Border Hopping and Landing at a Hippy Camp

I’m sipping on some local wine at a hippy camp outside of Mendoza, Argentina writing this. There are 4 men, 9 dogs, 3 cats, and about 12 broken down VW (Kombi) vans. I’ve been here for a few days and am not entirely sure when I’ll leave. After the flurry of traveling in the last two months, I’m allowing myself (and Savannah) to be a bit lazy, and rest. Despite the junkyard appearance of this camp, with strewn animal bones for the dogs and rusty car parts as lawn ornaments, I feel like I can relax here and am building a sense of community among these like-minded outcasts. There’s Walter, the Argentinian man who runs the shop and is highly praised for his work on Kombis. There’s Sal, an eccentric French man, trying to build a new fiber glass roof for his Kombi and I hear swear words in French, English, and Spanish leave his mouth daily in his frustration, along with outbursts of whistling and song. Marcello is an Argentinian and is building a pop-up for his Kombi, he’s traveled around most of Argentina in his van and has loads of recommendations for me. And there’s a guy from Chile (I don’t remember his name, and now it’s too late to ask) who drives an old Volkswagen Beetle pulling a trailer made from a hacked up Kombi – he’s already lapped South America with his setup. Sal and I speak in English (he is quite chatty) and with the rest it’s strictly Spanish, so I can feel my understanding and ability/confidence to speak it improving. We all seem to be on our own quests to live a life that is the closest to our individual versions of pure happiness. We’re all a bit weird, but we’re stupid happy. I think we make quite a crew.

I’m here in Argentina because my Chilean vehicle import permit (TIP) was set to expire on July 30th. I was in Germany from July 16-28th for a follow-up interview at Max Planck Institute (which went really well!), and my return date to Chile gave me only 2 days to plan and execute the crossing. If I didn’t cross, I would need to pay a fine and I was worried that overstaying could make it difficult to cross back into Chile in the future. On the 29th I had a scheduled Ford dealership appointment for hopefully changing the transmission fluid and giving her an overall check. When I arrived though, I found out that a transmission fluid change was not possible that day given the unique specifications of the fluid needed for Savannah, and that they didn’t recommend it anyway yet since she hasn’t hit 150,000 kilometers. I had thought that I felt a bit of a sticky transition from first to second gear, which was the motivation for the fluid change, but it didn’t seem critical and could totally be in my head. While they were giving her an overall check, the mechanic found that my air filter was swamped, moldy, and torn. This suddenly made sense to me since I knew that the drainage from the windshield in Savannah’s model was awful and often leaks would allow water to enter the air box. While I had been traveling in the US and Germany, I was keeping an eye on the weather out of curiosity and saw that Santiago had a super wet winter compared to past years. So, without running (where the heat of the engine could dry any moisture) and sitting in the rain for weeks, my air filter was now broken. There would be no way to replace it however, since Savannah is a one of a kind down here and her air filter doesn’t exist. The best I could do was ask the mechanic if he could clean and dry it, and we put it back in until I could get parts sent down from the states (thanks Will!).

I had no right to feel as confident as I did in Savannah when I climbed up in her and started driving towards the Andes. Perhaps it was the especially inspirational conversation I had with my hostel host that morning before I left his driveway, in which he seemed to be more confident in my ability to live this wandering lifestyle even more than I had in myself. We parted with a big hug and his invitation for me to come back whenever I wanted to in my travels. Or, maybe it was just that I felt most at home behind the wheel of Savannah and knew that despite any obstacles, together we could tackle whatever route lay ahead of us.

I drove North of Santiago for an hour to the last town I’d hit before I headed East over the Andes. I stocked up on water, some cash, and gas, and ate all of the perishable food I had left knowing it could get confiscated at the border. I’d lie if I said I wasn’t at least a little intimidated as the Andes loomed ahead on the horizon. But Savannah was purring along the highway and I had no reason to doubt her. The climb began gradual up a valley, soon I saw snow start to dust the summits. Then, rather abruptly, the road snaked into steep switchbacks. It almost looked like a toy train track consisting of 29 switchbacks up the slope of the Andes. Trucks and cars used the same route to cross, though the trucks struggled with the grade and tight turns. I didn’t bother passing and let Savannah plug along behind them. At times there were tunnels covering the road where avalanches were common, this really blew my mind to pass under the Earth and snow as I wondered how this route was created.

At the top of the pass I was flagged to pull into the Chilean border facility by a policeman. I had read that all of the paperwork would be done at one place, on the Argentinian side of the border, though clearly that had changed. At this facility I waited in line to cancel my TIP with maybe a dozen other people. When it was my turn, the aduana agent very carefully looked at my passport, making me nervous. Technically you’re not really supposed to leave the country while your vehicle is still in it… and I had crossed out and in on 3 separate occasions during my travels for work. After a full 2 minutes of flipping through the pages, and comparing my stamp dates to the Police Investigation receipt that you receive when entering the country (which was only a few days old since I had just returned from Germany), she finally stamped my TIP terminating it and gave me my exit stamp in my passport… phew! Next I drove maybe 20 kilometers to the Argentinian aduana (customs) to get my new TIP. The aduana here was quite a rookie with foreign travelers and insisted that he just needed to stamp my Chilean TIP and that I could get my new TIP at the police checkpoint another 20 km down the road. I tried to insist that I didn’t think this was right, but in the end I did drive away and down to the police checkpoint. As expected, they turned me around telling me that I forgot a document at aduana. I drove back to a very apologetic aduana officer, finally got my new TIP (legit for 8 months!) and was finally legal in Argentina.

Now dark, I looked for the nearest spot to camp listed on iOverlander. I first blasted by the dirt track, but realizing it was about 3 AM Germany time and I was getting really sleepy, I turned around and found the road. I tucked Savannah in behind a bush along the side of the highway and bundled up to sleep since I was around 3000 meters (~9800 feet).

The next morning, I woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Clouds rolled down off the Andes and a vibrant pink lit up sections of textured, stormy clouds. I couldn’t do more than stand next to Savannah and gawk at the beauty of the place, it was like something I had never seen. I decided I would not leave, it was too pretty and I needed some mountain time.

For the day, I hiked up a stunning canyon that quite literally took my breath away as I scrambled and skirted the stream higher. I kept wanting to see just what was around the next bend and could not stop a smile from creeping over my face as I explored. However, some daunting weather moved in over the course of the afternoon and I was forced to cease my quest of seeing what lay ahead. I made my way back to Savannah just in time for a storm to move in covering the upper half of the mountains with snow and rocking Savannah with wind. I took advantage of the weather as an excuse for some much overdue van time. I organized Savannah, cooked up some food, drew a little bit, and started writing letters to friends (something I hadn’t done since my time in the Kalahari).

The next day I rolled down the rest of the pass from the Andes after a very refreshing “shower” in the icy stream near my campsite. The landscape was striking, and much more red and dry than I imagined. I texted a friend a photo and he replied with, “oh, you’ve found hell.” But if I did, it’s a beautiful hell. Sure dry and without much signs of life but with unimaginable shapes of mountains and cliffs. I followed the Mendoza River for a bit (which I think I may try to packraft this week) and wound my way down and East to the plains. I had reached out to my friend in Lima, where I had stored my van while I was working in Chile before the border opened, and he recommended this Kombi camp to stay, so I headed that way.

I needed some food (since I had to eat all of my Chilean food) and to try to find an ATM for Argentinian pesos. When I pulled into the parking lot of the Jumbo (a big regional supermarket company), I got a bit stuck. A wave of feeling overwhelmed suddenly being in another new country shook me a bit. I didn’t know the exchange rate yet or have the currency, I had read that there was some civil unrest in Argentina, and I had some anxiety about socializing again after my two blissful days alone in the mountains. It took a bit of time and a mental pep talk but soon I was in the supermarket pretending as if it was no different than Chile (which it really was no different). I failed to find an open ATM, since it was a Sunday, so I still have no cash. Savannah had a freak-out with a “service motor immediately” warning and some worrisome shaking after I pulled out of the market. Apparently, she was a bit fussy that day as well as I was. I turned her off and on, and all seemed well, so I drove the last 20 minutes to the Kombi camp. From then on, I’ve been here!

My current project is building a home made swivel seat piece so that I can rotate the passenger seat in my van allowing for more room and another seat for someone to sit. In the states this would cost around $400 for the engineered, patented piece. Here, with Walter making it, it probably will cost less than $15 USD. I’ve met all of the dogs, and know about half of their names. Days are spent starting lazy and sleeping in, then sharing a late breakfast or coffee with the guys. Saws start cutting and torches start welding and soon everyone is working on their van homes. I’m currently working remotely for my job, so a lot of my time is also spent on the computer, though I still have time to work on little projects in Savannah and plan for the swivel seat. I already found a plated sheet of metal I’d like to use from the junkyard for the two plates I’ll need to make the swivel. By the time it’s dark, everyone stops their work and cooks their dinners and showers – well some do, some don’t. It’s still winter here so the nights are quite cold. The first shower I took, I used hose water in the afternoon and literally got a brain freeze from how cold it was. Now I’m using my sun-shower, which gets “not-so-freezing” at best but is manageable. Evenings are spent in the workshop sharing wine, since it’s Mendoza, and talking about projects and ideas and stories. I’ve learned more about Kombis than I ever imagined with lessons on every version made throughout South and Central America. Originally, I had planned to spend one night here and now it’s going on four. The French guy told me I’d probably get stuck here, and he just might be right, at least just for a little bit.

My plan moving forward is to drive South, though now I’m not sure if I’ll stay on this side of the Andes or cross back into Chile. It’s much cheaper in Argentina due to the crazy inflation causing an unstable economy but good exchange rate, it’s sunny here, and there are no tolls on the roads. In Chile it’s more expensive, roads are tolled, gas is expensive, it’s rainy and cold, and apparently the road is boring (so I’ve been told) though I only rode it on an overnight bus. I’d like to do some rafting and trekking in both Argentina and Chile, since it is winter and those are pretty much the hobbies I’m limited to now. But overall, I have no plan really, and for right now that’s okay. I can work remotely and let the wind blow me wherever it wants to through southern South America. There’s so much to see and explore, I’m sure wherever I end up will be perfect.

Sleep spots, here!

One thought on “Border Hopping and Landing at a Hippy Camp

  1. Nice to get an update, Kelly. I’m amazed how you can transition from continent to continent…country from country! Stay safe and enjoy your travels. As always, sending love.

    Liked by 1 person

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