On July 7 my friend Loni got to Salta after traveling through other cities in Argentina. On the 12th we went up to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, where I’d been 4 times before. We really only had time to do Tilcara, so we went to the Garganta del Diablo waterfall and hung out in town. Early the next morning we got on a bus to La Quiaca, the town on the Argentinean side of the Argentina-Bolivia border.
I had a big list of things that might be required at the border: yellow fever vaccine certificate, copy of a credit card, bank statement, trip itinerary, proof of exit from Bolivia (plane ticket, etc), among other things. Also required for American citizens is a $135 USD visa. As you may know, it is impossible to get US dollars in Argentina. So my friend Loni brought US dollars for me so that I could cross the border.
We were so nervous going to the border crossing, especially because a police woman who was working near the bus stop in La Quiaca warned us that if we walked a certain route to the actual border, we would certainly get robbed. Great. So we took a taxi, got out, and approached the border agents. Leaving Argentina was absolutely no problem — I showed them my paperwork from Migraciones in Salta, gave them my passport, and we were on our way. At the Bolivia window, however, it was another story. We filled out some paperwork and went back to the window, ready to present our $135 and get the visa in our passports. However, as soon as I gave my money to the border agent, he picked up a bill, examined it, threw it back at me and said “No, no es válido en Bolivia.” (Nope, this isn’t valid in Bolivia). “¿Por qué?” I asked. He showed me a tiny tear on one side of the $20 bill. He picked up the next bill, and it was the same story. And so on, and so on… you get the picture.
I started to panic. It would be impossible to get USD back on the Argentinean side. What was I going to do? Loni gave her bills to the border agent and received the same treatment. Luckily, she had a few extra hundred dollars on her and between that money, we had JUST enough perfect bills to get across. He pasted down our visas, and we were on our way… although a bit shaken up. A bus and a train ride later we arrived in Uyuni just after midnight and were greeted with below freezing weather. Welcome to Bolivia in winter.
The next morning we went to the Red Planet Expeditions office and checked in for our 3-day Uyuni tour. I would 100% recommend this company!! We had heard so many horror stories of tours, but could not have been happier with our experience with Red Planet. Loni and I went with my friend Eijah and 4 other Argentina Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, along with 2 guys from Slovenia and 2 guys from Canada. Our guide, Oscar, was excellent! It was pretty cold the entire trip, but we were provided with sleeping bags and I brought a hot water bottle that was generously filled up with boiling water every night.
I will let the pictures speak for the tour:
It was 3 days full of absolutely incredible sites — probably the most unique place I’ve been on earth. We got back to Uyuni and then took the train to Oruro, where we got a bus to Cochabamba. We took a train because the road out of Uyuni up towards Cochabamba (see map above) is all gravel and dirt, so we opted for a more comfortable way to travel.
As we pulled into Cochabamba we were met with 75 degree weather and sunshine. We stayed with Andrea, a 2011-2012 Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar who is still living in Bolivia, working on a water project. She generously welcomed us into her home, gave us maps, took us out to eat, and we took amazingly hot showers, a relief after spending cold days and nights in Uyuni. Cochabamba is known as a city of eternal spring, and the nickname definitely didn’t disappoint. It was a relief to leave my winter coat and llama sweater behind in her apartment when we went out to explore the town.
If you will recall, I was supposed to be living and studying in Cochabamba, which was really the main reason I wanted to take the trip to Bolivia in the first place. I made sure we went by the Universidad Mayor de San Simón so I could check out what would’ve been my “facultad.”
To be honest, I absolutely loved Cochabamba. It was a clean, warm, beautiful city with tons of things to do, delicious restaurants, and diverse neighborhoods. After 3 days in Cochabamba and a meal at “Tuesday,” a total TGI Friday’s knock-off, we set off to La Paz on a night bus.
I was pretty worried about the night bus. A simple google search will show you the awful reality of Bolivian roads, busses, and perhaps drivers. A lot of people die. I had also heard that a lot of people get robbed on Bolivian busses, so I was terrified about not being able to fall asleep the entire time out of fear. We chose seats on the bottom floor, which is supposed to be much safer than the top in the event of an accident. We were extremely lucky because the rest of the bottom level was a family — grandparents, parents, kids, aunts, uncles, etc. I doubted that any of them would rob us in the middle of the night, so I tucked my backpack under my legs, took out my contacts, reclined my seat, and fell asleep. I woke up around 7 AM as we were entering the huge, huge, huge city of La Paz.
After checking into our amazing hostel, we met Tony who is from Chicago but is teaching at an international high school in Mendellín, Colombia. We saw a flyer for a free walking tour at 10 AM, changed clothes, and met up with the group. Our guide, Rodrigo, was a high school student with excellent English who has plans to be an engineer. He took us all over La Paz and we were able to get oriented quickly and learned so much in just a few hours — I would highly recommend this if you are going to La Paz!
Loni had heard about Cholita wrestling matches in La Paz, and we saw a sign for it at our hostel — it cost 80 bolivianos (a little more than $10) for the transportation, a snack, and the ticket — worth it! We got on a bus with a TON of other tourists (ugh) and made our way up to the match on the outskirts of La Paz. When we entered the arena I was pleasantly surprised at the number of locals there! Must be like Sunday afternoon football in the USA. A lot of it was staged, especially at the beginning, but near the end of the match (picture below) it got pretty legitimate — big indigenous women actually wrestling each other in the ring.
Overall I did really like La Paz, although I found the Bolivians to be fairly rude in general… they do have this reputation and was hoping it wasn’t true, but found that they weren’t exactly helpful. Oh well. After 2 days in La Paz we went to Copacabana, a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We got on a boat to Isla del Sol, I was nauseous the entire time and arrived at the island feeling awful. We had heard about a hike across the island and since it was only about 3 PM when we arrived we figured we would have plenty of time to make it to the other end before nightfall. We were wrong.
The lowest point of the island is 3800m (12,467 feet) and the highest is 4100m (13,451 feet). The entire time you are going up, then down, then up, then down… at high altitude. My asthma basically kicked my butt and the entire time I thought I was going to pass out, despite the amazing scenery.
The next morning we headed back to Copacabana by boat, and then got on the bus to Perú! Overall I was pretty impressed by Bolivia. I never felt scared or unsafe the entire trip, enjoyed how totally cheap it was to travel around, and soaked up the beautiful scenery throughout the country. Bolivia is under-visited and under-appreciated, and I hope that more tourists get the chance to visit in the future!