As Mike Tyson might say, We're going into Bolivian

Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
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Trip End Aug 30, 2011


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Where I stayed
Hotel Mitru Anexo

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, July 15, 2011

Apologies in advance for the length. You have my permission to skim. As Josh (and others) have pointed out, brevity is not one of my strengths. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this post is worth very close to four pictures.

First of all, southwest Bolivia is amazing! They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but some places can't really be expressed in a thousand pictures. Bolivia is one of them. We took almost that many, but still didn’t come close to representing the sheer awesomeness of this area of Bolivia.

We had another interesting bus journey, this time to Tupiza, in southwest Bolivia. The overnight bus from Salta to La Quiaca on the Argentinean side of the border was quite cold again, but this time we were prepared for that, having dressed in multiple layers and brought along our hats and other warm clothes. We were sitting in the front seats on the top, having successfully avoided the ones near the baņo. I like it in front up there, even though it was night and the only view was what was illuminated by the headlights, you are surrounded on three sides by windows and feel kind of like you are flying through the countryside.

The first half of the 7 hour journey passed without incident, but sometime after about 4am, a very loud buzzer started going off for no apparent reason. The buzzer was accompanied by a red light on a panel on the front wall of the bus. The sound was loud, grating, and insistent. The buzzer would go for completely random amounts of time – 4 seconds, 10 seconds, 35 seconds at a time. Sometimes it would stop for 1 or 2 seconds, only to immediately start again, so you could never really relax or know that it was done. It was as if it was a 'door ajar’ warning for a door that was blowing in the breeze. Or as if a kid was playing with the switch in the driver’s cockpit. It was horrible.

I don’t know if this is a normal part of bus operations – it’s certainly the first time we experienced it – but we couldn’t understand why someone who spoke Spanish didn’t go down and complain to the stewardess guy who tended the bus. No one moved a muscle. Even the when the baby in the row behind us was awakened by the miserable sound and added his crying to the mix, his parents didn’t do anything. So maybe it’s normal. I don’t know.

So we got off the bus in La Quiaca (elevation 9,500 feet), at about 6:45am, we were surprised for a couple of reasons. First, the bus wasn’t supposed to arrive until 8, so we had somehow come in an hour early, and second, the temperature was like a punch in the face. It was cold! Even though we had travelled 8 hours directly north, and were now in fact in the tropics, having passed the Tropic of Capricorn, because we had started climbing into the high desert of southwest Bolivia the nights got that much colder. Obviously, both deserts and mountains have cold nights, but deserts also have hot days. Combine them, and you get this region of Bolivia. It got to nearly 70 a few days around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, but then would start dropping precipitously just before sundown and go to 15 or so at night.

So getting off this bus was a rude awakening. We joined up with two younger British guys who had packed even worse than us ("This is my only pair of trousers!" one of them said, gesturing to the jeans he was wearing.) and grabbed a cab to the border. At the border we had to wait in a long line outside to get out of Argentina, but we made it through in about 40 minutes without incident and walked across the bridge to Bolivia.

As US citizens, we needed a visa to get to Bolivia, but you don’t have to get it ahead – you can just pay and get the appropriate stamps at the border. The cost is $135 (USD) per person. Like Brazil, this is apparently in retaliation for a similar fee the US charges Bolivian citizens. Anyway, we had brought USD for this purpose, as well as some extra for our special stash – and it’s a good thing we did.

After filling out the forms, I gave the guy three crisp $100 bills. He held them up the light and examined them each very carefully and gave one back to me. He spoke some Spanish that I didn’t understand, but I figured out that he wasn’t going to take that one and I needed to give him something else. The bill looked perfectly fine to me – watermark and everything, but he was insistent. So I went into the stash and pulled out four twenties. He examined these even more carefully and pointed to a tiny tear in the plain border on the edge of one of the bills. I said, yeah, that kind of thing happens, the bills get used. It doesn’t mean it’s not legal tender. He said a lot more Spanish to while gesturing to this tiny, tiny tear, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to accept this bill either. So we opened up K’s secret stash and looked through for perfect, straight-from-the-mint bills. We found another twenty and he accepted it. After passing our passports back and forth about five more times, they stamped them and gave them back and we were in Bolivia!

We grabbed another taxi up the hill to the bus station to look for a bus to Tupiza. As we walked up we saw a line of taxi-like cars and we were offered a ride in a car for 25 Bolivianos (BOB) each. BOB are 7 to 1 with the dollar, so this was less than $4. We had read horror stories about this bus ride being slow, bumpy, and cold, as well as costing 15BOB each. So for the extra $1.50, we said yes and jumped in the car with the driver and two Bolivian passengers.

As we rode north out of town, though, the road was nicely paved and not crazy at all. It looked very new, so I guess that has changed since what we had read. Our driver sped along at a pretty good speed and we started to thaw out, although he refused to turn the heat on for some reason. So we thought we were in for a smooth ride.

However, we soon learned that the road was so new, that sections of it were not complete. These sections were being worked on and crude dirt tracks had been roughly carved out of the countryside beside the roadway. I’m pretty sure these were our driver’s favorite sections. He treated them like he was in a rally car race – not slowing down a bit he would head off to the right or left, most of the time we would fishtail as we turned onto the dirt section of road and then he would continue at that pace for the duration of the dirt section. In a few cases, the section of road that was being worked on was a bridge, which meant that our makeshift section went through – yes, through – a river or stream. He did not hesitate at these either, but just plunged through. It is dry season here, so none of these rivers were more than say 10 inches deep, but we were not in a truck or SUV, but some kind of Toyota station wagon, so it was still a bit unnerving to start to nod off to sleep as the car sped along on smooth pavement only to be suddenly and terrifyingly shaken awake as the car veered off unto a bumpy dirt path and through a river without missing a beat. The Bolivians slept through the whole thing.

We made it to Tupiza in just over an hour and we headed off to look for a hotel. We were both a little fed up with lack of sleep on overnight buses, etc., so we headed straight for the Hotel Mitru, the nicest hotel in Tupiza (180 BOB or about $17). They had rooms for the night, but we couldn’t check in immediately, so we headed to the Mitru Annexo (2nd nicest hotel here – 150 BOB), where they could take us right away and we could get a hot shower and a nice morning nap, and we did just that.

Our first day was pretty relaxing. We just wandered around the little town of Tupiza, got money. There are no atm’s in Tupiza, you have to get a cash advance from the bank on your credit or debit card. While we were in the bank, we also changed some more dollars to Bolivianos, and the teller also refused the $100 that had been rejected at the border, but she was able to explain to us the it was because its serial number started with a CB. We googled it later and found that Bolivia and a bunch of other countries refuse to take CB bills because of counterfeiting of these notes a while ago. They are still good in the US, of course, but no use to us on this trip.

After that we explored booking our tour of the Southwest Circuit and the Salar de Uyuni. We had planned to come from the south and start our tour in Tupiza so that we could see the whole southwest of Bolivia, as opposed to just the Salar. Starting from Tupiza, as opposed to Uyuni, you start out going south and see various volcanoes, lagoons of different colors due to the strange mix of minerals in them, hot springs, and various other things that you don’t see nearer to the Salar.

However, as we found when we began doing research with the various tour agencies, due to unseasonably cold weather, even for winter (One tour operator told us that it was getting down to -25 degrees at night in some places to the south. She was talking in degrees Celsius, but that is right around the inflection point where Fahrenheit and Celsius are equal, so that’s cold.), and the snow that had just fallen in the passes to the south, the park authority had closed that part of the park for 10 days and only 2 of those days had passed. So we weren’t going to be able to do the 4 day, 3 night trek through the southwest of Bolivia.

Luckily, she had a suggestion for an alternate trip. We would start by doing “the Triathlon” around Tupiza, which has lots of cool scenery right around it. The Triathlon consisted of a jeep tour to a few sites, then a hike through a canyon, then a horseback ride in another canyon, then a jeep ride up a mountain and bike ride back down the mountain. I know that’s more than three things, but it was called the triathlon anyway. The following day we would head up to Uyuni and the Salar and stay in a salt hotel, the day after that, we would hike up a volcano bordering the salt flat, and the third day we return to Uyuni and get dropped off. It sounded pretty good to us, so we booked it. Where we were heading it was getting down to minus 10, which is about 15 degrees Fahrenheit – quite cold, but we rented sleeping bags and she assured us that all of the hotels would have two woolen blankets, so we would be prepared.

In order to make absolutely sure we would be prepared for the temperature, we stopped by the Tupiza market and did some shopping. Our Spanish is getting good enough that we can often understand the prices when we ask “Quanto?” We purchased a new hat, a thick pair of long-underwear type pants, a hot pink Bolivian style blanket/scarf/stuff carrier (depending on how you tie it), two pairs of thick socks, and a blue scarf. All of this except for the blue scarf was for K-money, who hates being cold and was terrified that she would freeze after meeting with the woman, except for the blue scarf. And all of it together cost less than $15! Bolivia is amazingly cheap.

The next day (Friday) was our triathlon. We started out in two trucks. Ours was a big Lexus with three rows of seats and it was a nice car. The other truck was a Toyota Land Cruiser – also nice, but not quite the equal of the Lexus, as we would soon find out. In our truck was us, a driver, and two other Americans – Jake and Karen, from California. The first, and still only, other Americans we met in Bolivia. In the other truck was a couple from Slovenia named Petr and Maja.

We set off and started to get to know our trip mates. All four of the others would also be joining us for the three day Salar trip we were starting the next day. We drove to a lookout south of Tupiza and had to hike across a small wooden plank bridge over one river and a long railroad bridge over another to see the rock formation that we came to see. It was a long bridge, and although tin or some sheet metal had been laid down between the tracks to fill in the spaces between the railroad ties, that was a long time ago and there were plenty of holes now where you could look down and see the rushing water of the river. Luckily, the train only runs twice a day here, and we all went across and back safely.

After that we headed back to Tupiza to grab the food for our lunch and then headed out again in the opposite direction. We went up into the mountains to a really cool lookout where you had a great view of the the riverbed, other mountains and the whole scene. We got some cool jumping photos there. Then we went to a long canyon and hiked up it. After that, the driver said did we want lunch then or to see another site first? We said another site, so we headed off in our two truck caravan.

We came down the mountain and left the road and started driving in the riverbed. As I mentioned when we were in Argentina, it is the dry season here, so this immense riverbed, often two or three hundred meters wide was fairly empty. There were certain places where what little water remained had eroded a deeper channel and still flowed like a smaller river, meandering to and fro in the larger riverbed. In this place, there was more water than some other places and there were actually four or five different channels that the water was running down.

We had to cross all of them, so we zoomed across the first one. Already having gone through rivers the previous day in a Toyota station wagon, I was not fazed and going through the first few, which were no more than a foot deep and maybe 10-15 feet across.

Then we came to the main channel. Our driver hesitated, braked and turned the truck to what must have looked to him like a more likely crossing. This should have been a red flag. This was the same 15 year old driver (at least that’s how old he looked) who had fearlessly sped around blind mountain curves, sheer drop to the left, rock wall to the right, on a road that was barely wide enough for two cars to pass without a single sign of hesitation, nervousness, or even caution, sometimes while texting. But this river made him noticeably hesitate. This made me nervous.

At the new crossing, we turned towards the river and plunged in. Before we went in, I couldn’t tell how deep it was, but I could see that it was 30-40 feet across and the water was really flowing quickly. As we went through it, I was looking out the side of the truck and water kept rising. The Lexus is a tall truck, but the water covered the runner and started coming up the door. We all got very nervous as we watched the water climb the side of the truck. As we approached the other side of the river, which was quite steep, the driver floored it, and we climbed up and out of the river. The water had come up maybe 6 inches above the bottom of the door, so the middle of the river was probably almost 3 feet deep. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

We continued on and crossed a few more small channels, almost getting stuck in some muck one time. Then the truck stopped and we all looked back. The other truck – the Toyota – was stuck at what looked like a precarious angle in the deep channel. Our driver got out, told us to stay in the truck, and ran back. We weren’t about to stay there while the other truck got washed away. At least we needed to get some photos of it.

We ran over there. We had to jump over/in a few small rivers to get there. About halfway there, the driver of the other jeep started yelling to us in Spanish and making a strange motion with his arms – like he brought them up over his head and then sent them down in front of him. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but it sure looked like he was telling us to stay away. Then someone yelled in English that he was urging us to come and help push the truck out of the river. I have no idea what the hand motion meant, but we went.

As we ran over we saw the Slovenian couple – Petr and Maja – climb out of the window of the truck, onto the hood, and jump to the bank of the river. The food for lunch in that truck was similarly passed to safetly. When I got there, Petr had his shoes, socks, and pants off and all of the men were in the river pushing the truck. I ripped off my shoes and socks and plunged in to the water. It wasn’t nearly as cold as I would have expected. We pushed the jeep for about 3 or 4 minutes, until its horn went off and wouldn’t stop blaring. Someone said this meant there was water in the electric system, so we disconnected the battery and gave up. K-money, meanwhile, had gotten her foot stuck about a foot deep in a quicksand-like substance and so was nowhere to be found to pictorially document this climactic event, this struggle of man versus nature. All we have are a few shots of the aftermath, which are still pretty good.

I soaked up to about mid-thigh, but luckily I was wearing my travelling pants which have the handy zip off bottoms. I had never thought to use this feature, as the shorts they leave you in are hideously unattractive, but now I took advantage, unzipping the bottoms and having only a few inches of wetness on me. We laid everything out to dry in the sun while we had lunch, and it was ready to go again by the time we finished.

The excitement over, we all packed into our truck and went to have lunch at a pleasant picnic spot on the banks of the dry riverbed. We all talked about the adventure and our parts in it. Maja said that water had begun rushing into the truck from underneath the doors and she had momentarily thought she was going to drown. It was fun to rehash the events of the day.

After lunch we went and met up with our horses. We had been told when we bought the tour that the horse ride included a “cowboy/cowgirl conversion”, but didn’t really know what exactly that entailed until we saw the hats and chaps they had for us. We got some good pictures as gauchos and set off on the horsetrail. These horses weren’t nearly as easy to control as the polo ones in Argentina. They basically followed the leader. If the leader cantered, they cantered. If the leader went left, the went left. The scenery was amazing, but the horseriding wasn’t too exciting.

Until we neared the end of our ride. We came upon a group of women doing laundry. The guide, who was riding bareback on a very skittish horse, was leading us. His horse saw the women blocking the way and refused to go on. He took her to the side and told everyone to go on. Now K was in front, with Karen behind her, and then me. He told them to go straight even through there was a small stone stream in the ground with water rushing through it. K-money led her horse up to it. He didn’t want to cross. She urged him on and he jumped over.

Even though she wasn’t prepared for the jump, K’s years of riding experience kicked in and she was able to stay on the horse and even look a little graceful in the jump. Karen’s horse was next, and even though she had seen K’s horse, seeing a horse jump and riding a jumping horse are two very different things. We all watched from behind as her horse skyed over the stream and she lost her left stirrup, fell off to the right of the horse and momentarily had still had her right foot in the right stirrup. The horse stopped long enough for her to untangle her foot. We were all stunned and cringing. No one said anything for a few seconds until Jake called out from behind me, “Are you ok, Karen?” She had gotten up by this time and appeared to be moving pretty well. She said she was fine and got back on the horse. It was only a little while later when the adrenaline wore off that her back and neck started to hurt. When we got back to Tupiza to grab the bikes for the bikeride, she decided that a mountain bike ride was not what she needed right then and Jake accompanied her to see a doctor.

Petr, Maja, K and I were all shaken by this experience. We rode up the mountain in silence, thinking about what had just happened and looking nervously at the winding dirt road we were about to bike down. We got to the top and jumped on the bikes. The whole ride is about 9 miles, all downhill. Some very steeply downhill. So the only thing that really changed throughout the ride was how hard you squeezed the breaks – hard, very hard, or my hand hurts I’m squeezing so hard.

We started out very slowly, but as we gained confidence we picked up the pace a little bit. The ride was fun. The scenery was great. We saw dogs, llamas, and old Bolivians carrying huge loads on their backs up this mountain. After about an hour we got to the bottom. It was dark, and we were all exhausted by the events of the day. We went back to the hotel to pack and grab some sleep before our 3 day Salar tour the next day.
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Sarah on

Totally awesome! I want to go to Bolivia!

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