Saturday, October 26, 2013

Misadventures in Transportation and Border Crossings


My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

Disclaimer:  This post is not intended as a complaint, but simply to show the realities and some lessons learned in long-term travel.  As much as I would like to show only the amazingly, incredibly wonderful things I'm seeing and experiencing, I feel it's important to also show some of the not-as-fun stuff that is necessary to navigate.

October 20th started off normally enough.  My friend Stephanie and I had just celebrated our respective travel anniversaries on the 19th by upgrading ourselves to the 'nice' hotel in town, Hotel Mitru, where $10 (more than double the cost of our previous hostel) will get you half of a double room with a bathroom next door, a massive breakfast in the morning with actual eggs, decent wifi (in the lobby), and - most importantly - a pool.  This is why Bolivia is sometimes kindof amazing.  The next morning we had planned on getting up and going to the bus station to buy tickets for the 10:30 bus to the town at the border with Argentina.  I somehow woke up early (incredibly, it appears that my biological clock works while I'm traveling, as I frequently wake up right at 6:30, then turn over until about 7:30 or 8), and took a nice, hot shower before we left, noticing the light going out while I was in there, but not thinking much of it.

Happier times in Tupiza:  celebrating a one-month travel anniversary with a relaxing afternoon at the pool!

We went to the bus station around 8:15, where we learned that the 10:30 bus we had checked out the day before doesn't actually run on Sundays, and we could take a minivan at 9 or 12 instead.  Stephanie hadn't been having as great a run of the last few days, both picking up a cold and being attacked by bed bugs at our first hostel, so I suggested we take the later bus so we could enjoy our nice, big breakfast and she could get a shower, but we didn't actually make our decision until breakfast (so, no tickets in hand).  We also realized when we got back to the hotel, that that lightbulb going out was the power going out, so there was no wifi when we returned to check things like train and bus schedules.  We returned to the bus station just after 11, ready to go, and learned that the minivan at noon was now sold out.  Wonderful.  We wound up finding a collectivo (think, larger-than-average taxi) to the border town of Villazon. The taxi was about the size that you'd put 6 adults, maybe 8 for a short trip, including the driver.  We managed to pack in 9 adults and a child (I was crammed into the way back in between Stephanie and a Bolivian man chewing on coca leaves), plus we filled up the back with containers of gasoline (safe!), because the power was actually out in the entire town, and the driver couldn't get gas at the gas station.  Over an hour later, we arrived in Villazon, where, over lunch, we noticed the power was also out here.

More happier times in Tupiza:  horseback riding through the gorgeous red mountainous landscape.

We walked the 6 blocks to the border crossing, managed to locate the immigration office, and stood in line.  We both got our Bolivian exit stamps without any problems, and Stephanie breezed through the Argentinian entry.  I, on the other hand, needed to pay a reciprocity fee of $160 (yay being American!), and I was supposed to have done so online in advance.  Now, the mandatory online thing is relatively new (as in, since my travels have started), but I did happen to run across it on, and I did happen to visit the website I was directed to, and I couldn't locate the place to pay the fee anywhere.  It didn't help that the website is entirely in Spanish.  I figured since it was new, I could just pay cash at the border.  I assumed wrong, of course.  No, you can't pay in cash.  I'm sorry, we can't let you in.  Try going back to Bolivia to pay. (I'm sure waltzing back into Bolivia after receiving an exit stamp with no other entry stamps wasn't going to be a breeze, and remember how the power is out?  That.)  Now stuck in border purgatory, I had no idea what to do… I was furious with myself for not trying harder to pay the fee online, I felt terrible making Stephanie wait around for me, and I wasn't exactly happy with the super not helpful border agents who just shrugged their shoulders when I asked if there was any way I could get online somewhere nearby or use their phone.  Thankfully, right as I was hitting the meltdown point, a man behind me offered for me to use his iPhone to access the website.  Unfortunately, the office had a signal jammer, and it took about 10 minutes for the website header to even load.  I noticed a customs agent using an iPhone and ran up to him to see if I could use his, and one of his friends whisked me across the street to an office (still part of the immigration office) where he guided me through the website (which was still a navigational challenge for him) to pay the fee, and he printed off my receipt, me saying "muchas gracias" at least 87 times.  Fee paid and receipt printed, I was able to get my stamp so we could continue.

The result of a lot of unnecessary stress. 

Having no pesos between us at this point, and both exhausted, we wandered into the Argentinian border town of La Quiaca, eventually locating the bus station, where we planned on buying tickets to Salta.  We had lost an hour entering Argentina, and as we compared (and balked at) prices, we essentially missed the set of buses leaving right then, and would need to wait until 7 or 8 to get a direct bus, putting us into Salta sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning.  Feeling sick and exhausted, Stephanie noticed a sale on tickets directly to Buenos Aires, where she had been planning to go to visit a friend and eventually meet her boyfriend in a few days…. and decided to take it.  I couldn't blame her, while the bus ride would be long, she would be able to relax and recover for a few days with a friend before her boyfriend arrived.  It just put me now in the position of 1) traveling alone on a late-night bus, and 2) unsure if I wanted to go to Salta or just continue on myself and get straight to Cordoba.  

I decided on going straight to Cordoba when the seemingly nice guy at the Fletcha bus counter told me I could get there with only one 30-minute bus exchange in Jujuy, the rest of the way on a full cama (seats that fully recline to roughly 160 degrees - and these buses tend to be much nicer in general), which would cost me about $100 and take about 12 hours.  He processed Stephanie's ticket to Buenos Aires and started working on mine.  Except now he said it looked like he couldn't get me direct from Jujuy to Cordoba, I would need to make a stop in Tucuman now.  But no worries, it would only take 30 minutes again.  Easy.  But then he started saying maybe 18 hours to get there.  Because of all the potential stops in between La Quiaca and Jujuy for custom checks (which I had read was a valid thing, but really, six extra hours for this?).  I started getting suspicious.  Oh, also since now I was going to take two separate buses, if I wanted both to be cama, it was going to cost a bit more.  Only about $16 more, but still.  With all of the changes he was throwing at me, coupled with exhaustion, coupled with my friend leaving and everything that had happened that day, I had an absolute meltdown.  Big fat tears started pouring down my cheeks, and I felt myself crumpling.  Then he told me I needed to make the decision quickly or I was going to lose the seats.  Some other guy in the office asked if I was having problems with my boyfriend (in Spanish).  "Nope, just with Argentina", I muttered. "I am NOT translating that", Stephanie replied.  I told the guy to go ahead and book the tickets, and he ran off, as I tried to pull myself back together.  He returned with a series of tickets printed out.  They all looked different, and the second ticket said 08:00 on it.  "Ocho mañana?" I say ("Eight in the morning?"). And he says, nooooo, and starts writing things down.  Arriving at 2 am, wait 30 minutes, then 2:30 my bus leaves.  I continue to question the times on the tickets, every alarm bell screaming in my head.  Between the guy and Stephanie translating for him, I continue to be reassured that everything will be fine, I'll only have easy 30 minute switches between buses, and it will be easy if not slightly inconvenient to switch buses in the middle of the night.  Despite my instincts, I go along with the plan, finally joining Stephanie at a hotel restaurant a block away, where we use the wifi to quickly update loved ones on our plans, drink Submarines, and enjoy buttered croissants.  Then around 9:15 I run back up to the bus station, grab my bag, and board the bus.

The bus itself was fine, my seat was comfortable enough, we weren't stopped too many times by the border patrol (though one did make me get out my passport and inspect it very closely), and I got some reading done while an interesting looking French movie (dubbed in Spanish, of course) played.  We arrived in Jujuy around 2:15, and I knew immediately that my instincts were right.  I went directly to the Flecha bus office, and the woman confirmed that yes, I was on an 8am bus.  By another company.  Oh, and my third ticket (actually on a Flecha bus) wasn't actually leaving until 11:30pm the next evening.  Meltdown time again.  I begged her to check any of the other buses (no room), and I actually ran around to the other bus companies to check and see if any of them had any room.  Nope.  Back at the Flecha woman, she shook her head and conveyed to me (mostly through Spanish and hand gestures) that everyone in the La Quiaca station will tell anyone anything to sell a ticket.  At least this woman seemed genuinely sweet and concerned - she let me leave my bag in the office, she helped me change my third bus ticket to a much earlier option (which would have been cheaper had it been booked that way originally, as it was semi-cama instead of cama), saving me roughly 7 hours in "bus station layover" time, and she helped translate for me with the office for my second bus, directing me where to go when the time came.  Fortunately, there was a 24-hour 'diner' (I use the term diner loosely, as it it was basically an open-air bar with a flat-top grill that served three types of sandwiches and served Coke, Sprite, water, and beer), where I was able to post up for the next 6 hours, and a sweet little guy working there who did his best to make sure I was looked after (and didn't pass out on the table) and gave me a deal on my sandwich and glass bottle Sprite.  It was around this time that my misadventures in transit became less a terrible ordeal and more something I simply had to continue to get through, as I counted down the hours.

My view from 2am-8am.

When 8am finally arrived, I zombie-walked over to the bus and absolutely collapsed on board.  Thankfully, this was the full cama bus, and the seats were actually big enough that I could fully stretch out my legs.  I put in my ear plugs, threw on my eye mask, and was asleep like the dead for the next two hours.  Then, we stopped.  And changed buses.  This was a highly organized affair, where we all filed off, for some this was their stop, and the rest of us filed onto a nearly identical bus with identical seat numbers, took our places, and our bags were moved over.  This was the type of "bus change" I had actually been promised back in La Quiaca!  I immediately zonked out again, sleeping soundly until we pulled into Tucuman at 2pm sharp.  Tucuman's bus station was nicer than most I've seen, and actually had a nice air-conditioned (air-conditioned!!!) restaurant where I could sit for the next two hours, enjoying a chicken sandwich and even a submarine.  The final bus wasn't too bad, and even at semi-cama I was able to get a few decent naps, some more reading, and some broken conversation with a student from Cordoba sitting next to me.  We stopped numerous times though, and it wasn't until 2am that we arrived in Cordoba (the exact situation I had been trying to avoid by going to Cordoba instead of Salta).  Thankfully, cabs were ready and waiting (with actual meters!) and mine had no problem finding the hostel I had picked out of the Lonely Planet.  The hostel itself was a beautiful space, there were plenty of comfy rooms, and I was able to get a bed with no problem, even at near 3am.  A mere 29 hours after I had departed La Quiaca.

Thankfully, Cordoba has more than made up for my terrible couple of days involved in entering the country.  I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here, something I'll be sure to write about in more detail soon :)


Some other lessons learned in my first month of travel…

  • Always, always carry a roll of toilet paper and some hand sanitizer, everywhere you go, especially in Bolivia.
  • Guidebooks are a good thing to have to get you started and give you an idea of prices in an area.  You should probably keep one on hand.
  • Particularly in smaller towns, it's nice not to have a hostel booked in advance. You never know who you'll meet on the way, and you will probably do better to see the actual condition of the rooms first.
  • Same goes with tour companies.  Unless you're dealing with something that books up well in advance (i.e., the Inca Trail), it can be better to wait until you arrive in the town where the tours leave from to book them.  You don't know what will come up along the way, and you don't know what the conditions of the tour company are until you see them in person.
  • Sometimes it can be much better to book transportation on the fly.  And sometimes that plan will bite you in the bum.  Best case scenario, go to the bus station a day or two in advance and buy tickets at that point.  
  • If the US government travel website tells you in big, bold letters, that you need to pay a fee online and in advance, don't assume that you can pay cash in person.
  • There are people out there who will try and cheat you.  But for the most part, people are good and kind and willing to help out.
  • Always, always, always trust your instincts.  Even if you "feel bad" for holding things up or seemingly causing more work.  Trust. Your. Instincts.

Photography: Bolivia - Uyuni Tour


Bolivia - Uyuni Tour, a set on Flickr.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Touring the Salar de Uyuni & National Reserve in Southern Bolivia

My visit to the Salar de Uyuni and surrounding areas remains one of the most incredible experiences I've been fortunate enough to have in the first month of this year-long adventure… and it wasn't even something I had in mind to visit when I first planned my trip.  Fortunately, I met a number of people along the way who encouraged me to visit Bolivia, especially the salt flats, and after just a bit of research and looking through some friends' photos, I was convinced.  I met my friend Stephanie on a bus to Copacabana, and after traveling around Bolivia for a week together, we decided to make our way towards the salt flats and book a tour together.  We arrived in Uyuni midday on the 14th, having left ourselves plenty of time to find a room for the night and visit plenty of tour operators to compare and select one for the following day.  As it turned out, finding a place to sleep took longer than finding our tour operator!  We settled on Hotel Avenida (double room without bathroom, without heat, without wifi - finding a place with wifi requires a significant increase to your budget in Uyuni - for 35 Bolivianos each (~$5)… not bad considering a hostel down the street wanted 60 for a dorm room without heat, bathroom, or wifi).  

As for finding a tour, we walked straight into the Cordillera Traveller office (which was one of three recommended by our guide books, and was also recommended by friends), were explained in a very straightforward manner the exact path of the trip, what we would see, where we would stay, what was and was not included, and were quoted a price right in line with our expectations.  And when we asked if they would throw in a free sleeping bag rental for each of us, they were happy to.  We probably would have left to compare other operators, but at that moment, a group arrived from the end of their trip, beaming and going on about how wonderful it was, how great the company was, and how we should definitely go with them.  That sealed the deal for us, and we went ahead and confirmed our trip, leaving the rest of the afternoon free to relax and get ready for the next day.

Day 1

Our first day of the tour began by piling into our respective 4x4s and meeting our fellow passengers.  We had six passengers and a driver in each of two cars on our tour.  In mine?  Myself, and five French people (Stephanie, and two couples).  Which was really the only downside of the entire trip… I was in a car that spoke French 90% of the time.  And sadly, I don't speak French.  

Our first stop was the Train Graveyard outside Uyuni, a series of rusted old locomotives that we could climb over and through, that provided great texture for photographs.  Next, we headed over to the real focus of day 1:  the salt flats.  We started in an area where there were giant piles of salt had been created, then moved onto the endless flats.  Stephanie and I took our time posing for goofy photos utilizing the depth of the flats, while all of our fellow passengers looked at us like we were crazy.  Until we showed them the photos, and they were dying to do the same!  

We stayed for about half an hour taking in the unique landscape (white below and blue above, as far as the eye can see) before piling back into the 4x4s to drive to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of volcanic rock in the middle of the salt desert, filled with giant cacti.  We had a full hour to explore, and we quickly scrambled to the top of the volcanic rock, overlooking the almost endless sea of salt below, with occasional 4x4s zipping by, small as ants from our perch.  The view was breathtaking…  

We had plenty of time after our visit to the island to make it to the hotel by dark, so we found another great spot on the flats where the hexagonal shapes created in the ground by the salt were clearly visible, and went about playing (now everyone was in on the goofy photo set ups, so we were getting more creative) for the next hour or so, until the wind became too strong and we were chilled through, with ruddy windblown faces, and enormous grins like schoolkids on a snow day.  Our first hotel was in a spot called San Juan, and the hotel was made almost entirely of salt.  Salt brick walls, salt block tables and chairs, and crushed salt on the floors.  We sat down to a snack of hot drinks and crackers just as the sun was setting, and we wondered where our second carload of passengers were… The question was answered almost two hours later when they stumbled in - their car had actually tipped over (slowly, thankfully, as they had been slowly navigating around a pothole or pile of sand), and our driver had to go and rescue them and their belongings, get them checked out at a doctor (thankfully everyone was fine), and bring them to the hotel.  Yikes!  

Day 2

Day two of our tour began with a long drive through the desert towards Ollagüe Volcano, passing a set of train tracks, and stopping to watch a freight train zip by.  Past the volcano, we stopped in an area with hills of volcanic rock, allowing us the perfect viewpoint of the volcano, where we actually saw some smoke slowly streaming upwards.  Next we made stops at a series of lagoons, water the color of the Caribbean, crystal teal blue, with white areas that we were told were calcium deposits.  Most importantly, these lagoons contained… wild flamingos!!  We were so enthralled watching them, at each and every stop, seeing the various shades of pink, catching a few in flight, exposing their black tipped wings as they soared from one end of the lagoon to the other.  We stayed for a long while, despite heavy, cold wind, at the first lagoon, absolutely enthralled with the flamingos and the wild vicuña - a protected member of the llama / alpaca family that resembled a cross between a deer and a llama.  We sat down for lunch at the third and least populated of these lagoons, eating away as a very persistent seagull sat nearby, stuck to a single spot, staring at us for the entire meal.  He didn't know what to do with himself when we finally started tossing him leftovers!  

We continued our drive through deserts of red sand with tufts of yellow grasses, passing enormous mountain rises on either side in amazing arrays of color - reds and oranges with accents or purple or yellow and green.  We stopped briefly in an incredibly windy area to take in the 360 degree view of the mountains and the deserts, then continued on to a massive volcanic rock boulder field that featured the Árbol de Piedra, or "stone tree", a tornado-shaped, tree-like structure of rock with a slim base expanding out to a triangular funnel shape on top.  We took photos of the stone tree and explored the boulder field - what I wouldn't have given for a pair of climbing shoes and a crash pad!!  One of the other guys in our car was also a climber, so we wandered around trying out the beginnings of some boulder problems, pointing out the fantastic lines and flakes that made up the boulders.  

After tearing ourselves away from the volcanic boulders, our car continued on to the official entrance of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve).  After paying our entrance fee, we drove to another massive lagoon - the Laguna Colorada, which looked absolutely out of this world… The water is mostly rust-colored (not unlike tomato soup), banked by tufts of yellow grass, with a volcano looming in the background, and flamingos dotting the entire expanse of the lagoon.  We stayed there for a long while, taking in the breathtaking landscape.  It was one of those moments where I truly appreciated the choice I had made to pursue this lifestyle, taking this chance to journey around the world.  I had quite a few of those moments of appreciation and awe during this short trip!!

We finished off our second day at a nearby hotel where we enjoyed laughs, stories, and brain teasers with our companion carload (who all arrived safe and sound, thankfully), before turning in to our rooms - each carload shared a single room (six twin beds in each), and the night was absolutely frigid.  I was so thankful for that rented sleeping bag - I slept inside my silk sleeping bag liner, inside the rented bag (which was fleece-lined), in the bed under a pile of wool blankets, dressed in leggings, wool socks, and a merino wool long sleeved shirt, and I was still a bit chilled.

Day 3

We awoke on day three before the sun, and as we got off to a bit of a late start, the sun was just peeking over the horizon as we left, bathing the sky and the surrounding mountains in soft glows of pink and purple and orange.  We continued up to our highest altitude point in the trip - 5000 m (16,404 ft) - to view a set of geysers.  Steam poured from the geysers in the freezing morning air, looking beautiful and eerie in the early morning light, stinking of sulfur.  We didn't stay long due to the cold, but made one more brief stop to photograph some ice fields we kept passing at the altitude.  They were large, thin planes of ice, arranged in rows like gravestones of white and blue.  They were both bizarre and fascinatingly beautiful.

After a quick descent, we rearranged our itinerary a bit (our driver was truly wonderful at arranging our schedule to ensure we had plenty of time at all the best stops while avoiding the other cars and crowds as much as possible, as well as pulling over whenever we begged to take a quick photo of a block of ice, or a llama, or anything else we spotted along the way), and headed straight to Laguna Verde.  This lagoon was a much deeper, more striking shade of dark teal than any of the lagoons we had seen the day before, and the Licancabur volcano was a presence behind it.  

We didn't stay long due to the bitterly cold, high winds, and headed next to the Salvador Dali Desert, so named because of the bizarrely shaped boulders randomly dotting the far end of the red powdery desert, resembling a Dali painting.  By contrast, there was absolutely no wind here (the desert was surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides - some snow-capped, others softly streaked with oranges, reds, and violet), resulting in a pleasantly calm, peaceful spot.  We each wandered off in separate directions, enjoying the quiet as we made our way across the red sand, resembling moon dust with volcanic pebbles along the surface.  

After the Dali Desert, we had a full luxurious hour to enjoy the hot springs, soaking in the hot, refreshing water as we took in the surrounding mountains and lagoons, all to ourselves.  And it was so nice to have been there after all those cold, windy stops earlier!  

We enjoyed a quick lunch back at our hotel after the hot springs, leaving the national park from there to head back towards Uyuni.  Thankfully we still had some gorgeous scenery and fun stops along the way to break up the long drive.  As we left the park, the scenery slowly changed to green, as we wound our way down between two mountains, along a stream flanked by grass and coated with green moss and algae, we spotted dozens of llamas grazing along the roadside.  Eventually we made our way to another large outcrop of volcanic rock, and we happily hopped out of the car to play on the boulders.  A few of these were even small enough to create routes where we could top out!  Though it was a bit challenging to climb boulder problems in trail shoes, we still had a blast finding and working on the small problems.  Aside from quickly pulling over to take a photo of a "llama crossing" sign, we had one last stop before our arrival in Uyuni to wander through the town of San Cristobal for a few minutes.

We made it back to Uyuni safely around 5:30 that evening, said our thank yous and goodbyes, and were able to spend a few hours packing up, grabbing one last dinner with an Australian couple from the other car, picking up postcards and checking emails, before we were off to our next city, Tupiza, where we promised ourselves we would rest and relax.  Though the last few days had been an absolute whirlwind, they were beyond incredible.  I'm certain this little tour will be one of the brightest spots of my time in South America - it's hard to imagine topping some of the things I saw during those three days for some time.  Though who knows, I'm still yet to see Easter Island or Patagonia :)  We'll see!

Photography: Bolivia - Potosi


Bolivia - Potosi, a set on Flickr.