The Bus to Bariloche

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Thu 20 Apr 2017 16:45
41:08.02S 71:19.02

Visa renewal time again – I can’t believe it’s three months already since our horse trek to Pampa Linda, how time flies!

This time we decided to spend a few days rock climbing in Barliloche, probably the last weather window in northern Patagonia before winter sets in.

We booked tickets with the bus company Andesmar which I’d used several times before. Once I find a company I like, I tend to stick with it. Franco wasn’t so keen.

“Your bus back from Santiago was over an hour late!” he reminded me.

Still, that was a better performance than the Pirehueico bus to Puerto Montt which never arrived (see A day of misunderstandings, 20 Jan. 2017).

We arrived at the bus terminal in good time, only to have to wait, frustratingly, for over an hour as our coach was delayed, once again, on its way from Santiago. The driver quickly stowed the luggage and we were on our way.

The bus route to Bariloche is spectacular. It goes through the agricultural town of Osorno, then follows the side of a large scenic lake before winding up the Andes through dense forest. Here it passes the Chilean border control and continues weaving up and up through a vast area of dead trees, killed either by the sulphuric blast from the nearby volcano or the thick ash deposits that smothered the countryside during the last eruption. At the top of the pass, the view opens up over Argentina with magnificent jagged peaks towering nearby. 

The road drops down for quite some time before reaching the Argentinian customs post.

Our passports were stamped without fuss, we had arrived in Argentina. As we passed through the customs building we felt sorry for a guy that was being searched. The customs officers had found a dozen watches in his luggage and would probably fine him for smuggling.

Franco and I returned to the coach thinking we would soon be on our way, only to be told by the driver that the hold luggage would have to go through the scanner. The lady in front of us had four fairly large holdalls. 

“I could do without this,” she muttered to me, looking worried. 

Suddenly her face lit up, she had found a solution. She took two of her bags and deposited them on a bench outside the building before entering the scanner room with her remaining luggage. There were no customs officers outside so no one had seen her abandon her gear.

Her bags went through without problem whereas our rucksacks were searched. Luckily all was fine.

Luggage stowed once more, we piled back onto the bus. Unfortunately several passengers were still missing. A lone black suitcase still sat outside the customs building, unclaimed. At last the owner was located and he disappeared into the building for some time.

Still we waited. The driver decided to relocate to a more secure parking spot. The engine stalled so he free-wheeled to the side. Try as he might, the engine wouldn’t start again. 

“Oh dear,” we thought.

The owner of the black suitcase reappeared, looking a little flushed. Still passengers were missing.

It was very hot in the bus so we disembarked once more. By now the crew were stopping cars, asking if they could take passengers with onward connections.

It seemed the bus had broken down but nobody was saying much about it. Franco suggested to the stewardess that maybe she should phone for a relief coach. Her excuse was that she had no phone signal and the Argentinian officials wouldn’t put a call through. Franco pointed at a man who had been wandering around glued to his mobile for the past half hour.

The Andesmar coach from Bariloche arrived and parked next to ours.

Refuelling the Andesmar way

Much to our amazement, the driver started syphoning fuel out of the tank into ours, we’d run out of diesel! 

I thought this was hilarious. My one big disappointment with South America is that the rickety old buses with goats, poultry, lumber and washing machines tied to the roof have disappeared, replaced by state of the art modern double decker coaches with comfortable reclining armchairs and on board meal service. At last I was experiencing South America as I had imagined it!

The crew pumped furiously to prime the fuel system, but the bus still wouldn’t start. Franco was convinced they hadn’t opened the bleed valve.

Our fellow passengers took the situation with the Chilean customary calmness. There was just one Argentinian lady who was getting a little worked up.

Fellow passengers - pensive but calm

At last, the last two missing passengers joined us, looking very distressed. They had been held in customs all this time because of a bag of fluffy blankets they had bought in Chile.

The angry lady turned on them:

“It’s all your fault,” she accused. 

“Now, now,” I soothed, “these two ladies can hardly be blamed for the coach running out of fuel.” 

I think she got my point but mechanical engineering was obviously not her forte.

“We need to ring Puerto Montt for a relief bus but the man with the phone is long gone,” whined the stewardess.

I looked around, he was still nattering on his phone! 

“He’s there,” I pointed.

“Err, maybe we leave it a little longer,” said the stewardess.

Franco wandered back. 

“The border post closes at 6pm.” (It was 4pm.) “The relief coach won’t get here in time.”

It was going to be a cold hungry night if we didn’t do something soon. We considered hitching but few cars were travelling through this late in the day.

Still the engine wouldn’t start. By now we had fuel but the battery was flat. The next passing coach was requisitioned to bump-start ours but it didn’t work.

Jump starting Andesmar

While they were disconnecting the batteries, we negotiated with the driver for two empty seats. 

“Sure, 100 Argentinian pesos or 5,000 Chilean per person.”

“It’s a deal.” I said as Franco dashed off to grab our luggage.

Another six passengers followed us on. We felt sorry for our companions left behind, but it was a case of ‘devil take the hindmost!’

We arrived in Bariloche four hours later than planned. What amazed me about the Andesmar team wasn’t so much that we had run out of fuel. After all that could happen to anyone (fuel gauges are for sissies)! No, what amazed me was the complete lack of a contingency plan.

Our bus saga wasn’t over yet. 

“We’ve got Argentinian money, we can catch a local bus into town,” I told Franco. 

“How much is it?” we asked the driver. 

He pointed at a grey box near the entrance, there was nowhere of paying, we needed a pre-paid SUBE card. He let us on anyway.

The next morning we went in search of a SUBE card.

“Where do we buy a SUBE card?” we asked at the hostel.

“At the first paper shop you come to.”

The poster in the window was clear, it said “No SUBE cards”. We asked anyway. 

“Two blocks down,” replied the chirpy lady.

Two blocks later, we found the shop:

“Ah, I can recharge SUBE cards, but I don’t sell them. Try a block further down.”

This time we were able to buy a card.

“But I can’t put money on it for you, you’ll have to go to the paper shop by the bus stop.”

By the bus stop:

“Yes, usually I can load money onto the cards, but the machine is playing up this morning.”

Maybe it was time to give up and go for a walk.

Mural of a ‘clanger’ on the way to the bus stop