Detailing the most rookie of mistakes, which you, upon reading this, will not make. Considering the number of borders I’ve crossed in my life, I consider the fact that I’ve gotten this far a minor miracle. Also, photos, and Patagonia love.
When I planned my trip to, as I like to call it, the “way south” of Chile, I made a pointed decision not to bring my US passport. I am free to travel within Chile on only my Chilean carnet (ID), and I wasn’t planning on leaving Chile to go to Argentina. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, it’s just that between carrying two passports (will explain in a minute) or no passports, it just seemed easier to carry no passports. And so I didn’t.
The reason I have to carry two passports to go to Argentina is the following. In 2010, Argentina instituted a reciprocity fee for US passport holders (even if they have Chilean residency). First it was $135, and later $160, and I was not particularly excited to pay it, but you know, their country, their rules. I ended up paying it when I came back from New Zealand to Argentina instead of Chile because Chile was still in crisis after the giant 8.8 earthquake in February of 2010. But in the past six years, it has served me well, and I have crossed the border several times. But in that time, the passport in which the sticker was stuck also expired (later on it was a separate piece of paper, but it started as a sticker, which is what I had). And since in the US, our passport numbers change when we get a new one, and they don’t keep track of the correlation between old and new passport in Argentina, it is easier to bring both passports when crossing the border into Argentina. Not a terrible hassle, but on this trip, going to Argentina was not my goal, so I left the two passports at home. Less hassle, one country, no big deal.
To go on this trip to the way south, I left Santiago, and took an overnight bus to Puerto Varas. There I had two spectacular days of good food and hikes through hours and hours of sand on a hike in the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. The name of the hike translates to the “Desolation Pass” but what is should be called is “hours of hiking in volcanic ash and river silt,” though I guess that didn’t have quite the same ring to it. Stunning though, see? Plus I ate so very much murta, which I love.
After those two days I then took an overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, which I had not been to since before a rather large volcanic eruption, which destroyed part of the town, but then many people moved back, and if you didn’t know, you might not notice anything was amiss. There’s a long story here about what the government wanted vs. what the people who lived there wanted, but in all, it was a short visit and I didn’t do too much investigating.
Most of the trip was in darkness, but when the sun came up it was lovely.
Inside, this had a few hundred bus-type seats. Not the best night of sleep I’d ever had, but the water was smooth, or as we say in Chile “a teacup of milk” (una taza de leche).
I knew I had about 4-5 days to arrive in Coyhaique from Chaitén before beginning a photography tour, and I was pretty open as to where I was going, so long as it was roughly in the right direction. I kind of thought I might like to hop over to Futaelufú, a gorgeous little pocket-sized town built among granite peaks. It is also near one of Chile’s most gorgeous rivers, which I once rafted, and in my memory, the water is so fresh it tastes like cucumbers.
Luck went my way, and after arriving in Chaitén at 8 AM, I had only four hours to have a leisurely breakfast with some people from Futaleufú, none of whom could agree on their gentilicio, or place-name. Futaleufinos? Futaleufenses? Either way, they sound like smurfs (pitufos) or like maybe part of the lost tribe of the US (our gentilicio is “estadounidenses.”). It was two older women, a young woman and me, and we talked about plants, and taking cuttings, home remedies and other topics (including the all-important art of jam-making, and I am not making fun here), before I found out that one of the women, whose name sounds very much like mine, is a geologist. When she told me, I told her she’d been born among rocks, so it didn’t surprise me. Her name, just a sound or two off from mine, means “to be/being happy” in Mapundungún (a local indigenous language, though not particularly local to Futaleufú), but which I took as a great sign.
The four of us hopped the bus to Futaleufú, a long and mostly lovely ride, past giant lakes and wide-palmed nalca (a relative to rhubarb) plants (see above), and occasionally got off the bus for roadworks. I wandered as far as I could wander in the town, and remembered that the last time I was there it had been the rodeo. I walked up the 200-something stairs to see the mirror lake from above, took pictures of it from down below, walked along the road to nearby rivers and let my feet soak in their cool waters. But all the while, I was conscious of the fact that I had to get out of Futaleufú, back to the main “highway” (really a misnomer), which would eventually take me down to Coyhaique, and the start of the photo trip.
There was a bus out on Sunday, but when I arrived on Friday to the post office/clothing store/bus station to buy a ticket I was told that the señora who works on Fridays had taken ill, and that someone should be there the following day. Saturday morning I milled around at the post office/clothing store/bus station, but nobody came to open it, and I walked around some more, inquired about rafting but the river was low, and I didn’t really want to replace my old amazing memory of rafting here with a different one. Somewhere along the way, I got online and saw that during Obama’s latest visit, Argentina had dropped the reciprocity fee for US citizens. Which meant that even though I’d left my two passports at home, I could still hop across the border for a day visit.
This was not where I ended up owing Argentina money. That would come a bit later in the day.
I wandered out of the town, to a gas station where a lovely Chilean family picked me up, and I hopped in the back of their pickup to the border with Argentina. It was all snap-happy perfect, the perfect black asphalt, streaky blue sky, forests and granite peaks. And a cow in the road.
As we got to the Chilean border, we went through formalities, and when we heard that the road was awful from the Argentine side through, I piled into the back between the daughter and son, in their 20s or 30s in the back seat. Mom and dad drove us all towards Trevelin and Esquel. Just as we were crossing the border, traffic stopped, and a man came by with fruit, giving it away, because you can’t enter Chile with anything of plant or animal origin. We all enjoyed our good fortune, some bananas, a pear, and on we went.
At some point, the son said, “hey, are we in Argentina yet?” and we all said, “We must be” and gave it no further thought. I thought to myself, there are borders where two people from the different countries sit along the same counter. Maybe that’s what happened here? Surely this family wouldn’t have entered their car illegally into Argentina. Everything must be ok. I settled in and enjoyed the view.
If in Chile in this region, the landscape is like a pair of folded hands, holding the landscape tight, in Argentina they are held wide open. Narrow chasms give way to open fields and expansive views. The foliage changes completely, from forests to pampa, with its long, yellow grass that waves in the ever-present wind. Down here, you have to turn your head to see everything Chile has to offer. But Argentina has a horizon.
We whirled through the town of Trevelin, which looked grassy and happy and small, and moved onto Esquel, a decidedly bigger city, where many of the shops took siesta, and where signs against mining were prevalent.
Here I left the Chilean family, or they left me, as they headed to Bariloche for the night before crossing back into Chile. I tooled around some, took a few photos, and then decided that Trevelin was more my style. I walked further out of town, back from whence I’d come, and two boina (beret)-wearing men in a slow, low pickup truck the color of pampa grass picked me up. They were both called Jorge, father and son, and worked in construction. They asked me where I was from, and seemed nonplused by either of my countries, or the fact that I was hitching alone. Because in this part of the world it is not a big deal at all. It’s sort of the unofficial bus. They even insisted at stopping at a look out point so I could get a few good photos, before dropping me in Trevelin, at the door of the tourism information office. I got a giant map and instructions on which were the most popular tea houses. Trevelin was a Welsh settlement, and its name is a corruption of the words for “wheat mill.” I also heard about some museums and decided to check one out.
Of course, it was steps before I got to the museum that I realized I had only Chilean money and US credit cards. I went inside to see if they could take either, and of course they could not. Repealing the reciprocity fee solved one of my travel problems, but not all of them. Of course since we are so close and travel there is easy, I have some Argentine money kicking around. It lives in the drawer with my two US passports. Most foolish. But the women at the museum seemed to really want me to see what their exhibitions were about (Welsh settlement), and they let me in, lack of money notwithstanding, loaned me a locker for my backpack, and wished me a warm goodbye when it was time to go. I told them I’d pay double the next time I go to the museum, and we all had a good laugh.
I wandered around some more, and heard that the Chile-Argentina border closed at 8. It was maybe 4:30, and the border was about 1.5 hours away, so I started the long walk out of town to where the only reason someone would be driving was to head toward the border. It was hot, sunny, thirsty, dusty, but still expansive and lovely. I was told at the tourism office that the hitching spot is La Anónima, a supermarket on the outskirts of town, so I walked a few more miles to there, and stopped in to buy some supplies. Crackers, a vanilla yogurt, some water. Go, credit card.
And I waited.
There is a complicated set of hand signals that people flash at hitchhikers, and I must admit that I don’t am not sure what any of them mean. Sometimes they do a both hands off the wheel, “I’m innocent” gesture, which I guess means they would, but they can’t. Other times it’s a finger in the air making circles, which I have come to believe may mean “I’m going, but I’m coming right back.” Sometimes they gesture across their face with a pointing finger, which could mean, “I’m going thataway.” There were a bunch of other ones thrown in that I found nearly indecipherable, and as the shadows grew longer, I found myself saying out loud, “I don’t even know what that means!” and getting progressively more worried. It wasn’t the worry of “I’m going to die,” it was the annoyance of, “I’m going to have to stay here at someplace that will take a credit card, while I am already paying for a place to stay in Futa, and I am very likely to miss the one bus a week that goes directly to Puyuhuapi from Futa, and why did I even come to Argentina?” I was imagining walking back to town, the discomfort of not even having a toothbrush, the annoyance of the fact that by that point in the day I’d already walked about 12 miles, and I would soon have to walk a few more to get back into Trevelin to my imagined credit-card accepting hotel.
I decided that if no one picked me up by about 6:30 PM, I’d head back into town to lick my wounds, and eat my crackers.
But then a car stopped. Inside was a couple from two different parts of Chile, central and south, and as I got in the car and said, “oye, me salvaron” (hey, you saved me), they both said, “chilena!” and I knew I would like them. Because though I am not Chilean, I am definitely more Chilean than Argentine, and who doesn’t like some positive language feedback.
But you want to know about the $14, cierto? So we drove along, the couple and I, and the road was awful, and we made small talk, and we stopped, and I took pictures of them, and they took pictures of me, and we exchanged email addresses. And then we got to the Argentine border. And I quickly took out my Chilean carnet, pleased to no longer need my 2 US passports to make this transaction that should have taken less time than the cracker/yogurt/water purchase at La Anónima, and free of the no Argentine cash problem for the foreseeable future.
And here’s where things went not quite right.
Argentine border official-“Where’s your tourism card?”
Hapless gringa- “I don’t have a tourism card”
ABO- “You lost it?”
HG- “They didn’t give it to me.”
ABO- “They gave it to you.”
HG- “No, they didn’t.”
Here I started to think, hey, wait a minute, didn’t something happen with the crossing into Argentina?
“When did you leave Chile?” she demanded.
“This morning,” I said.
“Give me your carnet.”
And I did, and there was a wait, in which it became clear to me that I had accidentally evaded the border on the way in. I had a vague recollection of a barrier across the left side of the highway that we passed blithely in the car with our bananas and my new pretend brother and sister in the back of the pickup.
It became clearer still to me when the shouting started.
“EVADISTE LA FRONTERA” (you evaded the border)
Which was totally true, so I didn’t argue. But then she wanted to know how.
“CÓMO EVADISTE LA FRONTERA?”
I explained about the toll booth-like barrier and how it was an accident, but it turned out that:
“NOT EVADING THE BORDER IS MY RESPONSIBILITY”
Which was also totally true.
Here there is some cultural stuff going on. First of all, the familiar form of tú in Argentine Spanish is “vos.” In Argentina, “vos” is nice. It’s what you say to friends. In Chile, we mainly use it to tell someone off.
“VOS EVADISTE LA FRONTERA”
might be a) a normal speaking tone in Argentina and b) very polite by Argentine standards. In Chile it was like I didn’t hand in my book report on time and my 4th grade teacher was PISSED.
Still, I remained calm, because she was right and also, because I was expecting a totally different kind of problem, a too-much-walking, credit card, bus-missing problem. No one told me a young woman would berate me in Spanish at the border. It hadn’t even occurred to me, so I had neglected to worry about it, and now found myself unable to panic about something I had not yet worried about (which bears thinking about in the future).
“NOW I HAVE NO WAY TO ENTER YOU IN THE SYSTEM. HOW CAN YOU LEAVE A COUNTRY YOU ENTERED ILLEGALLY?”
So true. And the truth was, I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine the solution would be making me live in Argentina forever, and in fact, at this point she said, “and now you’re going to have to pay a fine.” To which I said, “de acuerdo,” which means “I agree/You’re right.” I mean, can you imagine if I’d illegally entered the United States? They might call the National Guard. It would be an international ordeal, with hours of questioning, and possible banishment. I would not want to be on the wrong side of that equation. In this situation, despite the yelling, it seemed like this accidental issue could be solved with some paperwork and paying a fee. I thought about the fine for evading the border into Argentina. What could it be? $75? $200? I was going to have to pay it, regardless. I hoped it wouldn’t be too painful, but was also just pleased when she started speaking to me in a normal tone.
Then she showed me on the website where I have to go to pay the fine, because she is not authorized to receive the fines, and because apparently, this happens with some regularity. It was going to be 200 Argentine pesos, or $14 US. In addition to being unavoidable, it seemed reasonable, especially since I’d traveled free to and from Esquel, taken all the pictures, met the guys with the berets, eaten the banana, and gone to the museum for free. The border official printed out a piece of paper with the instructions, and then I asked her how long I had to pay the fee. She said I just had to do it before entering Argentina again, which I will, despite the fact that I could also enter Argentina with my passport, as opposed to my carnet. They don’t keep track of which passport belongs to which carnet belongs to which person, and I am essentially three different people to Argentina. No obstante (the foregoing notwithstanding), I totally plan to pay the fee. I made a mistake, it was my fault, and I am lucky that the fine was so low.
Which we talked about in great length in the 2 or so km to the Chile border crossing with the couple who had picked me up in Trevelin, who did not much enjoy the shouting and wondered how serious trouble I had gotten into, and also (I imagine), whether they should just abandon me at the border.
“If that had been Chile,” I said, “they would not yell at you. They would say, oh no, there’s a problem, and you have to pay this money, and pucha, what a bummer, but here is this form.” And we all agreed and had a good laugh about it. I then went through the Chilean process, and came out to find the couple standing by their car with the trunk open, accompanied by a man from SAG. SAG is Chile’s agriculture department, in charge of protecting the borders from products of vegetable or animal origin which could damage Chile’s production and economy. The man moved a blanket that was in the trunk.
Man from SAG- “And those pinecones?”
Hapless Chileans- “Oh no,” the woman said, “we picked them up yesterday in Chile”
MfS- “And why are they hidden here?”
HC- “Oh, they’re not hidden, they’re just there in the corner of the trunk because they must have fallen.”
MfS- “You can’t import pine cones into Argentina”
HC- “They’re Chilean pine cones.”
MfS- “I have bad news for you, I have to confiscate them. They could have bugs in them.”
And he folded back the baby blue blanket they were under and picked them up gingerly with two hands, and threw them in the trash can of things to be destroyed, which he told me, when I asked him, “mostly had apples in it.” The fines for importing vegetable or animal products without declaring them for inspection is about $200, and is routinely charged to people who fail to heed the signs at the airpot in Santiago. Legally, the couple should have been fined.
Instead, the man from SAG shook the man of the couple’s hand, agreed it was a bummer that they’d lost their pinecones, and wished them a good trip, and didn’t fine them at all. At no point did he raise his voice, nor speak angrily. And we all got in the car to drive the rest of the paved road back to Chile, whereupon I found the post office/clothing store/bus station was open, and I was able to buy my ticket to Puyuhuapi, the next stop on my trip further south. I later had pizza and a microbrew beer at a little rustic outdoor food patio.
I had made some foolish choices, and gotten distracted at exactly the wrong moment due to near complacency about living in South America for so long, and probably also the confusion of switching into the interior of the truck with the family. As a consequence I got yelled at, and owe Argentina $14. But I also made it back to Futaleufú, had a good laugh at cultural differences, and was able to continue on the next part of my journey the following day, which was all I really needed. Sorry Argentina, it really was an innocent mistake. And I really will pay the fine, TE LO PROMETO (I promise).
* The usual disclaimers about being very fortunate to be able to travel, to not have wronged the wrong country, etc. apply.
** It turns out I actually owe the Argentine government $42, not $14, because they do not consider me to be part of Mercosur, even though I have legal residency in a Mercosur country. I disagree with this characterization, but I do not disagree more than $28 worth, and so I paid it anyway, after having to get instructions by email from the consulate because the website is not particularly self-explanatory. Also, there is no place to argue on the website for “I think this is the wrong amount of money.” Also also, I was all set to run off to the consulate when I checked my email and got their cordial and helpful reply, so thanks Argentina, see you soon! (maybe)
*** Also, should you ever be faced with this problem, you want to go to their website, click on Tramites, and then “habilitación de salida,” and consider that your “first name” might be your “first and middle name” and that where it says “passport number” they might mean your Chilean carnet, try with and without the dash, because it was by trying several times that I was finally able to get the right combination of names and numbers to actually find my debt.