Written by George Sturtevant
C.J. and I have been traveling with our hang gliders and paragliders since 1983 and we’ve rarely done a commercial, guided trip. However, if you want to maximize your flying opportunities, that’s the way to go. We re-discovered that this summer at Verbier where we got at least two flights per day, three if we had the energy, with the Verbier Summits twins, Stu and Mike. And this fall we got more hours and miles with Luis Rosenkjer and Todd Weigand in a week than we ever get in a month flying on our own.
After reading the Lonely Planet guide Chile & Easter Island and Condor Trail by Dylan Neyme, we still were taken by surprise when we disembarked the LAN flight from Santiago to Iquique to see that we really had reached the end of the line. Beyond the airport there was no tree, no shrub, no blade of grass. Welcome to the Atacama desert. Iquique, a city of 200,000 residents, occupies a narrow plain between the Pacific Ocean and the clifflike cuesta leading to the plateau that extends inland as first the dry and barren pampas, then climbs to the scrubby steppe grasses of the altiplano, finally reaching the heights of the Andes.
We could have spent our week flying from the top of the ridge above the city of Iquique, the Alto Hospicio launch, boating around along the ridge to the north, gaining altitude (but hardly ever more than a few hundred feet above the ridge) and flying across the width of the city to land on one of the long, sandy beaches. Or we could have spent afternoons several miles south of the city at Palo Buque where a low E-W ridge sticks out into the SW onshore wind, benching up to cross onto the high bluff to the west. Pilots might soar here for hours or whoop and swoop along the sand dragging body parts or sand-skiing. Others would land high up on the slope and just hang out until the magic of a sunset flight would beckon them into the air to glide to the valley floor.
However, with expert guides, good weather briefings, and contact with the Chilean version of the FAA, we were able to launch from far to the south of Iquique and attempt to fly as far back towards the city as possible. About 60 km south of the city is the port of Patillos, from which a paved road runs up the face of the bluff to salt mines on the plateau. Just a few miles up that road is a signed and clearly marked paraglider launch. Get there early enough to be ready to go before the afternoon winds pick up because it is a typical roadside launch – lay out on the flat, stand on the edge of a steep slope and pull your wing up through the rotor. Once you’re off, the climb is easy and you will find yourself above the top of the ridge. What was that climb like? It’s a ridge; it should be ridge lift, right? If that’s ridge lift, it’s some of the most thermally ridge lift I’ve ever flown in. We spent probably a third of our flight time circling in lift. Now when someone says “ridge” I usually think about a straight line, like Saddle Mountain, stretching on for miles. In point of fact, even Saddle isn’t straight but has bowls and spurs. Magnify the horizontal component of that so the bowls are deeper and the spurs stick way out and you have the shape of the ridge that extends for 200 km in northern Chile. To cross a spur, knowing that there is going to be a prodigious rotor on the other side, get high on the upwind side. “Get high” is a relative term because if you try to climb too high, you will find yourself out of the onshore wind and into the prevailing Trade Winds blowing EAST, off the coast. So nobody ever finds themselves so high above the ridge that they can go “over the back” and fly east across the pampas of the Atacama Desert.
Anyway, get as high as possible and then dive over the spur and either hug the ridge and accept the turbulence of the rotor, or fly far out around the spur where the sinking air is making every effort to put you on the ground. [The word “rotor” conjures up images of big, bad turbulence, but that did not seem to be the case in general.] The trick was to believe that you could get back up again even though you had been sunk almost to ground level and were now far back away from the highway in a bowl. And, sure enough, every time I tried it, there was lift to be had and I’d slowly work my way up from, in one case, a bombing range with targets painted on the ground, and be back up over the ridge top and moving on to the north to the next spur.
At the airport, 22 km (13.3 mi) from Patillos, at the last spur before another big bowl and then Palo Buque and possibly the goal of Playa Brava, the beach next to our hotel, I had had enough. After all, this was farther than my best x-c flights from Tiger home to North Bend and another advantage of going with a guided group, the van was waiting below with a cooler full of beer and a ride back to the hotel.
We flew Patillos only the one time because we had some true XC fanatics with us. On other days we went another 80 km south to a notch in the ridge where what appeared to be a glacier of sand poured down onto the coastal plain. Our four-wheel-drive van could get us and our gear most of the way to a launchable place on the dune but we did have to carry our wings that last couple hundred feet in slippery-slidy sand. Once launched, the flight was much the same as from Patillos; get high, cross the spurs, recover from the rotor and climb again. The difference was that there was more ridge, so on three flights from Playa Chipana, the sand “glacier,” I scored three personal bests for XC distance. On the last day, C.J. and I flew together for 65 km (40 mi) on our 30th anniversary (not a personal best for C.J., but there was still a sort of romance to the flight). Now that was a flight! – We pushed past the spot where we had been forced down two days before due to high winds just around the corner, crossed the huge power lines running up the last spur, and got pummeled by the rotor and wind as we passed over the only grove of trees along that whole stretch of coast. We landed near the road at Patillos only moving slightly backwards, and managed to douse our wings before being taken on a wild drag through the sand.
Iquique, then, is not a place you go to for gorgeous scenery or awesome attractions. The city is best known among non-pilots as a beach resort and shoppers’ paradise with its duty-free shopping malls. But among pilots from all over the world (we met French, Swiss, Polish, Austrian, German, among others) Iquique is a world-class place to fly paragliders. Would we go back? Probably not, there are too many new places we haven’t flown yet. Would we recommend it? For sure! Put it on your list.
Atlanta Paragliding – Luis Rosenkjer - firstname.lastname@example.org
Wallowa Paragliding – Todd Weigand - email@example.com