Chile tried to kidnap us. The annual conference of the Latin Link team was being held in Chile for the first time this year and we thought we’d take the car, being more environmentally friendly, possibly slightly cheaper, and an opportunity so see some different bits of the continent on route.
San Francisco, Argentina to Temuco, Chile is probably three days hard driving, so we did it in five more gentle ones. On the way out of Argentina the border guards were rather flumoxed by our status as foreigners with temporary residence, Argentinean ID cards, and driving a vehicle in someone elses name. Two of them poured over our collection of documents for a considerable time, while our child explored the multi-sensory properties of the fire extinguisher. Finally one of them said: “Have you ever seen ‘Terminal’? It’s a Tom Hanks film about a guy who gets stuck between two countries because neither of them will allow him in….” Thanks pal!
There is nowhere to get money out at the border, so we thought we should find a town with an ATM. Before we arrived however, we had to go through a tunnel with a toll booth. “Oh well”, we thought, “we are so near the border they’re bound to accept Argentinean pesos….” Ha ha. “You must pull over to the side and see if another Argentinean coming through would be willing to change money with you”… Goodoh. Luckily a Chilean behind took pity on us and changed enough to see us through to the next town and an ATM. Chilean money has a lot of zeros, we never quite figured out what it is really worth.
The conference went well, greatly improved by the fact that no-one had had time to make a programme in advance, so we did what we had to do, with no unnecessary space fillers, plenty of coffee-drinking and general spontaneous bonding which was only slightly marred by the latest outpouring of “management-speak gobbledegook” from the upper echelons. I guess it is a few years since the last phase of gratuitous jargon so I probably ought just to give thanks for the peace while it lasted. We also ate good food, swam in a lake, saw a smoking volcano, and picked ripe blackberries by the road side. Joni enjoyed having a bunch of willing slaves / young people to boss around for a week, and he learned some new words including “agua” (“water” in Spanish), and “come ‘ere” in English.
Mapping in Latin America is an art-form encompassing a variety of genres such as impressionism, abstract, and fantasy. Mostly it was possible to identify that our three maps were of the same area; towns with the same names, in a roughly similar configuration. The similarity ended when we started attending to detail: Towns are variously depicted as being joined / close / up to 50 kms apart, with the roads between them being possibly a major road / a minor road / no road at all. However, having beaten the worst of the maps on the outward journey, we confidently designed ourselves a slightly different route for the way back.
We left Temuco on Saturday morning and progressed nicely to lunch in Santa Barbara, and to a little place called Ralco early in the afternoon. The road out of Ralco towards the frontier, apart from being unpaved, also seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. A trick of the map? Or the wrong road? We stopped to ask. Right road. The whole area had recently been redesigned to encorporate a massive HEP project, so there was a large lake 20 kms long or so which also wasn’t on any map, and the quality of the road suggested that it had been recently hacked out of the hillside with a pickaxe. We bumped along for some 30 kms or so before running into another little village, where a “you are here” board suggested that we weren’t on the right road at all. The man in the little shop confirmed that indeed we should head back to Ralco and take another road out, which apparently we would find off the plaza. So we bumped back 30 kms along the rocks to Ralco and drove round the plaza a few times. Not finding anything reminding us of a major route to anywhere, we stopped to ask an old guy sitting outside a bar. “Who published that map?” He said. “You should phone them and complain…” The road that used to go from Ralco to the frontier no longer exists despite being present on all three of our maps, and the border post has been moved further north, accessible by a road not shown on our maps, that we would need to reach via Santa Barbara.
Deja Vu, we headed back to Santa Barbara, which was probably just as well, being low on fuel and biscuits by then. Arriving in Santa Barbara we sat in the plaza with ice-cream taking stock of our situation. Having been given more than enough duff information we were reluctant to trust the old guy completely, but who out of the strangers around us would be able reliably to corroborate his story? As we pondered our possibilities, a couple approached and asked if we needed help. They worked for the local government on tourist development, and they took us to their office, and showed us round the tiny museum, as well as confirming that the border post has definitely moved, and that there was a “good road” which would take us there.
By this stage it was evening, so we stayed overnight in Santa Barbara and launched our second attempt at leaving Chile on Sunday morning. Clearly one of the first jobs of the local tourist developer will be to put in a few sign posts, we took a scenic tour through charming little un-named villages on unsigned narrow dirt roads before popping out onto the main road that would lead us to the frontier. The main road became less main, then disappeared into a national park. A guy manning the gate confirmed that we definitely could exit to Argentina by keeping straight ahead. So we did.
The definition of “good road” has been broadened to mean “it exists”. We crossed boulders and deep sand, rivers and ravines with some spectacular views over the national park, at least for the person not driving. What looked like a village on the map turned out to be a military outpost. Every few metres along the road was a monument to a dead soldier, mostly dated in the last couple of years. We wondered what Chile does to their young soldiers, but remembering the sight of the Chilean army goose-stepping around Santiago in their Prussian uniforms, it might be better on the whole not to know. The road was some 60 kms long, which at barely faster than walking pace took most of the day.
We arrived at the border in the late afternoon, where a cheery guard said “You didn’t do that in a car did you?” and another cheery guard said “They shouldn’t have let you out of Argentina in the first place”. Oh. He showed us a book of rules, including the clause saying that only people with full Argentinean residence are allowed to take an Argentinean vehicle out of the country. Luckily the guy who let us out didn’t know that, because now this guy couldn’t do anything except let us back in, which he did with good humour, which was fortunate because it still took us two hours of driving through the desert to reach a town, Chos Malal which we had stayed in on the way out. It welcomed us back like an old friend, the hostel even offered us the same room again, and we celebrated with ice-cream, followed by heading out for barbecued goat in a nearby restaurant.
We arrived home to San Francisco late last Wednesday, via San Rafael and a broken windscreen (more unpaved roads). We still don’t have a computer at home, hence the continued lack of communication, but we are hoping that might be rectified in the next couple of days.