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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting into Chile

This is one of those posts that is supposed to be informative for other travelers.

In the past few months, we have crossed from Colombia to Ecuador and from Ecuador to Peru. We were supposed to have crossed from Peru to Bolivia, but scuttlebutt has it that Bolivia is not exactly tourist-friendly where safety is concerned.

Our Colombia-Ecuador crossing was marked with numerous police checks, all random. For some reason, all 6 checkpoints decided that the Chinaman (me) was the most probable suspect for drug-running. And at all 6 checkpoints, I had to disembark to open my bags for the Ecuadorian police to stick their grubby arms into my nice, clean clothes to check for a certain powdered white substance while trying my best to remember enough of my Espanol classes to answer their questions intelligibly.

The Ecuador-Peru crossing was markedly easier. Other than the need to endure buzzing mosquitoes at the checkpoint, we only had to contend with one other police check. Guess whose passports were taken away for further checking? Determined to keep our passports in sight, I again disembarked from the bus to follow the policemen back to their car, where they were presumably trying to contact some border control authority to decide if we were an illegal alien risk. This time, rather than trying to answer all their questions, I just kept saying that I did not understand what they were saying, and asking if THEY could speak in English. After awhile, they gave up on the checks and we were on our way. :D

Given our troubles at the two earlier crossings (we blame it on the fact that Singaporean passports are a rarity here, and the policemen all want some time to touch it), we were understandably apprehensive about our next crossing from Peru into Chile.

But all our worries were for nothing, because we had some unexpected help!

We had taken a night bus from Puno to Tacna, where our Lonely Planet guidebook says that it is possible to take a train to Chile for USD 1.50. The train runs twice a day, it says, without telling us the time. We had reckoned that an arrival into Tacna by 6am should be early enough for whatever timing the train was on.

Not true.

Apparently, the train had left at 5am, and the next train was only at 4pm the next day. (C'mon Lonely Planet! Some of your info is seriously out-of-date!) Fortunately the taxi driver who drove us from the bus terminal was the one who checked for us, with the locals queuing up to buy tickets at the train station. So we were able to just hop back into his taxi where he drove us to the international bus terminal, where there are buses going from Peru into Chile. Turns out it was right beside the terminal we arrived at. Sheeesh :p

As we walked into the terminal, we were beckoned over by this guy who asked if we were going to Chile. We nodded yes, and he brought us to a counter, which was selling tickets for immediate departure for about 20 soles (about USD 6.30). So while the wife was providing details for the booking (which involves explaining how surnames and names work, which are the passport numbers in our passports, and then explaining in general where the hell Singapore is located), I decided to load up our bags into the bus. But it wasn't a bus!

Turns out the man who beckoned us over runs a ferry service from Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile by car. And there are more of these car operators than bus operators in the terminal. Not a little apprehensively, we got into the car with 3 other locals and headed off!

The good that came out of this? You get a really speedy ride across the border. The entire journey, including immigration and customs took less than 2 hours. The driver was on hand to guide us on where to go and what to do next. We even had time to watch a flag-raising ceremony at the border.

Okay, okay... that last bit was not really a choice. As a mark of respect to the flag, drivers are not supposed to drive past while the ceremony was being conducted.

But no matter. With nary a concerned look from both Immigration and Customs officials, we were in Chile, our 3rd country in South America!

It's great that we managed to get through to Chile so easily though. Because the next leg of our journey will see us bouncing between Chile and Argentina as we gradually head southwards. Where Chile is boring, we will head into Argentina. Where Argentina is boring, we will head back into Chile!


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