Scene: Santiago bus terminal. Friday rush hour. (Again.)

Once I got off the bus and grabbed my bag, I walked into one of the most chaotic scenes I have ever witnessed. And I’ve been in Port Authority in Manhattan on a summer Friday when a bus breaks down in the tunnel.

There were crowds like I had never seen before. There was no semblance of lines. And there was so much luggage.

When I did figure out a line, and finally got to the ticket window, I was told that there were no buses to Vina del Mar (Vina) until tomorrow.

Okay, I had thought calmly. Just need to create a Plan B.

Feeling cranky, hot and overwhelmed, and with a rucksack on my back and a day pack on my front, I walked out of the bus terminal and landed in an outdoor market attached to the bus terminal. I stopped into a the first shop that was separate from the vendors lined up throughout the garden area. It happened to be a jewelry shop. I explained my situation to the man and woman in the shop.

They listened and the woman smiled and took me by the hand. Together, she and I headed back into the bus terminal. She found me a bus company that was still running late into the night and she went right up to the window, with no regard for the line, and she wrote down the next few available departures – which were hours away.

I didn’t purchase the ticket at that time because the line was too long and I had to think about the timing of my arrival. My concerns were on both ends of the travel. 1. I didn’t want to hang out in the Santiago bus terminal for hours and 2. I didn’t particularly want to arrive into Vina in the middle of the night either. I needed to think about my options if I were to spend the night in Santiago instead.

Note to future self. Should have just purchased the ticket and figured out the actual plan in the hours I had to wait in the bus terminal. As I’m writing this, I realize how overwhelmed I was because I wasted so much time deciding if I should stay in Santiago or leave for Vina, when in fact, I had likely secured a place (Cara’s hostel) to sleep in Vina.

I walked over to the internet cafe – where every single person on every single computer was looking at Facebook. After what felt like an eternity, I was able to get online and send a few emails asking about availability for that night. I figured if I needed a place to stay, I could check back in a few minutes to see what kind of replies I would receive.

Next, I bought a calling card. Went to the phone booths and tried calling Cara to give her a heads up on my timing and whereabouts. Remember, I had been on a bus for most of the day already and I didn’t have a cell phone.

Back to the internet to check on availability in Santiago for the night. All negative. My best bet was to leave for Vina on the first available bus, whose departure was still hours away.

Now it was time to navigate and try to purchase my bus ticket to Vina. Of course, since time had passed, the once available buses were no longer available. After finally securing the ticket, I went back to the phone to call Cara. Got her! I let her know if she didn’t receive an email from me by 10.30 that night, I would definitely be en route and we’d connect at the hostel over breakfast in the morning. Could she please confirm with the hostel that I would be needing a bed that night. Yes, she would. So I had a place to sleep, if I could only get there.

And now that I had a plan, it was FINALLY time to find a bathroom! I went back to my new friends at the jewelry store and they asked for a status on my next steps. At this point, I had to go. I left everything – minus my passport and some coins – and ran to the ladies room. Yes, you have to pay to pee. Which actually, was a nicer (read: cleaner) bathroom than you may have expected.

When I got back to grab my bags, the couple handed me a hand-drawn map of Vina with notes. They marked exactly where I would find a cab once I disembarked, they warned me not to go with anyone waiting on the street and emphasized to be careful because of the late hour.

I thanked them profusely for their kindness and apologized for my incorrect grammar but wanted them to know that they were my guardavidas (lifeguards), a word I learned in Uruguay. They smiled and shared some kind words which really helped my morale at this point. We hugged good bye and I made my way back into the bus terminal. For what, I wasn’t sure. How would I kill the next few hours? Eat? People watch? Wander? Rest?

This would be a long wait.

The terminal was an indoor/outdoor terminal. It was crowded. It was hot. There were loose dogs – though they looked well-fed – roaming the terminal. It was not somewhere you could grab a seat and wait. You’d be lucky to find enough floor space that wasn’t in the way of the hundreds of people trying to get where they needed to go. Wandering the station wasn’t the greatest option for me because I was carrying a bag on my back and another in front. And it was crowded. And hot.

The bus terminal was an assault on every single one of my senses.

My frustration had piqued. After spending the better part of the day on one bus, a few hours in this terminal had me ready to get back on another bus.

Just had to wait a little longer.


My Lonely Planet told me that there were 4 bus terminals in Santiago. And I had no idea which one I was pulling into.

After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived in Santiago. It took some time to park in the bus terminal since it was rush hour. But the end was near. I was about to embark on my next adventure. And adventure it would be.

I was lacking crucial information and I would be getting off the bus in just a few minutes.

My Lonely Planet told me that there were 4 bus terminals in Santiago.

That said, what I don’t know:

  • Which of the 4 bus terminals we are arriving into.
  • Which station has the bus I need to take to Vina.
  • If the bus I need has available seats.

What I need to do (in no particular order):

  • Must go to the bathroom.
  • Need to find a left luggage place. I don’t want to bring my stuff into a bus station bathroom since I can only imagine the floor is probably disgusting. It’s going to be hot and crowded and I’m going to want to drop my bags and run to the bathroom as quickly as possible.
  • Need to get Chilean pesos.
  • Need to buy hand sanitizer ASAP.
  • Need to figure bus situation out of the city as soon as possible.

What I do know:


I spent the bulk of my time dreaming of how I could get off the damn bus

Based on the notes I took during this (what turned into a nearly 10 hour) ride, I am confident that I spent the bulk of my time dreaming of how I could get off the damn bus.

My notes are pretty funny to read through now, after the fact. I have 28 pages of notes/scribbles/complaints from my bus ride, just complaining to myself.

Before things went from bad to worse, I had attempted to break out the ride into activities:

Look out window / 1 hour
Write / 1 hour
Read Chile (in Lonely Planet) / 1 hour
Read book / 1 hour
Nap / 1 hour
Movies / tbd
Eat / tbd
Organize bag and dump trash / 30 minutes

It started out simple. I even noted that I “revised thoughts on long haul buses. This is not Greyhound. And better than coach on an airplane.”

After all, we had meal service. I was served food…twice.

First, a sandwich which tasted better than it looked.

sandwich

And a special guest. A guy with a butcher’s coat and sunglasses jumped aboard to sell empanadas and would ride with us for a few miles before hopping off. In case you are wondering, the bus smelled delicious but I passed on the opportunity to purchase the empanadas, wherever they may have come from.

I even noted that it felt somewhat safe because cops would randomly come aboard, walk the aisles and leave.

I admired the scenery, with switchbacks sans guardrails, homes in the middle of nowhere and the vegetation once we decreased our elevation.

I was playing around with the exchange rate so I had an idea of what $10USD and $20USD would equal in Chilean pesos. At the time I was traveling 9500CHP equaled $20.55USD. I noted that “it makes me nervous with so many zeros.”

I wrote some words I learned “palta = avocado,” aceitunas = olives” and “para llevar = to go”

I made notes about my fellow passengers. I came up with stories on why they were traveling and where they were headed.

“Flowing chocolate milk…with rocks.” Apt description of the fast-moving brown river, considering the other notes I made, that include: “rafts, going in that water???” “lots of rocks” and “where’s the nearest hospital?” (perhaps I was foreshadowing for what was to come).

Then, another meal service later, with an assortment of crackers, cake, marmalade, teas, coffees, instant milk and a variety of sugars. I don’t drink coffee but I finished everything else off….once my bus neighbors finished yet another diaper change (and their aversion to throwing the dirty diaper in the trash, instead tucking it into their diaper bag). At the same time, their second child was having a meltdown, throwing a bottle of milk. The image and stench of the bus bathroom memory was still worse than then smell of countless diaper changes and spilled sour milk just a few feet away.

food

And then my ride went from tolerable, to painful…

In reality, looking at these 28 pages of notes, forget my timeline of activities I could do to while away my travel time. Instead, I spent the bulk of the time on the bus detailing my misery in chicken scratch.

A movie with English-language voiceover couldn’t entertain me. The words didn’t match their mouths and I started to unravel. This was the beginning of the end, though this hiccup would be the least of my issues as I became increasingly more cranky on this seemingly never-ending ride to Santiago.

I have notes like “This bus ride is making me nauseous.”

“How gross?” I questioned in advance of checking out the bathroom situation after a few hours. “AWFUL,” I responded, noting my attempt, but instead choosing to hold it.

(I assume this was directed towards the baby) “This ride is awful. And guess what, I want to scream and cry too.”  “Super crankified.”

I also had jotted down “Cute kid. Not so cute anymore. Throwing food. Sister is crying. I’m cranky too.”

Using the logic from the time that had elapsed, the Lonely Planet and whatever signage appeared on the roads, I was creating crazy math equations and sketches, passing a good chunk of time. I was definitely getting frustrated because my answers were “No idea how much time is left” and also, the much more colorful, “No F idea.”

My misery crossed language barriers and was documented in my notebook in both Spanish and English.

To top off my bus misery was the added uncertainty of my arrival in Santiago.

I was going to be arriving in the middle of rush hour. I needed to secure a seat on a bus for the 90 minute ride to Vina del Mar. Friday. Summer. Rush hour. Didn’t I just do this the week before in Buenos Aires?


La Frontera to Santiago (in photos)

Rafael was 100% right. The scenery on the bus route was stunning. From Mendoza to the border, there were snow-capped mountains on one side of the bus and desert on the other. Views on either side were incredible.

I knew that the bus would make no stops, other than at the border, from Mendoza to Santiago. I didn’t know how much farther we had left but I just couldn’t wait to get off this bus, even if it would be just a quick stop. Quick…ha.

We slowly approached the border station at Paso Los Libertadores, a well-traveled crossing, in both directions, linking Mendoza and Santiago.

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I snapped some photos around me as we were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, to pull into the crossing.

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Unfortunately, the wait to get off the bus took an extraordinary long time. More so, because I wanted to get off the damn bus and probably even more so because I had to go to the bathroom pretty badly since I refused to go on the bus.

Even more unfortunate, is that the border stop took just shy of 3 hours from the rolling stop to the bus moving again.

THREE HOURS. THREE. HOURS.

What I didn’t understand was the process. There were many lines we had to enter and I’m sure each served a purpose but it just took so. very. very. long.

The bus first had to go through a line because we were departing Argentina. Then the bus went through another line because we were arriving into Chile (um, duh). Next, get off the bus and wait outside, on the Argentina side, for the dogs to sniff the bus. Once complete, enter the next line inside the building.

Once inside the building, everyone on the bus lined up, like it was a police station line up, with our driver and his co-pilot leading the way. There were tables in front of each of the two lines. Bags went on a conveyor belt. Once the bags from under the bus were through, everyone on the bus had to put their day packs through.

Somewhere in this long line, we waited in line to get passports stamped and probably go through customs. At some point, I was able to get to the bathroom. I walked into a bathroom that had at least an inch of water on the floor from wall to wall. I had to go so badly that I didn’t even care. I just told myself that the sink must have overflowed to avoid thinking about the toilets overflowing with something much worse than water.

Waiting, waiting and more waiting.

Once we had all gone through the line, the bus driver got the okay and motioned everyone to collect their stuff and get back onto the bus.

Once we were back on the bus, the scenery changed slightly after passing through the border and as we headed down the mountains.

Switchbacks ahead!

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By far, of my bus photography, this photo (below) is my absolute favorite. Much of the ride down the Andes on the Chilean side was on roads, with views, like this.

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I wasn’t sure if the 3-hour border stop was included in the 6 to 8 hours so I was hopeful that Santiago would be close as we came down the mountain.

It didn’t bode well for a short leg. Soon after we got going, the ‘co-pilot’ put another movie on.

 


Mendoza to La Frontera (in photos)

Because of the turn of events towards the end of my time in Mendoza, there weren’t many photos. Until now.

The ride to the border, la frontera, was long but I occupied a good chunk of time taking photographs out of the bus window.

I thought that the scenery was very similar to North America’s southwest.

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Look closely at the below photo. A river.

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Mountains and cactus and desert.

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And more mountains and desert.

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Some greenery.

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And of course, snow on the mountaintops. We were traveling through the Andes and so one of these peaks in the distance could be Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world after Mount Everest. But unfortunately, I cannot confirm which one.

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Some more interesting views out of the bus window before I started to get restless.

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My backup plan consisted of a bag of ham-flavored potato chips. Don’t judge.

Rafael and Gustavo assured me that I would be well-fed (sandwich, hot meal, chips and a drink) on the bus ride from Mendoza to Santiago.

However, this would be a long day of travel (I just didn’t realize how long) and I wanted to make sure I had my own snack back up plan. I was warned by several travelers and the woman who sold me my bus ticket, not to pack any fruit or anything with seeds for this ride because it would be confiscated at the border checkpoint and hold up the whole bus through customs.

My backup plan for, what I was told would be, a 6 to 8 hour bus ride depending on the border situation, consisted of a bag of ham-flavored potato chips, both pizza AND cheese-flavored crackers, a Sprite and two juice boxes. Please don’t judge.

jamon serrano lays

I had never crossed a border by bus before. Plane? Check. Ferry? Check. Car? Check. By foot? Check (later in my trip).

The idea of crossing a border by bus excited me, probably way more than it should have. I didn’t know what to expect other than…

  • The actual time at the border could be long,
  • The bathroom situation on the bus wouldn’t be ideal and, what got me on the bus in the first place,
  • This was a ride to be done during the day because the scenery was not to be missed.

Turns out, all true.

When Rafael took me to purchase bus tickets, he had reserved me a single seat upstairs, and not in the front row, because he said the cross wind from the Andes paired with the windy roads could make someone very ill. My seat was terrific except for the young family in the two-seater across the aisle that, what seemed like every 10 minutes, used the tray tables as changing tables for their baby, who had frequent bowel movements.

Knowing what I know now about bus travel, it wasn’t a bad situation at all.


The pharmacist doesn’t have the exact prescription in stock…

In the morning, Marisa and I promised to meet again in the States and parted ways. I headed to the pharmacy and she headed to work. My bus departed at 10.30 and I had a major errand to run.

I had briefly considered waiting until Chile to fill the medication but I figured as a precaution both in terms of my health and the legalities of filling prescriptions across country borders, to take care of it in Argentina.

I had trouble understanding what the two women at the pharmacy were trying to tell me. I figured it had to be important because one of them told me to stay and she returned a few minutes later with an English-speaking woman who owned a nearby shop.

My new translator explained that, “the pharmacist doesn’t have the exact prescription in stock so she’s giving you something close.”

What?! In the States I can’t change from pill to liquid at the pharmacy even when it’s the same medication and here I’m getting “something close?”

This sentence was so out of the ballpark of anything I could have expected them to say, it was no wonder I was having trouble translating.

I left with one prescription and one OTC medicine that the pharmacist recommended. The prescription was a powder; just add water and no refrigeration necessary. Score.

But, how the hell am I going to finagle taking this on a bus?


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