A Pre-Dawn Bolivian Border Crossing, Entering Another World

8 May

Tupiza, Bolivia

The bus from Salta got in to La Quiaca early, and it was 6 am when they kicked us off at the border. Hazily, I stumbled into the dark of a border town holding as much mystery as a wild west outpost where outlaws reign. I thought it was cold on the bus, but when I got my backpack from below I learned exactly what cold was. My body shook uncontrollably and I realized that was not well equipped for a trip this time of year–a rain jacket and sweater would not suffice. Huddling close by for heat, myself, two English girls and two Dutch girls created a circle of foreigners among indigenous locals waiting for the border to open. Still dark, we felt unsafe heading the 200 meters alone, but together we moved to the border, waiting for Argentinian customs to open.

Still cold, still shivering, I could at least take comfort in having my fears of crossing the border alone assuaged. At the bus terminal in Salta I saw the two English girls and made my move fast, asking their plans and whether they would mind hopping over together. They didn’t mind at all, and actually had the same plans as me. The Dutch girls joined suit, and now with the silky fingers of dawn grabbing hold of the sky, we moved on quietly across the bridge towards the sign saying, “Bienvenidos a Bolivia.” As always, my mind raced with the thoughts, fears, and eager wonderings of what would be on the other side. What kind of mess would we get ourselves into? What fortunes would the natural scenery bring us?

The Bolivian border, where we gained an hour, was less organized than Argentina, and it was like an official welcome to a lesser-developed country where bureaucracy, if you could believe it, was worse off. First I tried to explain that I have Argentine citizenship to avoid paying the $135 reciprocity fee added to American tourists, but to no avail. Sometimes you know when there’s no point in arguing, and this case was one of them. I handed over the cash and then waited as my passport was handed from one the window on the right to the left, back to the right, back to the left. Each time some other stamp or form was added, and each time I was given a look over. After waiting 10 minutes for the border guard to send a message on Facebook via his cell phone, I got my passport back and entered the next adventure: Villazón.

Tupiza from above

Border towns are always dodgy, but the guidebook told us Villazón was slightly rougher than La Quiaca, but those crossing were still to preoccupied in their own extracurricular activities to worry much about backpackers. We didn’t waste much time in finding out. My original plan of waiting until 3 pm for the train was scrapped and we trudged uphill about 300 meters to the bus station. Already tired from sleeping poorly on the night bus and freezing as I was, I felt foggy and light going uphill, but my adrenaline was pumping and my senses were on alert. In retrospect, however, La Quiaca is 11,293 feet above sea level, and perhaps the altitude had something to do with the lightheaded feeling.

Each side of the bumpy road had vendors selling whatever–sweaters, socks, electronics, produce. It was a free market for those looking for a good deal, but all I wanted was the first bus to Tupiza, where the promise of finding a bed and a tour to the Salar de Uyuni waited. As soon as we made it to the buses one was leaving for Tupiza, so we quickly paid and put our bags on. I was climbing on the rickety bus as one of the British girls realized she left her back at the border. In the confusion of a split second, I got on the bus, the British girls stayed behind the find the bag, and the Dutch girls went their own way towards Uyuni. Now I was alone again, but at least the most daunting part was over.

Just as the plan had originally been, I was now heading alone to Tupiza. I struggled to keep my eyes open as the bus churned north, with the left and right sides of the bus starting to look like Mars. Red rocks and sweeping hills became more and more prevalent, and my thoughts took a backseat as I simply enjoyed the ride. In two and a half hours we stopped in Tupiza, and on to find my tour and bed I walked, never really knowing what to expect, but ready for anything.

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