Friday, May 16, 2008

We Are About to Land in...Puerto Natales

Earlier this year, two Chilean airlines began flights into Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. These first limited landings may be just the beginning: according to an item in Mercopress, the regional government of Magallanes wants to make it a destination airport for tourist travel into southern Chilean Patagonia. This would mean an expansion to make the now modest airfield suitable for more frequent landings, including nighttime operations. Chile's flagship airline LAN would in all likelihood have the most services, even if Sky Airline and Air Comet continue.

In the recent past, the need to transport passengers overland from the Punta Arenas airport to Puerto Natales (three hours), and then to the park (another two hours), hasn't seemed to deter visitors - in the calendar year 2007, Paine received more than 125,000 visitors. Authorities, though, may be looking to the example of Argentina's nearby El Calafate, whose airport has largely superseded the coastal city of Río Gallegos and contributed to a boom in hotel construction, restaurants, travel agencies, and other tourist-oriented services.

While its population is considerably larger than that of El Calafate, Puerto Natales is a backpacker's Mecca that's only recently started to acquire a critical mass of boutique hotels such as Indigo Patagonia (whose rooftop spa, with views to Last Hope Sound, is pictured to the right), Hotel Altiplánico del Sur, and Hotel Remota (pictured below, on the northern outskirts of town). More are likely to follow, as they have in El Calafate; even if not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect, it's probably better than building more accommodations in the park.

More flights into Puerto Natales would also simplify connections for trips such as the Skorpios cruises among the nearby Patagonian fjords, and the Navimag ferries to Puerto Montt. In all likelihood, Natales would be a stopover en route to or from Punta Arenas, with flights continuing to Puerto Montt and Santiago.

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