Middle of the night. A hotel bar at the feet of the Andes Mountains is silent, save three tour guides huddled 'round a fourth pour of watery beer and a coffee-stained map. "This pass will get us around most of the border patrol," said our local fixer, his finger on a sinuous mapline. Most is the key part of this.
This is probably a good time to explain we weren't carrying contraband, or attempting to clandestinely enter Chile for any nefarious purpose. We were chasing the 2015 Dakar Rally, and were willing to do just about anything to avoid the "twenty-hour lines" we'd heard rumors of at the major border crossings.
Taking the Pircas Negras Pass from Villa Union, Argentina to Copiapo, Chile would get us from one country to the next on a beautiful trail with a lot of dirt and next to no traffic. It'd also put us through a minor border checkpoint that our local interpreter Sasha promised we'd breeze through. Between that an the opportunity to cross the Andes off-road, the 'Pass seemed like the obvious alternative to spending a day on highways and waiting in line at a Wal-Mart sized customs checkpoint.
For hours we clung to mountainsides through an endless series of sweeping turns on one-lane loose gravel roads. By roads I really mean "roads" that didn't look like they'd been used by anyone 'cept the local llamas since they were sliced out of the dirt.
As we climbed out of the crevasses and into flat high country, our entourage was swallowed up by a breathtakingly barren moonscape. I mean, it was probably the 13,000 feet of elevation we'd climbed that made it hard to breathe. But the intimidating emptiness and death looming over a place so large was unlike anything I've experienced, even on I-70 in Kansas or the wastelands of central Australia.
Bracing air, loose roads, and no humans for a million miles. I can't think of a better place to run a pair of RWD trucks wide-open, and even with hundred horsepower between our rigs I'll always remember this as one of the greatest drives of my life.
Screaming down the other side of the Andes, our dust-choked carburetors picking up more horsepower with every thousand feet closer to sea level, we finally put eyes on the border station. Show time.
Sasha had been right about skipping the line out here; the cluster of buildings would have made an American highway toll booth look like a first-tier transit hub. Three buildings about the size of a coach bus each and one giant carport were all that separated us from blazing into the nation of Chile and getting on with our adventure.
Well, that, and platoon of the angriest, loneliest, ball-bustin'est border patrol officers I'd ever met.
Sasha, the only real Spanish speaker in our entourage, took point with his Ford Ranger followed by our eight-man Australian motorcycle crew and me in the SsangYong, with an English woman (the wife of one of our motorcyclists) riding shotgun and a sixteen-year-old Aussie (the son of a guest in the other truck) in the back seat. The kid's dad was riding with Sasha in the Ranger, that will be important to the story soon enough.
I tried to open the driver's door and the wind, which I hadn't noticed over the comfort of our truck cab and Jimmy Buffett pegged on the stereo, fired back with the strength of an ocean liner's fog horn.
So much for "thin air;" east-running gusts were hitting us so hard I might as well have been pushing that door through peanut butter. And of course I'd left my jacket in my bag, and of course that bag was under fifteen other bags in the bed of the Ranger, and of course it was cold as a virgin penguin's dick up there.
"Inside, Amigo! Bring your passport and the paperwork for the truck," Sasha yelled over screaming gusts, already halfway inside the tiny army office.
I scurried after him with a death grip on my passport, the SsangYong's registration, and the all-important stack of Spanish-language spreadsheets that allowed our rental car to cross international borders.
"Don't lose that, or we're fucked!" team leader Magnus loved to say every time I produced the document from my bag. This time, he said it in my head, but I was still quite sure I didn't want to be the asshole who cut this trip short in the first week. Somebody else was about to take care of that for some of us, anyway.
We're inside the office for about ten seconds before I realize we didn't need no stinking "long line" to get held up at a border station. Our crew had created their own clusterfuck of confusion just fine on their own.
Everybody was sort of milling around scratching their nuts while poor Sasha fluttered from one person to the next, doing rudimentary Spanish translation on their customs forms. (" That one for birthday, that one for today's date? I mean, shit, sorry, let me start over.")
About an hour later it was my turn to get processed. I strode up to the counter with my passengers like I owned the place, made it rain documents on the grumpy guard's desk (they love that), stood back, and crossed my arms as animated sunglasses appeared over my face.
Nah just kiddin', y'all know I sheepishly presented my papers like a beaten Chihuahua and prayed this guy wasn't going to use me to tick his daily body-cavity search quota.
The guard nodded through a boredom-choked death stare he'd obviously been practicing on his foot-thick computer monitor all morning. He stamped and flipped and seemed satisfied until he got to my sixteen-year-old passenger's paper.
Suddenly he had a lot of questions, but since my Spanish stops at " cerveza," "fiesta," and "me gustaría una mamada," I pretty much shrugged and grunted until his goon came up on me from behind and put a meaty hand on my shoulder.
"something something ah-fuera," the new guy said as he led me toward where the rigs were parked.
Terrified of breaking a cardinal border crossing rule (loosing sight of my passport) I asked my passenger Kathryn to keep her eyes on it as I headed to the truck.
Back in the terrible wind, Meaty Hands mimed that he wanted to know which rig was mine. I showed him. More Spanish, more me saying "Lo siento, no espaniol" and wondering where the fuck the interpreter we'd paid to avoid issues like this was at.
Two more guards were called out of the woodwork, one of them had enough straws of English to make progress.
"The kid is yours?"
"Not my kid, my passenger, but he's with me," I drawled like Chris Tucker when he meets Jackie Chan for the first time. "Yo soy... uh. Tour guide."
If there had been a right answer there to lighten the tension, I had just royally fucked it up. The guy I was talking to said something to his boys and all four doors of my truck were flung open and the key pulled from the ignition. They went to work on my racket straps and cargo ties straight away and before I could be like "dude come on" half my cargo was on the ground being prodded.
On cue Sasha came out of the office like a goddamn guardian angle.
"Sasha! Can you por favor work out what's got these fellas so upset? I think they think I'm trying to sell that kid into slavery or some shitsense."
Spanish started flying back and fourth across the deck. I whipped out my phone and started looking for WiFi. Which I do periodically in the bush, ironically I guess– hey, three bars!
"They think," Sasha said to me, taking a breather, firing off a few more sentences in Spanish, then finishing; "They think you're transporting the child illegally."
"Right now might be a great time to tell them that's not the case," I suggested.
"Yes, I explain, his father in my car. But they say you need father and mother to cross the border."
While I tried to work out what the hell he meant by that, I was relieved to see the trooper's interest in my toolbox, drums of gasoline, and admittedly egregious surplus of beef jerky had waned.
Back inside I made my way to Kathryn, who was sorry to inform me another officer had left with all our documents. Sigh. But I didn't have time to get worried about that; the kid's dad and the cop behind the counter were throwing their native languages at each other in increasingly aggressive tones.
Another uniform was standing up behind the desk and bellowed, in reasonably clean English; "We have called Copiaop, we have called Santiago, if it goes any further, the call is to INTERPOL."
Magnus was next to our passenger, wearing an expression like somebody was dangling his dog over a cliff. Whatever the situation was it had to be de-escalated immediately.
I opened with "Que is una problema," and realized my mistake as soon as a waterfall of Spanish came back and bowled me over.
"Ahhh... voy a, mi amigo, tener, habla espaniol," I grumbled as I backed away and bumped into Sasha. "Perfect! Your time to shine big guy," I told him through a sigh of relief.
A lot of talking whizzed by us, I corralled the rest of the crew. Soon Magnus, Sasha, and two cops who were definitely over dealing with us walked into a small side room and closed the door.
The rest of the soldiers, cops, or whatever the uniform-wearing gun-packing Chilean welcome party they were hung out with us, and insisted I give them another tour of our vehicles.
Any charm this cute little border station may have had from a hundred yards away had been completely burned off by my steadily-rising fears of an ass-prodding. But I obliged the uniforms and showed them every compartment of tools, maps, and our dirty laundry as a shivered against the cold and swayed with the first titterings of altitude-induced vertigo.
They'd finally had enough, and cut me loose to rejoin the rest of the crew... who'd been given a homemade meal by one of the station's staff members. At least somebody was in a good mood up there.
I joined our bikers around a lunch table and entertained them with stories of Magnus and I escaping similarly shitty situations for an houror so when he finally came back and pulled me aside.
"Look mate. The kid's not getting into Chile. You need a signed document from both parents for a minor to cross into this country and they ain't got it. We called the cop shop in Copiapo, the embassy in Santiago, and these boys are starting to look keen to rough us up. What do you reckon?"
"We're turning back?"
"Can't, we'll fuck the whole trip for the rest of the group."
"...Uh. Tell 'em the mum's dead?"
"Thoughta that too, would have haddta drop that one straight away though, yeah? We're going to call Mariano, the guy who brought the barbecue to that spot in the river the other day. He's gonna come get the kid and his old man tomorrow."
I tried to figure out how that was going to work without asking any more questions... were we just going to camp at this border station for the night?
"The Chileans, they're holding 'em here for 24 hours. The passports are stamped out of Argentina but the Chileans won't stamp 'em in. They can't go anywhere, the rest of us can't stay or we'll be fined apparently. We're leaving the kid and his old man in the hospitality of the Chilean border patrol and we're carrying on for Copiapo. No other option."
I could see Sasha was still breaking the news to our compatriots. Nothing could be done, they'd be spending the night in Chilean custody, and we'd be leaving them behind. Not great news when you've paid thousands of dollars to place your vacation into the knowing hands of tour guides. But we'd told everyone before they left their home countries; "your legal status in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia is your responsibility. Cross your Ts and dot your Is." Two people didn't, and paid for it.
A couple beds had been arranged, some grub would be scrounged up, and the two Aussies would be free to do whatever they wanted during their detention at the border station. So long as they didn't break line-of-sight with the building. Our contact back in the previous town would pick them up and we'd arrange an alternative itinerary for them from the next available WiFi hotspot.
Whether this sort of thing happened often, or what their odds were of getting gutted and fed to vultures in the middle of the night, we weren't really able to surmise.
As we started to mount up, I realized Kathryn and I still didn't have our passports. Thankfully that only took another half hour to clear up, with Sasha presumably defending our innocence as non-child kidnappers and tracking down the other guards who'd dealt with us earlier.
Finally on the road, almost five hours after we'd pulled up to the checkpoint, I broke the silence in the cab. "Horrible to say, but honestly, we end up leaving somebody behind more often than not on tour. Of course usually we're leaving 'em in a hospital for a riding injury–"
I winced and bit off the end of that last line, realizing her husband was among our team of riders and she'd already watched him take a few minor spills.
Before I had time to backpedal we'd caught up to the group... pulled over on the side of the road trying to get one of the bikes restarted from a crash or a breakdown. Still another couple hundred miles from the night's camp, I had a pretty strong feeling we still had a whole lotta day to go.
Still wonder why more people don't spectate the Dakar Rally?
- Chasing Dakar: What To Pack For A Month Of South American Off-Roading
- We're Driving The Crappiest Trucks At The Dakar Rally And It's Awesome
- 15 Hilarious Off-Road Fails By Clueless Dakar Rally Spectators
- It Was Dumb To Drive Into A Desert Race With Crappy Rentals, I Now Know
Images by the author, and Chile_Satelital/Flickr