El Altiplano de Bolivia

The heat and humidity of the jungle surrounding Iguazú Falls were not my cup of tea so I opted to flee to the cool, dry Bolivian altiplano.

I went from Iguazú Falls in the far northeast of Argentina to Bolivia in the northwest via Corrientes and Salta (both Argentine cities).

The journey was fairly uneventful, if long. Not including stops to change buses, Iguazú to the Bolivian border is a 31 hour journey through Argentina. At one layover, in Corrientes near Paraguay, a crazy and possibly homeless woman kept following me around spouting random words in jibberish that I assume was supposed to be English.

Eventually, after a day and a half breaking up the journey in the northwest Argentine town of Salta, I made it to the border town of La Quiaca in the dark. Not wanting to deal with border formalities at night, and knowing lodging options were much better on the Argentine side of the bridge, I found a pleasant hotel with private rooms for $15 a night. At 11,300 feet (3440m), I was finally in the altiplano and could definitely feel it in the thinner air.

Map of Bolivia. I came up from the very southern tip and headed northwest through the altiplano.

Bolivia has made Americans get a visa to enter the country ever since the president became convinced the US government was part of a conspiracy involving denying his jet permission to land in Europe. He has a tendency to blame the US for everything, including a recent referendum barring his path to further years in office (he´s on the path to becoming president for life, and I´ve heard the opposition leaders tend to have a habit of disappearing).

Technically you’re supposed to get this visa in advance, but in practice you can usually get it at the border. I’d heard stories of buses stranding tourists at remote desert border outposts because they didn’t want to wait for the visa to be granted, so I opted to walk across the border into Villazón. Seemed like a much safer bet in case anything went wrong.

As seems to be the case in so many Spanish speaking countries I’ve visited, the whims and mood of government officials is much more important than any official requirements. The Bolivians seemed much more interested in my $160 reciprocity fee than anything else, and were strangely picky about what bills they’d take. Like most other South American countries, they seemed to have little appetite for their own currency and instead insisted the fee be paid in crisp American dollars.

Success! My old friends trickery and deceit served me well in navigating government bureaucracy.

The border guard, whose sluggish and vapid gaze suggested recent emergence from a long coma, rejected four of my twenties because of microscopic tears. However, she let me walk into Bolivia to go to an ATM, withdraw bolivianos, and convert them to dollars at an admittedly decent rate. Bills with lots of black marker drawings all over them were apparently fine. Others have told me you can sometimes pay a “service fee” directly to the border guards of about $10 to $15 to get around this craziness.

There was a shift change halfway through getting my visa, and the new guy wanted an itinerary, passport size photo, and copy of my yellow fever vaccine (the previous woman seemed much more interested in texting her friends). I gave him a bunch of papers in English that I had with me, knowing he’d have no idea what they were, and he seemed mollified. I didn´t have a copy of my yellow fever vaccine, but looking at a yellow piece of paper I had with my father´s outdated business address sufficed.

After filling out a couple forms that asked for another itinerary and a list of random things like my father’s mother’s maiden name, I was given the visa and entrance stamp. My itinerary was different each time I wrote it, and I made up reservations for hotels with addresses, but they didn’t seem to care. All in all it was very quick without a line, maybe because I did it at 7:30am on a Wednesday.

Some Bolivian funny money I withdrew back in Potosí because I’d heard the salt flats, my next destination, didn’t have reliable ATMs. Bolivia is pretty much an entirely cash based country.

Villazón, the Bolivian side, had more currency exchange offices than I’d ever seen in my life. I walked around until I found a crowded one and converted the last of my Argentine pesos to bolivianos. The rates at all these shops were surprisingly good, and including converting bolivianos from the ATM into dollars for my visa I only lost about 1% off the official Google rate (which seems largely unobtainable anyways).

Having crossed the border hours sooner than I expected, I went and got a SIM card for my phone. Data in Bolivia costs about 30 cents a day, and the $1.50 SIM card was very easy to purchase and register.

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You can buy these cards from elderly women off the street to top up your phone. Scratch off the pin number on the back, enter it on your phone, and your account is credited with the amount. Data costs about 30 cents a day.

Next door at the post office I mailed my father a postcard from Iguazú Falls. “You mean…you want to buy stamps? For outside of the country? Uh, I have to go look in the back…”

The postmistress and her assistant disappeared into the back for 8 minutes and found, to their surprise, that the post office does in fact have stamps. They seemed blown away by my request and the fact that somebody actually walked into their unmarked office, hidden from the street.

With nothing left to do in Villazón, like most border towns lacking in charm or anything to attract a visitor, I headed to the bus terminal and bought a ticket for the next departure north to Tupiza. Not that the road goes anywhere else.

Bus travel in Bolivia coats about $1 an hour, stops fairly frequently to drop off and pick up passengers, and rarely if ever stops for a bathroom (on average every 4 to 5 hours in my experience). Tupiza isn’t the most interesting town, but it’s in a beautiful desert altiplano setting. Tired of buses and not in a hurry, I got a room in what seemed to be the nicest hotel in town.

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The view from Tupiza looking south.

At less than $22 for the night it was extremely expensive by Bolivian standards, but quiet and well worth it.

I bought a ticket for the next morning at 10am to Potosí, five hours north. Arriving 25 minutes early to the terminal, I found that the bus had already left  but was given a ticket for the next departure two hours later (this one left a little late).

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The delicious $1.50 raspberry frappe I enjoyed while waiting for my bus to depart for Potosí.

The hotels in Bolivia all have terrible reviews online. After having stayed in many of them I have to wonder whether or not these princesses realize they’re in a developing country, and that $5 a night for a room doesn’t necessarily mean you’re staying at the Four Seasons. I found a palatial room for $11.60 with immaculate private bath in Potosí at a place that was reviewed online as being barely fit for human habitation (I thought it was great).

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This is what $11.60 a night gets you in Potosí.

Almost everything was closed in Potosí because of Holy Week, so after a day of wandering around I bought passage in a shared taxi to nearby Sucre. The shared taxi was able to get to Sucre in half the time of the bus on a winding route through the vast and undulating altiplano. It was well worth the extra $3 for a faster and more comfortable journey.

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Looking towards the central plaza of Potosí.

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Wandering the high streets of Potosí.

The main thing to do in Sucre seems to be wandering the whitewashed, narrow alleys and drinking coffee in the comfortable European-style cafes. It’s pretty relaxing, and I spent most of my time hanging out with an ex Mormon guy who hiked the PCT the year after me. We went to this bizarre castle on the outskirts of town (photography prohibited for some strange military reason), climbed a nearby mountain to look at the bones from the goats sacrificed there on Easter, and talked about our experiences on the PCT. It was quite nice.

Sucre, the de jure although no longer de facto capital (that honor belongs to La Paz), is where the Bolivian independence movement began. Their version of Independence Hall is in the central plaza, and they offer guided tours in both English and Spanish. Every explanation of independence figures seemed to end with, “…and then he was decapitated. Now we move to next man….and then he was decapitated.” My tour was in English and hard to follow, other than that a very large portion of Bolivia´s founders for some reason ended up decapitated.

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The whitewashed streets of Sucre.

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A statue of President Sucre, second president of Bolivia, fourth president of Peru, and a close ally of General Bolívar, in the tranquil plaza of Sucre.

One day in Sucre was devoted to a particularly uncomfortable case of food poisoning, but I survived.

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