Sunday, December 28, 2008

Across the Andes to Mendoza -- November 27, 2008

The seven-hour bus ride across the Andes was spectacular, one of the best and possibly least hair-raising mountain trips we have taken. That´s not to say it wasn´t without it´s scarry moments or that it wouldn´t make some of our friends sea-sick on the tight switchbacks that took us up over 4,000 meters (note the 2 transports exiting tunel in top photo). But it was so beautiful that the time flew by in a swirl of colourful mountain scenes, snow-capped peaks and flowering cacti. We just kept starring out the windows and jumping from one side of the bus to the other to catch the ever-changing vistas.

The journey started out oddly. Two buskers in top hats and carrying unicycles and backpacks stowed their gear into the belly of the bus and then disappeared like street magicians. At the designated departure time, the bus started pulling out and the co-driver did a head count. Realizing he was short two top hats, he had the driver pull back into the bay and left to track them down.

After 15 minutes, he returned without them and we started to leave again. When he passed by to collect the tickets, Carolann (ever the vigilant and calm traveler) asked him if he wasn´t concerned about security. Planes she explained in broken Spanish would never leave someone´s unclaimed baggage on board (note that the ¨b¨word was never mentioned). His calm reply was simply ¨No, they´ll pick up their stuff at the other end.¨

Half way through the trip on top of the Andes, we stopped at the Argentinian border crossing for customs and luggage inspection. We all had to disembark and walk into this huge dark hangar that looked like something out of the X-Files, dim lights, black booths, armed guards and roving dogs. Presumably it provided shelter from the snow, avalanches and rock slides that seemed to be everywhere (note the crushed shed at right). It took well over a half hour just to get to the inspection stage because of the buses and cars ahead of us. We counted ourselves lucky because in peak season in December this can take three or four hours we were told.

But just as we were closing up our bags, the two Top Hats showed up and claimed their gear. Then, after the inspection, they calmly hopped onto the bus as if nothing had ever happened. Apparently they had gone for a ¨smoke¨ and lost track of time. They took the next bus 45 minutes later and caught up with us at the border. The driver grilled them about this and we continued on.

The bus, it turns out, was not the most comfortable -- the washroom was terrible -- and the packed lunch they provided was barely edible. But there were only five of us on board and we could sit wherever we wanted. A big bonus was that they didn´t play those blaring movies that are so popular on long bus rides in Latin America. Plus we had brought our own lunch and so we fared better than some of the others. We gave our sandwiches to the two Top Hats, who looked like they hadn´t eaten in days. It was either that or give them to the ever present wild dogs that seem to be everywhere in Santiago, Mendoza and even the border crossing.

Even more importantly, the co-drivers were exceptionally good and never took any risks other than passing the occasional convoy of tankers on long, straight stretches (well, most of the time). The only problem we had was when Carolann and I agreed to change sides so that I could photograph a switchback. Unfortunately, our timing was a bit off and we stood just as the bus veered sharply to one side to navigate an especially tight turn. This sent us both flying to opposite sides of the bus in a hilarious Keystone Cops move.

The rest of the trip was all downhill (literally not figuratively) as we followed a chocolate-brown river through ochre red and brown mountain sides until it flattened out into an oasis of lush vineyards and green Eucalyptus trees (imported from Australia and used throughout South America as insect repellent).

On the entire trip we only saw one collision of two transport trucks, two guard rails ripped out, one set of tracks up a gravel escape route and several rock slides that had wiped out train tracks or their protective coverings. Not bad for a mountain trip.

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