La Carretera Alta, Part 9 – Hope Springs Eternal

Hark, all ye would-be overlanders! Heed my warning most dire – when purchasing Compulsory Third Party Insurance for Argentina, ensure you organise the purchase at least two weeks in advance.

During La Carretera Alta, we’ve visited seven different countries and had approximately zero problems acquiring the obligatory insurance for each of them. Some countries, such as Peru, allow you to purchase the insurance at the border, or failing that, to enter the country without it and proceed to the nearest vendor. Others, such as Bolivia, don’t require it at all.

But Argentina is a different beast, as we discovered the hard way. As an extranjero with a non-Argentine vehicle, you cannot:

  1. Purchase the insurance at the border
  2. Enter the country without insurance
  3. Purchase the insurance online, or
  4. Purchase the insurance from a vendor in a neighbouring country.

Your only option is to engage a broker, who will charge you extra for the service and will require anywhere from 3 to 10 business days to finalise the paperwork. Unfortunately, we knew nothing of this, having assumed that the process would be just as simple as it had been IN EVERY OTHER COUNTRY ON THE CONTINENT.

But I digress. The upshot is that instead of driving a mere 100km from Socaire, Chile, to the Argentine border, we embarked on a 1500km odyssey to a crag called Las Chilcas, 80km north of Santiago. Here, we reasoned, was a more hospitable place to lay up than in the San Pedro region, where prices are exorbitant and the locals are not particularly friendly toward climbers.

With haste, we made our exodus, but neither we nor Google Maps had foresaw the interruption of our west-bound route. At some point, the construction of a vast salt mine had displaced the highway and substituted a violently corrugated detour in its stead. This short but brutal segment of road was the death knell for La Tortuga’s beleaguered suspension.

The van handled strangely throughout the drive, but at the time, I put it down to road conditions. It wasn’t until we reached Las Chilcas that we noticed that the car had developed a significant lean. Further inspection revealed a broken rear spring, snapped roughly in half but still somehow functional. Since we’d already covered perhaps half of the country on it, we figured a couple hundred kilometres more couldn’t hurt, so we delayed our visit to the mechanic.

After a short but enjoyable stay at Las Chilcas, we made our first enquiries at the nearby town of San Felipe. The mechanic told us that we’d need to go to Santiago for the parts, but a visit to the capital also failed to bear fruit. Despite the proliferation of Toyota parts stores, the spring that we needed didn’t exist in Chile. We could order the part, but it would take 21 days to arrive and cost about $700 a throw.

There are many things I would prefer to do than spend three weeks in a big city like Santiago, including but not limited to such horrors as shitting razor blades or listening to U2. Instead, I got on the blower to my friend Cesar, who had recently moved from Coyhaique, a large town in the southern reaches of Chile, to Temuco, a small city located roughly in the centre of the long, thin nation. He knew a guy, he said, and would make enquiries for us.

In the meantime, we were researching shipping options of our own, none of which seemed particularly speedy, but were at least a cheaper than the price we’d been quoted at the store. Best case, we were looking down the barrel of a 10-day wait for the parts to arrive, followed by a day or two for the fitting.

The red line is where we planned on driving… The blue line is where we actually drove

But Cesar had some good news. We can get the part, he told me. Easy. Come on down. So we drove another 600km to Temuco, eventually finding ourselves in a small parts store where the clerk unceremoniously dumped a pair of shock absorbers on the counter.

“Ahh, those aren’t what we need, dude,” I told him. “We need springs. Espirales.”

“Oh man, I’m sorry. I feel so bad,” he apologised. “I fucked up the translation! But don’t worry, we’ll find them.”

I was sceptical. From the start, the whole deal had felt too good to be true. On this continent, such transactions are never as straightforward as that. Simply walking into a store, finding what we needed, paying money for it, then leaving with the purchase just didn’t feel South American enough.

Of course, none of the other automotive stores had the part either, but one did give us a lead on a place which could possibly make the part for us. Yes, you read that right – make the part, as in manufacture it from scratch. They gave us an address on the other side of town which turned out to be a legit, old-school foundry, complete with forges, bellows, and blacksmiths striking red-hot iron in heavy leather aprons. I felt like I was in a Dickens novel.

One of the blacksmiths, a quiet but earnest man with a large stature and steel-rimmed glasses, rummaged around in the back of the factory until he found the part we needed. But the adventure didn’t end there, because although the spring was suitable in diameter, it was too tall to fit our vehicle. We’d need someone to cut and mount it. It’s an easy enough job, really – circa 2000, every man and his dog was chopping the springs on some shitbox like a Mistubishi Mirage in homage to The Fast and the Furious. But we didn’t have the tools, or the know-how, or Vin Diesel. But once again, our friend knew a guy, and we ended up in a small workshop where they cut and fitted the spring the following day.

So I guess the message here is this – if you ever plan on overlanding South America, know that problems will arise. When they do, be flexible, be persistent, and be prepared for the solution not to come from left-field, but from outside the field entirely.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
November 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?