I squinted as I scanned the horizon from the Cessna 210's window. "Just over there," my guide Jaime Hernández pointed into the distance. "The lake at 10 o'clock is actually in Argentina." My eyes scanned the Andes, but the snowy peaks and turquoise water blended together to form one massive, remarkable mountain range rather than two distinct countries. We continued at 9,500 feet over waterfalls, volcanoes, black-sand beaches and mile after endless mile of roadless, inaccessible terrain. Several low passes and steep turns thrilled the shutterbug in me, and Fleetwood Mac, playing through our headsets, seemed like an old friend. "Relax gringa," Jaime said, "you're in Chile."
Jaime's company, Tour Aviation Chile, takes foreign pilots on flying journeys around Chile. All it takes is a simple phone call to set the wheels in motion. Upon arriving at Santiago's Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport, you'll be greeted by a pilot guide who arranges your transportation, lodging and dining needs for the remainder of your travels. Depending on your fancy, you'll be given a checkout ride in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Cessna 172 Hawk XP II, Cessna 182 or Cessna 210 Centurion, and special arrangements can be made for other aircraft, such as a Piper Cheyenne.
On each leg, your guide sits right seat while you do all the flying from the left. (Tour Aviation Chile is currently sorting out arrangements for pilots who wish to fly without a guide—if this is your preference, contact them for an update.) Charts and a Garmin GPS unit will be provided, and there are daily preflight briefings. Radio communication shouldn't be a problem even if your Spanish is shaky—if the controller doesn't understand your English, you'll be passed to someone who does.
Taking it easy and enjoying the adventure was the easy-to-adhere-to theme during my travels through this long, narrow country on South America's southwestern coast. Tour Aviation Chile looked after all the details and logistics while I flew left seat over an exquisitely beautiful landscape that varied wildly in all directions. Stretching over 2,700 miles, Chile is bordered to the east by the Andes Mountains, which tower more than 22,000 feet over the country's western border, the Pacific Ocean. Packed between the two limits (whose maximum distance reaches only 150 miles) are glaciers, volcanoes, forests and rivers to the south, and arid desert, salt plains and geysers to the north. The central valleys are populated with vineyards and pisqueras, where Chile's unofficial national drink, Pisco, is distilled from a special variety of green grapes.
Tucked into all this amazing scenery are approximately 350 airports, of which more than 75% are unpaved. These grass, dirt and gravel strips are often off the beaten track, but they're well traveled by Tour Aviation Chile. The pilot guides are on the young side (Jaime, for example, is 32), but don't let that fool you. With more than 5,000 hours logged, they definitely know their way around.
We were greeted by cows after one landing in the middle of the Lake District, where we taxied on a dirt road to Fundo Chollinco Lodge. On the Calcurrupe River, the lodge offers fly-fishing for salmon and trout, rafting trips and as much serenity as you'd like—I secretly hoped that we'd get weathered-in for a few days. Luxurious log cabins sit at the water's edge facing steep mountain cliffs populated by pumas. "Don't worry," the lodge owner reassured us, "we never see the pumas—except sometimes at night."
With approximately 3,000 licensed pilots, Chile's aviation community often feels like a small family—one that will gladly adopt you. Pilots greet each other on the radio—everyone on the ground seemed to know Jaime. During a fuel stop in Osorno, we crossed paths with Madeleine Dupont, a national celebrity pilot in her sixties. In her 285 hp Bonanza, she flew with another "flying grandmother" over the Andes before heading to Brazil, Cape Verde, Europe and the United States. When Madeleine and I had another chance encounter, 500 miles from Osorno, she ran up to embrace me as though we'd known each other for years.
Throughout our travels, Jaime is constantly on his cell phone, arranging dinner and lodging reservations, transportation and even surprises. "Tomorrow, wake up early," he instructed, "la gringa will soar in the Andes." The next morning, I experienced the mountains in silence from the front seat of a Janus B. Behind me sat Jaime's brother, Roberto, who talked me through thermals, steep turns and stalls.
Because Jaime and his team have such a vast repertoire of airstrips and accessible airplanes, tours can be as structured or as spontaneous as you like. Don't feel shy about asking for something that isn't on the itinerary. Chances are that the group can make it happen. During one leg, I mentioned that I loved flying Piper Cubs. "Is that so? I've got the controls," Jaime indicated while starting a descent to the lakeside town of Puerto Varas. On the ground, we taxied to a flying club, and a few phone calls later I was practicing three-point landings in a Cub. We'd barely shut down the Cub's engine when Jaime's friend, Eduardo Salvador, beckoned us to his hangar. Handing me a helmet, Eduardo pointed to a bright green ultralight, which beamed almost as much as he did. Up we went, circling low over the lake's shoreline, bordered by a snow-capped volcano.
Although Chile is a remarkable microcosm of nature's extremes, Tour Aviation Chile's trips go far beyond sightseeing. Pilots hone their flying skills in diverse situations, including mountain navigation, over-water flights, short- and soft-field operations and high-altitude landings up to 8,000 feet MSL. Furthermore, new friendships are formed and aviation circles are expanded. I was feeling a bit down on our final leg to Santiago, not wanting my adventure to end. However, a festive welcome-back barbecue at the hangar immediately reversed my mood. Chilean hospitality is so genuine and over-the-top that when it's time for goodbyes, sadness is replaced with a feeling of belonging. The aviation community in this corner of South America is as welcoming as they get.