Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Stuck In Customs: High Andes Style

Border6965.jpgThis post is part of the two day Alta Montaña trip we took out of Mendoza. Read the post here for an overview of the trip.

On our recent trip outside of Mendoza to the high Andes, we thought we would spend a few hours and cross over into Chile for a look around and to get our passports stamped with another country.

Simple, right?

Wrong! We ended up being broke and too poor for Chile and were stuck in no-mans land for over 3 1/2 hours. Not a great ending to our trip to the high Andes.

Our problems started the night before when we couldn't find a place to stay in Uspallata. I read that there were hotels and hostels at the base of the ski resort in Penitentes much closer to the Chilean border. So, we drove on and found a spot in the one and only hotel open in the summer. However, the wind had knocked out phone and internet access so we had to pay with cash for the room.


We were in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains and there were no ATMs for over 100 kilometers and no one took credit cards. We had to use cash for breakfast, lunch and even to use the restrooms!

By the time we paid for our lunch in Las Cuevas, just before the border, we only had $4 pesos to our name. No problem we thought. We would just get cash when we reached the first town in Chile. The same with the gas which was just over the 1/4 tank mark.

Crossing The Border
We went through the tunnel underneath a large mountain and reached the other side in Chile where we found a long line of cars at the border crossing. There was also a large amount of paperwork for us.

We arrived at the first of a series of booths after a 40 minute wait. They helped us with the myriad of forms and stamped our passports as exiting Argentina and sent us on to the next booth where we filled out more paperwork for entering into Chile.

Gas check: just under 1/4 tank.

At the next booth we were instructed to pay a $3,000 CH Peso tariff to enter the country. Not knowing the exchange rate, we tried handing over our 4 measly AR pesos. The woman behind the counter barked, "NO Argentine Pesos! Only Chilean Pesos!"

"No Tengo" I replied. She rolled her eyes and pointed us to a shack of a building on the side of the road to exchange our money. I parked the car and walked over to the building to find it deserted and more like a bad scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie than a money exchange booth.

I walked back and asked someone else where the money exchange was and they pointed me in the opposite direction to the booth right adjacent to the surly woman's. Clearly, the first woman was playing games with us "stupid gringos".

I exchanged my $4AR pesos and discovered I was way short. $4 AR Pesos was just over $500 CH Pesos. Nowhere close to the $3,000 needed. I slowly walked back over the the tariff booth and tried to give them what little money we had.

Stuck in Customs
No, dice. We were too poor to enter Chile and they refused to let us pass. Now we were stuck in no-mans land with nowhere to go. We couldn't backup into oncoming traffic and they would not let us go forward to turnaround.

Surely this had happened before and someone could direct us where to go to get back into Argentina. But no. We were stuck there for an eternity it seemed as several border guards debated what to do with us.

We were left idling with precious little gas. Finally, we pleaded with an Argentina border agent to let us drive the wrong way on in the dirt beside the road and cut across traffic to get back to the tunnel and into Argentina.

The only problem was we were already stamped as exiting Argentina and therefore our tourist visas were now canceled. Halfway through the tunnel, I realized that we were now entering the country illegally with invalid visas. We had to find an Argentina customs office to straighten things out. Fortunately, my wife remembered the Argentina customs checkpoint was further up the road on the Argentina side.

Stuck in Customs Round II
We came to the Argentina customs checkpoint and pulled in to find 100s of other cars in line ahead of us. We sat idling away what little gas had for 5 minutes before realizing we were not moving anywhere fast. We cut the engine to save gas and pushed our car through the line for 2 hours.

We finally got up to customs and the first agent freaked out on the state of our passports but no one else seemed to know what do to about it. Having been stamped as leaving Argentina, but not stamped entering and then leaving Chile just wasn't right.


We pleaded at one post and were then sent to another post to be sent to yet another post. My wife finally rolled down her window and bashed a few eyelashes at an older gentleman who heard our tale and understood our plight. A few stamps of our passports and we were good for another 90 days.

We had just wasted 3 1/2 hours and didn't even get a Chile stamp in our passports! What a waste of an afternoon.

Running on Empty
Now to get to Uspallata get cash and gas. It was over 100Kms and we had less than 1/4 tank of gas. Over an hour and half later, we pulled in with plenty of gas to spare, although I was almost arrested in Uspallata (thanks to a cell phone call at exactly the wrong time), we fueled up and made sure we had plenty of cash.

We headed down Route 7 to Mendoza and arrived home around 10:00 exhausted, but glad we were good for another 90 days in Argentina.


Unknown said...

What a nightmare...but it was really hysterical reading while sitting on my couch here in BA. I apologize for taking pleasure in your pain. You are so lucky to have such an understanding family.

What sort of place are you staying in in Mendoza? Did you rent the car for the duration of your trip or just for day trips?


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Man, you can't say you are not having a blast here, with plenty of fun bureaucracy.

Roxanne said...

Howdy, I'm Roxanne from Richardson, TX and I'll be studying in BA starting in May. I stumbled upon your blog and have been reading it for a little while but never found a reason to comment until now.

I have no idea how you kept so calm in such a frustrating situation but I'm really glad to have read this because I was considering going to Chile after I completed my studies at UBA and now I know what not to do.

I'm glad you and your family made it back safely! - Roxanne

Longhorn Dave said...


You will have a blast in BA studying. All of the other US kids I run into love it here. As far as Chili, The drive to Santiago from Mendoza is really nice. Instead of the two day trip in the Mountains, you could head out of Mendoza and drive it straight in 6 or 7 hours depending on the border crossing line.

The only problem, Santiago is a real snoozer of a town from what we have heard from other travelers.

I was there for two days on business in the mid 90s. It didn't seem so bad to me. Also, it is very expensive.

Anonymous said...

Soundslike you got a bit of both the A factor and the C factor in one session.

My adventures said...

even that sounds like fun!!!