After our uneventful night in Puerto Aisen, we were ready to get going again. The weather had lifted, and while not completely clear, it was good enough that we could make our way toward Balmaceda for fuel and then hopefully head toward Chile Chico, a little town on the southern shore of giant Lago General Carrera. When we arrived at the airport that morning, there were actually people there, and Paul was able to get a weather update and file our flight plan. The night before, when we landed in bad weather, the buildings were deserted, and the gate to the airport was locked… we had to throw our bags over the fence, and then hop the fence ourselves in order to get into town… ah, the things you do then you are traveling!
Once you are south of Puerto Montt, Balmaceda is the only place for hundreds of miles where avgas is available. As we flew the mountain valleys towards Coyhaique, and then on to Balmaceda, we were overwhelmed by the verdant green beauty of the area. We were heading southeast, almost to the Argentine border. As you head away from the coastal mountains, it becomes drier, and more open…grassland that any cattle rancher would love. it also became more windy.
Lets just tell it like it is… the wind howls there…Our approach was incredibly bumpy and our landing felt awkward..taxiing to get fuel in the gusty strong crosswind put Paul’s skills to the test. Anyone who flies a taildragger will tell you that those kind of conditions can be dangerous, the wind can lift one of the wings, causing the other wing to drop and possibly be damaged…happily we avoided that.
40 or 50 knot winds were one consistent issue at Balmaceda, actually getting the fuel was another. The fuel tanks are tucked up close to the terminal, very near to where jets loaded and unloaded passengers. Balmaceda is the largest airport in the region, getting daily flights from Santiago and Puerto Montt.
It services central Patagonia. Not surprisingly, those commercial planes got priority.. we sat on the ramp for the longest time, waiting to be called in so we could fuel- the airliners towering just above us. At times the wind was so bad Paul felt like he had to hold on to a strut. We saw boxes blown off trucks, and marveled at how the employees could just keep going in the wind. Although it was summer- we had our down jackets on.
An hour and a half later, we were departing for Chile Chico. On departure, we had to dodge some really big birds. It took us a few minutes to realize that they were Andean Condors. Their wingspan can be up to 10 feet. We definitely didn’t want a “birdstrike” involving one of those guys, it could have caused huge problems. We were happy to be departing Balmaceda, but knew we would have to come back again if we truly wanted to explore central Patagonia.
Our flight from Balmaceda took us almost directly south. We skirted the border of Argentina and at one point, were warned by a controller that if we didn’t change course, we would enter Argentine airspace within 2 minutes..the wind was so strong we could only do what we could do…the winds were rolling off of the peaks to our west and we were being buffeted. As we began to cross the lake, the winds only got stronger.
Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile. It is shared by Argentina, where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. The Chileans only count the portion that is within their borders, and the Argentines do the same. At 600 square miles on the Chilean side, it is huge. In some parts it is 1500 feet deep. It is also stunningly beautiful. It is aquamarine in color from glacial melt. It is framed by rugged and remote peaks to the west and windswept rugged valleys and hills to the east and south.
Our flight over the lake as we headed to Chile Chico was a little mind blowing, but also difficult. The wind swept across the lake, whipping up not just whitecaps, but actual waves. We gained and lost altitude, and just got tossed around in general. But what a view!
Chile Chico soon came into sight, a green spot in the dry and windswept plain of the southern shore of the lake. As we flew over town, I looked for our accommodation, an old farmhouse with a yellow roof, converted to a B & B, that also has camping in one of its fields. We had emailed these folks in advance, asking for a ride from the airstrip outside of town so that we could bring our camping gear. We had arranged to call them once we arrived at the airport.
The town was just beautiful from the air. We saw orchard after orchard. Every separate orchard and agricultural field was bordered on all sides by tall stands of poplars. Clearly these were windbreaks. it was going to be windy there!
The small airport was located out of town a few miles, up on a flat mesa. As Paul began to communicate with the information guy there (in Spanish) he told us that the winds were 31 knots. On the approach we struggled a little, actually gaining instead of losing altitude due to the crazy winds and again risking an unplanned overflight of Argentine territory ( the border to Argentina is just a mile or 2 from town) . Paul noticed that there was a beautiful gravel area paralleling the paved runway. A gravel landing it would be! In those kind of winds, its safer to land on gravel. On gravel, the plane can slide if pushed by the wind, pavement can grab the tires and potentially cause damage. We shut down, happy to be out of the turbulence. We tied down with double straps and wedged rocks and concrete anchors next to the tires to stop Emcinco from being blown away. As we were unloading, a guy showed up with a pickup truck. The owner of the farmhouse had seen us fly over, and just assumed we must be those folks…
Our camping spot at Hosteria de la Patagonia was perfect. There were bathrooms with hot showers, (most of the time!) a place to wash dishes, BBQ grills, tables and flat places for tents in an old orchard. The owners where pleasant and helpful and it was an easy walk into the center of the little town for groceries or a bite to eat. Who could ask for more. AND: the spot was largely protected from the wind by huge stands of old poplars, that creaked and arched in the wind.
Chile Chico was great. A small and simple town where we could kick back and relax. We met some interesting people at the campsite. Chilean families with kids traveling portions of the Carretera Austral by car, American climbers newly arrived from Argentina (grumbling because the border guys had taken away most of their food) and a family from Tahiti who just wanted to travel in a place very different from home (!)
One of our goals while near this immense lake was to tour the ‘Cavernas de Marmol’ or Marble Caves. The caves are right at the waters edge, and millennia of wave erosion have created fabulous shapes in the stone. We had to go there.
There are 2 locations on the lake that offer cave tours. The busy one is at Puerto Tranquillo, but there is another less visited site across the lake at Puerto Sanchez. Puerto Sanchez also had a little airstrip. Research online had provided us with the name of a knowledgeable guide, so we sent an email and a plan was made: he would pick us up at the airstrip and off we’d go.
Our flight west and across the lake was windy and bumpy but beautiful, the lake was framed by incredible mountains, with drainages coming out into the lake. A squirrelly approach and landing in Puerto Sanchez revealed it to be a town of less than 50 people, much smaller than in days past when commercial marble quarrying had provided jobs for locals.
We tied down, again using double straps as a little wind insurance and waited….eventually a teenage boy arrived, apologizing for his uncle who hadn’t heard our arrival due to the wind (!) We walked across the bridge and down to the dock and got into the boat..just the two of us on this tour.
The caves were amazing. Grey marble veined with brown and white and black had been sculpted into beautiful shapes. It was evenly pockmarked in some places, rippled in others; the broad arches and razor sharp fins next to the turquoise water of the lake made for amazing viewing. The tour was entirely in Spanish, but happily we were able to understand most of it. It was made more special by the fact that we were the only boat out there, and that the boat was small enough to actually go inside some of the caves and get really close. It was just the 2 of us plus the guide and his nephew. Another reason to seek out the less traveled places.
Again, our flight back to Chile Chico was magical, the views could not be beat.
A day or 2 later, with a window of good weather looking certain, we planned our next stop. We would head to Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael to see the famous glacier there. Groceries procured and a plan in place, off to the the airport we went.
Loaded and untied, we were doing the “run up” on the engine, to make sure that everything was working the way it was supposed to, when Paul said:
What. Just. Happened.?
……………..the #6 cylinder was cold, clearly it was not firing as it should. Back to the parking area we taxied. Of course, the wind was whipping, and of course, there were no hangars at this airport to get out of the wind. We took the cowlings off one at a time, clinging on to them for dear life, so they would not blow out of our hands and get destroyed by the wind.
The # 6 spark plug was black with carbon deposits. We took refuge inside the “tower” building to clean it. Paul scrubbed using fuel and a pocket knife blade, being careful not to damage the spark plug. Some time later, it was replaced and the engine ran fine. But… no, we would not be going out to Laguna San Rafael. We decided that it would be a good idea to do a better check up of the engine, and so we needed to get to a place that had hangars and a decent mechanic. Coyhaique it would be.
We flew again over the lake, heading north this time. Although we didn’t need fuel for this leg of the trip, we knew we would be visiting Balmaceda again for fuel soon.
Once we landed in Coyhaique, I stayed with the plane and Paul walked up and down the small row of hangars. He found someone with a small air ambulance operation that had room in the hangar and a mechanic as well. They kindly offered us space, and also found us a place to stay. We spent 2 nights in Coyhaique, returning to the hangar every day as we ran checks on engine parts. We followed all the wiring so that we could be certain which portion of the starter fired which spark plugs. We checked all of the plugs and with guidance from our mechanic back in the States, checked the dual ignition components, called magnetos, too. Vital to the function of the engine’s ignition system, magnetos must function well for safe flight.
We checked the fuel system looking for blockages, cleaned the fine mesh screen on the carburetor….and everything looked pretty good. We weren’t sure what the cause of the dirty spark plugs was. After lots of thought, we decided that we should go to Puerto Montt and see if the aero club there had any spare spark plugs. On the flight up to the aero club the engine had a slight hiccup, similar to symptoms of carb ice, after adjusting the engine controls it went away. Now we were definitely sure that taking a closer look at the engine in Puerto Montt was a good idea.
The folks at Club Aéreo Puerto Montt could not have been nicer. Gabriél let us use his hanger..JP, the club mechanic, worked with Paul for hours troubleshooting. Millaray, JP’s sister and the club secretary- (really, the person who ran the show-) made sure we had everything we needed. Truly, she is one of those people who’s heart is so big that her kindness makes you feel like you’ve known her for ever.
We found an Airbnb close to the airport, so we stayed for a few days, and would walk back and forth to work on the plane. Although the town of Puerto Montt is considered to be a little down on it’s luck, we never felt it.
Paul and JP did an oil change, changed some filters and replaced a couple of spark plugs. They checked the magnetos again. We kept suspecting that the carburetor was causing the fuel/air mixture to be too rich, a condition that can cause fouled plugs. A couple of other fuel related signs were pointing towards a problem with the carb but it was hard to tell. After some real engine TLC, Paul did a couple of test flights and it all seemed to run just fine.
Having been given a gift of a bottle of wine by Millaray- a bottle celebrating 80 years of aviation in Puerto Montt, we were ready to head out again.