‘You do not have the correct stamp in your passport. You may not enter Argentina.’
The day started in splendid style, we leave our riverside camp spot and begin the rubble-tastic slog up and over the 2,500 metre Paso de Vergara.
The borders here tend to happen in two stages – you get stamped out of one country, then some kilometres later, stamped into the other. I’m not entirely sure who owns the land in between the two, perhaps they share it and use it for inter-country picnics or polo matches on weekends? I can only hope.
On the way up Paso de Vergara, we pull over at the Chilean border. There we greet five guards in uniform who are stood outside, and begin the passport ritual. Among the five amigos is one who speaks some english (his Dad lives in Miami he tells us), and so it becomes a rather lovely border-crossing experience. Despite having the facilities to, the guards don’t make us do the pointless ‘bags through scanner’ ritual, and instead we have extra time to chat politics and weather as Miami-man goes about his paperwork. He hands us back our passports and off we wobble, up the final section of the pass.
After 15km of no mans land, and now zooming down the other side of the pass, the Argentinian border comes into view. I narrow my eyes to focus on what is an unusual sight out the front of a lone immigration building in an orange dusty landscape. I can see a couple of 4×4’s, and two bikes – but they don’t look to be loaded touring bikes, instead just ‘normal’ mountain bikes. We’re two days ride from the nearest town – so I’m a bit perplexed as to where you might pootle to on a ‘normal bike’ from here. As we get closer and move past the cars, I see more bikes laid down on the floor and then… a line of men sat against the wall in the shade. One man for each bike – 18 of them!
As soon as the men spot us, they begin cheering and whooping loudly. I can’t help but smile at such an enthusiastic response to our arrival. We get down off the bikes, and I take a bow, an act which only increases their cheers. They get up off the floor and a hugging and cheek kissing frenzy ensues. They are all shapes and size, tall ones, tubby ones, lean ones, grey ones, smart ones, unshaven ones. This lot look like a real biker gang, and top top it off they are wearing matching kit – their chests adorned with Chilean and Argentinian flags, and silhouettes of men on horseback.
The gang tell us they are on a week-long group tour through the region, and that they ‘have it easy’ – their team includes two support vans, which carry all their food, pick up any stragglers and set up their camp set up each night. They can’t believe that Faye and I are one another’s support vehicles, and so shower us with compliments and supportive comments in broken English. I can’t help but feel a little swell of pride. It’s a nice feeling and I don’t mind standing there lapping it up as my lady-ego gets a full-on massage.
We gather that they are camping here at the border that night, and they soon decide that we simply MUST join them for dinner. One of them is midway through asking me whether we eat ‘just vegetables’ or ‘meat and vegetables’ when a stern looking man in a white polo shirt appears and taps Faye on the shoulder.
He motions for us to follow him into a poky little office like naughty school children. How dare we get caught up in chatting, when we have not yet ‘stamped into’ Argentina?! I find it all a little rude, but I suppose he has a job to do, and so we whip out our passports and fill in some forms to get things underway.
A minute or so later the polo-shirted official places my passport on the desk, saying that all is well, but indicates that there is problem with Faye’s passport. He says she has no exit stamp from Chile. ‘What?!’ I say out loud. I mean, I know Faye is a pro at losing things, but an exit stamp loss would be quite the feat. I take her passport and begin frantically leafing through the pages, but I can’t see the stamp anywhere.
Faye then takes the passport off me and begins looking through herself… she can’t find it either, and I begin to wonder how on earth we have managed to miss something so crucial?! And then I remember Miami-man, and that we were chatting (mostly at him) and he may well have been distracted by our wittering. I mean I saw him stamp MY passport, but I never saw him stamp Faye’s – he just handed me two back and I… assumed. Oh. dear. Assumption. How it always makes an ass out of u and me.
I try to reason with the human in the polo shirt. He’s a young lad with dark brown eyes and a strong jaw line, and midway through my reasoning attempt I decide that he could be quite good looking if he only smiled. His shiny black hair and unwrinkled skin indicate that he can’t be more than 25. I understand he’s trying to do his job, but surely a little discretion is called for here… ‘She came over the border with me, I mean, we’re together, a two. (I mime handing over the passports and stamping and getting them back.) Can you make a phone call to the other border??’
He sits back in his chair, crosses his arms and shakes his head. ‘No.’ Before telling us we will have to go the 15km back to the other border, back over the 2,500 metre pass, get stamped out of Chile and come back again. The idea, although adventurous, does not appeal in the slightest.
‘And you definitely can’t make a phone call?’ I ask again. Thinking it to be slightly ridiculous, and that it would take five minutes for the Chilean men to confirm that two British birds had indeed come through on their bikes a few hours earlier.
The man shakes his head again, but he does at least get up to go and double check with another man, who I assume to be more senior, in the back room. The door is shut firmly behind him, and we hear a mumbled Spanish conversation.
‘I can’t believe he can’t make a phone call to the Chilean guys?’ I whisper to Faye.
‘He can make the phone call, he’s just being a knob.’ Faye, as ever – is spot on. I mean, seriously – what does he think I’m trying to do? Smuggle a 6 ft 1 redhead into Argentina? I know redheads are rare out here, but I’m not sure Faye would go down well on the black market (she’s priceless anyway).
The door swings open once again and the polo-shirted guard emerges from the back room shaking his head. I begin to resign myself to the fact that we may well end up having to do a round trip back to the border. The guard sits back in his chair and casually takes one more idle flick through Faye’s passport. We stand there in stunned silence, letting the reality of the sitution sink in.
Suddenly the man smiles.
Every so slowly, he rocks forwards in his chair and places the passport down on the table, extending his index finger over a small area. There, in the middle of a page he points out the faintest exit stamp I have ever seen! It’s been placed partially over two other stamps and so is hidden by their far stronger ink, and barely visible. We sigh – such a huge sigh. Crisis averted, all is well, and we make a note to now always check our passports have actually been stamped, especially when we are chatting (which is always).
We emerge from the room that has suffocated us for the past 30 minutes and return to the fresh air of the outdoors, where our new friends are waiting for us to regale the story. The two who speak English translate the tale to the rest of the group, who fall silent before erupting into laughter at its conclusion. They think it’s hilarious!! Which of course now, we do now too.
Live track us on the other side of the border, through Argentina here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure
Metres ascended on bikes so far: 54,570m