Updated November 5, 2019
Crossing the Andes by bus. What a cool idea. We were going from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile to catch a flight to Chilean Patagonia.
The distance separating Mendoza from Santiago is about 230 miles (370km), but since you’re crossing the second-highest mountain range in the world, the actual travel time is over seven hours. Most people would fly, but what an opportunity to experience such a unique border crossing and seeing the Andes Mountains at close range!
I began my research at home on the internet. It turned out that purchasing bus tickets online before the trip was doable if they were purchased within 30 days of the trip. After checking out several bus lines I settled on Busbud, a bus and coach reseller serving over 75 countries in multiple languages and currencies. I liked the clarity of Busbud’s website vs other sites.
One big surprise regarding bus service in Argentina is the different degrees of bus service within the country. Many citizens can’t afford to fly or just don’t want to, so bus travel is a great option.
To service most customers, the lines for crossing the Andes by bus have segmented their service level from pretty basic to “Executive Class.” I selected Executive Class because at the equivalent of about US$30.00 for a one-way ticket, what have you got to lose? The sales pitch for the bus service also appealed to me, “seats that recline to flatbeds, snacks, drinks and dinner, movies, onboard charging stations.” OK, sold! The only thing missing on this particular bus was Wi-Fi, although other long-distance buses we took did offer Wi-Fi.
Tip: Most buses are double-decker. Try and secure seats on the top level as the views will be awesome.
The Journey Begins
The central bus station in downtown Mendoza is noisy, crowded and hectic as are most bus stations around the world. The vendor stalls sell a variety of local food and the standard cheap tourist trinkets.
Dusty backpackers stop to check departure times on the overhead screens, stray dogs wander the halls staring hungrily at anyone munching a snack.
Money-changers loudly call out the daily exchange rate and do a brisk business. Still, it’s not chaotic.
Everything works, there is toilet paper in the bathroom stalls and the buses leave on time. Cool.
To board the bus, you must present both your passport and the ticket confirmation you received when you purchased your ticket online. That confirmation is your ticket. Don’t assume, as I did, that your ticket confirmation is an e-ticket allowing you to board when you arrive at the bus station. If you lose that confirmation, it’s the equivalent of losing your ticket and you will have to buy another one.
Even though the bus company confirms you purchased a ticket, they cannot print you out a new one so, hold on to your confirmation for dear life.
To our delight, the bus had everything exactly as advertised: roomy, plush seats that turned into beds with pillows and blankets. Snacks were plentiful and lunch was tasty. Beverages were available throughout the trip. The bathroom was adequate. The movies were silly but they’re sure to entertain children on a long trip.
Awesome Views When Crossing the Andes by Bus
The big draw, of course, is the views of the Andes. The Andes is the longest mountain range on earth at 7000 km (4,350 miles). The highest mountain in the range is Aconcagua at 6,961 m (22,838 feet). Anticipation starts building after the bus leaves Mendoza and turns right heading directly into the Andes. After about twenty minutes, ears start popping and the bus is right smack in the middle of the spectacular Andes mountain range.
You are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, deep gorges formed by rivers flowing over millennia, pristine mountain lakes, and thick pine forests. The view is so impressive, it’s like watching a live National Geographic special from your private picture window. All the while you’re saying to yourself, “Hey, I’m crossing the Andes.” That’s up there with seeing the Great Wall or the Egyptian Pyramids for the first time.All the while you’re saying to yourself, “Hey, I’m crossing the Andes...by bus.” Click To Tweet
Besides the mountain views, you also see interesting sights like a natural bridge used by the native populations for centuries, herds of alpacas and lonely little cargo trains chugging away in the vast expanse.
Crossing the Andes by Bus: Customs and Immigration and Border Crossing
After about three hours, the bus reaches the Chilean border. Following such a pleasant bus travel experience, I assumed the border crossing was going to be a relatively simple affair, like the U.S.-to-Canada border crossing. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!
First, the bus joins a queue of dozens of other buses going through the border crossing process. I was told this could take up to 3 hours. Then passengers are herded into an airport-like immigration point to check documents and get passports stamped. This process takes about 40 minutes.
Tip: You will be given a document stating that you have gone through immigration without any issue. Hold on to this piece of paper as you are required to surrender it once you leave the country. Then it’s back on the bus for another long wait. Next, passengers are again herded off the bus, this time to go through customs to check for any illicit goods.
All this is to be expected in any border crossing but what was unusual was the way passengers were herded about and directed to stand in two rows next to conveyor belts, grasping their possessions and surrounded by cameras. The entire busload waited for about 20 minutes while the guards joked, flirted and listened to salsa music.
The experience was so weird that after a while I actually began to feel guilty of smuggling contraband. Suddenly the guards asked for silence and called out a passenger’s name for her to come to the front. “Is this your bag?”
“Yes,” the woman responded warily.
“Open it please.” She opened the bag and out came a small bag of fruit. The guard lifted it triumphantly like a trophy showing it off to her colleagues. The offending fruit was dispatched, and the woman moved on.
One more passenger was searched, a backpacker with a Canadian passport and a confused look on his face. His fruit was also confiscated. Again, herded on to the bus. Again, a long wait and finally on our way. The whole process of crossing the Andes by bus took over two hours when with a little logistical rearranging it could have taken 40 minutes with a lot less drama.
It is so scary you almost don’t want to look but you are compelled to do so. As the bus continues to descend the topography changes from multi-colored rock formations to scrub with little rivers flowing down from the mountains to green temperate farmland. Each stage is beautiful in its own way.
The trip from the Chilean border crossing to the bus terminal takes another three hours. Upon arrival at yet another crazy-hectic, loud and crowded bus terminal head for a taxi stand or local buses and on to your next adventure. The memories of your Andes crossing will stay with you for a long time.
Want to know more about Argentina? Check out its sizzling capital city, Buenos Aires.
Hate the idea of border crossings by bus? Would you rather fly or is crossing the Andes by bus more your style? Let us know.