In the early stages of planning, The Trip was supposed to start us in Ecuador, then head down through Peru and Bolivia, and end the South American portion in Argentina. With our plans to take traveling slow, this route would take us around four months. We then got engaged and The Trip became The Honeymoon. With a hard arrival date in Kathmandu of October 17th and the wedding delaying the start of The Trip until July, we had to shuffle around our plans. So, we lopped off everything but Argentina.
Once in Argentina, we realized how sad we were to only have one South American country on our itinerary. After some last minute research, we chose to head over to Chile, before heading on to Europe, for one simple reason – we could. Because, you know, its just a simple eight hour bus ride from Mendoza, through the Andes, around Aconcagua(the tallest mountain in South America), down the 30 haripin turns of El Caracol, and into Valparaiso on the Pacific Coast of Chile. No big deal, right?
That is unless you decide to ignore the large signs at the border telling you NOT to bring fruits and vegetables into Chile. (I will remind you, by the way, that I can speak and read Spanish perfectly fine, so language ignorance is no excuse here.) If you decide to ignore such signs, heading over to Chile turns from no big deal into an ordeal. An ordeal involving Border Patrol’s back offices, official government documents written in Spanish and a trip to the Valparaiso prison. Fun!
Once you arrive at the Argentina-Chile border, you have to get off your bus with all of your things and go through immigration/customs. We took an early bus, so by the time we arrived at the border, the lines were still short. We passed a huge sign with warnings about fruits and vegetables. Matt and I got stamped out of Argentina and into Chile and then were herded into the customs area with all our bags. We passed another huge sign with warnings about fruits and vegetables. Our bags were x-rayed and tagged clear. We passed yet another huge sign with warnings about fruits and vegetables. Then we stopped at the bag search and shock of shocks, my lunch, containing fruits and vegetables, was discovered by a Chilean customs official. What, you say fruits and vegetables are not allowed into Chile? But it’s not a bunch of fruits and vegetables, it’s just my lunch. (For the record, I was planning on eating it right after going through customs.) The official looked disappointed with me as he conferred in whispers with other guards about the discovery. After a few shuffles, in came a rather cute and weathered , yet official-looking golden retriever. Ok so, I’ve seen more than my fair share of episodes of Locked Up Abroad. The arrival of a sniffer-dog caused my knees to go weak and my brain to go into panic mode. Oh hell – it’s all over. Who knows what might happen now, since its their word against mine. You never know what someone might have put in my bag when it was crammed in the luggage compartment for a few hours. Thankfully, my canine friend was a fruit-and-vegetable-specific sniffing dog (but honestly, what dog isn’t?) and agreed with the officials that yes, indeed, I did have fruits and vegetables in my lunch bag and that was all.
After regaining control of my knees, I was led behind the immigration windows through a dingy alleyway and into a back office. (Listen up Spanish teachers of the past – THIS is what you prepared me for. Defending myself and understanding my rights at the Los Libertadores border crossing.) With a horrible uncovered fluorescent light overhead, and not a computer in sight, I waited while an immigrations officer wrote up, with a number 2 pencil, my customs fine. We spoke very slowly in Spanish to each other, but I did understand what she was saying. She told me where I could pay my fine in Valparaiso, and politely led me back out to the immigration windows. Thankfully, the bus driver waited for me and I hadn’t been left behind in the Andes. He led me back to the bus where Matt was waiting for his criminal-of-a-wife to come back from the depths of South American immigrations purgatory.
The only part of this experience that I didn’t understand at the time was exactly how much the fine was. The officer had given me a huge range and quoted it in Chilean Pesos. When I asked her for an estimate in USD, she said maybe $1000. Come on now, $1000 for an apple, 2 oranges, and a tomato??? Matt and I tortured ourselves for the rest of the ride to Valparaiso. What would we do without that $1000? Would we have to cut time off the trip? Cut budget from activities? Just deal with the money issue when we got home? We worried non-stop all the way to the Valparaiso prison the next day. This, by the way, is where the customs back office is conveniently located.
To get to the prison, one must take a colectivo (public taxi) 10 kilometers out of town to said scary local prison, then cross a 6 lane highway by foot, and run across a trucking weigh station before entering into the government compound. Thankfully, the offices were actually open AND thankfully, the people working there felt like doing their jobs. We showed up with $600 in local currency hoping that this was enough – its all we could get from the ATMs and our bags. I bit my nails down to nubs and Matt did a lot of sweating while we waited for the documents.
That’s how much it cost us. The most expensive fruits I’ve ever bought and I didn’t even get to taste them. But in the end, I had my passport, my freedom, that $775 I didn’t have to pay, and some souvenir documents outlining my brush with the law. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t get my 2 days back. The 2 days I spent angry that we had chosen to come to Chile on a whim. The 2 days I spent thinking about South American prisons instead of marveling at the street art in Valparaiso. Although we ended up enjoying our short time eating clones and drinking Escudo, and seeing a bit more of South America, I’ll always think of Chile as The Place I Got Detained at the Border.