OK, ok, this post is not about me living in a stinky shoe, but it sure felt like it while traveling through Bolivia. Let me preface this by saying that Bolivia is filled with natural wonders (the salt flats, Lake Titicaca, the highest capital in the world, etc.) and super nice people; unfortunately, due to a little virus called the flu, we spent most of it either on buses/trains/planes or hotels moving as quickly through it as we could to get some comfort in a nice hotel in La Paz.
So, why do I say I lived in a stinky shoe? Because, when you travel through Bolivia in public transportation (such as overnight buses or night trains), the size and the smells of these buses/trains are indescribable (yes, I have a very sensitive nose, even when stuffed up).
Here is how the journey through Bolivia started and ended (by the way, we can easily win jeopardy with our knowledge of S. American geography at this point) . . .
The journey started on the night bus (at 1am) from Salta, Argentina to a little town called La Quiaca, Argentina as the buses do not go directly to Bolivia. So, the amazing overnight bus ride which had limited bathroom capabilities and beautiful smells was the start of the sickness. Because the temperature on the bus went from 80 degrees (F) to probably 30 degrees (F), I woke up at 7am with a yucky soar throat. We got off the bus and made the journey across the border (20 minute walk) from La Quiaca to Villazon, Bolivia.
The walk was easy breezy even with our bags and feeling like crap, but the anxiety was building as we were approaching the border and yours truly needed yet another visa. After much research the day before, we learned that you can buy the visa right at the border for $135.00 USD. As we stood in line to exit Argentina (45 minutes to an hour wait in freezing cold at 7am), we were greeted by this gorgeous dude (that’s how I felt as well and wanted to lay down next to him for a nap).
Step two, you stand in line to enter Bolivia. Kieran is through no problem (I really need to get an Irish passport) and I am told that I need to buy a visa. No problemo. Prepared to pay in US Dollars as all websites suggested, I am told “no, sólo se paga en Bolivianos” (no, you pay only in Bolivianos). AWESOME – how do you suggest I get those as I come out of Argentina?! “No tengo Bolivianos” (I don’t have Bolivianos) I say in my beautiful Español. Then I ask how much will the visa cost me (out of curiosity to see if they will give me the same price as the Embassy’s website stated) and I am told that it’s only 360 Bolivians which is $50USD. Ummm OK – SOLD! Obviously, we all know where that money went!
So, Kieran, who was already across the border, ran to an ATM to get some Bolivianos. He comes back and gives me 400 which I hand to the border patrol and he says in Spanish “I don’t have any change”. “Yeah, right” I think – how can one have no change when you have been processing visas all morning? Even though the change was only $6 or 40 Bolivianos, out of principle, Kieran went back across the border to get change while I waited with a guarded officer by my side so I don’t run off. Once I hand the guy 360 Bolivianos (he was not pleased as he was hoping to pocket the change), I was free to go and just like that, Miss Paloma and I were allowed into Bolivia!
Villazon is a tiny border town with street vendors/markets, a bus station and a train station. The train (which goes all the way up to Oruro) only runs a few days a week and it is questionable if it will go at all due to weather conditions (it’s rainy season in Bolivia). So, we decided to catch a bus to Tupiza, which is where we have booked a hotel for 2 nights (I am dreaming of this hotel as all I want to do is lay down and sleep for 10 days).
The bus ride is about 2 hours and before we decide which bus to take, I go to the “public restroom” for 5 cents. Oh, how I wish I took pictures! The balancing act of squatting (my legs are now in amazing shape), holding my backpack, holding 1 square of toilet paper, while holding the door that doesn’t close and at the same time holding a bucket filled with water to flush after myself was an experience. If I wasn’t delusional from having a fever, I probably would have just fallen on the floor and cried. Oh, and have we heard of soap?
Next up, bargaining with various bus companies on who should take us to Tupiza. You have at least 5-10 people approaching you to haggle about cost, and who will get you there safely. So, after some comedic back and forth efforts on Kieran’s part, we ended up with a nice bus company (no bathroom) where 4 people sit in the seats for 2. And off we went on a lovely journey that I wish to forget with Jackie Chen movies playing in the background (they got movies, but no bathroom???) and the QVC guy standing over us selling toothbrushes and chocolates – an interesting combination. You can imagine what happens on the bus with tiny children without diapers and no bathrooms . . . need I say more?
We get to Tupiza (it’s about noon at this point) and we find out that it’s Carnival (yes, turns out Carnival happens all over S. America, not just in Brazil). We checked into the #1 hotel for $23/night and tucked into my silk sheet to protect myself from potential bed bugs; I was asleep for the next 5 hours.
After the lovely nap, I plead with Kieran that there is a train out of Tupiza the next day (if it comes) and that I don’t mind losing $23USD to get to our next destination which is Uyuni (where the salt flats are located). So, we spend the one day and night in Tupiza and it turned out to be a really lively town with Carnival parades and decent food (I say lively, because you just wait until I get to Uyuni). The Carnival tradition in these towns is kids throwing water balloons at you and running around in bright costumes to the sound of live bands.
The next morning, Kieran who wants to stay in Tupiza for another night, goes on a hike which turns out to be a bit of a bust. It didn’t help that he was chased down a quiet country road by a goat followed by two kids armed with water balloons. With not much left for him to do, he was now more open to taking the next train.
We go to the train station and the guy at the kiosk says that he doesn’t know if the train will arrive (it’s Thursday and the next train is not until Saturday). So, we buy our tickets and we wait and hope and pray! At 7pm, the train arrived which was supposed to get us to Uyuni by 1am. The train was actually semi-nice with a lovely bathroom (I do adore a nice bathroom) and a TV which was first blasting a Russian concert of all things, followed by soft-core porn movie with 5 year old kids staring at the screen.
We get to Uyuni at 3am, walk out onto the streets (which are dead post Carnival celebrations) and walk around in hopes that a hotel/hostel would open their doors. We didn’t book a hotel in Uyuni as we did not know if the train would ever arrive. If we thought Tupiza was bad, Uyuni is an even sadder town – there is absolutely NOTHING to do; it is just a gateway to the salt flats. We bang on a door of a hotel across the street (Hotel Julia) from the train station and a lovely sleepy fellow opens the door for us and sells us a room for $40 (a room for 5 people). Here I am, at 3am; I think my fever was about 39C at this point. At 3:00am, I don’t care where we sleep, but when I wake up at 9am, I have a fit (imagine a 3 year old on the floor kicking and screaming). Look folks, you all are thinking, “gosh, sooooo high maintenance”. But the truth is, I did the hostel thing in my 20s and it was cool, but I am just not up for it in my 30s or worrying about bed bugs.
So, the first thing I did when I woke up was book us a hotel (Hotel de Sal Cristal Samaña) right at the perimeter of the Salt Flats in a tiny town called Colchani which is 14km away from Uyuni by taxi on unpaved and flooded roads. This hotel was nice, with really sweet staff who were always super helpful and friendly. The entire hotel is built out of salt! HOW COOL IS THAT?
So, here is my suggestion, if you want to see the salt flats, which I think are incredible and a photographers dream, forget all this mess of buses and trains which may or may not go, just fly into Uyuni, take a cab to Colchani, stay at a nice hotel and walk over to the salt flats.
A little background on Salar de Uyuni – it is the world’s largest Salt Flat at 10,582 square kilometers. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar.
There are a ton of tours that go through the salt flats (in fact, this is how the town makes their living). One of the reasons why we passed on the tour is that during the rainy season, chances are, you won’t be able to reach most of the sites as the jeeps won’t be able to handle the roads. Also, after many horror stories of broken down jeeps, accidents with deaths in the middle of nowhere and guides having no GPS to contact emergency services, we decided that we would just walk over there and explore the salt flats on our own – which was wonderful (fever and all). You literally feel like you are on the edge of the world – it is so incredibly peaceful and beautiful that I did not want to leave, and for the first time, in 4 days, I really loved Bolivia.
So, on Valentine’s day, we flew out of Uyuni (a tiny airport with 1 gate) to La Paz. I apologize to all the passengers on the plane who are now suffering from my germs.
We arrived to La Paz 35 minutes later. I wish I could tell you all the wonderful things about La Paz, but I ended up sleeping for 4 days, barely ever leaving the room. This worked out well as the city was shut down for that entire time due to Carnival, which meant that most restaurants and attractions were closed. If Kieran thought walking around Tupiza was risky, La Paz was on another level – kids were armed with high powered water cannons and water pistol sidearms in addition to cans of crazy foam.
Side Note: Kieran is still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as every time a 4 year old boy/girl reached into their pocket for what may have been a water pistol, Kieran jumped and grabbed onto my arm.
Here is what I can tell you about La Paz . . .
- La Paz is the world’s highest capital in the world at approximately 13,500 feet.
- Flying in and out of La Paz costs extra because of the altitude; the airport has an extra long runway as it needs more distance to pick up the speed.
- Stannum Boutique Hotel is incredible and exactly what one needs to get better. The people at this hotel were super nice to us and allowed us to stay in the room until night time when we were supposed to check out at 11am while waiting for the flight out. They even prepared us a “to go” breakfast for our 4am flight.
- There is a great cable car system which has been recently built and how a lot of people commute up and down the hills. Kieran enjoyed utilizing this transportation while I slept at the hotel.
- La Paz is a pretty city with red homes all around the mountains. We only saw the gloomy, grey side of it until we had to leave when the sun finally decided to come out.
- People here are CRAZY drivers. On our way from the airport, the cab driver got pulled over for speeding and without even blinking an eye, he bribed the police officer who then left with a smile and a 100 Boliviano bill/$14USD (I felt like I was back in Soviet Union). On our way back to the airport at 2am, the guy was literally falling asleep the entire drive. Oh, and forget about anyone wearing seat-belts. What’s up with that?
I wish I could say more, I really do and I am forever thankful to Denise and her wonderful friends who gave us all kind of advice and suggestions, but sometimes, when you get to a new place, you just need to sleep and get better (Kieran now has my bug – oopsie).
Next stop, Baltra, Galapagos and a 7 night expedition cruise through the islands where we will be “internetless” and where we shall celebrate Kieran’s birthday in style.