Entering Bolivia in many ways feels like a step back in time. Determining what decade we landed in can be a challenge. Many women dress in a traditional pleated skirt, sweater, colorful shawl and a bowler hat. The cars spew out thick black smoke, coughing their way to each destination. The great canyons, saddled horses, and lawless feeling of it all appears like we entered some modern wild west.
The first challenge for any American is getting across the Bolivian border. It is such a pain to travel as an American in South America because almost every country has charged us $140 each as a reciprocity fee. I guess Bolivia was a deal because they only wanted$135 each in pristine bills.
Now here is the catch, no one has dollars. Carmen and I searched Argentina and in Salta they wanted dollars but would not give them. So we arrived to the border at La Quiaca with only $60 and some Argentine pesos to exchange. The casas de cambio are a huge rip off with a 20% exchange loss. And out of the 15 we asked only one had dollars. To our great luck in Villazon we found a cash machine at the far end of the main plaza that gave dollars. We pulled $200, exchanged for $10 more and we had our $270.
We returned to the Visa window and we have it all: application, new passport photos, yellow fever proof and the money. As we discussed our application, the armed guard keeps grabbing at our money saying he needs to examine the bills. We suspected this to be some scam where the guard slips a few twenties away telling us we miscounted or switches them out with fakes. We do our best to ignore him and the subtly unbuttoned gun on his hip. We tell him to go away and not to touch our money because we are dealing with the other officer behind the glass.
Somehow this works! The officer inside counts the bills then two more military outfitted men enter and they too count the dollars. The third man scrutinizes every bill. He scratched at them, examined the watermarks and analyzed every edge and detail of every bill. He rejected $60 showing us the tiny ink dot and 1mm rip are not acceptable. There is major arguing back and forth and we are able to convince them to take the rest in bolivianos with an extra 10 boliviano fee. So much in Bolivia can be handled with an extra 10 bolivianos.
Our mistake was that they then took our money and passports into a closed room we could not see. I expected them to return and ask us to pay again. We waited for 15 minutes which felt like an eternity. Then the three returned with our passports and a colorful new sticker. Whew…finally we can legally enter Bolivia. Still a bit cautious and shaken up we slowly walk across the border from La Quiaca to Villazon.
The next task was to find the bus terminal for tickets to Tupiza. The bus station more or less found us. As we approached, dozens of agents shouted at us “Tupiza! La Paz! Uyuni!” hoping to cram us into their collectivo van. The bus vendors were no different – aggressive and pushy for a sale. We found a bus company that was leaving in ten minutes so we bought a ticket that cost $2 USD for the three hour journey.
We worked up quite the appetite and our throbbing stomach acted us a compass guiding us to the stalls behind the bus station. We found a nice round lady with two shiny teeth and a big smile. She had stewed up some chicken and potatoes over noodles and there was some purple mushy stuff which we think was some other type of potato salad. We ordered two and watched her scoop mounds of slop with her bare hands into plastic containers. We were worried by this, but also very hungry. Our consumption of this food is more of a performance. Five or six dogs gathered around us with patient interest. With speed and grace we shoveled the food into our mouths. A shot of whiskey each is the best anti-sick medicine we have. Two swigs and thankfully we didn’t get sick.
An hour of waiting and another gringa informs us that we should have adjusted our watches. The bus is right on time. We load into the bus, we shove our packs between our legs, and we leave. The three hours bounce by as we sped through paved and unpaved highways. Carmen and I enjoyed the colorfully decorated windshield with swaying llamas, people ornaments and wooden flutes.
Midway through our journey there is a commotion of conversation moving through the center of the bus. The traditionally dressed women next to us are shaking their heads and repeating “shame”, “thief” and “I didn’t know”. We don’t find out the whole story until we get to Tupiza. When we are boarding the bus in Villazon an official looking man boarded and asked the other gringos to put their hand luggage in the overhead. The man put the items above them then moved down the isle. With each placement of a new bag he pulled their stuff to the back. Mid-bus ride they found their bags not above them but behind and open, with cameras gone. Carmen and I escaped with luck.
Tupiza is a cute city with its own set of majestic canyons. We staged Tupiza as a transition to southern Bolivia and a point of embarkation to the four day national park and Salar de Uyuni 4×4 trek. We took some time to enjoy the red cliffs and since we were in the wild west we needed horses.
Bolivia is enjoyably inexpensive. Our horse ride for three hours cost about $15 each, lunch or dinner is about $2 to $5 and transit is a quarter of the cost of Argentina. We were outfitted with leather chaps, a cowboy hat and some mellow horses named Negra and Linda. In single file we trotted deep into the canyon.
The colors and textures were new and exciting. The reds were deeper and more pronounced than Cafayate and the formations more grand mountains than individual rocks. The quebrada de inca starts as two wide cliffs that quickly narrow into a tight slot canyon that used to be an actual transportation path. Our horses slowly walked along the trails they had memorized. My horse was not particularly fond of me because I would insist we stop to take a photo then we galloped to join the group.
Arriving back at the ranch we strolled a little bow legged back into town. On our way we found a market. Supposedly there are thousands of varieties of potatoes across Bolivia and Peru. Here we found at least fifty along with many other tasty looking veggies.
Tupiza allowed us to forget the hassles at the border and enjoy the mellow sense of time amid the carved landscape. We traded in our horses, climbed aboard a jeep and began the off-road trip of a lifetime.