En Route to Mendoza: Midnight Border Crossing

What do you do when you’ve got to cross the border to refresh your 90 day Tourist Visa in Chile?  Why, you plan a magical trip to Mendoza, Argentina of course!  I foresaw wine tasting, mountain views galore, and the best Italian food found on this side of the Atlantic.  Despite having spent almost three months in South America, our appetite for adventure had not dulled in the slightest.

I didn’t even fuss when I realized that in order to cross into Argentina, we’d have to pay a $160 USD reciprocity fee—each.  It’s the price the United States charges Argentinians to visit our country, so fair is fair.  The fee we paid is also valid for 10 years, so the Llama and I can now bounce over to Argentina whenever an eight hour bus ride sounds like a good idea, which isn’t so infrequent as one might think.

But Adrenalin was pumping as the Llama and I made our way to the Viña del Mar bus terminal while micro drivers and little old ladies insisted on getting in our way. We were running later than planned, of course. The micro was packed, and we stood in the center aisle as the driver swung around corners, slammed on the brakes, and dodged other buses.  We tried in earnest to keep our packs from hitting those seated on either side of us.  When we’re on the road, we try hard to be good ambassadors for our home country and, really, gringos everywhere.  But there are some times when there is just no way to get around being the obnoxious gringo. This was one of those times.

We got off the micro and ran into the bus terminal, coming to a screeching halt in front of the international ticket counter.  I had purchased our tickets online, but hadn’t printed them out.  I assumed it was like the airport, where I hand over ID and a machine or counter person takes care of the rest.  With flights, I find this to be faster and more reliable than printing a boarding pass from home.  The counter attendant greeted me with an extremely cheerful “Buenas tardes, cómo está Usted?” but when I told her the status of affairs she was less than pleased with me.  Following her tirade on my responsibility to print my own bus ticket, I apologized and promised sincerely to never do it again.  When I followed up with a meek “Entonces, que hago?” she stopped talking to me and put her head down.

I looked at the clock, I looked at the Llama, and I looked at her.  Our bus was scheduled to depart in 5 minutes.  I wasn’t sure what she was working on, and had a sneaking suspicion that she had moved on to work on something else and left us to figure it out for ourselves.  “Breathe…we’re on Latino time,” I reminded myself. Eventually she passed back our documents, indicated the proper bus to get onto, and off we went.

sleeping on bus (1 of 1)

A few hours later, I was enjoying the soft snooze the bus had lulled me into with my head resting delicately on the Llama’s shoulder.  I became distantly aware of the shouting voice of our bus driver and all of a sudden it was 1:00am and we were being yelled at to get off the bus.  All of us, of course, except the Llama and I were apparently the last two to hear him.  I scrambled, pulled my shoes on, and shuffled off the bus.  I wondered only briefly if we were being ushered into some sort of illegal labor camp as we got into a long line in a cold warehouse building.  There were bright lights and an overabundance of stern men who looked horribly uncomfortable in their crisp uniforms in the middle of the night.

terminal 5 (1 of 1)

Then I understood that we were going through Immigrations.

bus terminal 3 (1 of 1)

I rifled through my handbag and put our documents in order.  Passport, Chilean tourist Visa, bus ticket, copy of reciprocity fee receipt, times two.  By the time we got to the front of the line, the Immigrations officer was pretty disinterested in my neatly organized documents.  He stamped a few things and kept the Chilean visa document, sending us on our way.

We got back on the bus, happy to be warm again, though the bus had definitely started to smell pretty funky.  I snuggled up to sleep and felt the bus rocking beneath me, on its way once again.  Except in much too short a time, the bus driver was calling up to us again to get off with our “equipaje de mano.”  Are we there yet?

border crossing (1 of 1)

We got off the bus, carry-on luggage with us, and everyone got into a horse-shoe lineup.  We had driven 50 meters from where we had gotten on the bus, and now were ordered off again.  Had we collectively done something wrong?  They peeked into our bags with all the care of a movie theatre concessionaire, as dogs with special vests ran around.  The dogs didn’t appear to be any more disciplined than the strays we see wandering through Valparaíso, showing just as much interest in peeing on posts as in the potential contraband in our bags.

dogs at terminal (1 of 1)

Although this was all rather uneventful, the process took about an hour and a half. I was so glad that by 2:30am we were back on our way, just a little closer to drinking wine and soaking up the Argentinian sunshine.

The next time our bus driver called to us to get off the bus, I crossed my fingers that we were in Mendoza.  Somewhere in my mind I had conjured a pristine mountain city surrounded by vines in all directions on sloping foothills and winding roads.  I pulled back the curtain of my seat to take it all in.  What I saw was darkness, and the glaring lights of a massive bus terminal.

The bus terminal was almost as groggy as we were. All the shops and magazine stands were shut down. So too were the ticket counters and tourism office.  I looked to my phone so I could pull up a map—no service. Of course. My Chilean data wouldn’t work in Argentina, but that hadn’t even crossed my mind before.

backpacking on phone (1 of 1)

Before leaving, a smart person would have uploaded a map.  A smart person would have booked accommodations prior to arrival so we’d have a destination to ask a taxi to bring us to.  But the Llama and I are sometimes not so smart.  We were going to have to figure it out the old-school way: unplugged.

We walked through the labyrinth of closed kiosks before finding an exit.  The summer night air tasted clean and delicious compared to the bus terminal, and we wandered down the road with purpose, so as to deter men approaching us to offer “taxi!” and “cambio!” We walked so far that we were approaching a highway on-ramp before we decided to turn around and head back.  We had no idea where we were.

I stopped to chat with a pair of parking lot attendants who were surprised and delighted to meet us.  “California Dreaming!” they said, almost in unison, when I told them where the Llama was from.  I don’t even bother following with Connecticut anymore.  It kills the vibe.

The two gentlemen were sweet, and told us that in the daytime it is easy to orient oneself because the mountains are always in the West. They patiently gave us detailed, step by step directions about how to get to the very center of the city for an excellent start to our trip.

“But you should wait,” they added, “until the sun comes up.”

With this sage advice, we wandered back into the bus terminal in search of a bench to slouch into for a few hours.  But we weren’t the only ones with this idea.  I found an empty spot bench enough for the two of us next to a dozing fellow backpacker.  I hoped for a feeling of camaraderie and perhaps a camping suggestion.  But as soon as I sat down, I understood why the bench next to him was vacant.  He smelled terrible.  The Llama and I sauntered on, trying not to be obvious in our pursuit of fresh air.

The Llama walked out the nearest door.  I followed. He crossed the “No Peatones” area of the bus parking lot.  Again, I followed. 

We came to a grassy center island around which the buses came and went.  Under a massive old growth tree, shielded ever so slightly from onlookers, we dropped our heavy packs. Buses big as buildings rolled by as the Llama laid sleeping bags on top of our tent’s footprint.  He set up our packs as pillows to lay our heads. Hydraulics hissed and headlights cast eerie shadows as we huddled close together in our little nest at the foot of the comforting tree.  There were plans to be made and executed, but not at that moment. We fell asleep there, waiting for the sun to rise.

03-2016 Mendoza vineyard clouds

An adventure to wine country awaits.


90 day Tourist Visa: Chile and the United States have a friendly relationship, and Chileans are able to travel to the U.S.A. on a 6 month visa without paying any additional fees for the visa, though they must apply in Santiago de Chile before the trip.  In comparison, U.S. Citizens may stay in Chile for up to 90 days on a free tourist Visa, which is given upon landing in the airport, train, or bus station.  The Llama and I are in the process of getting our 1 year residency Visas so that we can work, but it takes time and I prefer to remain in legal status.

“Buenas tardes, cómo está Usted?”: Come on, you remember this from Spanish 1, right?

Entonces, que hago?”: “At this point, what do I do?”

Latino time: Generally-speaking a loose concept of time.  I rarely find this to work in our favor the way it did with the bus.  When we are hoping to get to a government office before it closes, it closed 5 minutes before it was scheduled to. When we arrive at a shop scheduled to open at 9:00am, the door doesn’t open until 9:15am. Chileans complain that if you plan to meet someone at 10:00am, you won’t see them until 11:00am.  That’s Latino time.

Equipaje de mano: Carry-on luggage

Cambio: Change, but also exchange of foreign money. From what I understand, there is a vibrant black market for foreign currency in Argentina. So even before the sun was up, hustlers are at the bus terminal, hoping to make a good exchange on the Argentine Peso. I sort of wish I knew that before we left. Perhaps better that I didn’t.

No Peatones: No pedestrians.  Whoops!


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