Old restored building in Tarija
When the bus from Paraguay dropped me off in Villamontes I found my way to what they consider to be the bus terminal and quickly found out that there were no buses to Tupiza as my guide book indicated. First, I would have to go to Tarija and from there I could get a bus to Tupiza, from where I could do the four day tour of the southwest of Bolivia to Uyuni. Unfortunately, there were no buses during the day to Tarija and I had to wait around all day in Villamontes until almost 7pm for a bus to take the ten hour trip.
The city of Tupiza from the Jesus statue viewpoint
With the whole day to spend in Villamontes I began wandering around the town and found a musuem about the Chaco war with lots of random artifacts from the battles such as old guns and knives, maps of the battle plans, even old vehicles riddled with bullet holes. There was also an old church that was closed right nearby. Walking back through town I found a huge market going on with lots of little street stalls and fruit and vegetables. I sat down at one that looked good and had some chicken and rice for four bolivianos and then found a woman grilling sausage on the street and had a sausage sandwich which was very good. For my bus ride I also bought some homemade cheese and some bread and tomatoes all for about one dollar. There wasn't anything else to do in the town so I mostly sat around and waited until it was time to have a little dinner before the ten hour bus ride.
Cerro Elefante, it's there just use your imagination
When I finally loaded my stuff onto the bus and got on I found that it was probably the worst bus that I had been on for any type of distance. The seats were so small and closely grouped together that I had very little leg room. It was also a journey on an entirely unpaved dirt road so it was fairly bumpy. After I managed to doze off for a little bit and let my guard down the woman in front of me took advantage and put her seat back and then I really had no room. The bus stopped for dinner at around 9pm and I got to have some empanadas that this woman was rolling out directly on a table and then handing them to the man who was frying them in a pot of oil heating over a sawed in half 55 gallon drum with a wood fire burning inside. Pretty tasty but definitely rustic.
Cactus and the red rock canyons around Tupiza
A short while later we were right back on the bus and I was uncomfortably trying to get some sleep. I managed to doze off for a bit, twisting and turning every so often to stretch out a bit. At some point I woke up in the middle of the night to get some water from my bag that was resting on the floor and found that the floor was somewhat damp. I didn't think anything of it and went right back to sleep. I woke up again a few hours later in the now hot and humid bus, probably at around 2:30am to find that the floor was completely covered in freezing cold water and the entire outside of my bag and the Paraguayan newspaper that was in the bottom were soaked with water and there was a slightly salty and fishy smell in the air. I checked under my seat to find a huge black garbage bag filled with, you guessed it, frozen or now defrosting fish.
The view of Tupiza from Cerro Elefante
I guess it's my fault for putting my bag on the floor, as I always do, I should have assumed that someone would be transporting a giant bag of frozen fish in the bus.
We arrived in Tarija at the lovely hour of 4am. After wandering around what passes for their bus station I found someone to ask about buses to Tupiza, since all the offices were closed. And lucky me, there are only night buses to Tupiza, even though it is only 8 hours away. I didn't really want to stay in Tarija as the scenery is pretty similar to Tupiza and about the only attraction there are the wineries, and wineries are wineries. The only decent option was to get a hotel room for 8 hours or so and get some sleep and then wander around the town. I did just that and found the town to be pretty nice, with a good little market where I had a great lunch of beef milanesa, rice, and mashed potatoes for 7 bolivianos. It was Sunday so most everything was closed but there was some kind of fair going on with some rides and games by the river that was crowded with people, although the rides looked a bit like death traps. There were also extensive playgrounds, basketball courts, and dirt soccer fields where all the kids were playing. I had some dinner and got back to the bus terminal in time for my 8pm bus to Tupiza.
This bus wasn't quite so bad as the last one, but unfortunately it was my third consecutive overnight bus so I was pretty tired. We stopped at some remote little mountain town for dinner at around 9pm or so and everyone immediately got off to go to the bathrooom, most of the older women walked about thirty feet from the bus and squated right down in the dirt parking lot while the men went up against the wall right nearby. I managed to sleep a bit before we finally arrived at about 4am to some frigid temperatures as the trip consisted of an altitude gain of 3000 feet, from 6000 to 9000 feet. I wandered the few deserted streets of the town looking for somewhere to stay and finally found the hotel that I was looking for. I rang the bell and the guy answered and told me that unless I wanted to pay for another night I had to wait until 6am to get a room. He said that I could sleep on the couch in the lobby for the hour and a half, which was a pain but I was pretty tired and didn't want to go back out in the cold anyways.
I spent the day walking around Tupiza with another good meal at the market there. I talked to two different tour places for the four day trip to Uyuni and found that the prices were the same so I decided to go with the one that already had four people for the trip leaving on Wednesday. That left me another whole day to do some hiking around Tupiza. I decided to hike up to Cerro Elefante, a mountain that is supposed to resemble an elephant, although that takes a bit of imagination. The beginning of the trail was well marked but after that it deteriorated a bit and I ended up following some animal trail, likely a trail made by some of the native medium sized cat species, that took me around the backside of the mountain and forced me to follow some dry river beds and then scale some rocky hillsides to get up to the hill. When I finally got to the top of the hill I found that I was not on top of the one I expected but the slighlty lower peak just to the side. Even now, I have no idea where the actual trail went, I thought that I saw part of it zig-zagging up the slope but I couldn't trace it anywhere. I was satisfied with the views from the top of the red rock cliffs bordering the one side of the town and the higher and various colored mountains on the far side, excellent desert scenery complete with cactuses of all different sorts.
When I got back to town I decided that it was about time that I actually looked into changing my return flight home as it was scheduled for the end of June from Trinidad and Tobago, not exactly a realistic amount of distance to cover in one month. I found the one computer in town that had Skype and called up British Airways to change the date of the ticket, since that was supposed to be free. After some extensive time on hold the woman informed that all flights out of Trinidad, the one that they have per day to Miami, were completely booked for the months of July and August. So then I asked her to check Caracas. No luck. Maracaibo. Nothing as well. Then I told her that I was traveling around South America and needed to fly back from somewhere in the northern part of South America at the end of July or beginning of August, so if they had anything from Guyana, French Guyana, Suriname, Colombia, or Ecuador that would be great. After another fifteen minutes on hold she managed to find a flight out of Bogota in the beginning of August. There were some problems with the taxes and I was put on hold again. At this point it had been a thirty minute phone call and the interenet place was filling with people and slowing down considerably. When she finally came back on saying it was going to be a $70 change fee and $30 extra in taxes and asking how I wanted to pay, Skype dropped the call. I tried to get back on but the internet was too slow. By the time I got to a landline, since I didn't want to lose the flight, the office was closed. Great luck. The next morning before my tour to Uyuni left at 9am I managed to scramble around and find an open and working phone that actually connected to finish the transaction, albeit at a cost of about 60 cents a minute. With that, the end of my trip is in sight, although there is still plenty of distance to travel and things to see, first and foremost the Salar de Uyuni and the southwest of Bolivia.