Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Saturday, August 13, 2005

41. Road Trippin' (Mendoza, Argentina)

With a tear in my eye I left Buenos Aires last Thursday, heading to Santiago, Chile, via Mendoza, Argentina.

map of argentina
Map stolen from

We finally got away at about 2pm because of problems with paperwork on the car. It took ages to get out of BA but we were soon crossing the pampas as the night set in. Like many Argentine cars, the Peugeot had both petrol and natural gas (propane) to run on. Natural gas is about half the price of petrol but a full tank only has about a 100km range. Juan chose the slightly longer route to our first scheduled stop, Mendoza, because Route 7 had a lot more natural gas stations where we could fill up. In between stations we would switch the fuel system to petrol when necessary.

Road Trip Santiago - 02 - Boys car
Posse Thad Juan Me and the Peugeot

In the car was me, Juan and Posse from Argentina and Thad, from the US, as well as our 3 backpacks and a suitcaseonwheels (me). I bought a brand new shiny red suitcase for this part of my trip and copped a bit of shit from the other guys - what sort of backpacker are you, and someone came up with the name Zoolander which was pretty funny. My standard defence is that backpacks suck and all they're good for is carrying dirty laundry from bus stop to hostel - man, might as well have a smaller suitcase on wheels and roll it around without wearing out your shoulders and creasing your clothes.

Road Trip Santiago - 01 - Juan driving
Road trippin Argentine style - with mate

After about 3 hours we had our first car trouble, a loud hissing sound from the natural gas system - it seemed it had sprung a potentially dangerous leak so Juan had to switch it off and we had to run on petrol for the rest of the trip. The car hadn't been running so well either, with the power seeming to cut in and out, like it was an air intake problem or something. The cabin of the car had a strong petrol smell too which not only gave me a headache but also permeated our clothes and our luggage, so that we all smelt like mechanics. So we pressed on at a slightly slower pace, and only made it as far as San Luis, which was still 3 or 4 hours short of Mendoza. We stayed the night in a cheap hotel and left at about midmorning the next day. I took the chance to have a turn driving. I'd driven on the right hand side of the road before in Vietnam, but that was only a motorbike, so it was a new experience driving a left-hand drive car and changing gears with my right hand. But no big deal. The roads here were great for cruising - a 4 lane highway, long, straight and flat, with little traffic or police. The speed limit was 120km/h, I was cruising at about 130 and still got overtaken so I maxed the Peugeot out at about 150 to keep up. The roads back home in NZ are so full of traffic and so windy that to speed makes little sense, as you'll only ever cut a few minutes off your journey. But here it's easy to sustain high speeds for so long that it makes a difference.

Road Trip Santiago - 06 - Matt driving
Me driving

We arrived in Mendoza the next day, and what a beautiful city it was. Much cleaner than Buenos Aires but still with enough of a city feel. After stopping for lunch we decided to press on to the border and cross the border to Chile the same day. Mendoza is at the foot of the Andes, and wow, how amazing it was to be driving through them! The road here crosses the Andes at about 3500m, and near the border itself is the mighty Mt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6960m (which is the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas). Since we were crossing the border we stopped to take some photos and leave a stash which we'd pick up on the way back.

Road Trip Santiago - 10 - Andes pano
Stash break

Road Trip Santiago - 27 - Andes

As we gained altitude the car ran worse and worse. We stopped in a small town to ask about the road and if it was open, and while there a mechanic had a quick look at the car and said that it was probably an air intake problem. We were told the road had been closed for two days due to recent snowfalls but it was now open for cars with chains. We thought the road might have been closed as we'd already been passing trucks parked on the shoulder of the road, queueing to cross the border, even though the border was still at least 50km away! Since it was already getting dark and the car wasn't running the best and it was Friday night, we decided to turn back to Mendoza and spend a night there partying, rather than risk the border crossing and arrive in Santiago too late to do anything.

Road Trip Santiago - 24 - Andes
Sun behind the Andes

So we drove back to Mendoza and checked into a hostel and planned on going out partying, as Mendoza has a reputation for cute girls since it's a university town. However with all the driving and smoking everyone was pretty tired, and what was intended to be a pre-party siesta at around midnight turned out to be bedtime, as none of us woke up to go out after that.

We woke up pretty late but eventually hit the road to the border for the second time. We were surprised to see the queue of parked trucks was now stretched back even further from the border, around 80km 200km, past where we'd left our stash. Yet another example of Argentine inefficiency - if a truckload of goods has to wait a week to cross the border to Chile the system is broken.

Road Trip Santiago - 25 - Andes morning
Approaching the Andes again (snow in background)

Although the car still wasn't runing well, the road to the border on the Argentine side was for the most part straight and not very steep, so we made good progress even if Juan did need to drop it down to 1st or 2nd gear every now and then. Eventually we made it to the snowline, so we stopped for a snowfight at my insistance.

Road Trip Santiago - 32 - Snow

As we neared the border the queue of trucks was moving, and while we were overtaking the queue we had our only near-miss of the trip - as we rounded a corner one truck was overtaking another on our side of the road. Juan hit the brakes and we skidded a bit on the slushy snow but we managed to stop and the truck pulled in in time.
The border crossing was one of the easiest I've done - no walking across a border with our bags as both immigration departements were in the same building. No kids begging for money. And no crazy taxi drivers offering you a ride to the next town. A sniffer dog checked our car and our bags, but what with the overpowering petrol smell he wouldn't have found anything. It was so strong that when we first pulled up and Juan wound down his window, the waiting immigration officer snapped his head back wondering what we'd spilt inside.

Road Trip Santiago - 35 - Sniffer dog
A customs dog checks out the suitcaseonwheels

OK, it's nearly 9pm and I'm starving so I'll write the rest of the road trip in another post...


  • ceviche is lovely. give it a go if you can find a well made algae free version.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:02 PM  

  • IsnĀ“t it supposed to be an aprodisiac (sp)?

    By Blogger Nasty McFly, at 7:15 AM  

  • Hey hey Matty J,
    That is one fantastic car - I had a Peugeot 504 (which yours is some South American version of) for some time. Incredibly comfortable (being French) and indestructible. Ran with about 60% water in the oil for about 2 years.

    Saw Bombon el Perro at Film Festival this year, lots of driving through scenery very similar to that in your photos, almost always with the mate in hand!

    Happy trails,


    By Blogger Slag, at 1:45 PM  

  • Could be an aphrodisiac... also can be a source of diarrea which get different juices flowing...

    Ed, I hated the Peugeot especially with the constant petrol odour. It didn't run well at altitude either, even after we removed the air filter. But it was built like a brick shithouse.

    Cheers for the movie tip, I hadn't heard of it so will check it out. Just watched Nueve Reinas on DVD again in Mendoza, saw it 3 times when I was in Australia, man it shows the streets of BA well, well a much cleaner version of them. Great flick too.


    By Blogger mattyboy, at 2:18 PM  

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