Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A trip over the Andes (by bus) via a winery (by car)

Eddie thought it would be great to travel by bus from Santiago to Mendoza, a journey of just 266km that takes a good seven hours – owing to the Andes being in the way, not to mention the border between Chile and Argentina.  But I agreed it would be an adventure – and it was.

We left Colchagua Camp (I’ll blog about that later) to a gloriously sunny morning, taking our last view from the deck with us. 

The view from the deck at Colchagua Camp - you can just see the Andes in the background
We planned to stop somewhere for lunch and I happened to spot a winery on the map, in the Maipu Valley, south of Santiago and only a short diversion.  As it was the only winery on a road map, I guessed that it must be pretty big and have a restaurant – a hearty meal before our bus journey would do nicely.  And that’s how we came to visit Vina SantaRita.  Set in beautiful surroundings, in old buildings with a medieval air, it’s an impressive place.

The rear courtyard at Vina Santa Rita
Wine tasting was by the glass, so we chose three wines at a cost of $4000 Chilean dollars (about £5).  But the portions were huge – I’d say the size of a small glass in a pub in the UK.  We sat down with our wine (no one-to-one service here) and, after our taste, still had three glasses of wine left.  So we picked them up and took them to the restaurant, where we were lucky to get a table as it was a Saturday.

The menu suggested wine pairings, so we chose accordingly.  A fillet steak to go with the Cabernet Sauvignon (excellent nose, smooth and soft, drinkable now, but could keep for longer); turkey cooked in an almond sauce to go with the carmenere (an interesting choice for turkey, but a lovely wine – blueberries on the nose with a lovely smooth palette with a hint of vanilla) and an avocado salad (which turned out to be a plate of avocado) to go with the sauvignon blanc, which was fresh light and very good.

We enjoyed our last bit of luxury before the coach, the bow-tied waiters and pleasant ambience.  Then we had a longer drive than anticipated to drop the car off at the airport, which wasn't sign-posted after all.

When we arrived at Santiago bus station, our taxi driver kindly told me to hang on to my handbag, pointed to the entrance and left us there.  It was heaving – and not easy to guard our two large cases, two small cases, small rucksack and the dreaded handbag.  But we managed to change our Chilean cash for Argentinian, buy some bottled water and pay a visit to the ladies, which cost $200 (about 25p) for missing doors, missing seats, loo paper that you had to tear off and take in with you, plus a queue.  They must be making a fortune.
But the bus arrived, we watched our luggage go on board (after a bit of misunderstanding about a tip) and we set off, bang on time.  We’d booked seats upstairs at the front and decided not to notice the crack on the window, nor the dents in the bus. 

Due to roadworks, the Andes Pass is one way at the moment and you have to time your journey.  It meant that the earliest bus we could take left at 5pm, but we hoped to see the best before it got dark.  And, despite an hour queuing over an accident involving some lorries, we did.

The Andes, just before the Andes Pass
The scenery was stunning - and we watched it go by while the TV showed The Hobbit in Spanish – maybe not New Zealand beyond our window, but the scenery out there and the rolling, shaking bus definitely added something.  We’d watched the film on Air New Zealand, so we know what was going on, when we gave it the odd glance.  But mostly we were looking out of the window.  Then we reached the Andes Pass.

The Andes Pass
This is the iconic part, the twisting, hairpin bit that snakes its way upwards, or downwards if you’re going the other way.  Looking up at the traffic above us and then slowly climbing until we were looking at it all below was an experience worthy of this road being known as one of the top most amazing roads in the world. (click on the link and you'll see a better pic than the one I took from the bus as it went round another hairpin).  And we managed to see it before the light faded.

Then there was the long wait at customs.  We were given lemonade and a sandwich and allowed off the bus to wander around.  We met a nice Canadian couple to chat to while we waited, before being marched single file to the checkpoint.

The border here consists of a booth with two people sitting in it – one Chilean and one Argentinian.  You hand your passport, plus form filled in quadruplet, over to the Chilean.  It is stamped and handed to the Argentinian and you have to step across with it, before your passport is handed back and you are in Argentina! 

This is where the Canadian couple disappeared.  For rather a long time.  Turned out they were whisked away into an office, where they had to pay their reciprocity fee, the rules of which had changed while they were in Chile.  But they were returned to the coach in time to see all the luggage thrown off, given a cursory check and thrown back on again.  Their case was dented by the time we reached Mendoza.  At 1am – when the city was just getting going.

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