I have said before that border crossings make me nervous for no rational reason and the border crossing between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Salta, Argentina was the same in that regard. Despite booking a bus 5 days in advance, two of the three bus companies were already fully booked so I had to settle on booking through Fronteria de Norte. After showing my passport, agreeing I had sorted my reciprocity fee and struggling through the conversation in broken Española I eventually booked a ticket for $25000 CLP (about $50AUD).
The morning of departure will see the tiny bus station crammed with other tourists and backpackers all trying to get over the border same as you. I found it an interesting exercise in people watching and trying to pick accents so despite getting there early as the woman at the ticket counter advised I managed to pass the time quickly enough. There was no reason to get there early that I could see as the bus didn’t turn up to after its stated departure time anyway so we were late even before we started.
Once luggage was loaded which always seems to take longer when you have to stack backpacks and the conductor checked our passports, tickets and printed proof of reciprocity fee before getting on the bus we were eventually away. Unfortunately about 5kms out of town the bus suddenly slowed down, and started reversing back to town. Not really sure what was going on and why we might be reversing, your imagination starts filling in the gaps by making scenarios such as the bus is broken, we missed passport control etc. but after eventually turning the bus around in what I would consider a dodgy location with inadequate room (the 10 point turn required to redirect the bus proved this) we arrived back in San Pedro de Atacama and back at the bus station – turns out we had left a passenger behind and he wanted to come after all (Damn Australian’s always inconveniencing others).
So after picking him up wearing his Geelong Football jumper just to prove how Australian he really was we again started out of town and by now we’re close to an hour later than scheduled. The road out towards the Andes Mountains is scenic and beautiful enough that you can pass the time just staring out the window though others did choose sleeping or reading as other alternatives. There were no movies played on the top section (semi cama section) of this bus trip which was annoying as I could hear them being played downstairs. Whether it was because we were in the cheap seats or whether the player didn’t work I don’t know but a movie or two even in Spanish would have helped pass the time and calm the masses I think.
After a couple of hours you eventually arrive at the border crossing which was one of the most inefficient crossings I have ever had. I get all land crossings are inefficient and you need more patience than passing through airports which seem to have the system down pat but this one did seem especially inefficient. Unfortunately there were a couple of buses in front of us and you’re not allowed off until it’s your turn so the process was lengthy and went something like this:
- The bus joins the queue and you sit in the bus going nowhere for an hour. Eventually we were allowed off in single file like prisoners and escorted to the bathrooms if needed though you were not allowed to take any bags or objects with you. Once finished you had to get back on the bus and not leave again.
- The conductor then came around and collected our passports with our Chilean tourist entry card. He then disappeared with everyone’s passports while you continue to sit there wondering what’s going on.
- After a long time he eventually returns and hands out passports and you realise he went to get everyone stamped out of Chile to ‘save time’.
- You continue to sit in the bus until it’s your turn at the front of the queue. Once it is you have to take all hand luggage out of the bus with you and line up outside the building (it’s cold so keep a jacket handy).
- Once the guy guarding the doors decides you can enter the building everyone shuffles inside and makes another queue to get stamped into Argentina which can be another long wait depending on how many private vehicles are trying to cross at the same time (people in private vehicles get to jump ahead for some reason so it can feel like the line goes nowhere when they keep arriving).
- Eventually it’s your turn at the front of the line and you hand over your passport, printed reciprocity fee (if required) and the completed Argentinian immigration form you were given on the bus.
- After a lot of typing and stamping and the immigration officer trying to psych you out by glancing up at you then back to your passport you’re eventually handed back your passport, reciprocity fee form and duplicate immigration form and dismissed.
- You exit through the same way you entered and walk outside to find your checked baggage dumped on the ground by the bus crew while you were inside.
- Collect your bag and go back inside the same building and the same door and push past the same people you just pushed past to get outside.
- Now join a line to get your bag screened which is just down from where you got stamped into Argentina and try not to get discouraged that it would have been easier to bring your bag in the first time.
- Dump your entire luggage on the x-ray conveyor belt and collect at the other end after no one in particular looks at the screen as it passes through. Exit through different door and now you’re in Argentina.
- Return to bus and reload your luggage and then sit around and wait until everyone else on the bus has completed the above process.
- Eventually you all get reloaded back on the bus and you’re away towards Salta.
This section of the trip is more scenic than the Chilean side and you pass through salt lakes, mountain passes and villages tucked into valleys which looked like really nice places to visit.
Unfortunately because of the late start, the over 3 hours at the border crossing and the fact the bus coughed and spluttered and struggled up all the mountains (to the point where the aircon was turned off as the bus couldn’t do both) it turned into a very long bus trip. To make it worse the toilets were now full and stank out the bus with sewage smell so the last part of the journey can get taxing on the patience.
Once over the mountains the scenery changes to more agricultural landscapes which are not as stimulating on the senses and it starts to get tough just sitting there waiting for the journey to end which it eventually did when we rolled into Salta just after 9pm which was later than I ever expected. Once there and trying to collect my bag there were a couple of guys removing bags from the bus and then guarding them and trying to charge a couple of pesos to get your bag back. Not actually having any pesos on me and in no mood to deal with it after a 12 hour bus trip I grabbed my bag and ran like a criminal which is stupid given it was my bag but they still yelled at me and chased for a bit to emphasis the criminal aspect.
Once clear of the bus station you can relax and welcome to Salta Argentina. Overall it is a good bus trip in terms of a cheap way to cross between countries and in terms of seeing the countryside which is amazing and worth seeing but be prepared to lose the day and spend more time on the bus than they indicate.
- Pullman, German and Frontier de Norte are the 3 services that run from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta. I booked my ticket at the offices in next to the bus station in San Pedro de Atacama but I heard there were offices in town near the main square as well.
- Take food and drink on the bus trip. They do feed you but by ‘feed’ I mean a cup of tea or coffee and a stale roll with a single slice of cheese on the Chilean side of the border and a plastic cup of coke and another stale roll this time with the most driest thinnest slice of roast beef you have ever seen on the Argentinian side.
- If you have time once through the immigration process walk towards the end of the road further into Argentina and there are a couple of stalls selling overpriced packets of chips and water etc.
- Make sure you have your proof of reciprocity fee actually printed as they won’t accept screen shots on electronic devices. I asked pretty please with sugar on top at my hostel in San Pedro de Atacama to use their printer but I am sure it would have been easier and less stressful to have it printed beforehand.
- Have your camera fully charged and close at hand on the trip and pre-book a window seat if possible as the scenery is spectacular and almost everyone on the bus took a picture at one point or another.