If there was one piece of advice I received more than any when planning my 2015 trip to Argentina, it was this: Take a bus over the Andes from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina (or the other way around).
I was told that the Santiago to Mendoza bus offered spectacular views of the high Andes, the lush vineyards of Chile, the cactus-lined foothills, the parched rusted-dirt mountains in Argentina, and the meandering mountain streams.
On top of that, it was supposedly a pretty comfortable ride for six-to-eight hours.
Not one to ignore travel advice, I made this the sole focus of my first full day in the Southern Hemisphere.
I would land in Santiago, taxi to the bus station, board the bus, and stare out the window for six hours. It would make for a painfully long travel day, but if the scenery lived up to the hype, I knew it would be worth it.
Beginning the Day in Santiago, Chile
I opened my eyes after a pretty good run of sleep on the eight-hour flight from Miami to Santiago. Out the window were endless snow-capped mountains reflecting the dimmest of early-morning light. I was glued to the window as the sky lightened from the deepest navy blue, eventually bursting with purples and pinks and oranges. A huge mountain loomed in the distance: Aconcagua. What a treat to see the tallest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemispheres out my window.
As we approached Santiago, I promised myself I would plan a dedicated trip to this city in the future. It was lush, green, bounded on either side by mountains and ocean, and begging to be explored. But it would have to wait. I had a bus to catch.
I grabbed a taxi outside of the airport and asked to be taken to the bus station in broken Spanish. “¡Usted habla bien!” exclaimed the taxi driver as my face flushed. We talked in simple but conversational Spanish all the way to the bus station (thank goodness for my study abroad experience). I felt immediately at ease.
Once at the bus station, I discovered that there was an earlier bus over the Andes than the one I was ticketed for, so I paid for a new ticket to give me a head start on the voyage. That ended up being the best spontaneous decision I could have possibly made, which I’ll explain later.
I still had an hour or two to kill, so I settled in with Amy Poehler’s Yes Please in the bus bay, arms around my bags to ward off pickpockets.
No more than ten minutes later, I was approached by a man who warned me in Spanish to keep a closer eye on my bags. I appreciated his concern, but I was already taking a lot of caution. My backpack was in my lap facing me, my arms were around it, and my large piece of luggage was next to me (one arm laced through a strap) with the zippers facing my direction. But he was unconvinced.
Another man walked up and they began discussing in Spanish how I needed to watch my stuff more closely. “OK, gracias, yo comprendo,” I told them. I put away my book and headed to the farthest corner of the bus station so nobody would talk to me. I hovered over my luggage for the remainder of the wait.
The Bus Ride from Santiago to Mendoza
Finally, the bus came. I had to show my ticket, passport and Chilean customs form before I was allowed on.
Once I gained entry, I headed toward the upper level where I had purchased a seat that had a deep recline (but didn’t lay flat). The accommodations were plush, and the bus was relatively empty so I had a full row to myself.
However, I was disappointed to discover that there was no wifi. I would have to hope that the bus would arrive on time and that my friend Adam would be able to find me at the bus station when I got to Mendoza.
We pulled out of the station and a sense of adventure washed over me. I’m in South America! It was my first time ever in the Southern Hemisphere.
Freeway quickly turned into highway, which quickly turned into two-lane roads. We weaved around farmland and vineyards with imposing snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. The Andes seemed to rise out of nowhere and go on forever.
We snaked our way through the foothills lined with bright yellow flowers and cacti. The early-spring countryside was bursting with life.
As we climbed, wildflowers and cacti gave way to rocks and snow. Once above the tree line the scenery looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. The air was crisp, the color palette muted, the landscape stark.
After a steady climb, we reached a series of switchbacks that had been carved directly out of the mountain face. We were basically going straight up, following a convoy of trucks and buses.
Snacks and Coca-Cola were served to keep our appetites at bay. I continued to snap picture after picture out the windows as a pirated version of Mad Max played on the screen at the front of the bus. It was the strangest movie I had ever half-watched. (In fairness, I couldn’t hear any of the audio so I only saw the otherworldly visuals which creeped the hell out of me.)
It wasn’t much farther to the border with Argentina. It only took a few hours to get there, so we were making great time. Already halfway there with nothing stopping us from getting to Mendoza early!
…Except for the massive line of cars and buses waiting to cross through.
What I wasn’t aware of was that the border crossing had only just reopened after being closed because of heavy snowfall. We were in a high mountain pass after all, which was vulnerable to the unpredictable weather patterns that punctuate mountainous areas.
There were six or seven buses in front of us, so it couldn’t be too long of a wait…or so I thought. An hour went by and we moved up one spot. We were allowed to get out of the bus to use the restroom and explore the border crossing, which helped pass the time.
Then another hour ticked by. And another. I found myself pacing back and forth between the bus and the crossing station. It was chilly, with the temperature probably hovering around freezing, so I wasn’t inclined to stay outside for very long. But the fresh air was nice and it felt good to move my legs.
After what felt like forever, our bus finally crossed through the station and stopped on the other side. After another 45 minutes we were asked to leave the bus and take our belongings so they could be checked.
We stood in a long line to be searched with the passengers from two other buses. I had brought six bags of candy from the U.S. that I was praying the border patrol wouldn’t confiscate, because it was supposed to be a gift for our host family.
Thankfully my bag search was quick and painless. I left to stand in yet another line with the rest of the passengers to get our passports checked.
After another 45 minutes or so, we made it to the counters. I cheerfully presented my passport and Argentinian visa which I had paid for and printed before leaving the U.S. “We need your Chilean customs card,” they told me sternly in Spanish.
Shit. I had just had it in the taxi. I began digging through every pocket and bag in a desperate attempt to find it. I don’t lose things, I kept thinking. But for the life of me I couldn’t find this.
Mercifully, after what felt like forever but was probably two minutes, I found it buried in between a bunch of other papers and presented it to the customs officials. After a thorough review and a couple of eye rolls, the border officials stamped my passport and I was on my way.
I clapped along with some of the other passengers when the bus finally pulled out of the border station.
What I later learned was that our vehicles were some of the last to make it across the border that day. The weather deteriorated later in the afternoon and prevented further traffic from crossing. Had I taken the original bus I had booked, I would have had to return to Santiago and attempt the drive again in the morning.
The ride down the eastern side of the Andes was swift, and the scenery was starkly different from the Chilean side: oxidized soil, dry and rocky, with desert vegetation scattered sporadically along the ridges. A mountain stream followed us almost all the way down, meandering with the road until it became a shallow braided river toward the base of the mountains. The sunset reflected a brilliant gold off of the water.
I’ll always remember arriving at the base of the mountains. We’re here!! And only about four hours late.
I attempted to find a roaming signal so I could get in touch with Adam, but had no luck. I would just have to figure it out when I got to the bus station.
Arriving in Mendoza
We finally arrived in Mendoza around 9:30 p.m. – a twelve-hour journey – and there was no sign of Adam. I found two other English-speakers who had been sharing the bus with me and we set out to find a wifi signal.
Turns out the Mendoza bus terminal does not offer wifi anywhere. Noted.
I will be forever grateful to my two companions – a Brit and a South African who were both backpacking solo across the continent– for hanging in there with me as I tried to contact Adam.
We walked up and down the bus terminal trying to find any kind of a wifi connection. Finally, the Brit stopped on one particular floor tile and got a weak signal. Hallelujah! I immediately messaged Adam: We’re here.
I could have kissed that floor tile.
We played multiple rounds of bus terminal hopscotch as the signal went in and out, stepping onto nearby floor tiles to see if the signal would reappear there. We must have looked ridiculous, but in a strange way it was fun.
I finally got Adam on the phone. He was in a taxi and on his way to pick us up. Before I knew it he walked in the door, and I gave him the most relieved hug I’ve ever given anyone. As a gesture of thanks we offered to give my new compatriots a ride to their hostels. The saga was over!
The Final Word
Despite the stress and my exhaustion from more than 24 hours of travel, I was grateful for the experience of taking the bus across the Andes. I often fall into the trap of trying to get somewhere in the least amount of time possible, and not stopping to enjoy the journey and sights along the way.
The truth is, my vacation began when I stepped off of the plane and into the taxi with the nice driver. Not when I arrived in Mendoza.
The bus ride left me with a lifetime of memories and zero regrets. Everyone’s advice was right: If you can handle the long drive, it is absolutely worth it to experience the incredible scenery between Santiago and Mendoza.
Planning Your Trip
- You can research Santiago to Mendoza bus schedules (or vice versa) and compare amenities using Bus Bud. It’s like Kayak for bus lines!
- The main bus terminal in Santiago is the Terminal de Buses Santiago (Terminal Sur). Mendoza’s is the Terminal del Sol.
- There are a few different classes of service available. I opted for the higher class so I could have a seat that reclined more for better rest. This class will be called “Cama” or “Semi-Cama.”
- Cost: My higher-category seat was $35 after all taxes and surcharges (524 pesos). Less expensive tickets are available, and the only difference in accommodations is that the seat doesn’t recline as far back.
- Bus company: There are many to choose from. I went with Andesmar, but Cata and other lines offer a similar experience.
- Food and beverages are served on the bus. If you have food restrictions or are a picky eater, you’ll want to bring your own food.
- All buses have bathrooms. Pro tip: Use it when you’re not going around switchbacks on the mountains. I ended up having to brace myself with both hands on the walls to manage the turns.
- There were no outlets on my bus, but there might have been on other bus lines. Be sure to double check the bus amenities when you are booking. I took a portable phone charger so I wouldn’t need to worry about finding an outlet.
- Factor in more time than the itinerary indicates. The ticket says it’s a five or six hour ride, but it will take longer than that. If you run into issues like we did, you could be spending ten or twelve hours on the road.
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Have you taken the famous bus route across the Andes? What was your experience? Let me know in the comments!