Middle Argentina

Waking up to cloudy skies we felt even luckier that we’d caught the volcano on a perfect, sunny day for our climb the day before. We drove out of Pucon, on our way towards the border where we would leave Chile for the last time and enter Argentina for the last time. We’ve done a lot of back and forth across the border thus far and Chile has sort of felt like a home base and I felt a bit sad to be moving on.

We decided to take the crossing closest to Pucon, at  Mamuil Malal. From a scenery perspective, it was amazing.

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We drove through Parque Nacional Villarrica on the Chilean side and then straight into Parque Nacional Lanin on the Argentinian side. The downside was apparently everyone else chose this route and each side of the border seemed a bit understaffed.

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Thus far, border crossings had probably taken about 20 minutes on average, and usually it’s all pretty simple: Immigration stamp out, relinquish your vehicle permit, drive to the other side, immigration stamp in, customs processes a new vehicle permit, throw out fruits and veggies, done. This time though, it took us nearly four hours to cross the border.

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Super fun. Mostly we just waited in line, with all the other summer travelers who needed to be processed by the one or two officials who seemed to be working on each side. The icing on the cake was that the Chilean official had, for some strange reason, given us back our vehicle permit, and then I mistakenly gave it to the Argentinian official, which thoroughly confused him and left us backtracking and trying to explain where we had been and when we had crossed the border… eventually we figured it all out but it was a bit annoying to spend most of the day just crossing into Argentina.

As a reward for finally crossing, we had miles and miles and miles of dirt roads to contend with. And briefly, our car was attacked by a flock of grasshoppers. From there, we tried to put some road behind us and enjoy being back in big sky country. We made it as far as Zapala, where the first thing we saw was the world’s nicest bike path, stretching for miles and miles outside the city. It was a bizarre sight to see emerging from an otherwise fairly desolate landscape.

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Zapala itself turned out to be a bit odd all together. We drove through town hoping we could figure out somewhere to camp, without much luck. Our normal resources for finding campsites are the guidebook – now pretty useless since we don’t have one specifically for Argentina, so we’re using the South America book which lacks pretty much all desired detail – and the iOverlander app, which has been a lifesaver. Other people doing what we’re doing, travelling independently by vehicle across South America, list places they’ve stayed, be it organized campsites or secluded spots off the side of the road, which has been immensely helpful for us. However, here in Zapala, we were having no such luck. After driving aimlessly through town, we were about ready to keep driving and hope we would find a place to pull off, when we spotted a couple of Mormon elders walking down the street. Jackpot :)

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Wolf jumped out and asked the elders if they would help us, which of course they were happy to do. One of them was from Arizona and was super excited to chat and help out. We asked if they knew of anywhere in town we could camp. They had no idea, but since their Spanish is much better than ours, they popped into a local shop and asked around a bit. The consensus was that you could park at the bus station where they had public bathrooms. So they gave us directions, we thanked them, and we were on our way. Wrapping up our scenic tour of Zapala, we found the bus station and wandered inside to check it out were we found… the elders again. After leaving us they decided that they should have made sure we made it to the bus station safely, so they had walked over to check on us. Super, super nice. We chatted a bit more and we told them we weren’t sure about sleeping there so we were going to try to ask someone else about other camping options. They helped us out again and lo and behold, we found out there was camping just north of town. A few more thank-yous all around and we were off towards Camping Los Pinos.

Los Pinos turned out just fine and was certainly the cheapest organized camping we’d done at AR$40 total. A few curious locals came to ask us whether we had driven from California and take pictures with us and their drunk friend. Eventually after dinner and showers we were pretty beat and called it a night. The biggest downside of the campsite was that it seemed to be a breeding ground for moths, which would end up being pretty annoying later on…

The next day was another big push day. At this point, we were mostly on a mission to get to Bolivia and put road behind us. Our day of driving took us through some pretty vast expanses with not much in between.

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Eventually we made it to another long section of unpaved road and decided we couldn’t take it anymore. After a few unsuccessful attempts to find a wild camping spot, we finally pulled over into a lovely gravel pit.

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It looked like some remnant of a road construction project, but at least it was out of sight of the road. It actually turned out to be a fun little spot, nice and cozy, and a great place to watch the sky turn beautiful colors in the desert sunset. The downside was that we seemed to have picked up a whole family of stowaway moths. Plus the extended family. And all of a sudden, once we were parked and settled at dusk, they all came out to play. Dozens of moths flying around our car. And they seemed to keep reappearing. Every time we would get one out it seemed another would show up. Eventually I wondered if they were somehow crawling in through the vents so I started creating a little vent-fortress… the whole things was futile. Eventually we made peace with the remaining moths in the car and called it for the night.

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The next morning the moths were there to greet us and we did our best to recover from our invasion of the moth people before jumping back on Ruta 40, our favorite dirt road. Our route that day cut through some incredibly scenic landscapes with great colors and awesome geology.

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We even crossed the Rio Grande, which meant we were officially no longer in Patagonia.

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The weather confirmed that we had left Patagonia – all of a sudden it was nice and toasty outsides. We arrived in San Rafael on a sweaty mission to find Wifi and sat outside an ice cream shop for a few minutes where we attracted the attention of another Vanagon owner who stopped by to admire our car and ask about our trip.

By the time we got back on the road again we were on the hunt for somewhere to camp. The first option we stumbled upon ended up being a lovely little spot.

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The highlight was some brand new, super-clean showers – a little piece of heaven! Our host, a nice old man, chatted with us about our trip and helped us fill up our water tank. Later on, we watched him chasing a runaway bull through the campsite. Normal evening entertainment, I guess.

The following day we got an early start on making our way towards Mendoza. Not too far down the road, we saw a police checkpoint up ahead. We didn’t think much of it since we’ve been going through police checkpoints at least once a day in Argentina, and often more frequently. Ever town seems to have at least one place where the police will either stop you to ask where you’re coming from and where you’re travelling to, or they’ll ask whether you have fruits and vegetables in the car, and in some cases they’ve even asked to see our passports or drivers licenses or car paperwork. So far they’ve been completely uneventful, so we didn’t flinch when we approached this one. The cop standing in the road waved us to the side, and we pulled over all smiles as he approached the car. In Spanish, he told us that he pulled us over because we didn’t have our headlights on and explained that it is the law to always keep the lights on. At some point while he kept explaining what we had done wrong, he asked for Wolf’s driver’s license, which we reluctantly handed over, knowing full well that it was a mistake to give him the license. He kept explaining that we had broken the law and that the normal fine for doing so was AR$2,500, somewhere around USD $250. At this point in the conversation, we started pretending that we didn’t understand what he was saying. It seemed best to play dumb when he started talking about how much cash he wanted us to fork over. At that point we started apologizing and explaining that we’re just tourists and we didn’t know the rule and it’s our first time in the country…. Blah blah blah. He told us since we were tourists he’d give us a break and we would only have to pay USD $150, and we could pay it now and he wouldn’t write us a ticket or have to go down to the station. Hmm. Sounds like a bargain, right? Unfortunately, at this point he also asked to see our car paperwork, so we reluctantly handed over our Argentinian vehicle permit. Another mistake.  Since we kept insisting that we didn’t understand him while he was asking for a bribe, he got a bit frustrated and told us to wait while he went to get his boss.

It’s important to note that while these guys were wearing blue uniforms, but otherwise no badges or identification. The first cop went back and got his boss, who looked official, only in that he was also wearing a motorcycle helmet. He came over, repeated our offenses, and asked Wolf to get out of the car, which we worried would be our final fatal mistake. At that point, Wolf handed me the camera and told me to start filming the whole situation in case things went wrong. So I sat in the car, taking video of Wolf and the cop talking outside the car, and freaking out a little bit about what exactly I would do if Wolf was carted off to jail.

Luckily, as they were talking, Wolf asked the cop for his badge, identification, or anything showing that he was someone official. Once he produced the documents, Wolf pulled out his phone to take a picture of the documents and immediately the cop was unhappy – he didn’t want to be identified or to have us take down his information – which ended up being our saving grace. I think at that point, he decided we were no longer worth the effort. He walked Wolf back to the car and told us he’d give us a break this time around, and all of a sudden he turned into nice cop – asking us about our trip and what we were doing. He sent us off with a warning, telling us that the next cop might not be so nice…

Happy that we had made it through our first police encounter without having to fork over any cash, we drove on, chatting about how to handle the situation a bit better the next time, while also checking and double checking that our lights were on :)

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