Crossing the Border to Bolivia

Tupiza Travel Blog

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Crossing the border into Bolivia was a rather anti-climactic affair. For days, travellers heading south had regaled me with horror stories of bag searches and 12 hour waits and guide books that I borrowed advised me not to cross alone. I was a bit nervous. I was quickly running out of territory in Argentina and I had yet to find somebody (anybody) to enter Bolivia with. Then a miracle happened. Marie-Claude and I returned from our trip to the Salinas Grandes to find our new room mate, Susanne. Susanne was a delightfully forward German girl who had been studying for the last 6 months in Tucuman and was headed on one last adventure to Bolivia before heading home to Germany. We latched on to each other. The next morning we bid farewell to Marie-Claude and took the bus to La Quiaca. As we neared the border of Bolivia, llamas began to appear and people became scarce, except on the bus where the standees clutched children and jostled for room.

La Quiaca is a border town and we spent as little time in it as possible. We went directly from the bus to a cab (sort of thing) which took us the ten blocks to the border and requested significantly more than the agreed upon fare on arrival.
The border itself was practically deserted, apart from a few soldiers milling about in their green khakis. We had our Argentinian exit stamps within seconds and a few short steps across a bridge and were at Bolivian customs. The man there gave us a form to fill out and stamped our passports with barely a glance. Across to Bolivia in less than 5 minutes and with no hastles I was giddy with astonishment.

Stepping into Villazon (the Bolivian version of La Quiaca) was stepping into a completely different world. The street leading from the border was lined with women in the traditional skirts and bowler hats selling fresh squeezed juice, textiles, electronics, and coca leaves. We headed straight for the bus station and quickly established that despite internet reports there was neither a train nor a bus headed for Uyuni that day. We bought tickets to Tupiza (a place I had never heard of) instead. At the bus station we met two Germans, Jan and Sybille, who were in a similar situation. Susanne marshalled us all into a chicken diner and left the slightly stunned pair in charge of our bags while she and I went in search of Bolivian cash. There were plenty of cambios in the street but we were seeking the prize of an ATM machine. We found the only ATM in town no funcionar and guarded by a stern looking guard who casually pointed his gun at us when we inquired about his charge. We decided a cambio would be a safer option. I passed my Argentinian money through a little window and was handed a huge wad of Bolivian notes worth over 500 Bolivianos or 60 Canadian $. The money was sweaty and crumpled and I felt a bit like I was involved in some illicit drug deal. We returned to the restaurant to find Jan and Sibylle chewing on the carcass of a chicken and pushing dry rice around on their plates. We ordered the fries.

That afternoon, the 4 of us took an overcrowded bus down a bumpy dirt road to the town of Tupiza, 2 hours away. The bus rocked and vibrated so that I feared my flesh would separate from my bones. At the bus terminal in Tupiza we were met by a throng of young women hocking tours and hostels. We decided to go to the Hostelling International hostel and the successful girls proudly accompanied us like prizes down the road. The hostel also offered excursions to the Salar de Uyuni and Jan, Sibylle and I elected to join two Israelis (Zohar and Doran) on the 4 day tour that left the next morning. Susanne did not have time to take the 4 day tour and decided to take a 4x4 to the town of Uyuni the next day instead. I could not get over how cheap the tour was. For four nights acommodation, 4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 3 diners, admission to 2 parks and a total distance travelled of over 1000kms we paid 110$ each. Not included in the price: cigarettes, showers, toilet paper, and Pringles. You know you are in a different world when toilet paper becomes a luxury item like pototo chips! None of the bathrooms here have toilet paper (even in the hostels) you have to bring your own and then you have to remember to throw it in the garbage and not in the bowl.

That evening, Susanne and I walked around the town of Tupiza. It was a beautiful little place with many unexpected things. We saw some disabled children playing wheelchair basketball and we were invited to watch a highschool girls soccer tournament. The playing was terrible but I was extremely pleased to discover that there were sporting oportunities for all kinds of people not just strapping young boys. Everywhere we went, Susanne engaged people in conversation. I was jealous of her Spanish speaking ability and the encounters that it enabled. I resolved to work even harder to improve my fluency.

When we returned to the hostel, we managed to watch the only film that the hostel owned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The shoot out death of the two famoud outlaws is alleged to have happened in a town just a few kilometres from Tupiza but I did not get a chance to visit because my tour left the next day.
The tour was an amazing experience but I think I will write about it tomorrow there is too much to say for one blog entry.
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photo by: wilfredoc2009