Driving distance between Mendoza, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile? Only 370 kilometres. Travel time? Between seven and nine hours. This is what happens when, inconveniently, the Andes rise between the two countries.
Once in Mendoza, we could have taken a late-night flight to Santiago, but we barely considered the option.
“We can bus it.”
“Sure, no problem.”
We rarely look forward to a long, nausea-inducing bus ride, but this journey is special. First, there’s the thrill of crossing the Andes—I mean, this is the longest continental mountain range in the world, not exactly a backyard fence. Second, we knew the challenging trip offers a memorable experience—we still remember our first crossing from Santiago to Mendoza in 2002.
Two hours after landing in Mendoza, we were at the Terminal Del Sol asking around for ticket prices and schedules. Andesmar? Bus at 9 a.m., tickets for 900 Argentinian pesos (about $55). CATA? Bus at 9 a.m., tickets for 900 pesos. Nevada? Bus at 9 a.m., tickets for 900 pesos. “Okay, never mind, I think all the companies are filling the same, one bus.” We bought the tickets from Andesmar and we were told to look for the “El Rápido Internacional” bus to take us up and down across the border, hopefully safely because “rapido” isn’t an option on mountain roads.
How do you prepare for a 7-hour bus ride through the Andes?
You don’t, really—or the bare minimum. Digging a pair of jeans out of the backpack, it may be cold up there. Charging our respective toys, MP3, tablet and Kindle. Sleeping early (Feng) or late (me)—different strategies, he likes to be rested, I want to pass out on the bus even though if, God forbid, movies dubbed in Spanish are shown for the entire trip.
Even if I had wanted a good night’s rest, I was out of luck. A group of Argentinians spent the night drinking and playing music on their phone just outside our door.
The following morning, at 8:55 a.m., we handed over the backpacks and presented tickets and passports to the driver. I reclined my seat and closed my eyes.
Then I opened them again. Damn, I was feeling guilty. Would I miss the whole scenic ride? Must stay awake for a bit. I drank a can of Pepsi and took a few pictures as we were going up on a slow, gentle incline. The road bends were still fairly broad but the scenery already spectacular.
I woke up four hours later, right before the Túnel Cristo Redentor, the national border between Argentina and Chile, the end of Route 7 and the beginning of Route 60. Less than ten kilometres further, the bus stopped at the Aduana Chilena.
“I guess we’re not getting an exit stamp from Argentina?”
It wasn’t that cold 3,900 metres above sea level, I noted, breathing the fresh air for a second.
We were marched into a large building, the Chilean migration office. We were lucky, the previous bus was leaving—lineups can be very long at the border since everyone takes the same route.
Getting the entry stamp was easy, no questions asked, we had filled out the forms in the bus. However, customs was another story. The bus had pulled up in front of the inspection area and was being searched—under the seats, driving cabins, wheels hubs, etc. Meanwhile, we were all waiting in line behind a row of tables with our carry-on bags.
“It reminds me of the Greyhound border crossing in Detroit,” I whispered to Feng.
A woman had to open her suitcase.
Feng’s banana was found in the bus and disposed of.
A guy wolfed down a vegan sandwich—no vegetable or fruit shall enter Chile.
Then our bags were X-rayed and we were free to do nothing but go back to the bus. I sigh with the sadness of a smoker who had just been denied a perfect opportunity for a cigarette and with the regret of a photographer who wanted another border crossing shot.
But the bus wasn’t leaving. A baby had to be changed, another sandwich had to be eaten or thrown away, and while a fellow backpacker was informing me he had just been deported from Brazil—why? And why share this piece of info?—I had my cigarette. Well, half of it.
Time to go down to Santiago.
For that, I was wide awake. This is the best part, the final twist—pun intended. On the Chilean side, the slope has a far higher grade, and the road descends down a long series of switchbacks.
This is the part where you hope the bus driver is having a lovely day, is handsomely paid and doesn’t hate his job.
We drove through 28 hairpin turns, mountains with steep cliffs on both sides. It looks like a short stretch but it took a long, long time to finally negotiate the final bend.
Here it was, behind the Andes.
This is the last stop of this trip, but not the last day yet.