ON THE ROAD AGAIN: From the Top of North America to the Bottom of South America
Okay, okay, so Fairbanks, Alaska isn’t the absolute top of North America. It’s pretty darned close, though. My destination – Ushuaia, Argentina – is actually beyond South America, situated on the under side of Tierra del Fuego, the island just off the southern tip of the continent. Sitting at Latitude 54º 55' South, Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the world. As one who’s always preferred traveling to the ends of the earth over the “must see” destinations such as Paris or New York, I have been primed and ready to go on this journey ever since I earned the miles for it back in September.
Those of you who’ve read of my peregrinations in the Trip Report Forum know that I’ve hardly been sitting still all winter. I began this year by flying From Colorado to Australia ~ the long way of course, via London and Singapore. Once there, I utilized trains, busses, hitch-hiking, a motorcycle and an airplane to take me a further 6000 miles around South and Western Australia before flying an additional 17,580 miles to get back to Colorado.
Following a short 700-mile roundtrip drive from Denver over to Central Utah, I commenced a series of Mileage Runs between Denver and Philadelphia. The $118.00 all-in roundtrip fare was offered over the Internet back in mid-November and was available for a very limited time. The routing allowed me to fly from Denver via Seattle and Chicago each way, so I bought myself six roundtrips. Tack on an additional 39,570 miles, and many more miles earned.
Finally, I hopped into my trusty 17 year old Mazda B-2200 pick-up and drove from Colorado all the way back up to Fairbanks, Alaska (Pictures Here) ~ 3,152 miles in the dead of winter. Thankfully for me, the weather was incredibly cooperative and the majority of my trip was made under sunny skies and good road conditions.
Add it all up and I’ve traveled just over 85,000 miles in the first two months of this year. For most people, this would be more than enough travel for the entire year. Not me. I’m just getting warmed up.
I know what many of you are thinking – this guy’s definitely got a screw or two loose. Well you’re right – I probably do. But so what?! I’m havin’ a good time, at nobody’s expense but my own. I mean, I could sit around Alaska or Colorado all winter, find seasonal or volunteer work, and take that one nice trip like I usually do at the end of the winter. It would seem the more sensible approach. But hey – the opportunity’s here now, the finances are here now, and of course the desire is always here. Regardless of whatever else I may be doing at the time, I am ALWAYS ready go somewhere.
*** ***** ***
Many of my best trips have been spur of the moment affairs where I often didn’t know where I was going until I finally got there. Occasionally, I’ve thought I knew where I was going but then something shinier came along and I changed course. An example of this happened back in November of 1994 when I flew down to Chile, primed to do two months of hiking in the Andes. Unfortunately, unusually heavy late spring snowstorms had rendered much of the high country inaccessible. Although both Chile and Argentina have an abundance of delightful small towns to visit and beautiful countryside to enjoy and explore, I was nonetheless somewhat disappointed that my lot was primarily down in the valleys, not up on the mountaintops. I’d come all this way primarily to hike.
One day, in the beautiful resort town of Bariloche, Argentina, I came across a great round trip airfare being offered between Santiago and Miami. It was with Lloyd Boliviano Airlines and cost just $510.00 USD all in. Being the national airline of Bolivia, Lloyd didn’t fly nonstop between Santiago and Miami. Rather, it offered a four-stop direct flight making calls along the way in Arica, La Paz, Santa Cruz and Panama City. Awright! That’s my kind of routing! As an added bonus, Lloyd operated comparatively ancient 727-200s on this milk run, a definite plus for the nostalgic in me. Last but not least in my considerations, I’d never flown Lloyd Bolivian before. At that time, it would be my 96th airline flown in the quest for that magical plateau of One Hundred Airlines Flown.
Once reservations had been squared away and tickets purchased, I called up my friend Ruby who worked in the Grateful Dead’s ticketing department. The Dead were playing a two-night gig at Denver’s McNichols Arena in early December and although tickets were probably long since sold out, knowing someone within the band’s organization definitely had its advantages.
Unlike a lot of big bands, the Dead, in addition to selling concert tickets through traditional outlets like Ticket Master, also sold tickets through their own ticket office. All they required was a 3x5 card bearing the pertinent information regarding which concert, how many tickets, your name and mailing address, etc. They also required a self addressed stamped envelope. And a money order issued in U.S. currency. They were quite the sticklers about this and those folks unable for whatever reason to follow instructions to the letter very likely didn’t get their tickets.
Back in 1986, I was in New Zealand attempting to get tickets for some Spring Tour shows. Not having any access to US postage stamps, I was unable to comply with the self-addressed stamped envelope requirement. I decided to make a long distance call the band’s ticket office problem hotline in San Francisco and see what, if anything, could be done. Though a veteran of over one hundred and fifty Dead concerts since the 1970s, I’d never had cause to call the band’s ticket office before and didn’t know anybody there. The New Zealand long distance telephone operator stayed on the line and announced to whoever picked up the phone in California that this was an international call from New Zealand. Oh, whoa, man… Just a minute...
Soon, Ruby came on the line. “You’re calling from where?!!” she asked in astonishment. New Zealand, I replied and explained my predicament. I think she was impressed at my willingness to call from so far away. Many people would have just shown up at the shows and hoped for a miracle. She got me tickets to every show that I wanted, including a couple that were already sold out. They were good seats, too. The next day I sent Ruby eight separate International bank drafts in US Dollars from the big ANZ Bank in Christchurch Square, along with a nice set of bowls made from New Zealand woods. It was the least I could do in exchange for her kindness. Our relationship was borne of that call and in the years to come, I also found need to call from Thailand and Rarotonga. Although Ruby asked for nothing in return, it was always fun to send her a nice little gift from afar as a token of my appreciation.
*** ***** ***
“Where you calling from this time?!” Ruby asked with laughter in her voice. Argentina, I replied. There’s too much snow down here right now and I was wondering if by chance there might be any seats available at the McNichols shows in Denver? Moments later I was on my way to the bank to send money for tickets that would await me at the Will Call window in Denver for both shows.
In any event, what started out as a two-month trip to Chile ended up with an excellent two-week sojourn around America squeezed into the middle of it. I spent a couple of days in Florida visiting friends in the Everglades, then rode Amtrak’s Sunset Limited from Miami all the way across the country to Los Angeles. The Sunset Limited was then and still is the only trans-continental train ever to operate in America. In Denver, I met up with friends from Colorado, Alaska and Virginia and we all had a great time as only one can at a Dead concert. I then hitchhiked down to Durango for a quick visit before continuing on to Gallup, N.M. for a date aboard the westbound Southwest Chief. Along the way, I almost got stranded in Shiprock, N.M. and were it not for a trucker who picked me up in the knick of time I would have surely missed my train to LA and connection back to Miami. No biggie – I would’ve just hitched down to El Paso and caught the Florida bound Sunset Limited from there. My flight back to Santiago made stops in Caracas, Manaus, La Paz and Arica and the flight between Arica and Santiago offered spectacular views of Aconcagua, at 22,851’ (6959m) the highest mountain in South America. Within a week of my return to Chile, I was hiking the 50-mile Torres del Paine circuit in southern Patagonia.
My vacation from a vacation notwithstanding, it is precisely because of my proclivity towards impulsive travel decisions that I make all of my longer trips alone. Most people like to stick to a set plan and don’t do well with such wild deviations as I’ve enjoyed. I figure these days it’s a pretty small planet and if I’m in Chile and it suddenly looks fun to pinball over to the Western U.S. or southern Madagascar, why not? It’s all about having a good time. It’s not important to me that I happen to be in Andorra when I’d originally planned to be in Acapulco.
Granted, this is a point of view I can afford since I work seasonally most years and when I do travel, it’s not so much a vacation as it is a case of me taking my life on the road. Most people, by virtue of their jobs or families have only two or three weeks available in which to travel somewhere. As for traveling alone, much less doing anything alone, some people do well on their own whereas others require constant company. While it’s great fun to travel and share new adventures with friends, I’m hardly isolated on trips like this. I meet all kinds of people. But I also really enjoy and indeed require time to myself. As such, I don’t mind one bit doing these longer trips alone. What’s really fun is meeting up with people I know for a few days during a trip.
*** ***** ***
For this trip I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. I’ve even pre-purchased a couple of non-refundable tickets, though nothing so expensive that I couldn’t afford to absorb the costs if something more alluring came up. Still, I like what I’ve worked up for the next couple of months and hopefully those of you who like my style of trip reports will enjoy reading about it.
Following is the tale of my journey from Fairbanks, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina covering well over 13,000 miles aboard three airlines, three luxury bus lines and one three day boat trip down southern Chile’s inside passage. Now then, let’s head on out to Fairbanks International and get this trip underway.
March 2, 2005
Fairbanks to Anchorage to Seattle
Alaska 148 First Class * Dinner
DC-9-80 N949AS Seat 3A
This day began as so many of my initial departure dates do ~ with a hectic morning of last minute packing, bill paying and errand running. I then bid so long to my friend Tundra Rich and his pet rat “Quarantina” and sped into town to meet my friends Irish Lee and his wife Baggs for a few games of pool followed by lunch at Fairbanks’ premier Thai restaurant, the Thai House. Fairbanks would seem an unlikely place for a Thai restaurant but the city boasts five of them, two of which are outstanding.
After dropping my truck off at the cabin of fellow FTer wheresDG, Lee drove me out to Fairbanks International. A big electronic sign displaying the current time and temperature is mounted at the entrance to the airport. The day was cold, cloudy and windy and the temperature was listed as 11 degrees. Days like this are perfect for jetting off to warm weather destinations!
For elite level members of Alaska’s Mileage Plan or those flying First Class, check in at FAI is always handled quickly and easily. Even the security checkpoint was deserted when I arrived. The agent checking boarding passes and IDs was reading the Fairbanks News Miner Sports section as I arrived and we chatted briefly about spring training and the prospects for his favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. We both agreed they should win their 12th straight division title, especially with the addition of my favorite pitcher from the Oakland A’s, Tim Hudson.
At the gate, I was met by a pleasant surprise in the form of Alaska’s DC-9-80 registered N949AS. Now I realize that most passengers could care less about the aircraft they’re flying upon, so long as it’s airworthy and reasonably comfortable. However, most passengers don’t log their flights. And, amongst those few that do, many don’t record the aircraft registration numbers.
I’ve been logging my flights since I was about eight years old and I’ve been recording the aircraft registration numbers since about my 50th flight, back in 1972. As of this day, I’d logged 3,352 flights for 2,991,990 miles. Over 300 of those flights and almost 200,000 of those miles had come aboard Alaska Airlines. As one might imagine then, I’ve flown on a lot of Alaska Airlines jets. In fact, I’ve flown on almost the entire Alaska fleet.
The significance of N949AS is that it is the last DC-9-80 (or MD-80) that I haven’t yet flown in Alaska’s fleet. After this flight, I’ll have flown them all. Coincidentally, last month I logged a Denver to Seattle flight aboard N764AS, the last of Alaska’s 737-400s that I hadn’t flown.
So, as it now stands, I’ve flown all of Alaska’s 737-400s, all of the DC-9-80s, all but two of the 737-900s and all but four of the 737-200s. Long ago, I’d logged flights aboard every 727-200 in the Alaska fleet. I’ve also flown aboard the sole winglet equipped 737-700 (N619AS) but have yet to fly aboard, much less spot even one of the new 737-800s. Someday…
Following a rather prolonged take off roll, we climbed into the low cloud cover above Fairbanks and were in sunlight only moments later. Unfortunately, everything north of the Alaska Range was socked in, so I reclined my seat, pulled out my book and enjoyed an ice cold MacTarnahan’s Scottish Ale along with the packet of almonds that I’d purchased for this flight.
About 100 miles out of Anchorage, over Trapper Creek, the skies cleared and those of us on the left side of the aircraft were treated to beautiful vistas of the Susitna River drainage and the upper Knik Arm.
Our layover in Anchorage was a short one and so I had just enough time to grab a copy of the Anchorage Daily News and make a couple of quick calls from the gate area before heading back onto the aircraft for the 3 hour 6 minute flight down to Seattle. Dinner would be served on this segment and our 5:00pm departure promised a nice sunset as well.
Although Alaska Airlines hasn’t employed menus on its flights between Anchorage and Seattle since back in the 1970s or earlier, I snagged a copy of the meal manifest from the lead FA and can now present to you the dinner offerings in menu form:
Anchorage to Seattle
To Begin Two bags of peanuts to accompany the beverage of your choice
Salad Baby Spinach Salad with shaved red onions, chopped eggs and bacon
Presented with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Grilled Chicken Breast with Red Pepper Pesto Sauce Served with red skinned mashed potatoes with green and yellow zucchini sautéed with thyme
Beef Tender Tip with Demi Glace Sauce Accompanied by rosemary roasted potatoes with stir-fried broccoli, carrots and red onion
** ***** **
Dessert Pumpkin Cheesecake
I’ve seen this menu before, just two weeks ago on a Seattle to Chicago flight. I also had it back in September on another Anchorage to Seattle flight. Two tries at the beef have convinced me not to try it again. It’s certainly edible, though not a very good cut of meat. The Red Pepper Pesto Sauce is the real star of the chicken entrée, and thankfully there was still one available when it came my time to order back in row 3.
Upon completion of a most satisfactory meal, I pulled out my trusty laptop and put in some work on this report. I really like Alaska’s First Class seats in the MD-80 fleet. For me at least, they seem to be just the right width and softness. Though not as wide as the seats in Alaska’s older 737-400s, they may still be the widest First Class seats in any MD-80. Now if only Alaska could see fit to give each First Class seat another couple of inches of legroom.
The more I fly domestically, the more I appreciate legroom over most any other aspect of the flight. On most airlines, unless it’s a transcon length flight, the meals are no longer noteworthy. Since I’m not a big 250 lb. or more guy, the width of the seats has never been an issue for me. It’s all about legroom.
On our approach into Seattle, an announcement was made detailing connecting gate information for Alaska’s flight to Miami. No other flights were mentioned, even though Alaska operates a number of late night flights to places like Washington DC, Orlando, Portland and Spokane. Evidently a large number of people off this flight were, like me, heading down to Miami.
March 2, 2005
Seattle to Miami
Alaska 19 First Class * Snack
737-900 N319AS Seat 3A
1015p-651a Flight Time: 5:05
This Miami flight was scheduled for a 10:15pm departure. Regardless of what class I’m traveling in, I have never liked traveling in the middle of the night. Above all else, I really enjoy life under sunny skies rather than starry skies. There’s a reason why I choose window seats over aisle seats and at night that reason is completely negated. Secondly, I enjoy sleeping at night and one simply can’t get a quality sleep on a short five-hour transcon such as this that doesn’t include a bed. Unfortunately, Alaska offers just one flight per day between Seattle and Miami and this is it.
The aircraft for tonight’s flight was a 737-900, the longest derivative of Boeing’s most popular airliner ever. One of the nice things about Alaska’s version is that the First Class seats have a couple more inches of pitch than any other aircraft type in the fleet. If I must fly during the night on Alaska Airlines, I couldn’t have asked for a better aircraft.
Not surprisingly, most of the people seated around me in the First Class cabin were the same ones I’d traveled down from Fairbanks with. One exception was my seatmate who had started his day in Spokane. He explained with a yawn that he’d been up since 4:30am and as such, it was all he could do to keep his eyes open past the safety demonstration. He reclined his seat the moment we became airborne and was still asleep when I awoke about a half-hour out of Miami.
In between all that, I read for a bit and passed on an initial snack offering that included a small bowl of tomato and olive salsa served with a packet of Tropical Sesame Crackers. Soon after that, I fell into a fitful sleep, finally awakened for good by the aroma from the delicious warmed Danishes that accompanied a small plate of sliced melon for the pre-arrival snack service.
We descended through overcast skies and, after a nice landing, taxied through a light rain to our gate out at the end of the E Concourse. I don’t believe I’ve ever been out on the end of this concourse because it required a short train ride to get us over to the main terminal. Perhaps it’s part of the new Miami International Airport? The numerous posters displaying artist renditions of the new South Terminal made the future MIA look quite nice indeed. I have no idea how long it’ll be before all of this terminal construction comes to fruition but it occurred to me as I was walking down to Baggage Claim that if Miami can do it, certainly London Heathrow should be able to as well. Shouldn’t they? Lord knows Terminals 1 and 3 are long overdue for a proper renovation.
After claiming my pack off the baggage carousel, I picked up a rental car and sped off to the nearest Security Patrolled Service Plaza where I reclined the front seat and caught another three hours of quality sleep. When I returned to consciousness, I headed down the turnpike to Florida City where I stopped for lunch at Rosita’s, an excellent if somewhat unpretentious looking Mexican Restaurant that I first discovered in the wake of Hurricane Andrew back in early 1993. Tourists hardly ever go in there and the staff is more than happy to allow me to practice my increasingly rusty Spanish with them.
Later, I drove thirty-eight miles down to Flamingo, located at the very bottom of the Florida Peninsula in Everglades National Park. This is far and away my favorite road in the entire state of Florida and a drive I highly recommend to anyone with an afternoon or a day to spare while visiting South Florida. Even if you were never to see any of the many different species of birds and reptiles that call the park home (an unlikely event), the scenery alone makes the drive well worth the effort.
I made it back to Homestead in time for a quick visit with Bob and Christy and their Australian Red Healer, appropriately named “Stubby”. They’re old friends who used to drive at Denali and are now full time N.P.S. Rangers at Biscayne National Park. They recently returned to Florida after seven years wearing the green and gray at Zion National Park in Utah. They are both naturalists extraordinaire and their love of nature is matched only by their passion for drinking beer. Needless to say, they are thrilled to be back in a place where real beer can be easily bought at most any time of day. They drink more beer than any two people I have ever known and it has been my great pleasure over the past twenty years to join them for many a session on back porches in Denali, Everglades, Zion and Acadia National Parks, not to mention many places in between.
As nice as it would have been to stay the night and help finish of the rest of their beer, I was faced with a 6:15am departure and a long day of travel ahead. They had the next day off and so wouldn’t be hittin’ the sack until late. I’d thought about getting a hotel earlier in the day but decided that $50.00 was just too much money given the amount of time I’d be able to actually stay and enjoy the room. The airport would be noisy until midnight, so that was out too. Instead, I headed back to the Snapper Creek Rest Area, parked in the shadow of a nice big tree, reclined the front seat fully, pulled out my pillow and sleeping bag and slept undisturbed until my alarm went off six hours later at 4:00am. The money I saved tonight I’d put into a nice hotel in Santiago tomorrow night. By the time I hit the road at 4:15am the next morning, I was only 25 minutes away from MIA.
March 4, 2005
Miami to Santiago (via Caracas and Lima)
LAN Chile 563 Business Class * Breakfast, Snack, Lunch
767-300 CC-CEK Seat 5A
615a-830p Flight Time: 2:48 / 3:33 / 2:56
LAN Chile operates out of the new and modern A Concourse at Miami International. Although there was a moderate line for Economy Class check-in, the Business Class (Clase Ejecutivo) check in counter was deserted save for one forlorn agent just waiting someone, anyone to check in. That would be me.
Check-in was quickly accomplished, after which I asked if the aircraft operating this flight offered a First Class cabin. On LAN’s website, all 767s are shown in a three-class configuration although some are now being reconfigured to a new two-class configuration as I type. If mine were the new two-class configuration, I wanted to get a seat further forward than my assigned seat, 5A.
After being informed that the aircraft did indeed have a First Class cabin, I asked if First Class service was offered on this flight. The LAN website indicated only Business and Economy Class were offered. I was told that one could upgrade to a First Class seat for an additional $150.00 USD but that the service would be identical to that offered in Business Class. Ah. Well then, I’ll keep my seat in Business Class, thanks. My seat was in the first row of Business Class, directly behind the First Class cabin.
LAN Chile is justifiably famous for the quality of its First Class catering. Since my flight today would offer a breakfast, hot snack and then a lunch, I would have gladly paid $150.00 for a chance to enjoy such a renowned inflight service. Without the First Class catering however, paying an extra $150.00 for the chance to sit in a slightly wider seat located just six feet in front of my present seat just didn’t seem worth the expense.
Next I asked if a lounge were available. Si, LAN Chile does have a lounge but it doesn’t open until 6:00am. Alas. I thanked the agent, collected my boarding pass and headed off to a nearby Starbucks for a tall Sumatran before proceeding through security and down to the gate.
No doubt some of you may be wondering why I’m taking this early morning milk run in Business Class when I usually redeem my miles for First Class, which LAN does indeed offer between Miami and Santiago on its nonstop flights. Aside from the fact that LAN’s nonstops operate late at night in each direction, I was particularly attracted by the exotic routings available via the multi-stop flights. For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of any flight is during the half-hour before landing and after takeoff, when the aircraft is flying at slower speeds and lower elevations. The sightseeing possibilities are excellent and many of South America’s western airports are situated in extremely scenic areas. As for the routings, LAN offers a number of attractive thru-flights with stops in places like Cancun, Havana, Bogota, Guayaquil, and Punta Cana. Today’s flight would make calls in Caracas and Lima before landing in Santiago twelve hours and fifteen minutes later. Total flying time would be almost nine and a half-hours, all of it in bright daylight. Then there are all those meals – three of them along the way. And finally, as an added bonus, I’d be logging my three millionth mile flown during the Lima to Santiago flight. In all, I’d have a comfortable seat, be well fed along the way, and get to see some fantastic scenery along the way. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a day!
** ***** **
Boarding was well underway by the time I arrived at the gate lounge. Since nothing on the concourse was open anyway, I decided to head right onboard. At the entrance to the aircraft was a trolley stacked with various newspapers, so I paused to pick up a copy of the Miami Herald before proceeding onto the aircraft. Before boarding, I also took note of the registration. CC-CEK. This was the same aircraft I flew between Easter Island and Papeete ten years ago.
At the door, two pretty raven haired Chilena Flight Attendants greeted me and directed me towards the left-hand side of the Business Class cabin. As I passed through the First Class cabin, I was surprised by how austere it appeared. There was just one row of dark blue upholstered seats, arranged 2-1-2. The cabin itself is really quite plain with white, non-carpeted walls and no pictures or emblems. The Business Class cabin actually looked more inviting.
LAN’s 767-300s offer 28 Business Class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. They are all upholstered in the same dark blue fabric as First Class. The seats are comfortably wide and offer excellent seat pitch, about 60”. Even though my seat was at the bulkhead, I had plenty of space in front of me to spread out. Also included were electronically controlled recline, leg rest and lumbar support. Very nice.
At each seat was a prepackaged pillow and blanket. I stowed my gear in the overhead and was just getting ready to sit down when a Flight Attendant stopped by to relieve me of my jacket. She returned shortly with a tray bearing glasses of orange juice or water. Un jugo de naranja, por favor.
In the seat pocket in front of me were all the usual trappings along with the menu for today’s flight. I immediately delved into it and was at once impressed by both its size and content. In terms of size, the menu was as large as most First Class menus and featured twelve pages covering the welcome announcement, foods served and a listing of LAN’s Panel of Chefs.
With the boarding just about completed, it was apparent that we’d be flying a pretty light load out to Caracas this morning. First Class was empty, Economy was only sparsely populated and Business Class had only six seats filled. There was plenty of room to stretch out.
Just before pushback, Flight Attendant Danilla arrived to present the amenity kit and take my breakfast order. As amenity kits go, this one was nothing special, but then this was a daytime flight as opposed to an overnight one. The kit came in a large dark blue cloth bag and contained a set of socks, an eyeshade and a set of earplugs. That’s it.
Take off was to the Northeast and quite powerful. I was actually pushed back into my seat, which only served to heighten my excitement and anticipation towards this trip officially getting under way. Not surprisingly, we were airborne after only a 23-second take-off roll.
Service began almost immediately after we’d leveled out. First came a tray of hot towels, followed soon after by a blue linen tablecloth and finally the breakfast trays. Here’s what was offered on the menu:
Miami to Caracas
TO START Orange Juice
Coffee or Tea
OUR COLD DISHES Fresh Seasonal Fruit
Yogurt or Cereal
Scrambled Eggs with Mushrooms Accompanied by steamed asparagus and roasted tomatoes
Cheese Blintz Fine crepes filled with cream cheese and ricotta, topped with blueberry sauce
FROM THE BAKERY Puff pastry and maple syrup roll. Choose your selection from our variety of bread served with butter and preserves
I selected the Scrambled Eggs for my entrée along with a bowl of cereal. I was a bit surprised when the entire breakfast was presented on a single tray, but then it’s been awhile since I’ve flown in Business Class. Even so, you’ll get no complaints from me. The food was delicious, especially the eggs and accompanying asparagus spears. The cereal was Raisin Bran. The fruit bowl consisted of a strawberry, kiwifruit and cantaloupe. Although no choice of bread was ever offered per the menu, the multi-grain roll that came on the tray was warm, crisp and delicious.
After breakfast, I checked out the inflight entertainment selections. LAN has put together a very nice booklet describing the various movies and musical choices. All of the A340s and some of the 767s offer twelve different movies, in addition to the usual television fare like old episodes of Friends, the Discovery Channel, etc. Unfortunately, my 767, perhaps being one of the oldest in the fleet, offered only five or six movies plus the television features, none of which interested me. I pulled up the tiny (6” diagonal screen) PTV and watched the SkyMap for a bit and then reclined my seat and tried to get some sleep before our arrival in Caracas an hour and a half later.
Wow! What recline! Without a doubt, this seat reclined farther than any other non-flat reclining seat I’d ever sat in. I reclined all the way back, adjusted my pillow, threw on my blanket and woke up a little over an hour later to a beautiful, clear morning over the deep blue Caribbean Sea. We were just south of Bonaire and soon began our descent into Caracas.
Caracas’ airport sits almost directly upon the Caribbean coast, separated from the water by a fair sized ridge upon which numerous people actually lived. I’ve always been amazed by the proximity of housing to the airport runways in many Latin American countries. No doubt the land is a lot more affordable there.
As we taxied into our gate, we passed at least a dozen old DC-9-30s and 737-200s. Many of the DC-9s wore the colorful yellow, red or blue livery of Venezuelan domestic carrier ASERCA, though examples from both LASER and Aeropostal were in evidence as well. All of the 737s belonged to RUTACA, another brightly colored Venezuelan start-up. Off in a separate corner of the airport was a collection of old 727s and a few more DC-9s in various states of repair and/or disrepair.
The temperature outside was announced as a muggy 28C. With passengers disembarking out of one door and food service workers entering from another, it wasn’t long before the cabin began to become uncomfortably warm. Regardless, I’d already decided to go inside and have a look around the gate area so I grabbed my daypack and headed off the aircraft.
Caracas’ Simon Bolivar International Airport will never be mistaken with Singapore’s Changi or any other modern and spacious facility. The gate area would best be described as Spartan, highlighted by lots of linoleum, plain white walls and glass. A couple of very small gift shops and a candy shop were nearby, along with an equally small coffee bar. On a positive note however, the terminal was blessedly air-conditioned. Ahh…
When the boarding announcement was made, the entire gate lounge rose almost as one and surged towards the jetway. To their credit, they quickly formed a long but orderly line and the whole process went fairly smoothly from then on. The line was quite long, so evidently we’d be flying nearly full down to Lima. Unfortunately, there was never a preliminary call for Business or First Class passengers, nor was there a separate line for either of the Premium classes. When I did finally board however, I was thankful to find that seat 5B was still empty even though almost every other seat in Business Class was taken. First Class held a middle-aged couple and their infant son, who wailed unhappily until well after takeoff. Poor kid. I’ll bet his ears were killing him.
Flight time down to Lima was announced as three hours and thirty-one minutes. As we climbed away from the airport and made a big sweeping turn to the south, I was treated to some excellent views of the Caribbean coastline along with a nice shot of downtown Caracas.
Despite the 11:20am departure time, the meal service on this sector listed as a Hot Snack. Here’s the menu transcript:
Caracas to Lima
TO START OUR SNACK Champagne Henriot, Brut Souverain
FROM THE BAKERY Choose your selection from our variety of warm breads
AS THE MAIN ENTRÉE, WE OFFER
Filet of Beef Medallion topped with Red Wine and Tarragon Sauce Accompanied by parslied mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans
A FRESH SALAD Assortment of fresh greens with seasonal garnishes
Alas, the menu described a service that was a bit nicer than what we ultimately received. To begin with, no Champagne or any other pre-snack beverages were ever offered. Our drink orders were taken as the meal trays were delivered. Missing from the trays was any form of salad. I asked the FA about this and she apologized profusely, explaining that the caterers had neglected to include them.
Oh well. Otherwise, this was a pretty tasty meal. The dessert, described as fig custard, was really more like a fig cake, but it went down pretty well with that bat urine LAN calls coffee. Whaaaat?!! Bat urine?! Yes, that’s what I said. On a trip back to the galley for water, I saw the FA mixing up cups of instant coffee. Sacrilege! Especially for a South American carrier. I did however notice that gourmet coffee was listed on the menu. Perhaps that needs to be asked for specifically. Even though instant coffee is widely served in Chile, I would have thought an airline of LAN’s reputation would have offered its premium class passengers the good stuff first.
The SkyMap provided much of my entertainment as we flew down the eastern side of the Andes past a magnificent parade of massive mountains including Mt. Chimborazo, the world’s tallest volcano at just over 20,700 feet (6,267 m). For this segment at least, you really want to be sat on the right hand side of the aircraft. My seat on the left-hand side afforded me some nice views of long, muddy rivers winding like giant anacondas through the lush wetlands below. Thankfully, I was able to relocate to an open window seat on the bulkhead across the cabin from me.
During our descent into Lima, I was surprised by how brown and arid the surrounding hills looked. A wind must have been up down there as well because the entire countryside looked dusty. When we landed, the pilot seemed to apply the reverse thrust extra forcefully. Perhaps there was a dust cloud ahead of us!
The last time I visited Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, it was 3:00am and if there was a terminal building with jetways, we never parked by it. This time we did pull up to an actual terminal building and a jetway was attached to the aircraft. Unfortunately, through passengers were not allowed to disembark.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the great benefits of flying during daylight hours is all the extra stuff you get to see. Take Lima’s airport, for instance. It is a veritable graveyard for all types of classic jetliners! As we taxied in towards the terminal I saw a group of three 707-320s and an old DC-8-33 fitted with the old water injection pure jet engines. Sadly, all of them were covered with grime and didn’t look like they’d be flying again anytime soon. Also noted in various states of disrepair were a variety of old 727-100s and F-28s, including many from Peruvian operator AeroContinente. I also saw a Russian TU-154 of indeterminate ownership along with an ancient TU-134 in the colors of Imperial Airlines. Contrasting these derelicts was a spotless totally white DC-8-62. Oooooo – what a beauty! Then there were the props and helicopters…
We boarded a full load for the 1,500-mile flight down to Santiago. This included the late arriving and second to the last to board gentleman assigned to seat 5B. Ah well, having that seat free for two out of three flights wasn’t bad. Unfortunately, this poor guy was sick with something or another. He spent a good part of the flight early on back in the toilet, and when he did return, he groaned once and then issued forth a series of little coughs every few minutes. I prayed I wouldn’t catch whatever he had and tried to discretely draw my breath from the side of my seat away from him. One thing I don’t need at the beginning of this or any trip is to be bedridden with a case of South American Whooping Cough or whatever he was suffering from.
Prior to pushback, a Flight Attendant presented us with a new choice of pre-flight beverages. Gone were the juice and water and in their place were glasses of champagne and Pisco Sours, the national cocktail of Peru. Also included were little ramekins of mixed nuts. I had a Pisco Sour, which tasted very much like a Margarita but with something slightly tangy lurking in the background. Some of you old timers out there may remember that Pisco Sours were the featured libation in the International Lounge, located upstairs on Braniff’s big orange 747 that plied the Dallas to Honolulu route from 1971 until that airline’s untimely demise in the early 1980s.
It’s worth noting that the same cabin crew worked this flight from Miami all the way through to Santiago. That’s a long day – just over twelve hours. On the plus side however, they all were able to get back home for the night. I also noticed that the FAs seemed to rotate amongst each other as to who got to work the First and Business Class cabins.
Interestingly, I was addressed in English only twice during the trip, and then not until well into the second leg, long after it should have become apparent that Spanish is not my first language. Mind you, it is not my intent to be linguistically ethnocentric here. After all, I got plenty of opportunities to practice my rather rusty Spanish. However, on an airline of LAN Chile’s caliber, a OneWorld carrier operating a flight out of its busiest North American gateway city, I would have expected at least one or two flight attendants to confidently speak proficient English, especially amongst those working in the Premium Class cabins. I would not have the same expectation on a flight within Chile or South America. My Spanish is certainly passable, but again, any native speaker would easily discern that it is far from being my first language. Based upon the English language versions of the inflight announcements that I heard, I know I spoke better Spanish than any of the FAs working LA563 spoke English. It’s also possible that they continued to speak Spanish to me because I responded to them in Spanish.
Soon after we’d leveled off, hot towels were passed out followed by the presentation of what has to be one of the nicest looking Wine Lists I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the wines on offer nearly so much as the book in which the choices were presented. The covers had the look and feel of real cork while inside were photographs and full descriptions of each wine offered. I noticed that the Wine List cover indicated it was the Executive Class Wine List. Whoa… I can’t imagine how nice the First Class List must be! Here’s a listing of the wines offered:
Champagne Brut Souverain, Champagne Henriot, Reims, France
Red Wines Anakena Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2003 – Valle del Rapel
Ramirana Gran Reserva Syrah 2003 – Valle del Maipo
Bodega Salentein Roble Malbec – Alto Valle de Uco Mendoza
Porta Carmenere Reserve 2004 – Valle del Maipo
White Wines Concha y Toro Trio Chardonnay–Pinot Grigio–Pinot Blanc 2004 – Valle Casablanca
La Fortuna Sauvignon Blanc 2004 – Valle de Curico
Port Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 1997
The menu indicated that we would be served a full luncheon on this flight. This flight apparently has been catered at each stop along the way. Let’s see what the folks in Lima’s flight kitchen have whipped up for us this afternoon…
Lima to Santiago
TO START Champagne Henriot, Brut Souverain
FRESH GARDEN SALAD Fresh seasonal vegetables served with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar
AS THE MAIN ENTRÉE, WE OFFER
Filet of Beef with Mushroom Sauce Grilled filet of beef medallion served with mushroom sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes with corn and sautéed carrots
Our Master Sommelier suggests Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2003 Vina Anakena, Valle de Rapel
Sauco Chicken Breast Chicken breast topped with Sauco Sauce, accompanied by a timbal of potatoes au gratin and sautéed snow peas
Our Master Sommelier suggests Ramirana Gran Reserva Syrah 2003 Vina Ramirana – Valle del Maipo
Loche Squash Gnocchi Loche squash gnocchi topped with white wine sauce and Parmesan cheese
Our Master Sommelier suggests Carmenere Reserve 2004 Vina Porta – Valle del Maipo
FROM THE BAKERY Choose your selection from our variety of warm breads
OUR DESSERT Algarrobina Mousse topped with “ranfanote”, a typical Peruvian topping of honey and pecan nuts
I chose the Sauco Chicken Breast and was not disappointed. I received a good sized portion of moist and tender chicken, covered in a creamy peach colored sauce that was a little sweet, but not too sweet. Good stuff. I especially liked the sautéed snow peas, one of my favorite vegetables. As for the dessert, well, it was quite simply one of the finest tasting desserts I’ve ever enjoyed aloft in any class. Delicious! Even with a cup of that horrid coffee.
By my calculations, it was somewhere in the middle of my third bite of Sauco Chicken that I passed the three million miles flown barrier. I celebrated with a gulp of tasty red wine. I flew my one millionth mile in 1985 on my birthday aboard a United DC-10, First Class from Seattle to Denver. Believe me, it took some finagling to work out my flights so that this could happen on my birthday. At the time, as a result of my successful participation in United’s 50 State Marathon, I had an unlimited First Class pass good for travel anywhere within the fifty United States. On the week before my birthday, I calculated that I’d need to fly a little over 31,000 miles to get the one millionth mile on my birthday. I think I went to Hawaii and back four times that week!
Our approach into Santiago took us right down the Pacific coastline, paralleling the crest of the Andes. We flew right by Aconcagua, though there were a few clouds around its summit. Because of the proximity of the huge peaks of the Andes along with the beautiful Pacific coastline, Santiago is truly one of the world’s most scenic airports to fly into or out of. We landed smoothly on a beautiful late summer evening and moments later I was bidding adios to all the FAs as I strode off the airplane and on towards my South American adventure. It’s good to be back south of the equator!
As for LAN’s overall service on this flight, I’d rate it a 7 out of 10. The main reason for this average rating is that the service seemed uneven. That is to say sometimes there were preflight beverages served, sometimes not, sometimes champagne was offered, sometimes not, (It was never offered at the start of the last two meals per the menu), nuts were offered with drinks only on the last segment, there was no salad with one meal, instant coffee being routinely served rather than gourmet coffee and finally the FA call button was never, ever answered. It worked because I heard it and saw the light above my seat, but rather than ring it incessantly, I just went back to the galley for whatever I needed.
We all have our bad days and LAN Chile’s reputation indicates they’ve had many more good days than bad. Besides, I wouldn’t call this a bad flight, just one that could have easily been better. LAN’s a much better airline than what I experienced today.
It costs $100.00 USD for US citizens to enter Chile. This is called a reciprocity payment since the US started it all by charging Chilenos the same amount a couple of years back. On the plus side, it’s a one time payment, good for the life of your passport. Unfortunately, my passport expires in two years.
Since my “connecting” flight to Buenos Aires wasn’t scheduled to depart until the next afternoon at 3:10pm, I decided to splurge and shell out $45.00 for a room at the Hotel Ciudad de Vitoria. Granted, this hotel was no Sheraton, but the rooms were comfortable and included all the usual amenities like mini-bar, color cable television, hair dryer in the bathroom, etc. Upstairs on the 17th floor was a beautiful swimming pool along with a decent exercise room and a sauna. A good sized continental breakfast was also included in the rate. I’ll be staying here again on my return, if only to pick up my nice tweed jacket which I placed in storage with the hotel.
March 5, 2005
Santiago to Buenos Aires
LAN Chile 445 Business Class * Hot Snack
767-300 CC-CRH Seat 5A
310p-520p Flight Time: 1:27
In Santiago, a number of different companies operate busses to get you to or from the airport. Only one, however, offered door to door service. It cost $7.00 USD and got me out to the airport quickly and comfortably.
LAN Chile offers a separate check-in area for its Premium Class passengers, though oddly it is located on the complete opposite end of the terminal from LAN’s general check-in area. Once I’d figured this out, I hiked on down there and checked in without a problem.
Except one. On LAN’s website, this flight is listed as being operated by an A340 and since I’d only flown aboard Cathay Pacific’s version of this bird, I was really looking forward to checking out LAN’s version, especially to see if that First Class cabin looked any more plush than the one on the 767s. I’d only recently managed to get booked on this flight, specifically to fly the A340, but had not yet gotten around to getting a seat assignment. When, per my request, the agent assigned me a bulkhead window in seat 5A, I asked what kind of aircraft this was since 5A is also the bulkhead window in the 767s. Alas, today a 767 had been substituted for the A340. Well, dang!
On the plus side however, there was a lounge. In fact, there was for me at least a choice of lounges. My Business Class ticket would gain me entrance to LAN’s Salon VIP Neruda Lounge but my Priority Pass would gain me entrance to two others as well. Since Santiago is LAN’s home base, it was a pretty sure bet that they operated the finest lounge in the airport. As well, the Neruda Lounge was located right next door to my departure gate so I headed there straightaway.
The lounge is located one floor below the departures area and is accessed via a rather inauspicious entryway shielded by floor to ceiling opaque glass. Inside however, it is a fairly nice facility though surprisingly small given the number of flights that LAN operate out of SCL. Large windows offered a decent view of the ramp, though this view was obscured somewhat by a big metal walkway leading down to the jetway from the boarding lounge above. Across the airport, on the other side of the runway, I saw two of LAN’s A340s – one in the new colors and one in the old. Hopefully my 767 might suffer a mechanical and they’d have to bring over one of those A340s!
A buffet area offered miniature sandwiches, a tray of fresh sliced fruits, a plate of small cakes and cookies and a bowl of mixed nuts. A variety of spirits and liqueurs were also available, along with all the wines that were presently being served in LAN’s Business class this month. I poured myself a Bailey’s on ice and grabbed a couple of mini-sandwiches before heading over to one of the six workstations located at the far end of the lounge.
These workstations were wonderful! Each one was fairly large with wrap around wooden slat walls that afforded a good measure of privacy. There was a good two meters of desk space and four of the workstations came equipped with internet connected computers. As an added bonus, LAN provided free Wi-Fi connections for all whose laptops were so equipped. I spent a pleasant two hours in the lounge catching up on this report.
About twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time, the call to board was finally made and about a dozen of us headed upstairs and onto the aircraft. It was a very light load over to Buenos Aires today – maybe seventy people on the entire airplane. There were perhaps a dozen of us in Business Class. I took my seat at 5A and gratefully accepted a nicely chilled Pisco Sour along with a little bowl of mixed nuts. Hot towels followed soon after. This flight was off to a nice start.
I mentioned earlier that Santiago’s Benitez International Airport is one of the world’s more scenic airports to fly into or out of. This is particularly true when flying across the Andes to Buenos Aires. After take off, it only takes about twenty-five minutes to cross the Andes but the views are spectacular, especially given the size of the peaks – many of them well over 15,000 feet tall. Should any of you be so fortunate as to someday fly this route, be sure to ask for a seat on the “lado cordillera” or mountain view side of the aircraft.
Flight time to Santiago was listed at one hour and twenty-seven minutes so the Flight Attendants wasted little time in getting the service underway. Menus were distributed once we’d leveled out and drink orders were also taken at that time. It quickly became clear that today’s crew was quite a notch above yesterday’s group. The lead FA even announced the foreign languages spoken amongst the crew – excellent English along with Portuguese and German. Here is the menu transcript:
Santiago to Buenos Aires
TO START OUR SNACK Champagne Henriot, Brut Souverain
FROM THE BAKERY Choose your selection from our variety of warm breads
AS THE MAIN ENTRÉE, WE OFFER
Homemade Spinach Pascualina Served with roasted tomatoes and steamed asparagus
A FRESH SALAD Assortment of fresh greens with seasonal garnishes
Champagne was indeed offered to start this meal, though I settled for a glass of mineral water. As always, the meal was presented on a tray all at once. I quite enjoyed the Spinach Pascualina, which was kind of like a spinach pie with a flaky Greek style pastry crust. Still, I must take some issue with the term “Homemade” as it applies to this particular dish – or any airline dish for that matter. I just can’t quite see any of LAN’s chefs painstakingly slaving over their comparatively small home ovens and then delivering the completed dish to the airport commissary.
Regardless of its origin, the Spinach Pascualina was a very pleasing entrée and once again, crisp delicious asparagus accompanied it. As an added bonus, a choice of warmed rolls, presented in a nice basket, was offered for the first time. We never saw this yesterday. Coffee with Baileys brought this repast to a delicious conclusion and, after a flight time of just one hour and twenty-six minutes, we touched down at Buenos Aires Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini Airport and parked between a TAM A320 and a LAB 767-300.
Though short, this flight exemplified why LAN Chile has garnered such a fine reputation amongst Latin American carriers, not to mention all airlines. I thanked the Flight Attendants for their fine service and headed off to immigration, pausing only briefly to admire the shiny blue and white Lloyd Aereo Boliviano 767-300 parked next door.
The airport in Ezeiza is about 20 miles south of the city center and prices into town range from about $1.00 on the #86 bus (if you’ve got about an hour and a half to spare) to about $30.00 in a taxi. I took the middle road and headed over to the Manuel Tienda Leon Bus Company where a comfortable air-conditioned bus would get me into town for just $8.00 USD. Better yet, they would, at no extra charge, arrange for me to be taken from their downtown terminal directly to my desired destination, the giant Retiro Bus Station.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Buenos Aires’ Retiro Bus Terminal is the world’s largest. Housed in a gigantic building that is over a quarter mile long, the station has slots or “platformas” for seventy-five busses. There are three floors – the top one is for ticket sales only, the middle one for shops, restaurants and departures and the lower floor for freight and baggage storage.
The entire top floor of this massive building is dedicated to ticket sales only. Think about that for a moment. Tickets are sold on both sides of the building so that’s almost a half-mile of ticket offices. I would guess there are about one hundred long distance bus companies operating out of Retiro.
Thankfully, ticket sales are grouped by geographical zones so if, like me, you were traveling to the northwestern provinces of Argentina, you’d head to a set area of numbered ticket booths and all the companies serving the northwest would be found there. This also means that a big national company like Andesmar might operate ticket counters in six or seven different parts of the terminal.
Before I continue any farther, I should emphasize just how important bus travel is to moving Argentineans around this long and wide country that they live in. Argentina is the world’s eighth largest country, stretching over two thousand miles from north to south and covering over 1.7 million square miles. About one third of Argentina’s 37 million inhabitants live in or within one hundred miles of Buenos Aires. Although the majority of the population centers are found in the northern half of the country, the far south is well served by both planes and busses as well.
Like many countries, air travel was historically very expensive in Argentina. Trains handled most of the transportation needs in the early twentieth century but, as the highway infrastructure was slowly improved over the past fifty years, busses began to play a larger role in the country’s transportation needs. As for the railroads, old equipment and poorly maintained rail beds along with disgruntled and demoralized employees contributed to slower trains and unreliable service. Meanwhile, just across the border in Brazil, some of the world’s finest busses were being produced and marketed throughout the region.
Many people, when thinking of Latin American busses, envision an old school bus, garishly painted with dingle balls and crosses decorating the top of the windshield, packed from the roof to the last row of seats with all manner of humanity, farm animals and assorted baggage and farm implements. Of course, none of these busses would be complete without the little statuette of Our Lady of Guadelupe mounted upon the dashboard to assist in the safe completion of the journey. Once upon a time that type of bus was more common than not in most rural areas. Some examples still exist today in extremely rural areas as well as most any Rainbow gathering.
The modern long-distance inter-city busses serving Argentina, Chile and Brazil are very likely the finest of their type in the world. Certainly they are far superior in comfort and amenities to anything I’ve ever seen or ridden on in America, Europe, Australia or Africa. Above all else, for the Argentines who have suffered through more economic turmoil than most of us will likely ever know in our lifetimes, these busses represent affordable, comfortable and reliable inter-city transport at about one fourth the cost of taking the plane.
Just how nice are these busses? Let’s compare for a moment with the finest examples in America and Australia, both of which I’ve ridden recently. American and Australian busses, operated by companies like Greyhound and McCafferty’s, uniformly offer four across seating, arranged 2-2. Seat pitch would be about 32” with minimal recline. Televisions are generally available for movie viewing but as there are no headphones, the entire bus is forced to at least listen to whatever film is playing. Onboard toilet facilities are available, as is air conditioning and stops are made along the way at appropriate mealtimes. All things considered, America and Australia offer decent service aboard pretty nice busses.
In Argentina, three different levels of service are available on most major inter-city markets. All long distance busses offer air-conditioning, water and toilet facilities.
Servicio Comun: Four across, 2-2 seating. Many of these busses also offer television.
Semi-Cama: Four across, 2-2 seating but much-improved seats with deeper padding, leg rests and much greater recline. Seat pitch is about 43”. Movies and music channels are standard, and some companies offer headphones. Hot or cold meals and/or snack services are generally offered on longer trips. A bus Attendant is on board for all services.
Coche Cama: For those who don’t know Spanish, cama means bed. This service offers three across, 1-2 seating. The seats are wide, deep and plushly upholstered, about the same as a 767 First Class domestic seat but with more padding. Seat pitch is about 50”. The recline is about the same as the original First Class sleeper seats of the 1970s and 80s. Blankets and good quality pillows are provided. Movies and music channels are standard, as are headphones. Hot or cold meals and snack services are always offered on longer trips, along with wines and cocktails. A bus Attendant is on board for all services.
Finally, some routes are beginning to see an improved version of Coche Cama called Cama Suite. The services and amenities are the same as Servicio Cama with the main difference being that the seats recline to a full 180 degrees.
Without a doubt, bus travel has been elevated to an art form down here in southern South America. Even though I could very easily afford plane travel given the current exchange rate, I do enjoy a quality travel experience, not to mention all the beautiful Argentinean countryside I’d not get to see were I taking the plane. So – let’s switch now from the runway to the highway. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the ride.
*** ***** ***
The title of this Trip Report says I’m headed for Ushuaia, down at the bottom of South America. My present destination of Salta is located up on the Tropic of Capricorn, not too far south of the Bolivian border. Why am I heading north then? Oh, you know me – or at least those of you who’ve actually managed to read my Trip Reports from start to finish in years past do. I’ve always liked getting there every bit as much being there, so I rather prefer taking the long way wherever possible.
One of my favorite travel related quotes describes my approach, indeed my passion, perfectly:
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere
But to go.
The great affair is to move.
Robert Lewis Stevenson
So – off to Salta it is then. I’d done some investigation on the Internet, but even then I had no idea how many bus companies there were in Argentina, especially serving the Northeast. Books like lonely Planet and sites like Virtual Tourist named only two companies offering service between BA and Salta. When I arrived at the terminal, I was prepared to take a direct bus to Salta with a company called Nuevo Chevallier. Coche Cama seats all the way to Salta, a distance of 800 miles, were priced at just $125.00 Pesos, or about $43.00 USD. No way I was going to travel in anything less. Not at such affordable prices! It was Saturday night and I felt reasonably confident that I wouldn’t have much problem finding a Coche Cama seat up to Salta or Tucuman, a large city just four hours south of Salta.
I was wrong.
I had no problem finding the ticket offices serving the Northeast Region. They were just to my right as I entered the building. At the Chevallier counter however, I was informed that there were no more Coche Cama seats available for today. A later bus would be offering Semi-Cama service though.
Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll keep checking. The time was about 7:15pm when I began my search and over the next three or four companies that I visited, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that the company either didn’t offer Coche Cama or the bus that did had already departed. There were still a few more offices, so the search continued. If I didn’t find a bus tonight, I’d get a hotel and head up tomorrow as I’d already been assured by a couple of companies that seats were available then. Finally, I arrived at a company called Flecha Bus. It was 7:30pm.
“Are there any Coche Cama seats up to Salta, tonight?” I asked the pretty young lady working the counter. “Not directly”, she replied, “but we can take you to Tucuman where you’ll have a three-hour layover and then connect to another bus to Salta, arriving at 4:30pm. It’s Coche Cama to Tucuman and Semi-Cama to Salta.”
Yes!!! My heart soared as I grabbed for my wallet and hollered “Sign me up!”. Actually, it was nothing quite that dramatic, but serotonin levels did rise perceptibly and what I really said was closer to “Qué Bueno! Vendame uno asiento, por favor!” At the same time, I noticed a poster on the back wall depicting a big, wide comfortable 180-degree flat seat called “Premier Suite”.
“Perdoneme,” I asked, “but is that Premier Suite Service available on the bus to Tucuman?”
“It is.” she replied. Would I rather one of those seats?
“How much will it cost?” I asked.
“$148.00 Pesos” she replied. Wow! That was only about $30.00 Pesos or about $10.00 USD more then the Coche Cama service.
Moments later, I was in possession of a ticket granting me passage aboard the finest bus travel experience money could buy in Argentina, or at least on the Buenos Aires - Tucuman route. Total cost for this eighteen hour journey, including the Semi-Cama seat between Tucuman and Salta came to just $58.00 USD. By contrast, the cheapest airline seat I could find on the Internet priced out at about $120.00. It didn’t leave until the next morning. Had I opted to take the Semi-Cama service to Salta, I could have gotten there for about $35.00.
My bus to Tucuman was scheduled to depart at 8:00pm which left me about fifteen minutes to make my way down to the second level, buy a couple of bottles of water and find my bus. Interestingly, my Tucuman bus was not assigned a specific departure platform. Instead, I was told that the bus would be departing from somewhere between platforms 55 to 70. Out on the platforms, the scene was chaotic with lots of people milling around, looking for busses, waiting for busses, smoking, etc. Inside the terminal it was equally crowded. By the time I’d located platforms 55 – 70, it was 7:52pm.
The first Flecha Bus I saw was headed for Mar del Plata, a popular resort destination on the Atlantic Coast five hours south of Buenos Aires. I passed three more Flecha busses before I even knew they were from that company. As I soon discovered, no two Flecha Busses are painted alike. At least the title FLECHA BUS was emblazoned billboard style across the side of each bus. I kept walking. By now it was 7:54pm and time was running short. What if my Tucuman bus had a sign in the window showing a different destination than Tucuman and just happened to stop at Tucuman along the way? Not likely, I thought, since the next city of any consequence beyond Tucuman would be Salta or Jujuy. Finally, at 7:55 I found my Tucuman bus. The driver was standing at the door downstairs having a cigarette and chatting with one of the passengers. When I showed up, he collected my ticket, then called a baggage handler who promptly threw my pack in the big cargo hold at the rear of the bus and then demanded a tip.
“Tip!” he said.
“Huh?” said I, not sure if I understood him correctly. “Propina” is the Spanish word for a tip.
“Tip!” he repeated, and actually held out his hand.
Outside of the movies, I’d never seen such a brazen request for a tip. I reached into my pocket and handed him a Peso, the equivalent of $0.34 cents. He seemed pleased and scurried off to his next job.
Finally free of my pack’s encumbrance, I grabbed my daypack and headed back to the bus entrance. It was finally time to board the bus equivalent of a First Class suite on a British Airways 747. Let’s do it!
Measuring over 45’ long and rising over 14’ high, this bus featured premium class seating on two separate levels. Downstairs were four rows of wide plush seats arranged in a 2-1 configuration. These were Coche Cama seats for those traveling in Clase Ejecutivo. At the front of this cabin was a large lavatory and a stairway leading to the upper level of the bus where the Premium Suites were located. Next to the stairway was a doorway leading to the driver’s compartment. I took a quick look around and then headed upstairs.
The entire upper level was dedicated seating for Premium Suite passengers. The seats themselves were no wider than the Coche Cama seats downstairs but each row of seats was separated by a small privacy divider, much like some airlines have to separate their non-suite First Class sleeper seats from the row behind them. On each divider was a leg rest that could either fold back towards the seat to become a leg rest or be extended straight out towards the seat to become part of the flat sleeping surface. It was a simple, but very impressive design. At the rear of the upper level was the galley.
My seat was right at the very front of the cabin, over the top of the driver’s compartment. As such, my seat was not only next to a large side window but also had a huge forward facing windshield right in front of it. Talk about a 180-degree view! It was the best seat in the house!
A pillow and blanket had been placed at each seat and I was pleased to see that the pillow was of decent size and density, not like those cheap tiny fluffy things that most airlines pass out. As I took my seat and started to settle in for the long trip ahead, I reveled in the cool breeze emanating from the air-conditioning vent. It had been a muggy night in Buenos Aires and right now that air-conditioning felt downright heavenly.
As for seating comfort, this was one of the more ergonomically comfortable seats I’ve ever sat in. It was comparable in size to what you’d find in domestic First Class or International Business Class. Although there was nothing electronic about this seat, the recline button was easy to use and the total recline was as advertised. This was going to be a very comfortable ride indeed. Now if only there were had laptop hookups…
Just as we were backing out, the Bus Attendant stopped by, welcomed me aboard and asked if there was anything I needed. I assured him that I was more than comfortable and looking forward to enjoying the view from such an excellent vantage point. He returned shortly thereafter with a set of headphones and then collected the blanket and pillow from the empty seat beside me. As we pulled out of the Terminal and headed out into the Buenos Aires traffic, I reclined my seat, put up my feet and began to truly relax. We were finally underway.
As we accelerated smoothly along the highway out of Buenos Aires, it occurred to me that from the time I’d arrived in Buenos Aires, things had fallen into place as easily as if their places had been prearranged. This despite the fact that I’d arrived without reservations of any type, be it getting from Ezeiza into town to getting up to Salta, eight hundred miles distant. Looking back on it, my timing was impeccable. I cleared customs at 6:00pm, was on a bus into the city at 6:30pm, arrived at the Retiro Bus Terminal at about 7:15pm, had a ticket purchased by 7:45pm and was now sitting in a plush easy chair while speeding out of Buenos Aires aboard one of the world’s finest busses. Such a life!
Dinner started with hors d’oeuvres. Each of us were presented with a wrapped cardboard box that contained some tiny cheese crackers, a tiny bread roll and two shish kebobs of cubed cheese, ham and an olive skewered with those little plastic swords. Any further comparisons with BA’s First Class ended here, I reckon. Still, how many of us have ever been served a hot meal on a bus, with hors d’oeuvres no less?
My reverie was interrupted by the return of the Bus Attendant. Would Senor care for some wine with his meal? Por su puesto! Tinto o Blanco? Tinto, por favor.
Dinner was presented in a prefabricated plastic serving tray, about 9” x 12”. The tray included a cold rice and peas salad with a piece of deli sliced ham, a dinner roll, a packet of bread sticks and a slice of sweet cake. The main course was brought out hot from the kitchen and was presented in a rectangular tinfoil serving dish. I peeled off the cover to reveal a somewhat dried out looking slice of roast beef with a good-sized portion of mashed potatoes and gravy. This meal was on par with an Economy Class airline meal and while it wouldn’t score many points on presentation, it was otherwise filling and reasonably tasty.
After the meal, it was time for the movie. Tonight’s selection was Master And Commander, an interesting selection given Argentina’s defeat at the hands of the English just twenty-three years ago. I’d only seen this movie once when it was in the theaters and I remembered really liking the soundtrack. It was good to see it again, albeit on a 13” TV screen. Afterwards, I checked out the audio options but found only a lot of Madonna sounding stuff, lots of squeaky voiced divas backed up by drum machines and synthesizers. No thanks.
I spent the next couple of hours reading one of the five books I’d brought along for this trip. Finally, about 11:30 I shut off my light, reclined my seat, adjusted my pillow, threw on my blanket and lapsed into a most comfortable sleep. Rarely have I slept so well in a seat, either earthbound or airborne. That includes my nights spent in BA Suites.
I awoke in the morning to coffee and a small tray of sweets – cookies and Melba toast with a sweet caramel vanilla spread. Certainly not the most nutritional breakfast but a tasty early morning snack nonetheless. Actually, it wasn’t all that early. I’d slept until a little after 8:00am – on a bus no ness! Soon, we arrived at a large white arch over the highway that signified our entrance into the Tucuman province. A sign indicated that all vehicles must stop for an agricultural inspection. The guys manning the post had guns, too. Evidently, the Tucuman province is dead serious about its agricultural inspections.
We’d departed Buenos Aires in darkness so it was quite nice to awaken to a bright sunny day. The surrounding countryside was quite verdant, a nice mix of farmland dotted by small patches of trees. Unfortunately, the big windshield in front of me had been splattered with thousands of large and small insects during the night. It was a real mess and evidently would not get cleaned until trip’s end.
We arrived in Tucuman, a large city of over 300,000 people, at a little past 10:00am. Judging by the size of its bus terminal, Tucuman is at the very least a transportation hub for the northern provinces. There were 30 slots for busses and the terminal doubled as a small indoor shopping mall. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and most everything was closed. With almost three hours until my connecting bus to Salta was to depart, I checked my big backpack into a baggage storage place (Only about $1.50USD for the day as opposed to $10.00 for the day in Melbourne’s airport back in January) and set out in search of non-sugary sustenance. The terminal sported a good-sized restaurant on the premises, so I headed right in and soon was dining on a big plate of broiled chicken, salad and French fries. Since I’d sat next to a wall outlet, I was also able to plug in and recharge my laptop.
My connecting bus up to Salta offered Semi-Cama service that, while nowhere near as nice as the Suite Premium service, still offered a much nicer seat than anything I’d find back home. It was only a four hour trip to Salta, during which I read a bit and enjoyed the views as the land went from rolling green farmland to large green mountains.
Salta sits in a basin surrounded by those large green mountains. The bus descended down into the city and pulled into a rather nondescript and dirty little bus terminal. I had not made any reservations for a place to stay but was confident that I could find something both adequate and affordable in Salta, a city of over 400,000 inhabitants.
Given the devaluation of Argentina’s currency, it is possible to find excellent accommodations at a fraction of what one would pay in America or Europe. Of course, your fancy hotels such as a Sheraton will always be very expensive compared to everything else, but all I required was a comfortable, air-conditioned room in the $20.00-30.00 per night range. Salta has a number of hotels that would fit this description and I decided to try the Petit Hotel, located just a few blocks from the city center. It was listed as a Mid-Range hotel in price and came highly recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It was described as follows:
The Spanish villa style rooms at the foot of Cerro San Bernardo are excellent and well worth the tariff with great mountain views.
This sounded just fine to me and so I headed for the nearest locutorio. Locutorios are basically small telephone offices where one can call either locally or long distance from private booths and then pay for the call afterwards. They are much less expensive than using pay phones on the street. In most cities, they can be found just about every other block and of course a bus station is also a good place to find one.
Ten minutes later, I was being shown to my room at the Petit Hotel. The hotel has about twenty rooms, most of them situated around a large courtyard that has a small swimming pool in the middle. My room had air-conditioning and cable TV with a gazillion channels. It didn’t have a table though, so the friendly gal working the front desk located one along with a chair for me and I was set. The price: $57.00 Pesos or just under $20.00 USD per night.
Dinner in Argentina is generally not eaten until late, so many restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 8:00pm. As such, I had plenty of time to shower and relax before heading into town. Although the Lonely Planet offered a number of suggestions for eating out, I decided to go with the recommendation of the front desk clerk. She recommended three different places that specialized in regional fare and so I headed in towards the city center in search of one or all.
The place I ended up at (For the life of me, I cannot remember its name) was simply superb! As soon as I was sat, I was brought a basket of sliced French rolls along with a complimentary plate of marinated onions, carrots and eggplant. This tasted surprisingly good as a spread on the bread. For dinner I ordered what turned out to be a pair of small steaks topped with eggplant and cheese, surrounded by a delicious sauce. The presentation was very artistic and the taste was fantastic. Total cost: $5.00 including tip.
I spent three days in Salta and found the city a very laid back and enjoyable place. I could easily spend a month here. Salta is known for it’s well preserved Spanish Colonial architecture and I quite enjoyed just walking into and around town, amongst the many colorful buildings and the green shady parks. Unfortunately the streets around the central plaza were under construction so what would have been an otherwise very nice place to spend some time was instead noisy and dusty. Regardless, there were plenty of other interesting little nooks and crannies to explore and enjoy.
A number of excursions into the surrounding mountains were available, but with only three days in the region, I decided to just hang loose in Salta. Personally, with only a three-day stay I think running all over town trying to see all of its cultural sights, etc. is overrated. I like to just hang out and enjoy the local scene, sit in the plaza and languish over coffee and medialunas with the morning paper. Go walk around town in the afternoon, stop into a museum or bookstore, eat some nice meals at local restaurants… etc., all truly boring stuff that I really enjoy. Mind you, I enjoy the occasional excursion too but without a doubt what everyone else would rush off and try to do in their first two days it would take me a week or more to get around to. I make a lousy travel companion for people who just have to see and do everything.
I really liked Salta a lot and am quite certain that this is a place I could easily come back to for a two or three week visit. Without a doubt, I know that I will do just that someday soon. In the meantime, my ultimate destination remains Ushuaia, two thousand miles south of Salta at the opposite end of the country. I had a lot of ground to cover and very little of it would be by air so I bid farewell to the friendly staff of the Petit Hotel and hiked back over to the bus station where a sleeper seat awaited me on the 12:45pm departure down to Buenos Aires.
Interestingly, dinner on this bus was not served onboard but rather at a restaurant. The movie had just ended when we pulled into a truck/bus stop at a little past midnight. I don’t know about the other passengers, but I sure was surprised when it was announced that a complimentary dinner would be served inside while the bus was serviced and fueled. And what a dinner! It started with a cold plate of ham and cheese, followed by a small salad, then a big quarter roasted chicken served with vegies and roasted potatoes. Greyhound, are you listening?! Arrival in Buenos Aires Retiro Terminal was at 9:30am the following morning and I quickly headed over to the Via Bariloche Bus counter to purchase my suite seat ticket down to Bariloche.
March 10, 2005
Buenos Aires to Bariloche
Via Bariloche Tutto Letto Classe
230p-1020a Travel Time: 19:50
Via Bariloche is regarded as one of the finest bus companies in Argentina. They offer comfortable accommodation and superior catering aboard the most modern equipment available. I rode with them six years ago between BA and Bariloche when only Coche Cama was offered. It was a memorable experience, highlighted by both the excellent onboard service and the beautiful scenery as we approached Bariloche. Today I would be trying out Via Bariloche’s new Tutto Letto Service featuring the new fully reclinable sleeper suites, upholstered in reech, Coreeenthian Leatharr.
Hey! Even Ricardo Montalban would have crowed about the plush green leather seats that graced the upper deck of my Via Bariloche Marcopolo Paradiso 1800DD cruiser. Each seat even came with curtains for those desiring a little extra privacy. Three TV sets were mounted from the ceiling for our movie viewing pleasure and cold air shooting out of the vents took much of the swelter off the hot Buenos Aires day. As I settled back into my comfortable seat, I found myself actually looking forward to this twenty-hour journey aboard a bus much like one might look forward to a thirteen-hour flight in Qantas First Class across the Pacific.
Departure was on time and after about a half-hour on the road, Antonio, our bus attendant, came upstairs with a tray of tasty looking cookies followed by cups of hot tea or coffee. It’s worth noting that tea and coffee were always available via self-service urns located downstairs in the galley. Also located downstairs was a large, non-smelly bathroom, well stocked with soap and paper hand towels.
The first of three movies, an early Tom Hanks flick called That Thing That You Do, was shown shortly after our departure from Buenos Aires. Not long after the movie ended, Antonio returned with a tray of ham and cheese sandwiches for a between movie snack. The next movie was some lamentable comedy with Ben Stiller and Jack Black so I took some time out to recline my seat and nap for a spell.
Following a pretty sunset, dinner was served. A tray was delivered bearing potato salad, a packet of Melba Toast and a dinner roll. Soon after followed the hot entrée that consisted of sliced beef and vegetable casserole rolled up into a log, accompanied by a corn and potato casserole. The entree looked like a badly organized version of one of those Swanson Hungry Man TV Dinners – most of the ingredients appeared to be all mixed together. Most importantly though, it tasted pretty good. I was reminded of some of the fine Midwestern fare I’d been served aloft on Ozark Airlines back in the 1970s.
Following dinner, we were offered a choice of whiskey or champagne. Hmm… an interesting way to end the meal… I went with the champagne and was presented with a tall plastic flute of the bubbly libation that actually tasted much better than the cheap stuff United Airlines serves on its domestic flights.
Who’d have ever thought one could have such an enjoyable time while traveling across country on a twenty-hour bus trip? Sleep came easily as I reclined my seat to its fully flat position and tossed the thick wool blanket over me. I slept soundly until daybreak.
The final one hundred miles of roadway coming into Bariloche are quite scenic as the highway winds up and over some large hills, around a large lake and finally descends down into Bariloche, one of South America’s most beautiful destinations.
Bariloche, once known as San Carlos de Bariloche, sits in Tyrolean splendor upon the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, a beautiful alpine lake nestled against the eastern rise of the Andes Mountains. Through most of its early years, Bariloche was a playground for the Argentinean elite. The architecture is distinctly European, but accented quite favorably through the use of regional hardwoods and local stone masonry. The downtown district looks very much like Aspen or Vail, sporting exclusive boutiques, quaint restaurants and lots of chocolate shops. Chocolate is seriously big business in Bariloche and deservedly so. I sampled some from two different confectioneries and was quite impressed. This was not my father’s Hershey bar.
Bariloche is also home to some of Argentina’s finest skiing, hiking and boating. This, coupled with the evolution of the tourism industry and the affordability of travel to and within Argentina has made Bariloche a principal destination for more youthful and decidedly less elite backpackers from the world over. The nightclub scene is also quite healthy in Bariloche and for many Argentine students, it is the destination for post graduation celebrations. In many ways, the town reminded me of Queenstown, New Zealand although the surrounding mountains are a bit larger and Lake Nahuel Huapi is about three times the size of Lake Wakatipu.
My home for the next two nights would be the Hotel Internacional, offering a functional if somewhat bland room for just $53.00 Pesos or $19.00 per night. It was conveniently located just one block off the town plaza and included breakfast each morning between 7:00 and 10:00am.
As per my style, I spent a leisurely first day in Bariloche. I enjoyed a fine luncheon at the cozy Café Alpina, followed by a stroll about the town plaza and down to the lake. A stop at the post office for stamps (Everything in Argentina is very affordable except postage. It costs $1.40 USD to send a single postcard to North America) was followed by a visit to the train station to check out some of the old Patagonian Express railway cars parked there. Later, I returned to Bariloche in time to get myself booked on a six hour excursion by boat the next day out across the lake to Nahuel Huapi National Park and the Arrayanes Forest. This meant an early dinner (9:00pm) and a 9:00am wake up call.
This excursion started from Puerto Panuelo, located 20km from town just below the spectacular Llao Llao Hotel. I visited the Llao Llao twelve years ago and it is a classic old fashioned grand hotel built in the fashion of Canada’s spectacular lodges at Banff and Lake Louise. It’s location, on a hill just above the lake, affords its guests sweeping vistas of the lake and surrounding mountains.
Two companies offer essentially the same excursions around the lake. Where they differ is in the boats that they employ. One uses a sleek, modern catamaran called the Cau Cau. The other works with a 68 year old steamer that used to carry the rich and famous around the lake. That would be my boat, the M.N. Modesta Victoria. She was designed in Holland and shipped over to Argentina in 1936. After being sent overland by rail to Bariloche, she was reassembled and entered service on Lake Nahuel Huapi in 1937. As I strolled up the gangplank and into the open lounge area of the ship, it was easy to imagine this moment sixty years ago as waiters handed out glasses of champagne while a small quartet serenaded the well dressed passengers with spicy Argentine melodies.
After about an hour and fifteen minutes of cruising, we docked at the Bosque de Arrayanes, or Arrayanes Forest. This is the only known Arrayanes forest in the world. The Arrayanes tree is known for its dense, cinnamon colored wood that is said to feel “cold”. It grows in dense clusters and were it not for a beautifully constructed circuitous walkway through the forest, a hike through these trees would not be a pleasant experience at all.
After an hour’s stop amongst the trees, we re-boarded the Modesta Victoria and motored off to Isla de Victoria, the largest island on the lake. Here we would have almost two hours to hike through the Experimental Forest or wander about the island’s many trails. Bariloche is at about the same latitudes as the Oregon/California border so I wasn’t surprised to find myself walking through groves of giant Sequoias and shady Maple trees. I also discovered the tallest Ponderosa Pines I’d ever seen. With these three trees at least, the experiment was a success. I didn’t recognize all the other species but regardless I spent a real nice hour hiking around the island.
For those who weren’t quite up to a longer hike, a wide graded trail led up to a small restaurant that included the ever-present gift shop. The real highlight of the restaurant was its large deck that offered spectacular views of the lake and its islands as the sun made its descent in the late afternoon sky. Behind the restaurant was a chairlift up to a lookout point.
We docked back at Puerto Panuelos just after sunset and I made my way out to the tree that served as the stop for the #20 bus that would take me and about eight others back to Bariloche. When I signed up for this trip, I could have purchased a round trip transfer from Bariloche for $16.00 Pesos but since the bus was only $2.00 Pesos each way, I figured I could spend the difference on a good dinner in one of Bariloche’s many fine restaurants. As it was, the entire half day excursion, including my $16.00 Peso park entrance fee and the $4.00 I paid for the bus came to just under $20.00 USD. I highly recommend this trip regardless of the price!
*** ***** ***
Although this was my third visit to Bariloche in the past twelve years, I could have easily stayed much longer. My regret at leaving Bariloche was tempered considerably however by the journey yet to come. This journey continued the next morning aboard a shiny new TAS Choapa bus that carried myself and about thirty other backpackers across the Andes Mountains into Chile.
The best way to get from Bariloche into Puerto Montt is with a company called Cruce de Lagos. The region from Bariloche across the Andes to Puerto Montt, Chile is called The Lakes District. It is appropriately named as the area is dotted by a good number of large navigable lakes set amidst the splendor of the high mountain peaks and snow capped volcanoes of the Andes.
The trip involves traveling by boat across five or six lakes that are each connected by road. Although it’s possible to do the entire crossing in just one day, many choose to stay for a night at a hotel on one of the lakes before continuing on to Puerto Montt the next day. I wanted to take this trip but it was unfortunately (and surprisingly, given the season) sold out on the day I needed to go.
*** ***** ***
Puerto Montt is a bustling port town of about 130,000. Down along the waterfront, the colorful wooden buildings could easily make a very nice jigsaw puzzle picture. It also has some excellent seafood restaurants, always a must for me when I’m in town.
The first time I visited Puerto Montt was twelve years ago. Back then, one could take a train down from Santiago. It was a twenty-four hour ride aboard what was essentially a working antique and was billed as the southernmost passenger train service in the world. (Though I believe New Zealand’s Southlander was more southerly when it still served Invercargill) The sleeper cars were of German heritage, built in 1929. From the outside, the paint was peeling and the cars were rusting, not to mention all the dirt and grime that had built up over years of not having been properly washed. They looked as if they’d been in Dresden during the WW-II bombings. Inside however, they were immaculate with beautiful wooden walls, old-fashioned lighting and a dining car that served up fine Chilean fare on white china and red tablecloths. If you weren’t in a hurry, this train was a comfortable and pleasant way to travel between Santiago and Puerto Montt. It took twenty-four hours to cover the 760-mile journey. Modern busses traveling along excellent paved highways were making the trip in thirteen hours though, so it wasn’t surprising that train service to Puerto Montt finally came to an end about ten years ago.
Although Puerto Montt and nearby Chiloe have been destinations for me in the past, this time I am here in transit. Tomorrow afternoon I will board the big Navimag ferry Puerto Eden for the three-day journey down to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park.
I awoke to a rainy day in Puerto Montt. Alas. I might have been disappointed except for the fact that Puerto Montt is generally a rainy place anyway, so today’s clouds were hardly a surprise. I spent the morning in town buying postcards, stamps and seasickness medication. Then I had a tasty Chicken Cordon Bleu lunch and made my way out to the Navimag Ferry Terminal.
Navimag is a Chilean shipping company that serves the southern coastal communities from Puerto Montt south to Puerto Natales, a distance of about eight hundred and fifty miles. For many years this area was inaccessible to cars and its only link to the outside world was the weekly boat. These days there is a rough highway called the Carretera Austral or Southern Highway but that road doesn’t go all the way to Puerto Natales and itself involves a number of smaller ferry trips to get across the many fiords along the southern coast. If you want to drive from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales and on to the larger city of Punta Arenas, you must cross over the Andes and head south down through Argentina before crossing back over to Chile at El Calafate or Rio Gallegos.
Although the bulk of Navimag’s revenues come from transporting freight, its ferries also serve as a vital transportation link for local Chileans and, increasingly, for the many visitors who head down to Patagonia and on to Tierra del Fuego.
Four different levels of accommodations are offered aboard Navimag’s boats. There are three different types of cabins offering anywhere from two to four beds and varying degrees of space and amenities such as ensuite toilet facilities or a larger window. The least expensive accommodations are in the bunkroom – fourteen bunks per room. There are two of these rooms and this is the class of accommodation a poor Alaskan bus driver such as myself was limited to. The cost was $275.00 USD and included all meals aboard the ship. Thankfully, the Puerto Eden had undergone some renovations to its cabins back in 1998 and perhaps the biggest improvement could be seen in these budget accommodations.
The last time I rode the Puerto Eden was twelve years ago. We paid $124.00 each and stayed way down in the bowels of the boat. I remember descending down dark narrow stairway after stairway and ending up in a cramped triangular shaped hold up in the bow of the boat that sported eight three tiered bunks for a total of twenty-four beds. The chamber was dimly lit and certainly not a place you’d want to do anything other than sleep. Now, there are two bunkrooms sleeping fourteen that are located on the same deck as the 300 series cabins. From the pictures I’d seen on the Navimag website, these rooms were substantially more cheerful and I was perfectly comfortable in booking one. Had it been the old style, I would have paid more for a cabin.
I had made my booking over the Internet and so arrived at the check-in counter with only a printed sheet indicating my reservation, its record locator and that I had paid in full. Interestingly, despite a scheduled 4:00pm departure, passengers are requested to check-in by 12:00n. I had missed this portion of the fine print and so did not present myself to the check-in counter until about 1:30pm. Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue. In fact, the bunkroom was full so I was placed in a four-bunk cabin and handed a set of keys. Oh yeah! I felt like doing one of those dances like Snoopy the dog in the Peanuts cartoons but a pair of crusty old German tourists were standing right behind me with a look that said “Let’s get a move on, Buster”. I gathered my gear together and relocated to an open seat in the boarding lounge.
At 2:30pm, a pre-trip briefing was given, first in Spanish then in English. It basically described the boarding process – 100 and 200 numbered cabins first, then the rest of us in the 300s. At 3:00pm, we boarded. There were no covered gangplanks or boarding bridges. The vessel was docked about 250 yards away from the boarding lounge and unfortunately, what had started out earlier in the day as a light rain had turned into a pretty good downpour. The entrance was through the rear of the ferry, up the ramp and into the lower cargo hold where all the semi-trucks and trailers would be parking. By the time I’d reached the ship, I was indeed a bit damp. Ah well, I had three days to dry out.
After enough passengers had gathered in the hold, we were led onto a big platform elevator and taken slowly up to the deck above. This elevator is used for raising semi-trucks to the upper deck and about fifty of us were able to fit onto it.
The three hundred series cabins were located on the upper cargo deck and upon locating my cabin I discovered that all of my cabin mates had already arrived. Sophie, Laura and Anna would be my cabin mates for the next three days. They were nice girls all, every one spoke English (Sophie was from Uruguay and spoke fluent German and Spanish as well) and none of them were snorers. Me on the other hand, I probably look like a snorer but I’m quiet as a cat. I also speak English.
Sophie was working as a tour guide for a group of twelve young Germans who were accommodated in the next three cabins down the hall. She was cheerful and energetic and beloved amongst her charges. They had arranged for a small bouquet of flowers to be placed in our cabin for her. Anna and Laura were a couple of girls from Colorado who’d grown up together in Grand Junction and were spending three months traveling around Chile and Argentina. We all got acquainted while unpacking (as much as one can be said to unpack from backpacks into a room with no dressers and only two hooks on the wall upon which to hang jackets) and then headed out to investigate our new home for the next three days.
It was fascinating watching the boatmen load and especially park the large semi-trailers. We’re talking about backing big truck trailers into spaces so tightly that the trailers were within 6 to 10 inches of each other on each side. Obviously this involved a coordinated effort amongst a good number of spotters and the driver. Then, each trailer had to be secured with chains. By the time the deck was full, the trailers were parked so closely together that there was no way a man could walk between them.
Our 4:00pm departure time came and went. At 5:00pm an announcement was made inviting all passengers to the lounge / dining room for a welcome aboard briefing about the trip. We were told about meal times, restricted areas, cultural presentations along the way, the daily Happy Hour, etc. and informed that we were welcome to visit the bridge at any time except when the ship was navigating narrow channels or entering/leaving port. Besides scenery, there would also be daily briefings about the areas we’d be traveling through that day as well as documentary films and movies at night. We were also informed that due to some delays in getting the cargo loaded, our departure time would now be at 6:30pm. A small groan arose from some in the crowd. What’s the hurry, I wondered? It’s not like we’re stuck in an airplane seat for an extra two hours.
Ultimately, we didn’t raise anchor and depart Puerto Montt until shortly after 8:00pm. A cheer went up from the assembled masses in the lounge. Many of us had been taking advantage of the happy hour prices on Pisco Sours or drinking delicious Kuntzmann Lagers, a delicious relatively new Chilean beer from Valdivia. Indeed, it was a festive atmosphere and it was certainly good to finally get underway. This ought to be a great trip!
Although we were still in port, the dinner service began at 7:30pm. All meals were served cafeteria style – grab a tray and grab some food. Regardless of cabin accommodations, everybody was served from the same menu. Tonight’s dinner included a corn and tomato salad, dinner rolls, cream of asparagus soup and a nice sized slab of tasty pink salmon topped with a piquant sauce and served with rice. Dessert was fresh fruit. Bon apetite. All meals included a dinner roll, salad and soup. Breakfast was always scrambled eggs, ham and cheese, a roll, cereal, yogurt and fruit. I thought the food was excellent throughout the trip.
Not long after finishing dinner, we felt a slight shudder as the 348 foot boat began to power away from the docks and head out into the Golfo de Ancud. It was neat watching the lights of Puerto Montt slide by as we glided down the channel. I joined Sophie, a couple of her German charges and an American couple out on the deck for beer and cigarettes. I’m not a regular smoker but when a Dunhill was offered, I accepted. Dunhills are quality smokes and mine sure tasted good with a bottle of ice cold Kuntzman Lager. Das Gute Bier.
About 11:30pm, I called it a night. My bunk was just barely long enough for me but was otherwise very comfortable. Each bunk included a reading light, a small shelf for personal belongings and curtains for privacy. I slept quite comfortably each night. Toilet and shower facilities were located at the end of the hall.
With one major exception, the next two days were spent cruising through the endless channels that comprise Chile’s Inside Passage. Most of these channels are anywhere from one to three miles wide, though some were narrower than two hundred yards. The narrowest was only eighty yards wide. Steep mountains rose from the water’s edge and lots of small rocky islands dotted the channels. Seals were a common sight, and one afternoon we even saw a group of tiny penguins gathered on a small island. Unfortunately, the weather for most of the trip was not all that nice - low clouds, a light breeze and the occasional light rain. The clouds obscured many of the mountaintops.
Blustery conditions not withstanding, there were always lots of passengers out on the decks. I met a lot of interesting people – Max, a lifeguard from Santa Monica, Ian, an Outward Bound instructor from Canada, Gary and Amelia from South Africa, now living in Spain, Karl, an urban planner from Germany. There were quite a few Germans (Aren’t there always? Germans love to travel!) a splash of Aussies, a handful of Americans, two Scots and a sprinkling of Brits. The rest were Chilean or Argentinean, though they were outnumbered by about 7-3 by the foreigners. Many of us were backpackers, and more than a few were on their way to hike the circuit through Torres del Paine National Park. I did this hike last time I was down here. It takes about six days to complete the circuit as you travel around the Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) through lush forest, barren tundra, over a high mountain pass and down along Lago Gris and the massive Gray Glacier that empties into it. It’s a spectacular and easily accessible trek into the heart of the Patagonian wilderness. Highly recommended for those that don’t require five star lodging every night.
The one major exception to our inside passage cruise is called the Golfo de Penas. It is the one portion of the journey where the boat must venture out into the open ocean. Whereas our passage through the channels was calm and tranquil, the journey through the Golfo de Penas can occasionally be quite rough. The last time I did this trip, I swear the waves out in the gulf had to be twenty to thirty feet tall. The winds were howling and you could feel the boat climbing a good three to four seconds before cresting each wave and dropping down into the trough. It was not a pleasant time and almost all of us lost our dinners. This time I was determined to get across the Gulf in a better fashion.
Late on the afternoon of our second day, the wind picked up and the rain began in earnest, as if a harbinger of the rougher conditions yet to come. Off in the distance, we could see the end of the channel and the entrance to the open ocean. I began to feel the first swells long before we’d entered the opening. I hurried downstairs to take my seasickness pill, hoping that it wasn’t too late. Then I hopped into my bunk and spent the next twelve hours in bed. Dinner came and went. Not for me, thanks. Seasickness is no picnic and I wasn’t going to chance it. Thankfully, we had a much better crossing this time than last. I heard later that the waves out in the gulf were generally no higher than about six feet, so we were quite fortunate. Even so, there was enough motion about the boat that had I not taken that Marezine, a landlubber like me would have been sick for sure.
On our final morning, we traveled through the English Narrows, where the passage is only eighty meters wide. About half the passengers were out on the various decks, taking in the view as well as the intermittent sunshine which was a huge improvement on the past three totally cloudy days.
Arrival in Puerto Natales was at noon. Securing a big boat like the Puerto Eden is a team effort and it was interesting to watch the flotilla of small boats and dock workers that came out to meet us and grab ropes. Once the boat was secured, we had to wait a further forty-five minutes for the lower deck to be off-loaded with enough trucks so that we’d be able to safely and easily disembark. The loading job on that ferry would have done a Chinese puzzle designer proud.
I shared a taxi into Puerto Natales with a couple I’d met early in the trip who lived out in Joshua Tree, California. He was an Amtrak Car Attendant who happened to know a couple of the same people who had attended my cars over the years. It’s a small world.
They had booked three nights in town and had all kinds of excursions lined up. Myself on the other hand, I was trying to get down to Ushuaia as soon as possible. Future plans didn’t leave me with much time in South America and I wanted to have as much time in Ushuaia as I could. While they checked in to their hotel and grabbed a shower, I started investigating my options towards an expeditious transit to Ushuaia.
Alas, there were none. At least, there was nothing more I could do today. My two year old Lonely Planet indicated that there was a 9:00am flight with Aerovias DAP from Natales to El Calafate which would time up perfectly with the 12:30pm Austral flight on to Ushuaia. I called DAP and was informed that there hadn’t been any service between Natales and Calafate for almost two years. Hmm… nothing like an up to date guide book! (I still swear by Lonely Planet guides, though. They are the best!) Well, I could take a bus down to Punta Arenas later this afternoon and catch the 9:00am nonstop to Ushuaia from there. Nope, it’s not operating either came the reply. But it’s listed on your current website, I stammered. Well, it’s not operating any longer was essentially the response.
Right. On to plan B. I booked myself a seat for the next morning on the 7:30am bus across to El Calafate, Argentina. This bus was scheduled for a 2:00pm arrival. This would time nicely with the 4:50pm departure on Austral’s flight down to Ushuaia, arriving at 6:00pm. This was the only way that I’d be able to get to Ushuaia the next day. That would leave me all of the following day in Ushuaia before I’d have to start making my way back across to Punta Arenas where I had a 12:40pm appointment on the 21st.
After getting everything arranged and paid for, I headed back to meet my Californian friends and we wandered down the street to a nearby parrilla for steak and beers. Afterwards, we had a good wander about Puerto Natales while Dorothy took about one hundred pictures of various buildings, their colorful doors and some of the many murals we passed. Besides being the southern terminus for the Navimag ferry, Puerto Natales is also the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. As a result, it’s a pretty busy place during the summer months. Add today’s influx of ferry passengers and the streets were positively teeming with foreign humanity. The town seemed to have really grown since I was last here ten years ago, but then tourism to this part of the world has grown as well.
Later, we stopped for more beers before finally bidding each other farewell and heading our separate ways. We all had early mornings the next day. I collected my gear and headed off to the Hostal Oasis where $18.00 got me a room with a TV, a private bathroom and a continental breakfast. Only two months ago in Australia, that same amount was getting me a dorm bed.
March 18, 2005
El Calafate to Ushuaia
Aerolineas Austral Economy Class
DC-9-80 LV-WGN Seat 4E
450p-603p Travel Time: 1:02
Following a bumpy six hour bus ride through lots of road construction zones and detours, I was dropped off at the El Calafate airport. This came as a surprise to both the driver and myself. The airport is 20km from town, so being dropped off there saved me a lot of time as well as taxi fare. Unfortunately, since I was unaware that the bus actually stopped at the airport, I’d simply had my baggage tagged to El Calafate and thrown in with everything going there. Unfortunately, retrieving it required the removal of about ten other backpacks. The driver didn’t seem too happy about this but I pitched in and helped him out, then tipped him $5.00 for his trouble. Still friends? Si, senor. Buen viaje!
Like Puerto Natales, El Calafate is a touristy gateway town, in this case to Los Glaciares National Park. Of particular allure is the massive Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers left in the world. Hikers are also quite taken with the Fitzroy range and its spectacular granitic spires that rise sharply into the sky. While I don’t mind missing the town, I’ll certainly have to come back and spend some time in the National Park.
The El Calafate Airport is a surprisingly modern and pleasant facility. Built in 1995, it employs an attractive combination of stone, glass and steel while sporting a restaurant, bar, VIP Lounge and a single jetway. Set along the beautiful azure waters of Lake Argentina, it is an exciting airport to fly into or out of.
Given my earlier than planned arrival at the airport, I had plenty of time to check in and then visit the restaurant for lunch, beers and some much needed work on this report. Any of you who’ve written a trip report of any detail know how much time can go into the creation of these things. During the non-flying portions of my travels, I really don’t spend much time dealing with these reports because I’m busy getting out and about and enjoying my actual destination. However, give me an hour or three in an airport lounge or restaurant or onboard a long flight and there’s nothing I’d rather do than work on a good Trip Report.
At 4:00pm, an announcement was made advising Ushuaia bound passengers to head for security and on to the gate lounge. No problems there, and I especially enjoyed not having to remove my boots or laptop. As an added bonus, a bar was set up at the far end of the gate lounge so I had another Quilmes Lager while watching a Fuerza Aerea Argentina F-28 fire up its little Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans and taxi off to the far end of the runway. Surprisingly, this attracted a fair amount of interest amongst the assembled passengers, many of whom gathered at the windows with their cameras at the ready to catch a shot of the take off. I haven’t seen anything like that in America since the 1970s.
Finally, our Austral MD-80 landed and parked at the jetway. Rest assured the event was well chronicled. Once an independent airline, Austral is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Aerolineas Argentinas. While this no doubt helped ensure the future viability of Austral as an airline, it unfortunately resulted in the repainting of the Austral fleet in the relatively drab blue and white livery of Aerolineas Argentinas. Ironically, back in the 1970s, AR sported a very attractive two-tone blue and white livery. After the airline ran into financial troubles and sold a controlling interest to Iberia, the color scheme was modified to something simpler and less expensive, though decidedly less attractive.
Boarding was an orderly affair, though there was no preferential boarding by class or row number. As I entered the aircraft, I was immediately impressed by the attractive Business Class cabin. It offered two rows of eight well-padded blue leather seats. The seats were arranged in a proper 2-2 configuration, not the chintzy 2-3 configuration favored by some otherwise good European airlines. Why European business travelers, who pay high fares for those Business Class products, tolerate such poor seating is beyond me.
The load down to Ushuaia was about 50% with nobody sitting up in Club Condor. Flight time was announced at fifty-five minutes and minutes later we were climbing away from the airport and banking beautifully over Lake Argentina. I fired off a shot of the airport below and then reclined my seat and enjoyed the interplay of sun, clouds, blue sky and snow capped peaks.
Before long, the beverage cart made an appearance and I asked for a Coke. Imagine my surprise however when just a couple of minutes later a Flight Attendant began distributing small plastic trays of that old Argentine staple – ham and cheese sandwiches. Thankfully I keep a good supply of Grey Poupon mustard packets in my pack, so I enjoyed the sandwiches even more.
Soon, we began our descent into Ushuaia Airport. The views of the water and surrounding snow capped peaks were stunning. As we turned for our final approach over the Beagle Channel, we flew right past downtown Ushuaia and its busy waterfront before finally touching down smoothly on the single east-west runway. After two weeks and almost 14,000 miles of travel in just about every class of service imaginable aboard planes, busses and a big boat, I’ve finally arrived at the bottom of South America. The south side of Tierra del Fuego. As they say down here – “El Fin del Mundo”. And – El Fin del Trip Report. Thanks for tagging along.
Location: Plantsville, CT USA; via West Hartford, CT; Stamford, CT; South Bend, IN; London, U.K. and Westchester County, NY
Programs: AA EXP 2 MM; Starwood PLT
Originally Posted by Seat 2A
At the door, two pretty raven haired Chilena Flight Attendants greeted me and directed me towards the left-hand side of the Business Class cabin. As I passed through the First Class cabin, I was surprised by how austere it appeared. There was just one row of dark blue upholstered seats, arranged 2-1-2. The 767 First Class seats provide deep recline but, unlike on LAN’s A340-300s, do not go 180 degrees flat. The cabin itself is really quite plain with white, non-carpeted walls and no pictures or emblems. The Business Class cabin actually looked more inviting.
Great report. Not finished yet, but I am enjoying it so far.
I do, however, have to correct you, painful as it may be. Those F seats on the LAN 767-300 do indeed recline fully flat. For sleeping purposes, I find them to be the most comfortable First Class seat I've ever experienced (just for sleeping purposes -- they do lack many of the bells and whistles).
__________________ Pioneering flight solutions that bring people home everywhere… every time
A fantastic trip report! After reading this I'm going to seriously consider bus travel if we ever make it back to Argentina and Chile. Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed and fascinating report.
I do, however, have to correct you, painful as it may be. Those F seats on the LAN 767-300 do indeed recline fully flat. For sleeping purposes, I find them to be the most comfortable First Class seat I've ever experienced (just for sleeping purposes -- they do lack many of the bells and whistles).
I have no complaints with corrections, Pres. Indeed, they are appreciated, for accuracy is more important than my wounded ego. What! Me wrong?!
I have no complaints with corrections, Pres. Indeed, they are appreciated, for accuracy is more important than my wounded ego. What! Me wrong?!
Almost - they are 177 degrees The A340 seats are a tad more comfortable. I have had substantial (yet never enough) experience in both. This report is making me want to go take a hop on Lan, just because.