Since we reached South America we were tourists travelling with a Mooney but after leaving Chile our mode of traveling changed a bit. Until Mexico it was more like a lazy ferry flight with some tourist activity sprinkled in. The countries we had to cross are much less GA friendly as the ones before. Inflexible permits are required, fees are sometimes steep and we had to contract handling in two places.
Our route to Palenque (MMPQ)
We had decided not to use one of the service providers to obtain the required permits, but to do it by ourselves. Not so much to save money (that’s never bad, however) but rather because we saw it as part of the challenge. Moreover, we felt we would be more flexible dealing with the authorities directly instead of going via a proxy.
By far the hardest part for each country requiring a permit was to get in contact with a person in charge. Our first source of Information was the Jeppesen South America Airway Manual (EAWM). For some of the countries the AIP is online for others not, but that makes little difference as EAWM as well as the AIPs are completely unreliable. Literally not a single of the email addresses we found there worked. You always have to find out the correct Hotmail or Gmail address of the person in charge and this can only be done by phone. However, the phone numbers in the AIPs and the EAWM usually don’t work either. A good way was to type these numbers into google to find the person behind it. Sometimes we were able to find the department and other contacts there. Otherwise the only chance was to call the relevant CAA and be prepared to get handed over almost a thousand times. Once the right person could be found, they were always friendly and happy to tell us their email address.
For some countries finding the right contact was the only difficult thing. For others this was just the beginning of the struggle. It’s hard not to start drinking by mid-morning while trying to get a permit and I really don’t know how these service providers manage to do it without having a workforce of alcoholics!
A permit (Ecuador, note how heavy our Mooney is )
Peru was the first one and probably the hardest one. One has to complete an MS-Word document here with the intended route to apply for a permit here. This has to be sent to the Peruvian CAA by email. We had no intentions to fly to the Andes or the Peruvian Amazon as it’s rainy season in December, but all of Peru’s Litoral is coastal desert and no problem weather-wise. We had traveled Peru intensively before but thought there would be a few places we would like to visit again, so we applied for a route.
Our first intended stop was Arequipa in the Andean foothills, but after a few days we got the reply that this was located at an elevation of 8000 feet and not feasible for a single engine plane. We argued that we had been to La Paz at almost 14000 feet with that plane but didn’t get any reply to that. After a while we asked again and where told that our request had to be processed by the technical department and it might be better to file a different request with an alternative route.
We tried with Nazca, where the famous geoglyphs are. We had seen them 15 years ago from a 172 and thought it might be nice to see them from our own plane. This time the reply was that we can’t fly to Nazca because it’s not connected to an airway. Our argument that we could fly VFR and would not need an airway apparently went unheard.
Our next idea was Lima. However, in parallel to our application we contacted the airport and learned that we would need handling. We called a handling agent but he was so honest to say that if we were in our right mind we would steer well clear of Lima. He didn’t know if he could provide parking and if so, it would have been prohibitively expensive.
Our last intended stop in Peru was Trujillo (SPRU), already in the north of the country. As there was apparently no place they wanted us to land in the south we sent yet another application for a permit to fly from Arica in Chile (SCAR) to Trujillo. This time we got the rejection with the reasoning that this was too far and too dangerous with a single engine plane. Our reply that a five hour’s flight over a coastal desert with an autonomy of nine hours and an airport at least every 60 nautical miles didn’t impose any undue risk proved to be fruitless again. We had to land in Pisco (SPSO) in southern Peru. We had been to Pisco before and if there was a place in Peru we certainly didn’t want to visit again it was Pisco. By this time we had spent days on this and we really didn’t feel like arguing anymore.
Pisco (much worse than it appears from the air)
When we filed for Pisco, we learned from the officer in the ARO in Arica, Chile and an Argentinean jet pilot that the Peruvians always act like this – for unknown reasons. We made our completely useless landing in Pisco after two and a half hours and payed 180 Dollars on handling just to continue for two and a half hours more to Trujillo.
Approaching Trujillo (SPRU)
Fuel is affordable at about 1.20€, probably all over Peru. However, we had to pay an airway fee of about 130€ to cross the country in its complete length. Parking for five days in Trujillo was about 80€ while landing fees are negligible. ATC around Lima spoke English, further north we tried once, but they simply replied in Spanish.
ATC in Peru
Trujillo is not a bad place at all. The city itself features a wealth of colonial buildings many of which have been nicely restored. Moreover, there are quite a few archeological sites scattered around Trujillo that are well worth visiting. Last but not least Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the best in South America. We had to stay over Christmas here, but it could have been worse.
Ceviche (marinated uncooked fish) near Trujillo
Ecuador has only on airport where Avgas as well as customs/immigration is available: Guayaquil (SEGU) – so it was clear that this would be our port of call. Here it was particularly difficult to find the right contact to apply for the permit. According to the Jeppesen EAWM and the AIP the process could be completed via email, but not even the internet SLD of their CAA (called DGAC, of course) was correct in either document. We spent a busy day before Christmas to find the right telephone number. Once we had that getting the permit was not much of a problem.
Landscape turns green again in southern Ecuador
SEGU is a huge international airport where we had to contract handling and it was by far the most expensive place we have been so far. Handling was 450 Dollars, but at least the service provided was OK. Landing fee was 120 Dollars and parking for a week came to 140 Dollars. At least fuel was cheap at about 1.10€ per liter.
We arrived on boxing day and according to our guide book new year’s eve was a huge party in Guayaquil so we decided to spend it there. We took a minibus to the lovely mountain town of Cuenca where we spent the remaining days. The minibus broke down with an electric problem on the way but a mechanic from a nearby village was able to fix it. The journey took five instead of three hours, but well…
There are quite a few colonial buildings remaining in Cuenca as well and there are the Inca ruins of Ingapirca not too far away which we visited, unfortunately in less than perfect weather.
Inca ruins of Ingapirca
However, the ruins of Ingapirca and a few in Cuenca itself are a far cry from what can be found in Peru (say Machu Picchu or Cuzco). Anyway, it was a nice outing and the food we had on the way was at least as spectacular.
A little pork dish prepared along the road to Ingapirca
Unfortunately the new year’s eve party in the streets of Guayaquil was not as good as expected. But at least it was warm and there was music.
Leaving Guayaquil (SEGU)
We had problems with Columbia as well, but this time we screwed up ourselves as well. We found an email address where we inquired but there was no response. Much later we found out that there actually was a response but Columbian authorities didn’t hit REPLY but tried to type in the address and messed up. This address was valid too and the owner took the time to trace down the problem and forward the mail, but only a week later.
Rain forest in southern Columbia
The Columbian regulations state that no permit is required if one stays less than 48 hours. We actually thought about staying there for a few days but as there was no reply from the authorities we discussed staying in Cali (SKCL) for just a night. Looking at the charts again we found that we could overfly Columbia and head for Panama directly. We checked the weather forecasts (we had to cross the ITCZ again) and decided to give it a go.
We filed a flight plan with RR and almost immediately got a message stating that we had no overfly permit for Columbia! We checked the AIP and EAWM and it was true: an overflight requires a permit while landing with a stay of less than 48 hours can be done without!
We tried to get a permit on short notice, but the Columbian authorities were not very helpful. We sent all the documents and one of the first replies was that we were not insured because in the certificate of insurance there was a space between the N and the 2 of our tail number while in the registration there wasn’t!
We gave up and filed for Cali. However, this time we were determined to get along without contracting handling. Cali is a large airport and after landing we had to park on the international ramp. From there it was easy to get to the terminal on foot and complete the immigration process. After that we had to return to the plane and taxi to the cargo ramp. We refueled and left airside through a door close to our stand. We had to walk for almost two kilometers back to the terminal where we tried to have a dry run of all the processes we would have to go through the next morning.
Cali turned out to be a pleasant city. Of course, we didn’t get in touch with people except for taxi drivers, waitresses and so on, but the ones we met were probably the most friendly in all of South America. We deemed it too risky to plan for a 48 hour stay, so we filed for the next morning to have the second day as a buffer in case the weather would be a problem.
Our Mooney in Cali (SKCL) in the morning
The next morning we took a taxi to the airport. We had the driver drop me at the door of the cargo ramp before 6 AM while Mrs. terbang went to the terminal. Of course the guard wouldn’t let me in but Mrs. terbang went to the operations office and convinced the guy in charge there to instruct the guard to let me in. I taxied to the international ramp again and could get to the land side to meet Mrs. terbang. In the meantime she had been able to pay the fees (less than 70€) and collect all of the stamps required (four IIRC) except for one. Together we could get this as well and we were ready to pass through immigration again and we were good to go. We were airborne before 8 AM local time!
After departing Cali (SKCL)
The weather wasn’t perfect for our flight to Panama. Already in the early morning it was quite convective and there were showers to circumnavigate.
Clouds on the way to Panama
However, there was also nice weather in between and we learned that large parts of Columbia are covered with dense jungle.
Jungle on the way to Panama
Panama was easy again. A permit is required, but it’s rather a PNR process via a web form. It immediately results in a permit number. There is an airport close to Panama City (VFR only) which is used by GA and some domestic flights, where we landed at. The approach turned out to be very scenic despite the mediocre weather.
Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal
There are two hills left and right of the approach path and with a crosswind of twelve knots it was quite bumpy already. This probably gets interesting with stronger winds.
Approaching Panama City (MPMG)
We had crossed the Panama Canal on a cargo ship 15 years ago and it was a lot of fun to finally see the locks and all the ships passing by from the other side. So we took a few days to explore the area.
Tanker passing the Miraflores locks
Container ship in the Gatún lake
Fees were about 90 Dollars including four days parking and handling is not required. We found the people in Panama to be not as friendly as in other counties of Latin America. However, English is widely spoken and ATC was excellent. Anyway, Panama is a beautiful country and it is certainly worth exploring.
Costa Rica doesn’t require a permit but it’s expensive. In fact it’s so expensive that we only stayed one night. Again this is a shame as it is a beautiful country as well.
We flew to Liberia (MRLB), where contracting handling is mandatory. But not only the handling agent is expensive, parking for 24 hours with a Mooney costs 180 Dollars, plus landing fees, of course! However, this was one of the rare cases where we had a good experience with the handling agent: not only did they provide an excellent service, but they also gave us a discount although we hadn’t asked for one. We had agreed to their quote of 200 Dollars but we only had to pay 185. Still not cheap but certainly a way to get happy customers.
Inspection for drugs was extremely thorough in Costa Rica. Two policemen approached us on the ramp. They were very friendly and apologized for what they had to do, but they really took it seriously. We had to unload all luggage and they opened all the bags and checked what was in. Then they took a look at our plane. After inspecting the cabin they asked what was inside the tail cone. I offered to open the cover which is attached with a few camlocks. Then they looked under the wing and found that the inspection covers looked manipulated. We told them that they had to be opened once a year and that’s why the screws don’t look brand new. They asked if I could open one. Reluctantly I agreed but made it clear that I would not open all of them but they could choose one. They found the deal OK and pointed to the one where the aileron servo is under. This was enough for them and we were good to go. Our handling agent found this quite embarrassing and he wasn’t on good terms with the police apparently. With his help immigration and customs was a matter of minutes.
We didn’t see much of Costa Rica and the city of Liberia is really nothing special. However, what we saw on departure the next morning was really lovely.
Coast line near Liberia, Costs Rica
The way to Mexico
To get to Mexico from Costa Rica one has to cross Nicaragua, El Salvador, a tiny bit of Honduras and Guatemala. While a flight plan is sufficient for El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua require permits. Both were relatively easy to obtain. Contact numbers in the AIP worked and for Guatemala we received a permit number to put into field 18 on the first try. Nicaragua was a bit more complicated as they require you to transfer 100 US Dollars to their bank account beforehand. As we had done that online well in advance, we received the permit number while we were still in Panama.
On the way to Mexico
Each of these four countries looked beautiful from above. Unfortunately they are not safe for western tourists currently. Hopefully this changes again, they are certainly worth a visit.