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.

Argentina to Chile on Foot – Part 2

Day 3

Unlike the trail I’ve just done, where you can camp almost anywhere, you’re only allowed to spend the night by the hut halfway to the Chilean border. I won’t have enough time after that to get to the border, so I’m…free! I only have a few hours of walking today, and I won’t make the boat in time the next day, so my schedule is now very relaxed.

While I’m enjoying the January sun, a dog comes up and abruptly licks my face. It goes rigid and stares off into the woods, where a herd of horses runs out of the woods and towards me. I immediately stand up and try to get away, but the dogs and gaucho shepherding them keep them away from me.

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On the way to the hut at Paso de las Nubes (Cloud Pass).

The trail meanders along a stream for a while, and it’s weird seeing other people on the trail. Only a few are out here, but this trail is definitely more popular than the last one. We ascend up and up and up to the Paso de las Nubes (Cloud Pass), with the Rocca Hut and an expansive view of glaciated Mount Tronador.

For $9, you can camp outside the hut and use all the facilities. The hut is heated, powered, and has running water with real toilets! It’s heavenly. A high school girl gets really excited at the opportunity to practice English with a real live native speaker, and we chat for a while while staring out the window at the glaciers and waterfalls. I get a little bored, missing the thru hiking lifestyle of camping anywhere and running yourself into exhaustion each day.

I don’t sleep well that night. I don’t think I drank enough water in the evening, and I get very irritable while dehydrated. I fret over everything that has and could go wrong, which isn’t exactly conducive to good sleep.

Day 4
The next morning I berate myself, as always, for worrying during the night about things that have sensible solutions.

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Very different from the high and dry passes in Argentina.

From the hut I descend steeply to the valley floor, and it’s evident I’m in a rainforest now. I usually listen to music or podcasts while I walk, a habit I picked up on my 2600 mile Mexico to Canada hike in 2015. It helps break up the monotony and lets my mind wander. I eschew my earbuds now in favor of listening to the sounds of the rainforest, lost in my own little world. I’m damp, sweaty, and caked in mud with a bad odor but I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.

At Puerto Frías the trail ends at a lake. There are just two buildings there: Argentine customs and what I think is a national park office. The border guard post is empty, but after a few minutes I see a boat approaching on the lake. A bunch of tourists pile out on their way to Chile by bus, led by the border guards.

“Can I help you?” Inquires an older woman.

“I’m walking from Argentina to Chile, and I need an exit stamp,” I reply. She looks at first like she doesn’t believe me, but after looking at my pack and how disheveled I am she seems to accept it.

“It’s a long walk from Pampa Linda!”

“I actually started in Colonia Suiza, just outside of Bariloche,” I correct her, not sure if it’s necessary for their records. My hike is much longer than what they originally thought. She and the border guards obviously think I’m a crazy gringo, but they put me first in line and within seconds I’m stamped out of Argentina.

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The view as I climb out of Argentina.

I drop off my hiking registration at the national park office, which seems unsure what to do with it. Hopefully they don’t call a search and rescue on me. They take my passport to look for my exit stamp, but are unable to find it amidst the cyrillic scribbles from obscure Eastern European border crossings. I show them my pages of Argentina and Chile stamps and they wish me luck.

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Welcome to Chile!

It’s only 40 minutes climbing to the Chilean border, but 18 miles/30km to the border station at Peulla. Leaving around noon, I know I won’t be able to make the 4:30pm daily boat across Lago Todos los Santos back to the Chilean road system. The road from Puerto Frías in Argentina to Lago Todos los Santos in Chile just goes from lake to lake. There’s no access to the outside world and nothing else in between, except for a few farms just outside the Chilean border post. Thus, the only vehicles there are a bus that ferries tourists from lake to lake, border guards, and a guy in a truck transporting goods that I see every few hours.

I stop around 7pm on a rocky platform overlooking a river, but get an inexplicable vibe of uneasiness and opt to keep on going. After less than an hour I find a perfect campsite, but something smells weird…and then I notice the rotting corpse of what might have once been a cow or horse. Yeah, let’s not deal with pumas tonight, I think to myself. Going 20 more minutes down the flat gravel road I walk into the thick rainforest, where the undergrowth seems to be less dense than before, and set up my tent out of sight of the road. Which, because it’s a rainforest, is less than 10 meters away.

Day 5

Last night’s sleep was amazingly restful, and I immediately start walking. Based on the GPS on my phone, I’m less than a couple hours from the border station.
 

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Mount Tronador and the sign for the border police. I went and talked to an officer, a very friendly grandfatherly old man, just to let them know I was in the area. He didn’t seem too concerned.

There aren’t even any aggressive dogs trying to stop me from trespassing on their territory, and it’s an easy couple of hours to the border station just outside town.

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Getting closer to town.

“Got any fresh fruit or animal products?” I show him my food back to make sure I’m following Chile’s strict importation guidelines meant to protect their environment.

“You sure that’s it?” Oh god they’re going to search through my entire bag. I’m not hiding anything, but all my stuff is so filthy and it’ll take a while.

“Okay, I’ll take your word on it,” and then he gives me my entry stamp and Chilean tourist visa slip, which I have to save until I leave the country. Every time you cross between Chile and Argentina you’re given a new 90 day visa, so I don’t have any issues staying here for six months like I did in the European Union.

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Lago Todos los Santos, the end of the hike and departure point for the ferry to the Chilean road system.

Argentina to Chile on Foot – Part 1

 
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I found this in Puerto Montt, a Chilean working class town I visited just to catch the bus to Argentina. I have no idea what it is, but it scared me a little.

Day 0

Argentina’s Nahuel Huapi National Park came up next on my list, with my plans for hiking further north in Chile having been dashed by the fires. It was getting too hot there, anyways. Time to go to cooler altitudes and/or latitudes.

The park is known for mountain passes with amazing vistas, glaciers, and the striking Mount Tronador on the Chilean border. The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is probably the most popular route, hopping from valley to valley and hut to hut, but I opted for a less frequented (and supposedly much more rugged) trail: Colonia Suiza to Pampa Linda, then walking over the Paso de las Nubes to Chile and taking a two hour ferry across a lake to the road.
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Mount Tronador as seen from a mountain pass on the trail.

After a Bariloche steak dinner ($11 in total, which seemed super expensive, but I now realize the same thing would be much more in the US), I stopped by the Club Andino to get some more info.

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Trailhead at Colonia Suiza. It took me a little less than 48 hours to get to Pampa Linda.

“You want a map?? Okay…but it’ll cost $6.” Um, yes I do want a map and that’s totally a reasonable price. Call me old fashioned, but I tend to like to know where I am and where I’m going. I had the route’s GPS coordinates in my phone, but you can’t rely on electronics.

While waiting for the bus to the trailhead, which never came, I gave up and decided to just sleep in a campground 4km from town. It was getting late, and I could try again the next day. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep with all the noise of a campground, but the next thing I knew I had woken up from a 10 hour slumber.

Day 1

It turns out the info on the Bariloche website for getting to Colonia Suiza is incorrect. What a surprise from a government website! You have to take bus number 20, which leaves every 20 minutes, to the roundabout at kilometer 18. Tell the driver you’re heading to Colonia Suiza and he’ll charge you for the whole trip, which should cost under $2 and is cheaper than paying separately. He’ll then announce when you should get off, after which you transfer to the number 10. The latter leaves every hour on the half hour from the roundabout.

Colonia Suiza is just a collection of campgrounds and little shacks selling meals at the end of a dirt road. The bus dropped me off less than a 10 minute walk to the trailhead, where I lounged for a while and had breakfast.
Ambling up through the gentle grade of the forest I ran into a young Argentinian couple I’d chatted a while with on my first hike a few weeks ago near El Bolsón, a few hours south of here. They’d spent the night at the hut just ahead of me, which seems to be a popular overnight trip.
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The red Refugio Italia as viewed from the trail.

There was a sign saying to register at the hut, but when I went there nobody seemed interested so I just continued. After the hut the number of people dropped dramatically, and the route involved a lot of scrambling up and down rock faces with ropes. Not that easy with a full pack! The trail went up steeply to passes and then plunged back down below the tree line to valleys with forested trails overgrown with trees, and towards the end of the day I found it dead ended into the lake. I walked in the shallow water on the lake’s edge to rejoin the trail, after which I dried my soaked shoes and socks in the dying sun and cooked on my tiny butane canister stove.

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The trail just ends at the lake, so I walked in the shallow water on the edge.

Back in Iceland I would pack out hotdogs for my first night of camping. Hotdogs in Iceland are cheap and ubiquitous, and the tradition seems to have followed me to Patagonia. It’s a nice treat for the first night, and I just boil them for five minutes. After eating crackers all day it’s a delicacy.

The pass loomed above me. It’s to the west, so once I get up there I would have more sunlight descending, I thought to myself. I pack up all my things from dinner and hike on.

The trail is difficult to follow, but with the map and GPS file on my phone I’m able to manage it. It’s steep, but once I get above the marshy tree line I can see the pass and make my own way.

At the top I’m tired, and not entirely sure the route down. The wind isn’t that strong nor is it that cold, so I opt to camp right on the pass. The ground isn’t firm enough for my tent stakes to stay down, so I weigh them with rocks and fall asleep.

Day 2

At 3am I jolt awake, disoriented and cocooned in fabric. There are creatures jumping over me, and they trapped me in a sack! my panicked mind screams. When I come to my senses I realize my tent has collapsed in a windstorm, and no kidnapping bears are dancing over me. I can’t find all the tent stakes, which scattered when my tent fell down, and decide to just wrap myself back up in the tent and go back to sleep. I can find the stakes in the morning, when it’s light and I have my contacts in. It starts to rain, but I’m too tired to care.

I awake at 8am, later than I’d like. It’s cold, but my water thankfully  hasn’t frozen. After putting my contacts in I find the last of my tent stakes within 15 seconds. Putting on all my layers, with socks over my hands to act as gloves, I hurriedly pack up all my stuff and hustle down the pass.

The route isn’t well marked, and I realize I have to reach into my pack to get my phone. But it’ll take a minute to power on, and I’m COLD and it’s WINDY. FUCK THIS TRAIL, AND FUCK ARGENTINA! I scream. I realize that won’t help, so I get out my phone and easily find the route.

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Looking down into the valley.

It leads across yet another pass, not into the valley that I had thought. After a couple hours of hiking I pull out my sleeping bag by a stream and crawl inside while I yard sale all my gear on the rocks to dry. Filtering water, I see two people below me in their campsite. I don’t know if they can see me, but I watch them for a while. Just to make sure they’re okay. Soon they’re up heading towards the next pass.

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Selfie over the abyss.

I catch them fairly quickly. They’re from American Samoa, down in Patagonia for two months. We talk for a while about their hikes, and I get more info about the best way to head south. I’m meeting my cousin in Argentina on February 6th and 7th, and after that I’m taking five weeks to go down to Tierra del Fuego. But there’s so much to see and hike along the way.

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The trail goes up there…somewhere.

They get cold and I head on, climbing over and descending the next pass. It’s seemingly near vertical, and going down takes a long time while I try not to contemplate the vertiginous abyss below me. I get lost at the bottom, but after a while find my way back to the route.

At a lake before the next climb I finish my book, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. It’s about the lives of defectors from North Korea who now live in South Korea, and the difficult adjustments they face. I spend most of my breaks reading, and in town usually load up lots of new books onto my kindle.

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Looking back from where I came.

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These passes have some pretty nice views.

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The lake is so blue!

Ascending this next time is easy, because it’s up a slab of granite that hasn’t eroded as much as the other slopes. I’m able to run up this one, then enjoy the vistas at the top. *My last ascent!* I excitedly realize as I look at the elevation profile for the next part of the hike. It’s all downhill from here.

Back below the tree line I meander through forests, and the trail seems to be better maintained. There are some people by the lake, but my misanthropy takes control and I decide to keep going. I quickly cook a ramen dinner and am back on the route, camping just out of sight of the trail. I could’ve continued to Pampa Linda, but I’d have to camp in a campground. There will be lots of people and noise, so the forest is a much better place.

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Getting closer and closer to Mount Tronador.

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Leaving the higher passes to head back down to the green valley.

Day 3

In the morning I’m woken up by the screaming of cows, which is a little strange. I don’t want to get up because it’s cold, but I have to go to the bathroom. The latter ends up winning and I put on all my layers, rush out, then jump back into my -12C sleeping bag.

Eventually, at 8am, I muster up the courage to hit the trail. My latest start on the PCT from camping on trail was 8am, which seemed ungodly late. I just couldn’t get myself out of my tent that day, and instead spent a couple hours reading some ridiculously awful gay Amish romance novel that was circulating the hiker community.

Out here, 8am is ungodly early for most people. Then again, I’m pretty atypical in that I hike more than 2 hours a day. I much prefer getting up early and walking until sunset. If I’m not tired out from walking all day, then I don’t sleep as well. Old PCT habits die hard.

After a very steep descent the trail levels off, and then crosses a river. Knowing my shoes and socks will dry fast in the sun, I just walk across it like normal. In Iceland I did the same thing during a storm, which made German hikers yell at me to take off my pants first (still not really sure what that was about).

This river was much more peaceful (read: I haven’t seen a single human yet today), and I meander on over to the ranger office in Pampa Linda. There’s really nothing there besides the office and a campground, and after checking in with the ranger I lay all my stuff out to dry in the sun.