Perils of Polly: Ushuaia: Just getting there poses challenges

The last Argentine penguins to see were at Monte Leon National Park. The dots on the beach are all penguins.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.


I was reluctant to leave beautiful Monte Leon, but we’d done everything it had to offer, walked its wide beaches, hiked, camped …so it was off to our furthest destination: Ushuaia.

But first, problem No. 1: The driver’s seatbelt decided not to work. It refused to pull out. We figured it was probably full of dust, but our only tool was the spinner for changing the tire. We weren’t even a full week into the trip and reluctant to drive the rest of the way without a seatbelt — not to mention the fact that we would be breaking the law in a foreign country.

I pulled into a restaurant parking lot, rolled down my window, and yelled to a likely looking man who happened to heading toward his pickup, “Puedes ayudarme? (Can you help me?)

I know God was looking out for his silly little children, because it turned out the man was a mechanic who had often fixed seatbelts. He even had some of his tools in the back of his pickup.

After it became evident it wasn’t going to be a simple five-minute fix, I apologized to his wife sitting in the pickup and struck up a limited conversation. About a half-hour later, he showed us that the belt would pull out, but there was no longer any stop in it. We nodded that would be fine, as we’d just tie a knot in the belt itself so that it would fit snugly. We gave him 50 pesos (his wife asked for 40) and headed happily down the road.

Problem No. 2: To get to Ushuaia, we’d have to go through a little piece of Chile. That meant two border crossings. That meant we’d have to get some Chilean money. That meant finding a bank.

Rio Gallegos was the biggest city between where we were and the Chilean border. Once in Chile, there were essentially no towns until we crossed back into Argentina.

I turned off the freeway circumventing Rio Gallegos and headed toward downtown. I dropped Sue off and she trotted away looking for a bank. Since parking was limited, the plan was for me to keep driving around the block and pick her up when she was done. Turns out the bank doesn’t exchange money.

I found a parking spot and we both headed toward a money exchange. It had no Chilean money. They suggested a different one. We walked a multitude of blocks, but it, too, had no Chilean money. We shook our heads in amazement. We were in the biggest town closest to the border, and couldn’t find Chilean money. We looked at the map. Maybe we could get through the tiny portion of Chile without needing it.

Problem No. 3: The border. Never try to cross a border in the middle of the day, competing with tour buses. Of course we had no idea what to do. Cars were lined up along the road, so we parked and walked with everyone else to a little building. It was totally crammed with people. I also counted at least four tour buses.

It turned out the little building housed the crossing both to leave Argentina and to enter Chile. Figuring out what line to stand in was the hard part. I finally discovered I had to go through five different lines: Immigration police leaving Argentina, vehicle inspection leaving Argentina, immigration police entering Chile, vehicle inspection entering Chile, and agricultural products entering Chile. Once I figured out what line to be in, finding the end of it was unbelievable! We were literally crammed shoulder to shoulder in this hot, stuffy building, and at one point some officer shoved everyone through a doorway and changed the direction of the line, infuriating those in it. I thought it was going to go to blows.

When I got to the vehicle inspection lady, I handed her all the documentation Andean Roads had given me. She glanced through it and said something. I gave her my “I don’t know what you’re talking about” stare. She repeated it. I replied, “No mucho espanol.” With her broken English and my broken Spanish, she communicated that she needed to see the rental contract, which was not in the paperwork I’d given her.

My heart thumped. She assured me I didn’t have to stand at the back of the line, but I had to go back to the car to get it. As I hurried out, I prayed Sue would know what she was talking about.

After some gut wrenching moments of uncertainty, Sue finally remembered the contract, and where it was. I grabbed it and ran back to the little building. The lady noted that our signature wasn’t on it, but accepted it anyway.

Next it was Chile’s turn. We held our breath as they searched our car for smuggled fruits, meat, and indigenous artwork —  don’t ask me why that’s not allowed into Chile — and finally, four hours after we arrived, we drove freely into Chile. But the day was still not over.

Look for Polly’s next perils in next week’s Recreation section.