Chile to Argentina – A Border Crossing in the Sky

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Bucket List Worthy  

Crossing the border from Chile to Argentina is a game of precise timing, especially in the winter. You can attempt to buy a ticket, but you never really know if you will be travelling until the morning of your booking. I’ve seen backpackers pack their bags every morning for three, four or five days in a row – only to return back to the hostel because the border is yet again closed. I’ve waited on a platform at the bus station, only to have the bus cancelled minutes before we were due to leave.

When making this mountain crossing, a sudden change in weather and a dusting of snow is all it takes to render the border impassable. When you finally find a break in the storms and make your way across, you start to understand why.

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photo credit:Wikimedia Creative Commons cc

The Paso Los Libertadores, the road that connects Mendoza, Argentina with Santiago, Chile, snakes higher than 10,000 feet in elevation and cuts through zig zags, tunnels and switchbacks. The sky-piercing mountains the route cuts through were used as the Himalayas in the Brad Pitt film “Seven Years in Tibet”. As your bus winds its way up countless hairpin turns, you realise that you really wouldn’t want to be swerving around the edges of these enormous mountains during any sort of inclement weather. Also, during the winter the heavy snows can increase the threat of rock fall in the area.

Slowly Over the Pass

We eventually got the timing right and left Valparaiso, Chile on a day when the buses were running. After sleeping for the first few hours of the 8 hour journey, I awoke to find myself surrounded by stunning peaks draped in white against a bright blue sky.

I felt my stomach start to tighten as the bus wound its way slowly up the mountainside on the series of tight switchbacks. When I thought we must have been getting close to the top, we would come over a ridge and I would see even more mountain towering above us. The continual climb feels like you are making your way up into the sky and that Argentinian customs would be located in a cloud.

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When we reached the chilly top of the mountain pass, the bus parked in a large warehouse-like building where we queued at small booths to have our passports stamped and authorised. Our bags were loaded off the bus, examined and placed back on. The process of exiting Chile and entering Argentina was simple and straightforward and didn’t take long.

However, I did hear another traveller tell a tale of being delayed at the border for hours. Why? Because Argentina was playing in the World Cup and all of the border officials had ceased work to watch the game. Priorities, huh?

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What to Know When Making the Crossing

If you are planning on making the border crossing from Santiago to Mendoza, here are some important tips that I can share from my experience:

  • Leave lots of flexibility in your travel plans. The border can be closed without warning whenever storms or snow occurs, so you might find yourself stuck on either side without much notice. If you have extra time in your schedule, you can be patient and wait for better weather.
  • When the border has been closed for several days, there will be a backlog of travellers wanting to cross. Show up as early as possible at the bus station when it opens to make sure you get a ticket!
  • If you are prone to motion sickness, take some tablets before the bus ride. There are many sharp switchback turns one after the other when you are heading up the mountain – guaranteed to make even the toughest stomach a little queasy.
  • Bring warm clothing. It might be heated on the bus, but the building where you will be standing in line at customs is not very warm.
  • If you are from a country that must pay a reciprocity fee to enter Argentina, such as the USA or Canada, you will need to pay this online before you leave and print out your receipt. I was unaware of this and had to frantically print it from an internet café at the bus station – learn from my mistake!
  • Keep your camera handy. When the bus stops at the border you will want to snap some photos of the gorgeous mountain surroundings.
  • If you are on a self-drive vacation and you have rented a car in Chile, you will need a notarised document from the car rental company giving you permission to take it out of the country.

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I have crossed a lot of borders, but the Paso Los Libertadores is easily the most beautiful border crossing I have ever seen. Enjoy this harrowing ride through the dizzying heights of the mountains and the breath-taking surroundings, as well as the thrill of venturing over a border and into a new country.

About the Author: Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word. She and her English boyfriend Lee run Global-Goose.com, packed full with guides, stories and inspiration for those who dream of travel. They have been location independent and travelling the world digital-nomad style since 2011, with no address, no car and no fixed schedule.

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