Bertie's Mood

Always Critical and Never Superficial

A dangerous and failed landing in Cuzco, a closed airport in Arequipa: welcome to Tacna

From a distance, Tacna could be called a border town. Close to the Chilean border, there is little escaping the sand of the coastal desert of Peru that surrounds the city. The city is clearly the economic center of the region and home to a significant mining industry. Using its last breath, the Caplina River wanders through the city and dries up, before even touching the Pacific ocean. In all honesty, except for the sand partially covering the runway, nothing of this you would notice at first when landing at Tacna’s one and only but international Airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Coronel FAP Carlos Ciriani Santa Rosa. But then again, you would not notice it is an international airport either.

The city has a charming city center and, when you take a moment to dig into its history, is much more than the average border town. It is recorded as the city where from Francisco Antonio de Zela, who, just like his father, worked at the Treasury of the Spanish empire, when in 1811 he answered the call from Argentinian revolutionaries to rise against the forces loyal to the Spanish king. He sought to align, at least in principle, with the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (what would later become Argentina), only to be later recognized as the early instigators of Peruvian independence.

On the evening of 20 July 1811, Zela led successfully a rebellion, installing for three days a free government. However, on the same day of the rebellion, army reinforcements from the United Provinces were defeated by royalist Peruvian forces and the necessary support never reached Tacna. Not much later Francisco Antonio de Zela was imprisoned and convicted to death. The intial death sentence was later commuted to ten years in prison, but to little avail. Zela died in a prison in Panama in 1819 at the age of 50. Peru declared its independence 28 July 1821.

Already now more than a few years ago, in January 2012, I was flying back from Puerto Maldonado to Lima, on a flight operated by LatAm. The flight was initially to have a stop in the city of Cuzco, where a couple of days earlier I spent celebrating the new year. I kept on looking outside, as the mountain ranges of the Andes look impressive, even more so from the airplane. It is just breathtaking. When nearing Cuzco, the plane starts to descend and the peaks of the mountains below us seem to creep up every time closer and closer to the airplane.

Peru is diverse not only in its people, but most certainly in its geography and climate. And as the captain announces, the temperature in Cuzco is a mere 5 degrees Celsius. Quite a bit colder than the tropical 25 plus degrees we left behind us about an hour or so. As we are descending we enter thick white clouds with the new Airbus’ engines not sounding too sure whether to slow down or just thrust the airplane further at a higher speed.

Cuzco lies at about 3400m and even then the city seems to be surrounded by mountains. When landing you get the feeling you are landing between the mountains. Such is not the experience we are given today, as we descend with little or no visibility. The airplane starts to jolt up and down, be it more down than up. With a sudden and steep descent the clouds make way for a view on the city. The airport is situated prohibitively close to the city center and building of all kinds, except skyscrapers, surround the runway and the airport itself.

Gusts abound and before I realize what is happening, the plane looses altitude and the wings whirls to the left. Sitting on the left, and realizing beneath us is one of the mountainsides leading into Cuzco city, I see the laundry on the roof of the building below nearing too fast to be comfortable. From my window I can see and look on and into every roof below, with the wings of the plane now firmly tilted to the left. Is this what could be called a free fall experience?

The lady seated in the row behind me starts praying. Any and all beverages not in a closed bottle have by now been spilled or are about to fall on the lap of the unfortunate passenger who has not yet enjoyed the previously offered complimentary beverage. One can feel the pilots trying to stabilize the plane and, strange at it seems, I try to help throwing in my weight by leaning to the opposite side. So does the man seated besides me and, being slightly overweight, seemingly having more impact. Or so we think.

The engines go in absolute overdrive. The plane shakes and every bone in my body feels the fight of the pilots to get back in control. By now we are moving from one side to another, from left to right, and from right to left. Each time the tilt is less pronounced and at one moment, the landing strip visible in the corner of my eye, we trust back up.

Apart from the noise of the engines, there is complete silence. Not to mention the excruciating pain inside my ears. Twenty minutes later an announcement follows from the pilots. “Let’s try again”. No real explanation or an account of any kind is given, we just seem to go for it.

And so it happens. After reaching the required altitude, we slowly turn back and go in for a second time. The impressive and awe-inspiring mountain ranges of the Andes make me realize we are just a small bird in the air, hoping to make a safe stop in Cuzco on our way to the capital city of Lima. Minutes pass as we descend into the valley where Cuzco surrounds itself by the mountains that protect it from the adversities of nature.

Entry into the thick white clouds goes with a slight bump. As if we are hoovering over a speed breaker at a slightly too high speed, minimally touching the speed bump, without actually damaging the car. Much to my surprise the scenario this time is little different, only to be different in that we are now suddenly all leaning to the right as I wonder if this is what a sky diver would experience when jumping out of an airplane. The lady doing her laundry is no longer there, but the buildings seem -again- to be awkwardly close to the airplane. Or is the airplane now flying too close to the building below?

Moving from right to left, loosing altitude to regain it quickly afterwards, cold sweat is now on almost everyone’s forehead as far as I can see. As the airstrip comes in sight below us, the clouds are now present even just above the city. With the engines at maximum force, we take back off. Complete silence.

A good fifteen minutes later the pilot get back to us, now confirming what we suspected: the second attempt had failed as well. And there was more news: the airport of Cuzco just closed. We were now being diverted to the airport of Arequipa, a mere 500km from Cuzco. Being already one and a half hour in the air, the short 30-minute flight I took a couple of days earlier from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado seemed now like a distant memory.

A good hour later we approach Arequipa and, much to our surprise, no landing is set in. Instead a rather hesitant pilot goes on to explain that, just as we were nearing the airport of Arequipa, the airport equally closed due to the weather. As we were holding on high in the air, with not a cloud in sight, the pilot promised us to come back as soon as possible with more news.

Now time is a strange thing. While I remember vividly every detail and second of each of the two (failed) landings at Cuzco, I recollect only the feeling of the long and uncertain flight towards Arequipa. Only days before I had visited the beautiful city and the idea of possibly having to spend a day extra in Arequipa would have given the change of plans a positive turn. The city is often referred to as the “White City”, for the many building that have been built using the local white stone. It is known for its beautiful architecture, monuments and in all is a rather enjoyable city to discover walking.

But it had not to be, as minutes later we were told we would be landing in Tacna. Now these are the days before internet was readily available on an airplane as today can be the case. And since the Airbus was designed for short distance little to no flight entertainment was available, except for the Latam brochure and the Airbus safety leaflet. My Peruvian neighbour didn’t get too excited either at the prospect of visiting Tacna and told me, without much more context, it was an important city near the border with Chile.

Now I am not a difficult man, but knowing our initial destination was Lima, I was starting to get a bit worried. Worried because Lima is situated in the middle part of Peru and Tacna is in the absolute southern part of the country, next to the Chilean border. In fact, for a period till 1929 it was administered by Chile. Worried, because the next day I had a flight back to Madrid. Worried, because it was already afternoon. And I got even more worried, when we landed at the Airport at Tacna.

Looking down the mountains had made place for a desert landscape, and with that, lot’s of sand and a rare spot of green. The landing could be described as rough. Rough as in the Flying Doctors making an emergency landing to save little Timmy on a remote farm in bushland. So rough that for one moment I was convinced we were landing on barely hardened sand. A desert landing.

A small airport, it has little more than one waiting room. It also had, at that moment, one functional airline stair, truck not included. As we were a kind of unexpected guest, it took a while before we were cleared to park. As we were not planned in and no personnel was immediately available, it took a considerable time before the airplane stairs actually got moving. It took an eternity to eventually get it to the airplane door.

And then, shortly before the airplane doors opened, the pilot got back in touch. Because of the unplanned detour and the long waiting time, the allotted or permitted time for flying had been surpassed and a new airplane, with a new crew, would have to be flown in. And with that not only we left the plane, but so would the entire Latam crew together with us.

My first impression was that we landed at a military airport but before us was indeed the International Airport of Tacna. The airport building is far from impressive with the control tower one floor higher than the airport main building. We walked over the tarmac and, once inside, had to wait for passport control.

No longer it being a surprise when we were told to wait, as the arrival of the flight was definitely not scheduled and no personnel was immediately available, it took a while before we all got moving and found ourselves waiting inside the Tacna Airport waiting area. Flight to Lima were on the board, but these were not meant for us. We were told to stay inside the waiting area for more news to come.

As time got by the calm airport got busier and busier. Flights seemed to be scheduled majoritarily in the late afternoon or evening. One small shop, selling mainly candy, soft drinks, tobacco and alcohol, was unexpectedly doing more business than it had anticipated, but for all the candy it had, it could not silence our hunger. The sun had already started to set when one of our friends and fellow traveler lost his patience and, instead of venting his anger with us, went straight to the military police at that moment present at the entrance of the waiting area.

Now I do not remember if a real discussion got going between some passengers and the soldiers, but as word got in no new flight was scheduled nor had one left from Lima to Tacna, everyone seemed to realize our flight would not be arriving soon and thus leaving for Lima was still very much something we could hope for, be it nothing more than that.

Hunger got the upper hand and suddenly things start to move. Taxis are called for, we stow our luggage in a small room in the airport and drive in group towards the center of the city of Tacna. The big avenues show this is a city of the new world. The square layout shows the city, in all the chaos of Latin America, is very much planned. Palm trees left and right give the city a more comforting look. No skyscrapers, except for one or two tall buildings and the cathedral in the city center. The occasional reference to Bolivar being present, we suddenly stop at a restaurant: El Pollo Pechugón. Till this day I remember the name vividly.

Something between a restaurant and a fast food place, El Pollo Pechugón offers what its name promises: chicken. With French Fries, potatoes, pasta, a nice salad either as a plate or on the side. You name it, as long as it can come with chicken, it is on the menu. Cocktails, beer and wine can be ordered too. Without waiting too much, we place our order. The place is buzzing. I order chicken, of course, French Fries, a side salad and a glass of Chilean wine.

I am not a beer drinker. As a matter of fact, I never liked beer very much. Never. A good glass of wine on the other hand is never said no to. After three weeks of traveling through beer-loving Peru, except for the famous pisco, I now cheer the glass of wine when it is brought to the table. The chicken was crusty and had the right balance of flavours. Not too salty. The chicken breast was, as often can be the case and to my surprise, not dry at all.

The conversation seems to get going as we enjoy very much this part of the adventure. An unexpected visit to a city otherwise not visited at all, all on our way to Lima. Was the pilot experienced enough? Did this happen often? What exactly happened? Time flies as we enjoy the food, the company and the drinks. It is nearing 10pm already and we order a taxi back to the airport.

It is a bit before midnight when we finally get on an airplane bound for Lima, with the much saying flight code 9999. Not much after the airline crew offered us a soft drink, one of the German travelers takes out a bottle of Whiskey, starts walking up and down the aisle, offering a shot to enrich everyone’s soft drink, of course to everyone’s delight.

It is well past midnight when we arrive in the Peruvian capital, in an empty airport, collecting our baggage from the conveyor belt. Well into the night I arrive at my hotel, with only few hours to sleep, as the next adventure awaits me: a flight back to Madrid with Iberia.


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