morning light

“Why would we leave beautiful Torres del Paine for this barren shit hole,” she was thinking but thankfully not saying.

Becky and I have different takes on trees.  I think they are vastly overrated.  Becky actually likes trees.  I was hoping that, in the light of the next day, her attitude about the desert would change or maybe we would find some trees, somewhere.  At dinner, it seemed as if my future well being might just depend on it.

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