I touched down in Lima, Peru on November 15, 2012, 32 days before re-entering the United States. If South America was the final stretch, this was rounding the corner to the finish line.
Arriving at the airport I figured out how to take the local microbus, line-S into town. This was a fun experience. Essentially a van with a sliding door, these little buses have a guy standing in the doorway calling out the destination, getting people on-board, jumping in and out, collecting the one sole fare from passengers, opening and closing the door and just generally hustling.
I spent only two days in Lima, but wow was I impressed. I stayed in an upscale beach neighborhood called Miraflores, which I learned is really setup specifically for tourists and ex-pats. Granted – this is not the real Lima – but it was so nicely done and put together and organized it felt like I was walking around in San Diego. Shopping centers, ice cream parlors, bars and restaurants, beautiful green parks, plazas and jogging paths stretch along the elevated cliffs overlooking the coastline. Down below surfers wait at the break and above paragliders drift in the ocean breeze. The parks and walks are busy with people, kids, dogs, skateboarders and walkers, with bicycles cruising past and boys and girls making out on park benches.
Having so many parks around made it easy to find places to work out, and I met some really good people just chatting it up while exercising. At my hostel too – the Backpacker’s Family House, a really nice hostel with a great staff and atmosphere – I met some fun travelers, including a British couple named Lewis and Georgie who I became good friends with over just a couple of days.
I’m still laughing about the story they told me of their trip to Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, a seriously intense, five-day trek in severe elements and harsh conditions. They’d signed up for this as the first trek in their lives, packing swim suits and marshmallows for the campfire, generally expecting a walk in the park. In reality they were shockingly and painfully ill-prepared and ill-equipped for a generally ill-advised trek into the wilderness. After two or three days of toughing it out they finally called it quits, but they were good sports about it after the fact – if not during, perhaps – and able to laugh about it as they told me the story.
After two quick days and nights I was already heading on for Bolivia, which I’d decided to add into the itinerary a few weeks earlier after finding an award flight from Lima to La Paz for only 6,000 frequent flyer miles.
I was lucky enough to overhear a Canadian couple calling a taxi for the airport, which I was able to share with them instead of catching the line-S again. On arrival they insisted on just paying for the taxi, as they were headed back home and trying to get rid of their soles (sol-es = 2.5 soles is one dollar).
As I always do when I arrive at the airport with friends, I brought the couple with me in the priority check-in line. However, when I attempted to procure two guest passes for the VIP lounge, I was told I could only bring one guest. They wanted to stick together, so I said goodbye and made my way to the lounge with one extra guest pass in my pocket.
Having the extra pass, I looked around for someone whose day I could make. And I kind of wanted to find someone that looked like me. This is how I met John Snyder, stopping the young-30s-American-looking male walking through the concourse, asking if he had a long wait for his flight, and if he’d like to spend it in the VIP lounge. As it turns out, John, originally from Pittsburg, works for a non-profit outfit in El Salvador that does outreach and support for underprivileged and impoverished youth. He’d been away from his family for over a month and was on his way home, with a six or seven hour connection in Lima. He was a good pick for the free pass.
Sitting in the lounge with several hours to spare, I was doing a little reading on Bolivia as I typically do before arrival in a new country. Browsing the US government website travel page, I was very surprised to happen upon the following: “all US citizens wishing to enter Bolivia as a tourist must have a tourist visa.” Shit.
Months earlier I had checked the visa requirements for every country I’d planned on visiting. Brazil had been the last visa I’d had to get, and other than reciprocation fees in Chile and Argentina, there were no other countries for which I would need one. In my mind, after I’d left Brazil I was home-free and wouldn’t need any more visas this year. The problem was, I added Bolivia to the list after I’d done the visa research. So while I thought I was in the clear, I learned about one hour before takeoff that I was no such thing.
After the close calls with Vietnam, and being this close to the finish line, this felt like a devastating blow.
According to the US site, I would need my passport, yellow fever vaccination, a passport photo, a completed visa application and $135 American dollars. I’d had my yellow fever vaccination back in Thailand, and I had my passport obviously, but I didn’t have any dollars or a photo.
What do I do? Change my flight to tomorrow, regroup and prepare my visa? Try my luck? What would they realistically do to me? Send me back to Perú?
Fortunately I was able to pull some Andrew Jackson’s from an international ATM at the airport – just about the last of those, sadly – solving that part of the problem. Then I walked around trying to find a photo booth, but not a chance.
On top of all this, my flight was departing at 01:30 and conveniently arriving at 04:30 in La Paz. So, even if they had a photo booth or other services I might need to secure a visa, surely they would all be closed at 04:30.
I was really concerned and just didn’t want to risk it, so I called to change my flight for the next day. “Sorry sir, but there are no flights available until mid-December.”
At least that made my decision easy. I would go for it. But this was a very uncomfortable feeling. Sickening, in fact. Trying to sleep for two precious hours en route, I had horrible dreams about what was going to happen when I landed in Bolivia without a visa.
No matter how many close calls I’ve had, everything seems to work out ok. As Chris Guillebeau often says, “most of the time, everything is going to be alright.” It’s true.
And it was. As it turns out, it was a non-issue. If you’ve got the American dollar you’re good as gold. A quick application, a glamour shot and a ch-ching later, I was in Bolivia.
Walking out of the airport at 05:00, there were only a few taxis outside, and one fellow approached me right away offering his services. I’d read that you have to be careful here, that some taxis will drive you out into the hood and threaten to leave you there if you don’t give them all your money, or worse yet drive to a meet-up point where people are waiting to rob you. Well, unless I wanted to sit at the airport, I really didn’t have a choice. I had to trust him.
I’ve been in this situation many times this year, where I’ve simply have to trust someone. And every time it has been fine, as it was this time. I even had a nice chat with the taxi driver en route. In Spanish.
Either I’ve been remarkably lucky this year, or the world isn’t quite as scary as it’s often made out to be. I tend to think it’s both.
I checked-in to the Wild Rover at 0600, and even though my room wasn’t ready yet they shuffled me into one of the dorms with an open bed where I slept fitfully after a stressful night.
So there I was at the Wild Rover, a huge mega-party hostel. It was pretty nice actually: good facilities, comfortable beds, a good “system” overall and kept really clean. Abysmal internet connection, as it is everywhere in Bolivia.
I figured I’d give it a try, but the truth is I’m not that much into huge party hostels. They’re cool and all, but it’s often the same: hang out in the hostel bar with loads of white, western, English-speaking backpackers from Britain and Ireland and the States where everyone is getting wrecked at silly theme parties. Like smurfs night, for example. It can be fun enough but not really my scene – I can do most of that back home. But I still had a good time and met some cool people.
La Paz is an incredible city, the likes of which I’ve never seen. At over 12,000 feet in elevation it’s the highest capital city of any nation in the world, with a population of over eight million people. It’s built in a valley, with the surrounding mountains rising on three sides. From what I understand the socioeconomic scale is inversely related to the altitude. The poorest of people live in the highest reaches, where the weather is worst, while the wealthiest live in the lowest points of the valleys.
I got a chance to walk around a good bit, finding some excellent vistas, the very pretty Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral de San Francisco, and even the witches market where they sell herbs and elixirs an potions and dead baby alpacas by the dozen. I also tried several samples of local fare – I mean really local, including street food, and despite warnings I was never the worse for it. I even managed to procure my sixth pair of sunglasses this year for only 30 bolivianos. Will these ones carry me through the end? Please send your positive vibes my way.
Preparing to book my adventures in Bolivia, apparently there was to be a nationwide census this particular week, necessitating that every single person – Bolivian, tourist, passer-through, everyone – was to be indoors the entire day. That meant no excursions, no tours, no transportation (intra-city or otherwise), no nothing. How the hell did I manage to plan my week in Bolivia during the one day out of ten years when the entire nation is shut down? Probably the same way I managed to fly there without a visa.
Being in the middle of my week in Bolivia this really played hell with my travel plans, even though I really only wanted to do two things especially: the Uyuni Salt Flats and Camino de la Muerte, “Death Road.” After going to the travel desk four or five times I finally got it worked out: I’d start with a trip to Uyuni, sit there doing nothing during census day, then do the salt flats, then come back to La Paz for Death Road.
So it was off to Uyuni, and what would typically be an overnight 12+ hour bus ride turned into a daytime bus for the purpose of arriving before midnight on census day. The first six or so hours passed rather peacefully, the Bolivian landscape slipping by silently from my window seat. Soon after though, things got bumpy, literally, as the remaining six hours would be on an unpaved dirt and gravel road.
Female readers, please kindly skip the following paragraph, thank you.
We traversed the irregular surface with the highest possible velocity without shaking the bus apart, vibrating at an unfortunate frequency causing the continuous slamming of my balls into the seat, the equivalent of dribbling a basketball on a hardwood court. With Steve Nash on a fast break for six hours, I was rattled when we finally coasted into Uyuni.
At one point the bus stopped at a rest area, and asking the bus attendant how long we’d be staying there he told me quinse minutos, or 15 minutes. Great. I bought a water and ordered a pollo sandwich, paying for both and then heading for the bathroom.
Among my biggest fears is a bus or train, with all of my belongings onboard, leaving without me. And since the the near-miss in India I always keep one eye on my transport in case of some tricky unannounced departure.
Much to my surprise, moments later I heard the telltale honk and looked over to see my bus loading up, engine running, ready to roll. “That’s peculiar,” thought I, “it’s only been four minutes, and that trustworthy young fellow told me 15.” Irrelevant, apparently, as I was implored to re-embark, chicken sandwich in mid-preparation, its fate unbeknownst to me even today.
Another Indian fellow and his wife were victims of the same subterfuge, having been told the restaurant was out of food, and we’re going to the next stop. This happened to be four hours later, and thankfully the kind Bolivian women next to me shared some food and coffee without which I might have perished.
Would you laugh if I said the exact same thing happened to me on the next stop, only with an egg sandwich? I don’t know how, but it did. And that’s just how it goes sometimes in Bolivia.
Needless to say it was not the most comfortable journey this year – but certainly not the worst either.
Uyuni and the Salt Flats
Arriving in Uyuni after 23:00 I found myself in the dark, on a dusty, cold, windy street. I paired up with a little Korean-Canadian girl who also didn’t have a place to stay figured out. Wandering the streets looking for a non-existent hostel with internet, we finally lucked out and found what turned out to be one of the cooler places I’ve stayed in this year. The small-looking facade out front hid a full-size four-story hotel that could easily sleep 100 guests, with a huge tiled atrium and cozy little single rooms with tv’s and all, for about $6/night. Wait, where are we? Strange and unexpected, but welcome comfort.
The next day was interesting. Locked in the hotel ALL DAY, the 15 or so guests all became close friends, and a good thing because it turned out we couldn’t even go out to get food. There were a bunch of South American tourists from Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, and a handful of others. Several had had the presence of mind to purchase supplies for the camp-in and were kind enough to feed me and the other have-nots of the day. In all it was quite fun; in the same predicament we banded together and became friends for the day (and subsequently I got a LOT of Spanish practice). On top of that I managed to pound out over 3,000 words and get a double day in my own gym. All things considered it was just a strange, but interesting, fun and productive day in Uyuni.
The next day was the salt flats, or Salar in Spanish, literally meaning, to salt. What a freakin weird, awesome place. Forgive me but I’ll just give you the description from Wiki:
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is located in the Potosí and Oruro departments in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above mean sea level. 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. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted. The large area, clear skies and the exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. The Salar is also a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos.
In other words it’s really freakin cool. And due to the lack of colors or reference points, there is no perspective, providing for very interesting and unique photography. Unfortunately the day tour I took was all in Spanish, so I didn’t learn as much as I would’ve liked, but it was captivating nonetheless.
Back in town and with some time before my bus left, I sat down with a group of little old ladies for a nice bowl of llama and potato stew over rice with salsa picante. Mmmm. They had a good laugh with me sitting there, but I got a sense they appreciated a tourist stopping in for a meal.
Back on the overnight bus to La Paz, scheduled to arrive at 06:30, then depart for Death Road at 07:30. Should be no problem!
To be continued…