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).
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.
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.
Argentina’s politics are often
dramatic, but yesterday’s presidential election was essentially drama-free. My
perception of that, though, may have something to do with passing the day in Chacras de Coria, the
upper-upper-middle-class enclave in Gran Mendoza, the suburban
communities that surround the relatively small provincial capital.
In the course of
the last three days, I saw little evidence of controversy in the closely
contested race. Winning candidate Mauricio Macri, who won
by about three percentage points, had relatively few electoral posters here, all
enclosed on small billboards (pictured above). I saw none at all for losing candidate Daniel Scioli, who was
considered a strong nation-wide favorite before eking out only a narrow
plurality in the first round in late October.
I spent most of
the morning writing before leaving my accommodations for lunch and, when I
strolled by the local polling place in mid-afternoon, there were no lines. For
someone whose first experience of Argentina came during the 1976-83
military dictatorship, though, it was disconcerting to see police and
soldiers with automatic weapons standing guard (at right, above) at the school where voting took
place. Few areas in this country are more secure than Chacras.
ineffective the alcohol ban may be, I think the US could learn something from
Argentina’s elections. It’s admirable that 80 percent of the electorate turns
out to vote (voting is obligatory, but the penalty for not doing so is
the US, though, some states have made scandalous efforts to suppress voter
participation. The quick turnover of government is also worth considering –
Macri will take office in about three weeks, instead of the roughly 2-1/2
months that leaves the outgoing US president as a lame duck.
I spent quite a
bit of time since Friday chatting with Daniel Alessio, a former mountain guide who’s
my host at Parador del Ángel (pictured above). Daniel, whom I’ve known for some years, is a political junkie who’s out of step
with most of his neighbors in the privileged environment of Chacras, though he
himself runs a very attractive accommodations on beautifully landscaped grounds,
that draws a pretty prosperous clientele. It will interesting to see how Macri
manages a delicate balancing act between the country’s polarized extremes.
As regular readers
will know, one of my pet peeves is the arbitrary immigration procedures that
some South American countries impose on US citizens and some other
of course, requires the euphemistically named "reciprocity fee,"
while Brazil requires advance
I am not suggesting, I will repeat, that
these fees and procedures are unfair - the United States and other countries
require them of Argentine and Brazilian nationals. I do consider them foolish,
though, because they comprise one more obstacle to the free movement of
visitors (for the record, I also believe my own country should also make the process
I don't spend
much time in Brazil but, from my point of view, this is a big advantage for
visitors to the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls - they'll be
able to make a day trip or more to the Brazilian side (pictured above) without
wasting time and money getting a visa. The exact dates of the measure are
undecided but, hopefully, it will be so successful that the government will end
the visa requirement - and perhaps persuade Argentina's new government to
abolish the reciprocity fee.
Chile’s gotten most of the way
there but, as my arrival photo above shows, Australia and Mexico are still on the
hook. Australia has one of the most restrictive visa regimes among western
democracies, while Mexico applies its US$15 fee to every foreigner except for
US citizens within a certain distance of the border - roughly 60 miles, if I
had one unpleasant surprise since my arrival in Santiago. For many years, the
widespread state-run BancoEstado
was the lone holdout among banks collecting a large service charge for use of
their ATMs but, when I changed there on Saturday, I had to accept a 4000-peso (not
quite US$6) fee for the convenience of it. Yesterday, when I used a private Banco de Chile ATM, the
charge was only 3000 pesos (a shade more than US$4). BancoEstado may have lost
my business, such as it is – except on Easter Island, pictured below, where it’s
the only choice.
I haven’t tried
any other ATMs yet but, in the past, charges have always varied slightly from
bank to bank. When you do make a withdrawal, the machine tells you the fee, and
you have the option to cancel the transaction.