Crossing the Andes Again: Hell – with Lovely Scenery

There is an Andean crossing through Patagonian splendor that several guide books have described as one of the classic border crossings in the world, and one not to be missed. In fact, Hubs and I planned our whole month in South America around taking this trip through mountain lakes, with volcanoes towering above the water, and beauty all around. For the relatively steep (for South America) price of $250 (USD) each, it promised to be a luxurious experience.

So it was that we found ourselves taking two flights, one from Mendoza to Santiago over the Andes, and one to the small city of Puerto Montt in the south, which many people have described as Germany in South America. The city, and its Argentinean mountain counterpart, Bariloche, were settled by German immigrants in the late nineteenth century, so the homes were in the German style of that period. In truth, I found this comparison a bit overstated, as the vegetation looked exactly like twice winter Olympic host Lake Placid, in upstate New York, and the people looked very similar to Santiagueños. My suitcase was the very first one on the belt, though, which has never happened to me before – German efficiency, perhaps?

The Catholic Church in Puerto Varas - okay, this looks a bit like Germany.

Our final stop in Chile this trip was Puerto Varas, an even smaller city about a half hour from Puerto Montt, on the edge of a mountain lake overshadowed by towering volcanoes. The owner of the B&B we were to stay at for 2 nights was originally from Indiana, and had a kind of cool arrogance that reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. He had originally come to the area to fish for several months in the early ’70s, and stayed after meeting his Chilean wife, who was lovely. He was quite the outdoorsy type, and I could tell that Puerto Varas was the perfect place for those who liked to hike, row, fish, camp, zip-line, and otherwise do things I’m not usually involved with in any way. We ignored all that, though, and spent the day exploring the town and drinking a bottle of wine from the finca of our cooking class on our hosts’ beautiful porch, surrounded by towering plants and flowers in full summer bloom. It was to be the calm before the storm. The next morning, we awoke early enough to catch the bus that would make up the first leg (of 7) on our third and most anticipated Andean crossing, this time through the lakes.

Oh my.

The “cruise,” as it called itself, consisted of 6 or so actual hours of moving, yet it took about 12 hours total to get from our starting point in Chile to the final destination across the Argentinean border. The remainder of the time was spent waiting: waiting to get on busses, waiting to get off busses, waiting for the busses to start moving, waiting at the border crossing, waiting for the boat to arrive…and waiting the whole time in an unexpected heat wave with no air conditioning anywhere and hordes of other travellers, mostly Brazilians jabbering in Portuguese, and most with screaming toddlers in tow. Sweat was pouring from us all after about 30 minutes. Glass rooves intensified the greenhouse effect of the sun. We wilted.

On the bright side, the scenery was beautiful.

One of the volcanos that loom over the town

For lunch, we stopped at about the halfway point, high in the mountains. There was exactly one place to eat, a hotel restaurant of mediocre quality and elevated prices, and about 500 travellers going in both directions who descended on the restaurant all at the same time. Finding a table was difficult, and getting everyone served and out in less than 2 hours proved impossible for the staff – we had to leave what we thought was adequate payment on the table, having waiting for our bill for about 15 minutes to no avail. I couldn’t understand. Don’t they do this every single day?

Little did I know that the meal would prove the high point of the day. The next leg of the journey – in a decaying bus up several hundred feet of loose gravel mountain road – was enough to make anyone feel queasy, even people like me who never suffer from any kind of motion sickness. The road was for exclusive use of the tour company, which meant it was the exact width of the bus – no more! – with nothing in the way of guard rails or anything else to prevent us tumbling down sheer mountain drops as we lurched backward and forward. The air conditioner was dripping in a steady stream from the seats’ light apparatuses onto several passengers, and the massive bumps we were driving over would cause it every so often to run almost horizontally and soak the windows. All the while, someone (our tour guide?) was whistling loudly, as if in defiance of the utter terror of the journey. The Andean bus crash scene from the beginning of the movie Dragonfly was playing over and over in my head and I tried to position myself where I thought it least likely a window would shatter on my head when we hit a piece of mountain.

And, in my own personal version of Hell, there were the flies. At every point, including while on the water, swarms of blackflies and horseflies intent on a piece of flesh would go for the passengers. The latter were about 3cm long and 1cm wide (i.e. REALLY BIG), and would buzz around angrily in droves – at one point, I was swatting away 20 or so simultaneously. It was the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. Several of the women were in hysterics (I don’t exaggerate here; full-on hysterics) and with full disclosure, I’ll admit that I was one of them.

When we arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, our final destination, at about 8:30pm on New Year’s Eve, I could confidently say that the day had been one of the worst travel experiences of my life. $250 each? You couldn’t pay me to do that again.

The sleepy Chilean town of Puerto Varas is nothing like its more commercialized Argentinian equivalent, Bariloche (pictures to follow later)

Luckily, Bariloche provided some much-needed respite and lived up to its reputation as the land of artisan chocolates and beers. We spent much of our 2 days there recovering, but found time to visit two craft breweries just outside of town, which supplied us with some good brews and tasty food. The town itself is odd, a kind of commercialized outpost at the end of the world, full of young people out to party and hippie beach bums and ski bums with dreadlocks looking to get lost for a while. The average age of the tourists – and it felt as though the town was all tourists – was about 23, and it was a much more cosmopolitan mix than we’d seen in Puerto Varas. (There were actually a few people my height, which I hadn’t seen since leaving Canada.) Bariloche is supposed to be the “Switzerland of the Andes,” which I suppose I can imagine, if Switzerland is full of kitschy shops in which to buy sweaters and baseball caps. And chocolate shops full of men in lederhosen uniforms. The little log cabins that dotted the shoreline were quite beautiful, and I’m sure it would be a fantastic place to go in the winter to see in its skiing glory. As it was, the unanticipated heat made the miles of beach more appealing, but we could not tarry, as a (typically, delayed) flight to Buenos Aires was waiting.

Would it turn out to be the magic land of Parisian architecture, fabulous steaks, and tango dancing in the streets that we’d heard of? Would there be tourists everywhere seeking Evita-related history? Would I have to opportunity to growl at Maradona in person? Stay tuned!

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