Thursday morning shone bright and warm in Santiago, Chile. Showering off the remaining jet lag from both our interrupted flight here and whirlwind tour of the city in the 24 hours we had there, we hitched on our backpacks, rolled out the suitcase and headed for the bus station toward our next destination, Mendoza, Argentina.
It would be a spectacular daytime ride over the Andes Mountains, many a traveler before us had written about the route.
Our bus was at the depot, and we left on time to slowly make our way up the steep Chilean side of the Andes toward the border with Argentina. Some 3 hours and tens of Ess curves later, we arrived at the border crossing, joining a queue of cars, trucks and buses. It would be a long wait, we learned, so we hopped off the bus and spent our final Chilean pesos on sandwiches and fruit juices.
It was a long wait. As in three hours. But the bus finally made it to the checkpoint and we all de-bused to pass through the joint Chilean/Argentine kiosk that examined, processed and stamped our paperwork ($160/person “reciprocity fee” by Argentina for Americanos entering that country). The line moved quickly, and before very long the passengers had cleared customs. All that was left was for the bus to unload our baggage for x-ray inspection before we’d again be on our way–a few hours behind schedule, but not too late.
Things quickly unraveled from that point, when the Customs inspectors removed two or three large black trash bags from the belly of the bus. Unpacking those bags before the assembled passengers, the Customs agents found dozens of small boxes, lining them up along several tables. When they cut open the boxes, each contained items like dozens of eyeglass frames. None of these apparently had been declared for tax purposes, it seemed. The agents methodically opened, counted and carted off the goods. I don’t know that anyone claimed ownership, despite a couple of forlorn faces I saw in the crowd.
This process took another two hours to complete, but we eventually were again on our way, down the Argentine side of the border and through a truly spectacular landscape of multiple shades of green, pink and gray, and textures on the mountainside as varied as the colors. And all of this under a bright blue sky!
We were feeling weary but, hey, we were on our way and would undoubtedly be sipping some of the region’s wonderful Malbec wine before long.
Then, a white Customs car, flashing its overhead lights, pulled in front of the bus and moved us off the road. The bus followed the car into a large and barren expanse, where long-haul freight trailers were lining up for inspection. This was an industrial Customs inspection site, with large, blue airplane hanger-like buildings that trucks drove through so that their cargoes could be inspected by sophisticated scanning instruments.
It seems as though our bus was now under suspicion of carrying contraband somewhere in its innards. As one of the inspectors said, it was the first time she had ever seen this happen. She won’t be able to say that ever again.
The passengers were ordered off the bus and onto a big concrete loading dock. Our luggage was again unloaded from the bus and piled on the dock. The bus drove off, eventually to be swallowed by the hut containing the scanner.
We all milled about with a mixture of anxiety, fatigue and gallows humor at the thought of the bus being impounded on the spot.
No such thing happened, I am happy to report. The bus eventually emerged from the inspection, and returned to our loading dock. The passengers pitched in to reload the baggage (Customs did not provide assistance). We then reboarded the bus and, about 45 minutes after being pulled off the road, were back on it.
A near miss of a dog running alongside the road aside, the rest of the journey, by now mostly in the dark, was uneventful, and we arrived at the Mendoza bus terminal only about five-and-a-half hours behind our scheduled arrival.
My wife and I hopped into a cab for a hair-raising drive to our hosts’ apartment, where we were able to share the details of our adventurous trip. And as we finally settled in for the night, turning on the air conditioner (yes, it is that warm) and turning off the light, I couldn’t help but wonder about what contraband might have slipped through that Customs net.
After all, while our stowed baggage had been checked and the bus meticulously scanned, no one had even bothered to look into all the backpacks and hand luggage that just about every passenger was carrying. They had remained with us all the time, unexamined by either electronic or human eyes.