The Day We Crossed a Closed Border

We were at the end of the road in Chile and ready to start the long journey home.  The plan was to go back the way we came and take a 5-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales across the Chilean-Argentinian border to El Calafate.  In El Calafate we’d catch a flight to Buenos Aires, spend one night in Buenos Aires, then get our international flight back to Houston.

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Things don’t always go as planned, and while in Torres del Paine, we’d heard rumblings of a Chilean government strike and that the border was closed since the workers were on strike.  It was only supposed to be closed for 72 hours, but for whatever reason, the closure continued on several extra days and extended to the day we were supposed to leave the country.

We kept our fingers crossed, packed our bags and headed to the bus station anyway.  When we got to the COOTRA (bus company) window, we were told “bus cancelled, come back tomorrow” and that was it.  Welcome to South America!   Side note: despite multiple tries, we were never reimbursed for our bus tickets by COOTRA.

There were a lot of really disgruntled travelers and backpackers at the bus station, some having tried to get a bus out for several days.  Once we realized this we figured the bus wasn’t going to happen and we contacted Dittmar and also United.  United was no help and told us all their international flights out of Santiago (alternate departure point from Chile if Buenos Aires wasn’t accessible) were booked and they couldn’t help me anyway as my ticket was booked using reward travel.  This was all somewhat difficult not having a regular phone (we used Talkatone) and only intermittent internet.  If there’s one way to make a person feel stranded it’s to take away their cell!

So we walked back towards Dittmar’s office in town.  This was by far the coldest day we’d had yet and extremely windy once again.  We had to wait until they opened and paced back and forth in the freezing cold for some time.  I was not a happy camper.

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We met our travel advisor and discussed all our options getting back – crossing the border on foot through a forest was not one I wanted to explore!  The closest border crossing was 30 minutes from Puerto Natales, and there was another farther away crossing as well.  The Chilean border station was on top of a large hill (no city), then it was another mile or so to the Argentinian border (still no city, just forest), then another 5k to the next Argentinian city, Rio Turbio.

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Dittmar called a number of the local agencies to find out more information about the closure and said there was an amnesty hour from noon to 1 where people were allowed to line up and pass through the border.  They found a taxi that would take us to the border to get in line for amnesty hour, and they also called the taxi stand in Rio Turbio to get a quote on the cab fare for the 4-hour cab ride from Rio Turbio to El Calafate.  It was really helpful having a local! 

We decided our plan was to take a Chilean taxi as far as we could to the Chilean border, then either hitch-hike or repack our packs and hike to the Argentinian border and on to Rio Turbio (4ish miles) where we could catch a cab to El Calafate.

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This would be no cheap affair, and since we would pretty much be stranded upon arrival in Rio Turbio (no a tourist town) and have to take whatever cab fare was offered, we wanted to make sure we had enough Chilean and Argentinian cash so we could make it all the way to El Calafate.   We jogged to the nearest ATM – time was of the essence – then back to the Dittmar office where we caught the cab. 

The cab took us to the Chilean border and dropped us off around 11 AM; there was a long line of cars and buses also waiting to get across once it was opened at amnesty hour.  We got our papers stamped then we were on our own.  I saw a COOTRA bus and started talking to a guy I recognized from the  bus ride over.  He spoke English & Spanish so he translated between myself and the bus driver.  The bus was a full bus that was supposed to have crossed a few days ago and they weren’t able to let us on (no standing allowed).  I must have looked distressed, and also very American with my pink jacket and yellow tennis shoes, because finally one of the border patrol guys came up to us and asked us where we were going and what time our flight was.  We told them we had to be in El Calafate at 8 PM tonight and they said “wait here!”.  Okay – we had no other choice!  They drove up a janky van and had us get in and opened the border for us and drove us across – WOW!

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Since the driver only spoke very thick Spanish, we couldn’t tell where or how far he was going to take us.  He drove us to the Argentinian border where we got stamped and then continued on to Rio Turbio where they dropped us off at the bus station.  The driver was ever so nice, so we thanked him profusely and had a sigh of relief hitting Argentinian soil.  Although the whole border strike was very frustrating, we found the guys there to be very kind and wanting to help travelers in need.

The next challenge was finding a way to El Calafate.  The buses out of Rio Turbio would not get to El Calafate in time for our flight, so we needed to take a cab.  We had been quoted what translated to $200 USD (not bad for a 4 hour cab ride), however, we were really hoping we wouldn’t get screwed and have to pay $300 or $400!  Dittmar had pointed to the cab stand we needed to get to on google maps, so we started walking around town trying to find the stand (remember we don’t have working cell phones).  We got to the grocery store that it was near and must have looked lost and touristy since a cab pulled up and asked us where we needed to go.  David was reluctant at first because he wanted to check the quoted fare, but luckily the driver pulled out a published fare card and it had the fare for Rio Turbio to El Calafate what equated to the $200 USD we were quoted – PHEW.

We hopped in and were no our way!  An added bonus was that we really enjoyed talking (in our terrible Spanish) to the very nice, slightly Rastaman cab driver.  He was very inquisitive and liked sharing his music with us since he’d been in a band.  Oh, and he drove really fast – what we thought would be 4 hours was closer to 3.  But there was honestly nothing on the long road so we weren’t too worried.

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{ MUCH relieved! }

Oh, and did I mention this was Thanksgiving Day?  We were giving many thanks that we were not stuck against our will in a foreign country, and really appreciating the country we call home.  After the long drive, we got to El Calafate and enjoyed pizza, beer & more friendly dogs.  Really cute mountain-type breeds!

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We had one last day in Buenos Aires, then we were headed home!

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One thought on “The Day We Crossed a Closed Border

  1. What an ordeal! Thank goodness for kind people who helped you! It’s been so fun reading your posts about your trip! Patagonia is definitely near the top of my must-visit list 🙂

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