So, when was the last time you even thought about having a problem when picking up a rental car in one country and being restricted to travel to the bordering country? We had made arrangements to pick up our rental car at the pier in Valparaiso, Chile and drop it off in Santiago, Chile the day prior to our flight home to the States. As the rental agent was completing the rental process she did the standard: “if you breakdown here is the telephone number to call”… It was a Chilean phone number and so I naturally queried “and what is the number while we’re in Mendoza, Argentina?”. Silence and shock. You’d thought I’d have asked walking directions over the Andes or something. How were we innocent tourists to know that relations between the two bordering countries were strained to the point of my mentioning Argentina being similar to having committed a cardinal sin. “Oh, no,” she said, “you can’t take the car to Argentina”. I calmly replied “oh yes we are, as we’re reserved and pre-paid for tonight at the Hyatt in Mendoza for 4 nights”. Much hand wringing followed about the paperwork that was required to cross the border with a Chilean rental car. We needed to advise the rental car 21 days prior to our arrival so they could prepare (and charge us additionally) for the necessary paperwork. Google directions had us at a 4 hours drive from Valparaiso, across the Andes in to Mendoza, Argentina. They called their head office in Santiago to expedite the paperwork if possible and told us they MIGHT have it ready by around 5pm. What else could we do? We headed to the Sheraton Hotel headquarters for the rental car company and waited 5 hours. We were finally on our way with a folder full of paperwork at 6pm.
Though we expected the roads to be, um, tricky, we didn’t expect them to be what we experienced! Not only were they curvy two lane (one lane in each direction) through the mountains but surprise, surprise there was major roadworks that was requiring one-way alternating traffic through a large portion of the pass over the Andes. The pass over the Andes is THE ONLY road connection from Chile to Argentina. Needless to say the truckers know the road well and some even mimic Juan Fangio at the helm. At 7pm we got to the point of alternating traffic. There we sat for one hour. You’d think it would be the opportunity to have a little picnic, but NO food or even beverages are allowed across the borders, which at the start of this adventure didn’t seem to be a big deal thinking we’d just blow across the border as we do in Europe and all this foolish paperwork requirement would have been for naught. HAH!
Mind you we have no GPS and no mobile phone connection as we thought it would be a fairly simple straight forward journey. We started the border crossing process at dark (8:30pm). You drive up to this barn-like building and wait in your car until you’re signaled in to a lane in the shed. Then you are told (of course in Spanish) to get out of your car, open your trunk and take everything out and put it on the ground so they can inspect it. Once you’ve repacked and re-boarded your vehicle you move forward to these booths staffed with very official, serious, unsmiling people. I just passed the whole stack of papers through the little hole and was met with a scowl and a number of papers being pushed back through the hole. Some papers (no lots of them) are then stamped and handed back to us and we’re told that they’ll be picked up at the check-point 25 kilometers down the road!
We drive on and on, in the dark, curving unlit roads in the moonless night. I’m sure you’ve had the same feeling wondering how far along, or even for that matter where are we? We finally arrive at the check-point with the barrier down across the road to make sure we don’t neglect to hand in the next necessary paperwork along the trail. OK, now it’s really dark and the road doesn’t have any signs to indicate how many more kilometers from Mendoza, but more worrying is there are no services — like gas stations, on this barren road and our gas tank indicator is just above E. Just as it dropped in to the E of the gauge, at 12:15am we pulled in to the garage of the Hyatt Hotel. Man, nothing ever looked so good as our hotel room!