Wait time at border: approx. 3 hours
– Certified copies of our kids’ birth certificates
– Car Registration (in one of our names)
– Camper trailer registration (in one of our names)
Crossing the Andes mountain range – the second tallest in the world – is nothing to take lightly. But crossing the Andes with a one ton camper trailer pulled by a 4-cylinder truck from the 90’s complete with two screaming active toddlers could be thought of by some as downright mad.
Which is exactly how I would characterize the first border crossing of our big overland trip from Buenos Aires to Montana. To sum it up, we left Mendoza late because we dallied a bit too long saying goodbye to our campground buddies, which means despite our best time estimates (GPS said it would take 5 hours and 31 minutes to go from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile) we were left driving down the Chilean side of the Andes at sundown (bad idea!). It was such a terrible day that I vowed not to blog about it, and can only now – two months later – find the will to type this up. In fact, when I look back in our travel notebook from that day, I wrote only this numbered list:
What NOT to do when crossing a border on an overland trip:
- Leave late in the day
- Not have a place to stay already figured out on the other side
- Not have a paper map of the country you are going to because your GPS maps could be outdated and WRONG
- Not have all your paperwork pulled together and in one place
- Anticipate that everything will go quickly and smoothly at the border
To add to the stress of the situation, our little guy (almost 2) took a bad tumble out of the truck at one of our gas stops and we lost a full hour at the emergency room making sure his nose wasn’t broken. (Going forward I swear to always open car doors slowly and check for toddlers that may be on the other side!)
But our biggest delay came once we made it to the Argentina – Chile border, which was an amazing but gradual climb up to 10,000 feet. We found ourselves in one of two lines of vehicles stretching a half a mile – one for freight trucks, one for passenger vehicles. Having no idea how long the line stretched or for how long we needed to be in it, Tomas shut off the engine and walked to the front. After what seemed like an hour later, he returned waving papers and a smile, sure that he could save us time by filling out the paperwork ahead of time (not, but nice try).
After a two-and-a-half hour wait, we finally came to the front of the line. The Customs and Inmigration offices for both Argentina and Chile are integrated in one building at about 10,000 feet above see level. The official names are “Paso Libertadores”or “Paso Los Andes”.
There are 5 steps to the paperwork we filed, but once you get to the end of the line the process is pretty fast. Delays (like the one we faced) are most likely created because of the fact that the border shuts down very often in the winter and a lot of people try to cross the few days that it is open.
1) Argentina Immigration: Exit approval. To get this you need to give the officer your passport and if you travel with minors, a copy of their birth certificate to prove that they are your children.
2) Argentina Customs: Car and cargo export release: To do this you only need to have the car registration on your name with you. Tha will give you a paper that says that the car can go with you.
3) Chile Immigration: You only need your passport and they give you a little paper that says how long you can stay in Chile (generally, up to 6 months)
4) Chile Customs: You need your car registration and the signed paper from the Argentine customs officer. They will approve your vehicle’s entrance into Chile and verify that you are not bringing anything ilegal into the counry
5) Physical cargo.vehicle check up. Once you have all your paperwork in hand, Chilean officers will briefly inspect your vehicle/trunk before they let you drive away.
Once we were finally on our way (and the kids were napping peacefully in the back, thank you god) we began our descent down the western side of the Andes, which was a white knuckle experience to say the least. While the climb on the Argentine side of the highway was fairly steady and gentle, the Chileans seemed to just want to dump you straight down to sea level. The most intense descent was a series of 180 degree switchbacks that snaked down a mountain face for a few thousand feet.
A word of advice for anyone planning on making the crossing from Mendoza to Santiago: definitely plan on overnighting in Los Andes before heading on to Santiago! There were plenty of hotels there in every price range (even a luxury hotel called “Inca Hoteles” – but we picked a more modest one with that offered free breakfast and happened to also have ample parking for our camper trailer – Hotel Los Andes).
Despite the stress though, it was an amazing experience. There are places on this earth that make you feel like we as humans have absolutely no place being there. The Andes crossing was one of those places. The landscape was so rugged, so gigantic in proportion to our meager asphalt roads and combustion machines that one has the feeling the forces moving heaven and earth will crush you like an insignificant flea for no reason whatsoever.