Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Bus Ride Across the Andes: Santiago to Mendoza

Woke up in Santiago around 5:45 and were on our way to Mercado Central around 6:30. It was about a half mile to cover, but we still arrived a few minutes before 7 am when the place opens to replace the /blog/photos we've lost on this trip. Took a  few exterior photos and tried a pastry from a nearby panaderia. First time I read the store sign, I thought it said “Pandaria,” like a place where the specialty is panda steak. We walked from there down 21 de Mayo, through the Plaza de Armas yet again. Took a few photos in the still, morning air then headed back to the hotel. Ate a fairly satisfying breakfast (we’d built up an appetite with all that walking) before checking out. On the metro to the bus station, we saw an ad for cell phone coverage in the Chilean claimed slice of Antarctica. Brings to mind a version of the Verizon ad: “Are you freezing now? Good.” That might be worth the roaming charges.

At the bus station, we found our platform with no trouble, but the bus was bound for Copiapo in the north, about 400 miles away. We asked someone in a bus driver-looking uniform and pretty much got across the idea that ours would be the next bus after this one. And sure enough, it was. We loaded our bags into the bottom of the bus by giving them to an old man who deftly scurried beneath the passenger cabin with them. He loaded each bag after putting a claim tag on them, but I saw my tag fall off just as it went in. So I picked up the tag an politely (and probably incoherently) asked him to put it back on. He gave me a look like I was speaking Chinese, but I showed him both parts of the tag. He took his part and disappeared into the bowels of the bus again.

We boarded the bus after showing our passports and we were on our way. Folded down the lower leg rests as the bus pulled out of the station, and so settled in for the 100 mile trip (as the crow flies). The actual trip duration we expect to be around 6 hours, since we have to cross the freaking Andes. I can’t express quite how big they really are, but from the plane they looked level with us well before we landed.  But back to the bus trip: Less than two minutes after pulling out of the station, we pulled into another station and sat there long enough to write today’s journal up to this point.  

I forgot to mention that the Mercado Central, while open at 7am, really doesn’t get going until 8am. We weren’t going to wait that long. Markets they open always seem to bristle with excitement and expectant energy. Only one or two fish stands were open, but one on the corner looked like they set up just for our photo shoot. Inside the market building, all the restaurants were still packed up from the night before. All the pushy waiters (and everyone else for that matter) were absent, but having /link/blog experienced it a few days ago, you could almost hear the flurry of activity and visualize the blur of the bustling crowd all around us.

We rolled out of the bus stop #2 at 9:15 am. We drove for an hour or so, until we began to enter the Andean foothills. The land gradually became more verdant, then slowly browned out again. Climbing ever higher into the mountains, we started a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. At their most coiled, there must have been a dozen switchbacks that were practically stacked vertically upon each other. The mountains are covered in a fine powder that is being kicked up by the winds channeled through the valley we’re in. Peaks to the left of us, peaks to the right of us, peaks to the front of us, and peaks to the rear of us. If they were cannons, this could have been Crimea.
Ruta 60 on the Chilean side of the Argentine border.
Just before we reached the border, we passed under the “Welcome to Chile” sign that must be installed backwards. We entered a tunnel in no-man’s land. It was a two-lane tunnel, with traffic in both directions. The on-coming semis were barely visible through the smog trapped in the tunnel by the lack of any ventilation.

Thanks, Google!
Our bus submerged into the exhaust cloud moments after the steward secured the fresh air vent in the roof. It was like he was battening down the hatches to dive 10,000 leagues under the sea, only we were at 10,000 feet above sea level.

We passed into Argentina at 11:40 and did the customs shuffle. The fresh mountain air, bright sun overhead, and rejuvenating cool mountain breeze were just perfect. On second thought, those things also sound like scent names for hygiene products, which would be appreciated on this bus with minimal air conditioning. The customs process consisted of us having our bags pulled off the bus, set on a conveyor, scanned by an X-ray machine, and then having our bags reloaded. I fell asleep sometime after that. A little while before I nodded off, we passed through a number of tunnels that cut through the side of the mountain. My entertainment was watching to see where the train tracks were. It was rhythmic and almost hypnotic, the way they sometimes paralleled the road, sometimes below us, and even a few times running along the other side of the river we were following. Which, coupled with the sun, might explain why I woke up outside of the tall skinny trees that introduced us to Mendoza.  The trees here are awesome. Every street has just the right shady covering. The parks are full and green. While the air is dry (and polluted), I would hate to see it without these natural filters.

My mental image of Mendoza before arrival was that it was nestled in the mountains with dirt streets separating white stucco houses with red roofs and wooden trim. It’s a much bigger town than we had expected. At the bus station, the baggage handler for the bus would only hand you your bags if you tipped him. There were maybe a half-dozen hotel reps circling the recently arrived, but since we had reservations they left us alone. We found an ATM, then information booth. The woman in the info booth spoke enough English to explain how we could get to our hotel. We met another pair of English speakers who were asking the same questions, so we listened in. We looked at the map of the city and decided to walk the 10 blocks to hour hotel.
Map of Mendoza
The first few minutes we were still getting oriented, but we found our way without incident. There are a number of natives smoking up in the blocks around our bus stop. The people here seem a little more diverse than in Chile, but we still stand out. The traffic is decent, but a red light seems more like a suggestion. At our hotel, the /link/ Gran Argentino, we look terribly under-dressed for the occasion. It has a very polished atmosphere, not elegant, but classy all the same. That’s the lobby, anyways. 

Our room is small, with a view of the barrio across the abandoned field. I made reservations for /link/blog rafting tomorrow, they’ll be by tonight to collect the money. Back in the room, we watched a little TV, waiting until we got hungry, which was around 7pm. Since the rafting collector didn’t show, we left money at the front desk. It seemed like the guy at the desk was new, since putting the money in an envelope was an after-thought. We ran into the people that we eavesdropped on at bus station in the hotel lobby. I guess we could have just followed them out of the station.

We walked away from our hotel, through the Plaza Chile, which was fairly nondescript except for the fact that it, like rest of the town we’ve seen, prefers tiles and pavers to poured concrete. There are irrigation canals around every block, up to a meter wide by a meter deep. I read somewhere that the Incas brought water here through irrigation canals a long time ago. But there is a trick to crossing them: you have to find the right point with enough light, all while trying to avoid getting hit by cars that are an emissions regulator’s nightmare. You know that smell at go-cart tracks? The tiny engines give their best impression of that sound as well.

Around 8pm, we arrived at /yelp/ Rancho Aparte, a Parrilla Barbecue, that we had the ad for. The outside was lit, but no one was around. They said they were open, but the interior was so dark that its ambiance went straight to “locked in a cellar.” We asked if later was better, and were told that it was, so we went looking for a coffee shop…in wine country. Along the way, we stopped in a meat store, an outdoor outfitter, and a pharmacy before killing some time reading the newspaper for local events in the cybercaf√© nearby.
At around 9pm, we saw another group eating at our restaurant, which looked much more inviting now that the lights were on. We ordered from, well, absolutely no menu, and said that we wanted the barbeque. It turned out to be a sampler, with empanadas, tasty chorizos, marcillas (which had the unnerving consistency of liquefied meat), straight cuts of steak, cross-sectional cuts of ribs, and chicken. The hostess asked us if we wanted to try more stuff, I think it was tripe and feet. Didn’t eat much of that. We also had some of the extra meat still on the grill, flan, a really fresh salad (first in a while), and a bottle of a local Malbec. Our bill came to $42 ARS, which was about $14 USD, total. And our waitress was bad at math and nearly gave us back $10 ARS. We were almost finished with our dinner at 10pm, when another group (third of the evening, including us) arrived. 10pm is the dining hour here.


Back at the room, we stayed up until midnight to get into the social cycle. Also, the idea of renting a car to go to a vineyard became less and less appealing as we saw more and more flagrant driving violations. It would be too dangerous to navigate out here, and I’m not sure my license is even valid here. 

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