South America Update (or why Astrid wishes she were on a long-distance bus right now)
Greetings all from Mendoza, wine capital of Argentina. At the moment we are grounded here, and I’ll explain why.
First, a quick update on the trip so far. I already explained how I lost 5000 pesos upon arrival in Santiago! After that the rest of the work week was smooth sailing, and Astrid arrived with relative ease on Friday morning over a week ago. After finishing with work (and a work-related dinner Friday night) we enjoyed six days in and around Buenos Aires. If I have to put it in one short statement, I’d say the city is generally a mixture of New York and Paris with elements of Spanish cities thrown in, all cast in a slightly tumbled-down way. Our first day was a bit rough, wandering around the center of the city on a Saturday was perhaps not the best plan, as I was quickly robbed of about 4 ounces of Coke Zero. During the rest of our time in Buenos Aires we enjoyed absolutely excellent day trips to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay (a 1-hour catamaran trip across the monstrously large Rio de la Plata) and the Tigre Delta area about an hour north of Buenos Aires. We plan to blog, with pictures, about all of that.
Thursday night we flew to Mendoza, and I will move on to explain our current predicament. After a late arrival and a nice morning sleeping in, we decided to go in search finalizing arrangements for the next leg of our journey across the Andes Mountains into Chile. The original plan had been to take a bus – this is the typical way of travelling in South America, and long distance buses in Argentina and Chile offer accommodations as good as business class air travel, with flat and semi-flat beds and very comfortable surroundings (and all for relatively low prices). As there is limited air services (which are therefore very expensive) and no train services over the Andes, buses are the way to go. However, Astrid very recently got her UK driving license, opening up the option of renting a car. We decided that, pending the cost, this was our preferred option, as it would give us more freedom and the ability to stop and take pictures on the mighty mountain crossing. We had read mixed reviews of one-way rentals from Argentina to Chile, due to international relations and the like. Some reports on the Internet say that it is impossible, others that it is very expensive, etc. We decided to try our luck and visit the many rental car offices right in the center of Mendoza.
At our first stop, Budget, we encountered the first roadblock – pasaje cerrado! That means that the mountain pass (through the Cristo Redentor Tunnel at more than 10,000 feet elevation) was closed. We had read about this happening in winter (which is reversed down here!), but most reports said it only began in late May. However, on Friday it was closed, and reports indicated that it would remain that way throughout the weekend. So any and all plans seemed to be out the window; what to do? Some further investigation led us to believe that it would open up again on Saturday, so we booked bus tickets on Andesmar, one of the best recommended Argentinian companies offering services to Chile. Come Saturday midday, the pass reopened, and all seemed in order.
We awoke this morning at 5 to pack up, check out, and get over to the large bus station for an 8am departure to Valparaiso, our next destination. After some chaos in locating the right place, we found no bus there and lots of people milling around. It turns out that there is a strike occurring by long-distance bus drivers, affecting many tens of thousands of travelers around the country! Who knew? The bus company’s website seems to make no mention of it and continues to offer to sell you tickets for buses today and tomorrow, when in fact no buses are going!
Now we have a new issue – we thought we had gotten over the challenge of the crossing, but (alas) that is not the case. The Chilean bus companies are still operating, but they were totally booked up for today and filling up very quickly for tomorrow. After a stressful morning of looking for alternatives, we have now managed to arrange a one-way car rental so that we can drive across the Andes and return the car in Santiago on Wednesday. This will be very expensive, but saves us from losing our committed accommodations and arrangements in Valparaiso, as well as the expense of extending our stay here in Mendoza (and seems to be still cheaper than the air alternative, which is about US$1300 for the two of us to go on the 50-minute flight). As I write this, we are camped out in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for the rental agency to arrange the necessary paperwork (apparently an expensive permit is required to take an Argentinian car across into Chile). I hope to be able to report by the end of the day, or maybe tomorrow, a successful and beautiful crossing of the mountains and us tucked in safe and sound in our B&B in Valparaiso!