November 17, 2016

Mendoza to Santiago by Bus

Buying bus tickets to Santiago online was a very stereotypical South American experience.

A couple of weeks ago, when we realized flights from Cordoba to Santiago would be very expensive on the weekend (when we needed to fly to meet up with my mom), we changed our plans and did a road trip that ended in Mendoza, assuming we'd save money and enjoy some scenery with a bus from Mendoza to Santiago.

Part of the reason we decided to do this is that the Rome2Rio results indicated it would not be a very painful bus, by South American standards.

3 - 5 hours?  We can do this, no problem...
So, we headed out for the road trip, figuring that with 2 nights in Mendoza, we should be able to find bus tickets once we got there.

The afternoon of our arrival in Mendoza, after checking in to the Hyatt and receiving AMAZING treatment, we fired up our laptops and started our Internet research to solidify the next phase of our travels.

First, E asked Google Maps how long the bus ride was.  Google predicted 7 hours.  WHAT?  Then, I looked up *actual* tickets (instead of Rome2Rio falsified links), while E scoured the Internet for blog posts.  Turns out, the driving time is typically 5 hours, and time at the border is usually 2 hours.  Of course it is.  Oh well, we still had to get to Santiago and we had nothing but the Andes between us and it, so we were fairly committed to this plan, even if it was going to be much longer than anticipated. 
Border Crossing at Los Libertadores, high in the Andes

After confirming with the concierge which companies were reputable, we picked the bus tickets we wanted to do on (we splurged the extra $6 each for cama) and I tried to buy them. 

For my first attempt, I filled in all of the information and selected seats, but, at the very last moment, despite having an AMEX logo and verifying my AMEX number as valid, informed me that it couldn't accept AMEX and, of course, it deleted all of our trip information (including full name, passport, birthday, etc.). 

After the next attempt, I appeared to have successfully booked the tickets for the date and time we wanted, with the seats we wanted on the 2nd story of the bus so we could enjoy the views of the Andes without other cars blocking us.

View of the Andes over the grapes of Mendoza.

However, 2 hours later, when I went to confirm the booking I saw 2 emails, the first explaining that "something had gone wrong" and my booking hadn't gone through, and the second confirming our tickets for the time we'd selected, but one day too early. 

I tried to deal with their "support" via email, whatsapp, and phone.  After an hour or so of lots of effort but no results, I finally decided to try to book tickets again, and just dispute the original charge with my credit card.  This time, there were no available seats on the second story, which was a bummer, but we accepted it and booked anyways. 

The new tickets came through, and they were for the correct date and time, however, they had decided that we both had Canadian passports (I can assure you that Estados Unidos and Canada were not next to one another on the drop-down list).  The nice thing about having been in South America for so long, though, is that we knew the Canada/US mixup was not going to be a problem.  Or, if it was a problem, it would be solved, it would just take some time.

One the road -- headed up.

About an hour before our departure I got an email from saying they’d refunded the first tickets less a 20% charge.  I then got a second email saying the same thing.  I’d already printed the tickets, so I decided to ignore the concern in the back of my head that the second cancellation was for that day’s tickets and we headed to the station.

The departures screen showed several departures to Santiago, but none on our company (Nevada – highly recommended), nor at our departure time.  So, we walked to the Nevada counter, which was across from a big Nevada bus and a sign indicating that it was leaving for Santiago when we expected to go.

We bought some sandwiches, water, crackers, and candy (no one keeps single pesos in circulation in Argentina, and often the small bills and coins are hard to come by, so if you are due 8 pesos in change, many stores simply ask you which flavor of candies you’d like your pesos in).  Then we joined the bulge of chaos when they opened the bus for boarding.

It was dry season, but even so, melting snow made small rivers.

The conductor checked our tickets, asked our nationalities, and as expected didn’t flinch at the difference between the booked nationality of Canadian and actual nationality.  In fact, he decided with a shrug that he didn’t need to see our passports at all (he seemed to convey the idea that it was our problem if we got stuck at the border, not his).

Our luggage was loaded quickly, we tipped the steward, grabbed our luggage tags, and boarded the bus.

We tried to find our seats, but were confused and pleased to learn that they weren’t the lower level seats we’d been forced to book online, and instead, they were the upper level seats we’d tried to book on the 2nd attempt.  Score.

Almost to the top.

We departed on time and enjoyed 2.5 hours of gorgeous views all the way to the border.

At the border, the bus stopped and we were given an opportunity to use the restrooms, buy some food, etc.  Half an hour later, we were back in the bus and still waiting to pull forward into the *real* line (not the parking lot where the buses waited until it was their turn to get in line).  Finally, an hour and a half after arrival, we were back in line and inching forward. 

At some point, our bus was cleared for immigration and we were told to leave our hand luggage on the bus and go clear through Chilean PDI.  We waited in our own line and a window was dedicated to (slowly) clearing everyone on our bus.  I noted that all of the Argentinians on our bus had taken *all* of their hand luggage off the bus, and I wondered if I’d made a big mistake by leaving my backpack and only taking my wallet & camera bag.  But, as E & I agreed, there was nothing we could do about our daypacks now…

Switchbacks down the steep Chilean side of the Andes.
After clearing immigration, we were told to reboard the bus, grab our hand luggage, and wait in line, between two long metal tables, this time holding our hand luggage.  The drug/food dog came through and happily sniffed everyone and everything a few times, but otherwise, this period was essentially an hour of nothing much happening except the bus conductor, his assistant, and the customs folks counting our group out loud every 2 minutes or so.  Oh, and random folks would occasionally get called back to go do some additional immigration processing, but it appeared to be only folks who were traveling on ID cards and not passports, so we weren’t too concerned.

At some point during this wait our checked luggage was brought through the customs area and sent through the x-ray machine, to be loaded back into the belly of the bus.

Finally, 2h15 after we arrived at the boarder, and after being counted at least 100 times, everyone agreed that our entire bus had cleared immigration and was inline in customs with their hand luggage.  Now, we were all told to send our hand luggage through the X-ray machine, one-by-one, and then to board the bus.  Because, you know: streamlining? Pipelining? Parallelism?  These are not things that South America does well.  I can’t even imagine how much delay could be saved by simply requiring that everyone take their hand luggage with them through immigration, then customs X-ray, and then reboard the bus on the assigned seat all in one motion.  But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here it’s that they really don’t care about saving time.

So, we were on the road after 2.5 hours and we headed down the famed switchbacks to lose altitude down the Andes into Santiago.

More switchbacks.  Surprisingly smooth ride and great road condition.
Unfortunately, our scheduled arrival was for 5 PM on a Friday.  Due to the additional delay at the boarder, we hit the outskirts of town at 6, which means we sat in traffic for an hour to get to the station.  So, 9 hours after we left Mendoza, we were dropped off in front of (not within at a gate) the train station. 

We walked around trying to find a bank to get some Chilean pesos, but the first suggestion from Google was super wrong, so we headed into the nearest casino with our packs and asked where we could get some cash (casinos always know!).  Thankfully, Chile is a sane country about money and they do intelligent things like putting ATMs that work and have cash in the metro station, so we were able to get some cash, buy a metro card, and make our way to the AirBNB by 8 PM.

Our second day in Mendoza I got a response from busbud via whatsapp apologizing for the delay and asking if there was anything they could do.  (You know, 2 days after the first reservation that needed to be canceled. And 1 day after the second reservation I could have used some help making on credit due to the cancelation.)

And that’s our the story of how we crossed the Andes by bus.


Jen said...

I was afraid part of the story was going to involve you guys not getting the seats you reserved. Sounds like quite an adventure!

bt said...

@Jen -- trust me, we were afraid of that as well!