Saturday, January 26, 2013

Day 123 of 1827: Mendoza

As my long-suffering readers have noticed by now, I can't seem to change locations without having a massive adventure.  In that respect, today did not disappoint.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that as far as adventures go, today was the least disappointing day so far.

I met up with a few friends this morning to say my final goodbyes and pick up some last minute supplies and cash for my trip to Argentina.

In Argentina, there are two exchange rates for the currency.  There's the official rate, which is about 5 Argentine Pesos to the Dollar, which is what you will get if you use an ATM or money exchange or pay for something with a foreign credit card.  Then there's the actual rate, which is closer to 7 Pesos to the Dollar.  You'll get this rate if you buy Pesos outside Argentina or can find somebody willing to make the exchange on the Blue Market as it's called in Argentina.

It was surprisingly difficult to purchase Argentine Pesos at the casas de cambio.  It wasn't restricted or anything; it's just that nobody had any!  My friend suggested that it is likely due to the fact that Argentines aren't able to travel as often these days, so there's nobody bringing Argentine Pesos across the border to exchange for Chilean Pesos.

I picked up a bunch of US Dollars to make up the difference.  I hear you can spend those almost as easily in Argentina (or at least find an arbolito to exchange them for you).

While we were out, we visited a few luggage and camping stores to see if I could find some compression cubes for my bags.  We didn't find any, but we did manage to spend enough time there that when I stopped to check my phone, I only had 2 hours to catch my bus!

Whoops; I was hoping to have a lot more time than that!  I ran back to my friend's place, packed up my stuff... and that was all I had time to do.

I had to leave without arranging my accommodations in Mendoza.

And I was going to be getting in at 11 PM.

Well, hopefully the bus has wifi (spoiler alert:  it didn't).

I got everything packed up, took the Metro to Terminal Alameda, grabbed a late lunch and boarded my bus.

When you arrive in Chile as a tourist, you are given a "tourist card", which is a stamped slip of paper that acts as your visa.  It is very important that you keep it while you are in Chile!  When you want to leave the country, you must present it to PDI (Chile's national police), or else they won't let you out!

Fortunately, I had my tourist card with me; I have learned to keep every slip of paper that I get at immigration and customs, at least until I've left the country — you never know when you'll need it!

The bus ride was beautiful.  I picked the route from Santiago to Mendoza specifically because it goes up through the Andes, and it was every bit as breathtaking as I was told it would be.

Unfortunately, cama class on a Tur-Bus is not exactly what I was expecting.  Granted, I had a nice comfy seat that reclined almost all the way back, which was nice... but no power, no wifi, and the "dinner" that they served (let's be fair; it was more of a snack than a meal) was pretty awful.  At least they were showing decent movies.

I guess I'm just spoiled by Talca Paris y Londres.

We reached the Chile/Argentina border in reasonably good time.  There were a few delays due to vehicles backed up for several kilometers.  Some of the time my bus pulled out into the oncoming lane and passed everybody... other times we had to wait.  At one point, we waited for an hour without moving once.

I say "reasonably good time" because we were only about 2 hours behind schedule.  But don't worry; we haven't reached Argentina immigration yet.

Around 11 PM (about the time my bus was supposed to have arrived in Mendoza), we pull up to the immigration building.

Actually, that's not really accurate.  What actually happened was we stopped at the beginning of the line of vehicles waiting to enter the immigration building... about a kilometer away.

Fortunately, there were a few shops nearby where we could buy snacks and such, so our driver let us out to walk about and buy some stuff.

I stepped off the bus, took one look upward at the night sky... and stopped.

The moon was peaking over the mountains, and the darkened sky was full of stars.  We were easily 120 kilometers from the nearest city, so there was virtually no light to obscure the display of celestial beauty.

The effect was somewhat spoiled by becoming aware of people walking past me and occasionally bumping into me.  I put my hands over my pockets and started walking over to the lights of commerce.

I walked into a store (well, shack would be a more precise description) and picked up a 1.5L bottle of water.  The shopkeep wanted 15 pesos in exchange.  According to the official exchange rate, that was a US$3 bottle of water.  Realistically, it was more like US$2.50.  Still, not exactly a bargain.

I decided against ordering food — both due to cost and because I knew that if the worst should happen, the nearest septic system was about 140 km away.

It took 2 hours, but we eventually got to the front of the line.  There were about 4 lanes of vehicles waiting to get to immigration, and buses had to stay in the rightmost lane.  For each bus that they let through, about a dozen cars got to go.  It was quite annoying.

Finally, the officer waved our vehicle into the building.  The interior of the immigration structure was unlike anything I'd seen before; it looked almost like an indoor toll plaza, except everybody had to get out of their vehicles, and nobody was moving.

The driver ordered everybody off the bus, and we lined up with our backpacks and personal bags along a series of tables.  After waiting some more, a customs officer came up to me and did a cursory inspection of the contents of my backpack.  Fortunately, I didn't have to unpack anything, and he didn't seem interested in any of my supplies.

Once that was done, we all lined up in front of one of the immigration booths.  It took me a couple of tries, but I managed to collect all the documents I needed:
  • Passport
  • Argentina Immigration Form (in quadruplicate!)
  • Chile Tourist Card
  • Reciprocity Fee Receipt
There was much stamping and shuffling of paper... and the entire process required two immigration agents.  After a few minutes, my passport had acquired a new stamp, and the Argentine government had collected a few more sheets of paper.

I walked out of the building, found my bus and got back in my seat.

About half an hour later, the bus drivers came back... and they seemed very upset about something.  They started pointing in my direction and gestured angrily for me to follow them.

This cannot be good.

I grabbed my backpack and followed them back into immigration.  They led me to a small office near the back of the building,

Inside was a relatively friendly immigration agent who seemed appreciative that I was communicating with him in Spanish (I think this helped ease my way through immigration a little bit).  He reviewed my reciprocity receipt... very thoroughly... before concluding that I had, in fact, paid for the privilege of passing through his building.

As a side note, I did not have to pre-pay the reciprocity fee before showing up at the Argentina border; the officer was prepared to accept a cash or credit card payment right there.

Anyway, after clearing that mess up, I was then led to another booth where some Chile PDI officers checked my Chile tourist card and stamped some more documents.  Meanwhile, I did my best to act confused and look like I had no idea what was going on.  I'm pretty sure it was a very convincing performance.

Finally the bureaucrats were satisfied and the bus drivers were pleased again.  They made a couple of jokes (at my expense), and happily led me back to the bus so we could continue our journey.

I'm still not sure I did everything right; I was never asked for my customs declaration form.  Urf... I hope this doesn't cause any problems when I leave Argentina.

Around 4 in the morning, we pulled into the bus terminal in Mendoza, Argentina.  Again, I'd like to remind you that we were scheduled to arrive at 11:30 PM.

Also, I'd like to once again point out that I did not have any accommodations arranged by this point.

As it happened, I had turned on my phone's mobile data very briefly while we were still in Chile so that I could locate a hostel so that I had an address to put on my immigration form.  So I wasn't flying completely blind; I had an address at least.

I hopped in a taxi (well, I got in line to take a taxi... starting to see a pattern here?) and off we went to my hostel...

... which was completely full.

The staff person on duty was kind enough to give me a map with the locations of several other hostels in the area.  I picked one that looked slightly more expensive (and hopefully not packed to the rafters with backpackers) and grabbed another taxi.

15 minutes and 20 Pesos (about US$7) later, I arrived... and this hotel was completely booked as well.


I was running low on Pesos at this point, so I started walking down Avenida España... I remembered seeing a couple of other hotels along the way, and fortunately they weren't too far.

Just shy of 5 o'clock, I stumbled into the first hotel I could find:  Hotel Vecchia Roma.  We negotiated a rate of 180 Pesos for the rest of the night (about US$25 using the "real" exchange rate).

It was then that I remembered that I had forgotten to call my credit card company to let them know I was traveling to Argentina.

It also didn't help that the credit card reader was having difficulty identifying my card.  After the 5th swipe, I was starting to wonder how uncomfortable it would be to nap in a chair in the lobby for a few hours.

Finally, the transaction went through (no doubt using the "official" exchange rate, which drove the price of the room closer to US$36).

The room was tiny, the bed was not super comfortable, and the bathroom... um, left a bit to be desired.

Oh, and check-out time in Mendoza is 10 AM, not noon.

I set my alarm for 8:30 (in 3 hours) and went to bed, wondering what on earth I'd gotten myself into this time.

Driving through the Andes!
Driving through the Andes to get to Argentina: about 6 hours of mountains, valleys and sky.
It turns out I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus; the right side gets way better vistas. But it was still phenomenally beautiful.