Crossing the border in a rental car between Argentina and Chile requires planning. It is not likely something you can do casually, on the spur of the moment.
Before you set out, your car must meet three requirements:
1) The license plate number and serial number must be etched into the glass on the side windows
2) You need a letter of permission from the car rental firm for taking the car out of the country
3) You need proof of auto insurance valid in the other country.
Naturally, this has to be handled by the rental company, and they seem to need a few days notice to do it. There may also be a significant charge. In Buenos Aires, I’m reliably told that it would take at least four business days.
Some companies in Argentina are reluctant to co-operate. Budget Rent-a-Car in Buenos Aires told me flatly that they do not permit their cars to go to Chile. A helpful lady suggested that I could drive to Mendoza or Bariloche and then rent another Budget car there, but that would have meant renting two cars at the same time, a costly proposition. It would require me to return at the same border crossing where I entered Chile, which might have inconvenienced me. Worst of all, as I found, the Bariloche crossing is notoriously difficult to get through. I might have rented the second car only to find I couldn’t get across after all.
Avis in Buenos Aires was more devious. They told me that a minimum ten business days was needed to process a cross-border car, knowing that I would be coming in just seven days, a sneaky way of saying what Budget told me up front. I know the process can easily be done in less time because others did, and I believe the Avis people were merely trying to get rid of possible extra work for themselves.
I ended up dealing with Baires Rent-a-Car in Buenos Aires. They did everything I asked, performing all the cross-border work in four days. The host thendemonstrated to me all the steps they had taken so that I would be prepared for dealing with the authorities at the border.
Once you have your windows etched, your letter of permission and cross-border insurance, the real adventure begins.
To leave Argentina, you face four stages:
1) You drive up to a cop in a booth, who notes whether the windows have been properly etched and asks the number of people to go across. Then he gives you a small ticket to fill with stamps from the next two stages.
This stage could take merely seconds, but at the Cardinal Semore Pass, the main crossing that serves Bariloche, around 5 p.m. on an ordinary Monday afternoon in February, we were kept lined up by the police for more than a half-hour for no apparent reason. Undoubtedly the cops knew why, perhaps to control the flow to the busy next two stages, but we were never informed of the cause for the delay.
The next two stages take place in a customs building on the Argentina side of the Andes. Pull into the parking lot, get out of the car and go inside. (Except, that is, at the Uspallata Pass, the main crossing between Mendoza and Santiago, where you just drive-through for everything. At the Uspallata, almost literally in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, they have consolidated some of these steps, saving a lot of time.)
2) You follow the signs for “1° Termite,” or First Step, Immigration. Here, the Argentina border patrol will examine your car papers with a fine tooth comb, looking for the slightest imperfection. They really didn’t seem to want to see us go! Information was punched into computers. We met with fussing as police asked us in Spanish to explain this or that. We did not understand what they wanted, of course, and a superior had to be consulted. Eventually, we were processed through.
3) Then you follow the signs for the “2° Termite” the Second Step, Customs, known as Aduana in Castilian. Officials here wanted to see our car papers again. Once they finished their work, we finally achieved the required exit stamps in our passports. We were now free to head for our car.
4) Leaving the Argentine border post, another cop was waiting to collect the ticket with the stamps we had collected. This is to prove that we actually did clear stages 1, 2 and 3. Now we were cleared for the border!
It’s actually a lot more complicated than this. At the Cardinal Semore Pass, serving Bariloche, the Argentine customs post was utterly chaotic, crammed with hundreds of travelers, with lines of people snaking in every direction and out the doors. No one spoke any English, and while the staff were polite enough, we could not exchange sufficient detailed information to determine whether it would be necessary for us to wait through a whole line, and which line we should enter first, and even where the lines began. The plan I outlined above came after visiting a different border post later.
Entering Chile is then just a matter of driving past the big sign saying, in Spanish, “The Malvinas are Argentine!” and then crossing the imaginary line at the top of the pass. You’re tempted to think you’ve made it, but yet another customs post awaits.
At the Chilean border post, park once again and go inside. Now, deja vu seems to set in as you repeat the stages.
1) “1° Termite,” or First Step, Immigration. More information punched into computers. More police with questions you can’t really answer. The main good thing I can say about all this is that, like a fairy tale, it had a happy ending.
2) “2° Termite,” the Second Step, Aduana all over again. When it is completed, you get the precious Chilean passport stamp.
3) “3° Termite,” the Third Step, Agriculture. In Chile, an official asked to look in almost every bag in our car, searching for the forbidden fruit and other natural products that are prohibited to cross the border. We strongly recommend that if you have any fruits, vegetables, nuts or, perish forbid, meat products, you eat or throw them out well before starting your border crossing odyssey. Since we had already done this, the authorities found no contraband, and at last the fruit patrolman extended his hand, indicating that we were finally free to drive on into Chile.
I mentioned the problem at Cardinal Semore Pass, the main crossing that serves Bariloche and Osorno. After waiting a half-hour at the First Stage just to pick up the unstamped ticket, we came to the Argentine customs post. There were massive lines at each step, nearly a hundred people long for each one! Since the officials seemed to be taking about 10 minutes per person, and only three officials each were allocated to each of the 1° Termite and 2° Termite, I’m going to estimate it would have taken those who stayed about two to three hours to get across. We stood in the 1° Termite line for 20 minutes. It hardly moved. A man standing close to the door was still outside twenty minutes later, and about 50 people were still behind him, all outside the actual building. On top of this, it was showering with a stiff, cold wind. And this was just for the 1° Termite. There was a Second Termite, and after that everything would have had to be repeated in Chile.
We gave up after 20 minutes.
That’s the reason specially renting in Bariloche would have been such a terrible idea. Even with a car authorized to cross, our tourist patience would not have been able to bear the unendurably long wait to get across at Bariloche, unless we were absolutely required to go across. We’d have wasted our money on the second car. Worse, even if we did invest all that time, we would have had to retrace our steps returning from Chile.
We were prepared to abandon our Chile plans entirely. Next day, however, driving north on Route 40 in Argentina, I noticed a nearby border crossing only about fifty kilometers west of Las Lajas, on a paved road with no major city anywhere near. We gave it a try around 6 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and, to our delight, found only one other car going across at the same time.
This crossing, the Pino Hachado Pass, all paved road on both sides except for 4.5 km of gravel road on the Argentine side, is the one that took us about 20 minutes inside the Argentine post and another twenty in the Chilean post, complete with the painstaking agricultural inspection.
Returning to Argentina, we crossed at the Uspallata Pass, connecting Santiago with Mendoza, and if you have any choice this is the one a beginner should start with. At Uspallata the crossing is consolidated, with the 1° and 2° Termites for both Chile and Argentina located together under one roof. Also, the authorities perform all the steps while you wait in your car.
Returning from Chile, we stayed overnight at cabins about 35 km from the border, to be sure of an early start that Sunday morning. We first stopped at a building on the Chilean side. We were supposed to obtain a certain permission from someone, but we seemed to lack a required paper. After some discussion between the official and a supervisor, it seemed to be determined that a rental car from Argentina did not need what they were asking for in Chile, so we were finally waved through anyway.
The consolidated border post for both countries is near the Argentine end of the Christ Redeemer Tunnel, at the entrance to Mount Aconcagua Provincial Park. You first pick up a card with five stamps, then just drive in and join the cars in line.
(Before going through toward Argentina, a stop at Mount Aconcagua is well worth it!)
The first stop, waiting inside your car, corresponds to the 1° and 2° Termites in Chile. They processed things rather quickly, taking merely about five minutes, examining our papers and giving us our Chilean exit stamps. Then about 30 feet ahead is the Argentine side. Same thing. The Argentine 1° and 2° Termites are consolidated, and here the officials seemed familiar with the likes of us. It took about five minutes after we reached the wicket.
Another ten miles down into Argentina is the final stage, where an agricultural inspector is supposed to search us for contraband. Perhaps it was a good morning for us, because the official just glanced in the car, then took our well-stamped ticket and waved us on our way.
We did all this about 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I have no idea whether the crossing would have been so expeditious if we'd waited until afternoon or crossed on a weekday.
Incidentally, guide books say that we’re supposed to pay a US$3 toll to use the Christ Redeemer Tunnel, and another US$2 inspection fee to drive through a pan of disinfectant. Nothing like this happened. No tolls. No fees. Not even any disinfectant, either in Argentina or Chile.
(Further incidentally, in Argentina, there IS disinfectant and a fee to pay when you drive south of Bahia Blanca from the Pampas into Patagonia. But not at the international boundary.)
I hope this article may be of help to those interested in driving across the border in South America. All too often on sites like Trip Advisor, we see questions answered only with fear mongering and those who say that since they haven't done it, it can't be done. It can be. I'd be delighted to help further. You have only to ask.