Copiapó Airport

“Welcome to Copiapó,” said the flight service manager as the plane taxied towards the small terminal.

It’s always nice when the pilot manages to execute a safe landing but this time I wasn’t very impressed. In fact I was quite annoyed. The service had been fine, the in-flight entertainment was surprisingly funny and the biscuits we were given were rather tasty. But I didn’t want to be in Copiapó.

When I set off from Santiago almost two hours earlier, I was hoping to arrive in La Serena shortly after 10am. Now it was 11am and I was about 500km north of Santiago, stranded in the endless sands of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. Don’t get me wrong, the Atacama is a fascinating place. But when you have made plans for sun, surf and a magical valley overflowing with grapes and papaya, it doesn’t seem very appealing.

Looking out the tiny aircraft window, all I could see was sand. It wasn’t the rich, red sand that you find in the centre of Australia either. This sand was just a dull biege colour, a bit like one of Richie Benaud’s jackets, that stretched on in an endless monotony until it met the pale blue sky at the horizon. Apart from a few olive coloured bushes crouching on a small hill to the west, there was no green anywhere. Unusually for Chile, there wasn’t even a nice view of the Andes. Just sand. And lots of it.

The flight had begun fairly well. Take off was only 10 minutes late and as the plane climbed, we broke free from the thick film of off-white smog, just like another of Richie’s jackets, that hovers over Santiago throughout winter. It was nice to see clear, blue sky. And the view was stunning. To my right, stood the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the Andes. To the left their were glimpses of the sea. What I didn’t notice was the low lying flog that was beginning to form far below as we pushed further north.

The flight continued uneventfully and as we drew nearer to La Serena, the plane started shedding altitude. But then there was a change of plans. Well into the descent, the roar of the engines grew louder and the nose started to lift. We were climbing again.

My neighbour, a man in his mid to late forties with almost grey hair, turned to me and said: “Look down there. It’s really foggy.”

From the aisle seat, I strained to look where he was pointing and saw that he was right. The ground below was blanketed in a thick white cloud, just like Santiago only whiter and much cleaner.

About five minutes later, the pilot’s voice came crackling through the cabin, first in Spanish then in English.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” he said. “Due to foggy conditions in La Serena we are unable to land at this point in time and we will be continuing on to Copiapó. We apologise for the inconvenience.”

Forty painfully slow minutes later, we landed in the desert. After moving off the runway, the plane stopped and waited. Nobody said what was happening. We kept waiting. The seatbelt light came off and people stood up to stretch their legs even though there was nowhere to go. Simultaneously, 50 passengers reached for their phones to explain the situation to friends and family, waiting back below the fog in La Serena.

“Hi…yeah, we are in Copiapó at the moment…yeah, the fog…no, we don’t know how long it’s going to be…OK, I’ll see you when I get there…take care…bye,” they said.

The bilingual toddler sitting on his mother’s lap in the row in front of me grew restless. He whinged in French and Spanish and started crying. We all understood how he felt.

My neighbour finished checking the emails on his blackberry and turned to me again.

“Are you on holiday?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows. “What about you?”

“No, I live in La Serena. I’m coming back from a work trip and…”

He was interrupted by the pilot’s crackling voice. “Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking,” he said again. “We are now going to proceed…” my hopes rose, “…with disembarking.” I let out a sigh. “Please assist us by taking all your hand luggage with you,” the pilot added.

The Copiapó Airport Terminal was a modern building with a curved roof that echoed the undulations of the surrounding sand dunes. Unfortunately, it didn’t have an internet café or any other form of diversion so I followed the rest of the passengers to the upstairs restaurant. The generous windows looked out onto the tarmac and beyond it, the endless sand. On the wall there were three clocks, showing the time in Santiago, Tokio, as its written in Spanish, and Amsterdam. For some reason, the Amsterdam clock was out by a quarter of an hour.

I found an empty table where I sat down and began jotting down ideas for this post in my trusty notepad. Best to make the most of a bad situation, I reasoned.

Soon afterwards I was joined by my neighbour from the plan. He told me his name was José. I told him I was Tim. José had just been talking to his wife back in La Serena and he informed me that the outlook was not very promising.

“The fog is touching the rooftops,” he informed me. “It could be four o’clock before it clears.”

“Is this common?” I asked.

“Yes, it is unfortunately,” José explained. “In fact, they have been talking about building a second airport further out of town but so far it’s only talk – they haven’t actually done anything.”

We kept talking. José grew up in Santiago but moved to La Serena to go to university and has stayed there ever since. He works in a senior position for one of Chile’s larger banks and he had been doing some training down in Santiago. His daughter attends an international high school and all of her classes are in Enlgish. Next year she plans to go on an exchange trip to the US. I told José about Australia and my plans in Chile.

After a while we went outside where we continued the conversation in the warmth of the desert sun. Copiapó wasn’t so bad after all. We kept talking for about twenty minutes until José got an important call. I returned to the restaurant imagining I was in Amsterdam or Tokio.

Watching all the other people eating I decided to give in to my rumbling stomach and headed to the counter. I ordered a cheeseburger and a light beer and went back to my empty table. The food wasn’t great but it was doing the job. Just as I finished off the first half of the burger, a muffled voice came over the airport’s PA system. I tried my best to understand the message but I could barely make out a single word.

It wasn’t hard to understand what was going on though. As soon as the muffled voice finished, everyone else in the restaurant got up and moved towards the escalators. It was 12.30. I gulped down the rest of my burger and followed the others. For the second time that day, we headed through customs and back onto the plane.

By one o’clock everyone was on board and we were ready to go. The plane hurtled down Copiapó’s single runway and climbed into the sky once more. Forty minutes later we touched down at our original destination.

“Welcome to La Serena,” said the flight service manager. José winked at me and I smiled back. We had finally made it.