Everybody makes wrong decisions once in a while. We made plenty of mistakes when travelling and we learned from them. The point is not to make the same mistake twice. After all, we aren’t masochists.
Feng and I crossed many land borders: Canada-US, US-Mexico, Mexico-Belize, Belize-Guatemala, Guatemala-Honduras, Guatemala-El Salvador, El Salvador-Honduras, Honduras-Costa Rica, Costa Rica-Nicaragua, Nicaragua-Panama, Ecuador-Peru, Peru-Bolivia, Bolivia-Chile, Chile-Argentina, Argentina-Brazil, Uruguay-Brazil, Singapore-Malaysia, Malaysia-Thailand … and this is not including the Schengen Area.
But there is one place where we had sworn we would never go back: Chuy-Chuí, the border between Uruguay and Brazil. Feng has bad memories of our 2009 border-crossing experience. I can’t remember the whole ordeal as well for some reason—self-preservation?—but I know we had a hard time there.
This is how the land border crossing process usually works in Latin America: make your way to the border town (invariably chaotic, seedy and grim), get your exit stamp from country A at the migración, then walk a few metres and get your entry stamp from country B at the migración. Get ripped off by money changers exchanging your last ABC currency (watch for counterfeit bills and count your change) then get the hell out of here and take a bus or taxi to the nearest proper town.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this in Chuy-Chuí. First of all, the town is literally half in Brazil and half in Uruguay: on one side of Avenida Brazil you’re in Brazil and on the other one you are in Uruguay. However, the Uruguayan migración is on the road to Chuy, several kilometres before the town, and the Brazilian immigration checkpoint is in the middle of nowhere, several kilometres outside Chuí. To complicate matters even more, there is no bus service linking both immigration checkpoints and each side has its own bus terminal: the Terminal de bus in Uruguay and the Estação Rodoviária de Chuí in Brazil. The cherry on the cake? Brazil is an hour ahead of Uruguay, so when it’s 2 p.m. on one side of Avenida Brazil, it’s 3 p.m. on the other. Yes, many buses are probably missed daily by passengers showing up an hour too late.
Basically, it’s fucked up.
Yet, we decided to cross the border between Uruguay and Brazil at Chuy-Chuí because Brazil is where the next chapter of this trip will take place and really, there is no other place to cross the border.
The day started with the long hike on the dirt road from our cabaña in Punta del Diablo to the bus station outside the town. We were already a sweaty and dusty mess by the time we arrived.
At 11:45, the bus stopped a couple of minutes to pick up passengers.
“Any chance you’d stop at the immigration checkpoint on the way to Chuy?” I asked the driver.
He doesn’t have to. Most—if not all—passengers are Uruguayans passport holders who go to Chuy to enjoy some duty-free shopping.
“Ahem … will the bus wait for us to get the exit stamp?”
The last time, the bus didn’t wait. You were just dropped off at the immigration checkpoint but you were still several kilometres from Chuy—good luck making your way to the town.
I looked at Feng. Okay, maybe we could totally rock Chuy this time.
Forty-five minutes later, the driver stopped the bus and asked for our passports. I was about to get off as well but he just grabbed our passports and told you to stay put.
“Did we just give our passports to a bus driver who is going to do the migración for us?” I asked Feng, puzzled.
I mean, the whole point of an immigration checkpoint and a passport is to show up in person, right?
Ten minutes later, the driver came back with our passports. I checked. We did get the exit stamp.
Still crossing fingers and hoping the rest of the process would be as smooth, we got off at the bus terminal in Chuy, Uruguay. We started walking to the hotel, a few streets away. It was further than we had expected and we reached a dirt road, outside the town. The streets had no name—literally, it’s not like we were singing the U2 song, we were pretty out of breath.
“Even if we find it, there is no way we can stay there. It’s way too far.”
We turned around and walked back to the centre to find another hotel. The first one we asked was a jail: a tiny room with two beds and no fan.
“Sorry, but no. I ain’t sleeping there.”
We crossed Avenida Brazil and “lucked out” in Brazil. “Lucked out” is a big word, considering the room but it was slightly cleaner and there was a fan. There were also giant bugs, barely any water and no fridge but hey, never mind. The sheets were white enough for us to sleep in them.
Now, we still had to get our entry stamp from Brazil. Remember: the official immigration checkpoint is several kilometres outside the town.
Eventually, we found a taxi to take us to the aduana brasileira. We filled out the entry card and waited as a very bored officer was processing us.
“Fines have to be paid at the Banco do Brasil, not here!” the sign said on the wall. What fine?, I wondered as I was swatting flies. The desk was covered with graffiti, names of travellers who had entered or exited Brazil. I didn’t have the guts to scribble ours in front of the officer.
Mark’s passport, stamped.
Or not. When we checked our respective stamps, just outside the building, Feng couldn’t find his. We came back to the officer. ’’Uh… I think you stamped the entry card and not the passport.”
“Oh, did I?”
Ah ah. If we hadn’t checked … we would have had to do it all over again. Nightmare…
The taxi driver had been kind enough to wait for us so we just asked him to head back to town.
Three Uruguayan exit stamps, three Brazilian entry stamps.
Now we had to spend a day and a night in fucking Chuy…