In the course of doing what I do, traveling in South America to update my guidebooks and other projects, I often come in contact with government officials – especially when crossing borders (most often between Argentina and Chile). Latin America still has something of a reputation for official intransigence but, for the most part, my experiences have been cordial and routine. In one recent instance, the exchange was memorably positive.
Last week was not one of those, though. En route to visiting the Argentine wine capital of Mendoza – which I had not seen since early 2010 – I had the most disagreeable experience in recent memory while crossing the border at Las Cuevas (eastbound, Argentina and Chile share a border complex on the Argentine side, pictured above; westbound, the shared complex is on the Chilean side, near Portillo).
Crossing the border, with my Chilean car, has almost always been routine but this time it was not. I had everything in order – as in many previous crossings - but the Chilean customs official who handled my paperwork didn’t think so. He was upset that I had no Chilean ID card – I can’t have one because I’m neither a citizen nor a resident – though I do have a RUT (the Chilean tax ID that allows me to pay my annual vehicle registration fees). To the best of memory, no official has ever asked to see any documentation other than the official ownership title and my passport.
This gentleman, though, was adamant that, without a Chilean cédula, I could not leave the country with my own vehicle. Routinely, Chilean customs has given me 90 days to return to Chile but, when he finally relented – I never expressed anger, though I was a bit bewildered - he was only willing to grant me four days to travel to the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, a distance of roughly 3,000 km that would have required me to spend almost every waking hour on the road.
There followed a sort of dialogue – not exactly a negotiation – in which he extended my stay to 10 days and then 20, but not a second longer. Given what I had planned, to explore much of the Argentine side of the Andean front range and coastal wildlife destinations, even that gives me minimal flexibility to visit anything outside the main cities and off the principal highways.
Eight of my allotted 20 days are already gone, as I prepare to leave the city of Neuquén and continue to the Andean resort town of San Martín de los Andes. From there, I am considering returning to the Chilean side of the border in hopes of re-crossing with a clean slate that would let me resume my Argentine travels at a more leisurely pace. My reliable Santiago customs agent has informed that this shouldn’t raise any red flags the next time I try to cross, and that’s calmed some of my worries.