Border crossing: Boliva to Brazil

When we arrived in Puerto Quijarro we took a taxi directly to the border, the “frontera”. The taxi was supposed to cost €1,20 but the driver doubled the price by telling us it was per person. As we were exhausted we only made a small attempt to complain about this but didnt get anything for that.

Well at the border there was a rather large queue forming. And after consulting a note on the border office for the Bolivian side we could see that the crossing did not open until 08:00, and the time now was 06:50. We stood around and started to converse with the Spanish couple after us in the queue. After the office opened and the queue started to move it became apparent that people were not really respecting it. And it got even worse when the rain started to pour down and the queue was compacted under the small roof. The slow family in front of us gave people in the adjacent line perfect opportunities to skip in front of them, and all the others who where in between.

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When we finally arrived it was a quick process to get the stamp and go off to the Brazilian side of the crossing. Just 3 hours of queuing later.

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We thought that the Brazilian side would be a bit quicker, both since they are more of a developed country and because the Bolivian check should give them a steady flow at a not too high pace. WRONG!

After queuing for 3 hours during which we fended of a lot of people who thought it to be clever to try and skip the line we were approaching the office in which the treasured stamp resides.

Just when we were meters away from the entrance a Bolivian woman shows up in front of us in the queue, apparently her son had waited and saved this place for her, and her baby she had on her back.

Okay, a bit foul play, but okay.

A few minutes later though, her aunt(?) and mother(?) arrives and are supposing they can too stand with her. This is where we, the Spanish couple and most others drew the line. All of them were sent to the end of the line. However the Bolivian lady who had her son keeping the spot went around the office and in through the back door, occupying the border official who where assigned to stamp the passports of Brazilians. This made the wait even longer.

When we finally arrived and we let in through the door we got our stamps in a matter of seconds. The only question we were asked was for how long we planned to stay in Brazil. No proof was required, just an answer to the question. So, 6-7 hours of queuing and 2 minutes in the offices later we had our stamps and were now officially in Brazil again!

Cholitas Wrestling

One of the weekend things to do in La Paz is to watch wrestling. And more specifically Cholitas Wrestling. On Sundays, close to La Paz in El Alto in a big basement you can enjoy the show. The easiest way to do it is to buy a tourist-ticket (you can go by yourself but it’s not that big of a difference in price and you get some snacks, VIP-seats and a pick up at your hostel/hotel).

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The bus ride from central La Paz to El Alto took almost one hour since it was carnival-time but we’re happy.

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The show started and it was a little bit crazy. We asked our self a few times: “what is this?”. But it was funny to watch and the Bolivian families seemed to enjoy it.

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In the end of the show it was some dancing from the wrestlers carnival style (and yes – including water pistols and foam).

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The bus went back to La Paz after the show but Jon read something about Mi Telerífico, a cable car between La Paz and El Alto. After a quick look at the map we asked the guide if we could take the cable car down to La Paz instead of the bus. This was no problem and the bus dropped us off close to the station. The view was amazing but Jon couldn’t fully enjoy it because he is afraid of heights.

A carnival weekend in La paz

A little later than planned we arrived to La Paz! The first “real” city in Bolivia. This was the first we saw of the city.

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It’s carnival time everywhere in South America and La Paz is no exception. First we were a little surprised of all the noise because we had just planned to go to the local witches market. But all the main streets were closed for the carnival.

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It was a little less dancing and more of a water/foam-war. Everybody seemed involved in this – not only kids, this was a whole family-thing. We thought that we were safe because we were unarmed and looked very tourist-y. Wrong.

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They screamed “Welcome to Bolivia” and threw a water balloon in Jons chest. We figured it was best to prepare ourselves the same way the locals did.

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Jon was like a little kid and he told me that he had a lot of training with all of his siblings and I believe him. Pretty good at it as well.

Road block in Bolivia

After our lovely trip on the train we had breakfast at a restaurant called El Fogón just beside the bus station before we headed in to buy some tickets. Expecting to reach La Paz at maybe three in the afternoon we were stumped when we found out that there is a strike, all the roads are blocked and it is impossible to get to La Paz at this moment.

Apparently the drivers of all the heavy transports were in some kind of disagreement with the government about how much tax they should pay and such. To get the government to listen to them they parked their heavy trucks, blocking all major roads in the country. We met some Argentinians in the bus station who had the same problem, they apparently got in to Oruro the day before with the train. After spending one extra night on board the train while the tracks were cleared of rocks put there by protesters. Apparently the strike had been going on since the last Sunday, and now it was Thursday.

The saying is “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” which would have been a great solution to this lemon we got served. Had we not booked and paid for a hotel in La Paz. Hopeful we stayed in the bus station for a few hours before we concluded that it was of no use. We checked in to a hotel close to the bus station at a rate that wasnt good but didnt blow our budget. Enjoyed a walk around the town to find a restaurant that unfortunately was closed because we got there too late, and when we later returned for dinner it wasnt even that good.

After a good nights sleep we went into the bus station to ask what the status was, as different online sources gave different information. The lady in the information cubicle told us that it was not possible, the roads had been open briefly in the night but were now closed again. The police at the terminal told us that La Paz is closed, but El Alto which is right beside it should be reachable. Not wanting to stay in Oruro anymore we bought tickets with the company Naser that promised they would get us to La Paz, even though others said it would be impossible.

We felt rather stupid sitting in the bus more or less alone before others that also bought tickets started showing up, and as this was one of few buses heading to La Paz a lot of people joined in on the tour on the way out from the terminal. They actually sold tickets to people in the middle of traffic.

The bus was comfortable and the other travelers were nice and we tried to make some conversation about the situation in Spanish. Even though we were feeling a bit uneasy as to if we would actually arrive at our destination the trip was not too bad. The road was wide and straight and when we finally approached El Alto we could see rests of the protests but no blockade!

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We were very happy, and tired, when we finally reached La Paz, a fascinating new stop on our trip!

Expreso del Sur from Uyuni to Oruro

Our plan to avoid Bolivian roads of lacking quality began with taking the train from Uyuni to Oruro and then continue to La Paz by bus on the nice 4-lane highway that runs from Oruro to La Paz.

The execution of the plan began by buying tickets, the ticket office opened at 09:00 the day of our trip, why we arrived there at 09:14. The first challenge of the day was finding the man that handed out queue numbers, he most of the time hides in a back office, but sometimes comes forth and shows his face. Apparently we were not the first to think about going by train as the station was full of people and we got number 29 and the current number was three. We stood around for maybe 15 minutes and number three was still haggling prices or something similar. Yet again I found the man with the numbers and asked what he thought about my number, he said that maybe one and a half hour would be to expect. He also told me that yes, there will probably be tickets left when it is your turn.

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With this wisdom at our hands we went back to the hostel to pack up our things and check out. When we got back to the station some 40 minutes later the number 18 was shining bright on the screen that announced the numbers. Sometime one hour before noon it was finally our turn, and €30 later we had two tickets in our hands.

 

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We bought the expensive version of the tickets which meant that we were sitting in ejecutivo class with nice reclining seats, some snacks and a pillow and blanket. Linn made the notion that the blanket was as heavy and thick as a horse blanket, I am inclined to concur, but it kept us very warm!

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After 7 hours we arrived in Oruro station, the sun had been up a few hours and we got to see some nice views before rolling in to the station. Now we just had to get some breakfast and walk to the bus terminal to get the bus to La Paz where there is a hotel waiting since Linn chose to use some of her “Hotel Credit” she got for christmas and book us three nights in advance.

Uyuni

We booked a hostel for one night after our great adventure in the salt desert, and the plan was to take the train to Oruro in the morning after. It turned out that the train does not run at Wednesdays, only at 00:05 on Thursdays. Because of this we had to spend one day in the city of Uyuni, and the city of Uyuni is more or less focused around getting away from there. Be it not on a tour to the salt flats, then maybe we can interest you in bus ride to La Paz?

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There is not much to do. In the evening when we arrived we ate pizza at a place called Minuteman Pizza which was very expensive in Bolivian terms, but rather cheap compared to Chile. If I remember correctly €18 bought us a large pizza, a beer and a coke, and it was probably the best pizza we had since we were in Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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The day after we had breakfast and packed up our bags, spent two hours queuing for train tickets and still had more or less 12 hours to fill with joy before it was time to get on the train. There is a rather large food market which we strolled around for a while, longing to be able to have a proper kitchen to cook food in when we come home.

After we spent one hour in the food market and another walking around the town, we still had many hours before Minuteman Pizza opened again and we could enjoy dinner there. I brought up my trusty map app, OsmAND, and saw that there is a museum on the other side of the rail tracks. Said and done, we took a walk there.

Upon first sight it became apparent that my map is ahead of its time, the museum is not close to being finished. Not having much else to do we walked closer and saw that it was a train museum and to be able to get the trains in they have already put them there, and were now building the walls. I asked one of the workers if we could enter and take a look, and to our surprise he welcomed us in to the museum/construction site.

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The trains here were very much more complete than the ones in the train graveyard from the day before, and were probably rolling not too long ago when they were brought in to the museum. I emitted the quote that “These trains would probably work if someone put in a few thousand hours”.

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It was a lot of fun to see these trains that must be at least 100 years old, and still in such a good shape. It would also be interesting to see if they are going to do some renovation work to the actual trains before opening the museum.

Time was dragging on and after a few episodes of criminal minds in the sofa at the hostel it was yet again pizza time. And later rather than sooner it was time to get to the train station, next stop Oruro and directly after it, La Paz!

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 3

The last day of the tour, and the day of the salt flats! Everybody felt better than the days before and we were happy to see the final and most anticipated event, the salt flats!. The night before our guide had told us that we could start the tour one hour later because of the rain. But 06:00 am our guide hadn’t showed. All the other drivers were ready but where was Richard? Around 08 am we spotted him in the kitchen barely able to sit up, he was still a bit drunk from the day before…

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After some coffee and a cake he was ready to begin our last day. It felt a little bit odd that the only drunk person out of the seven in the car was the one to drive. Fran in the front seat tried to have a conversation to help him to stay awake. But just after a few minutes the cars in front of us forced him to stop. The other drivers talked to him. Diego in our car said he could drive if Richard only showed him the way but if the police in the area caught us – it would not be good. So we continued slowly to the first stop.

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The salt flats had the mirror-effect the day we visited and it was so freaking cool.

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Jons only concern was that the mirror effect in the flats didn’t gave any private room to take a leak. But somehow he managed and was this happy.

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The problems for Richard didnt end with a hangover, Jon discovered a flat tire just before departure to the next stop. An extra tire was found and after a little time we were on our way again. To see the dry part of the salt flats. This phenomenon with both mirror effect and dry parts are very rare we were told. Still amazed by the view Fran and Diego in our car asked Richard to ride on the roof. And yes, we could sit on the roof if we took responsibility. Glad we did. Maybe the best ride this trip.

Before we needed to say goodbye to our new friends in Uyuni (they were going back to San Pedro with another car) we saw a train graveyard. Lots of hugs and “see you” we went to our pre-booked hostel and slept a few hours before we had dinner. Completely exhausted, but such a great experience from the trip, and with lovely people everyone of them!

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 2

The night was a pleasure since the magical pill I got from our guide the day before. My head felt heavy but no headache. All six of us had a coca tea for breakfast just to be sure, and then some pancakes. And just before we begin, this day all pictures in this post are taken by Fran or with her camera (except the last one).

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07.00 am it was time to get going to the first stop of the day, Árbol de Piedra.

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Árbol de Piedra, or the rock tree, is a stone that has been shaped into looking like a tree by the wind blasting it with sand from the desert around it.

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We had lunch at one of the lagoons (this one with some flamingos). I don’t remember what was special about this one (And yes, I was a little tired of all of the lagoons. Don’t misunderstand me, they were beautiful and they were uniquely placed in the landscape, but they may have been a few too many on the tour for my taste).

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Our guide stopped the car and showed us a some a rabbit-like animal called Viscacha on our way to the hostel for the night. And we saw some llamas as well.

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This was a day with lots of time in the car, and Jon told me later that we could have been at the hostel long before we actually arrived. Richard took a detour to show us the view!

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Over all we are surprised by the quality of the food, before we went on the tour the agency we booked with said that there will just be some basic food so make sure to bring lots of snacks. We had pancakes for breakfast, some kind of protein at lunch and a three-course dinner, every day! And the last night we got a bottle of wine. (As did our driver…)

Before we went to bed we went to a small carnival near by (as did our driver…). It was some dancing, music and some fire in the rain. We went back to to go to bed and get some sleep after 30 minutes (but our driver didn’t…).

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 1

The day before we were headed to the salt flats tour we stocked up on snacks and water as we were told by the tour operator. We brought 9 liters of water and a lot of crackers and chocolate. There was reports on the food not being plenty and of sub-par quality, hopefully crackers and chocolate would help us then. We also bought coca leafs to chew and make tea of to help with altitude sickness. Finally we bought a thick jumper each, and I bought a winter cap. It is cold at high altitude!

The first day began with waking up at 06:30, grabbing our already packed bags and breakfast that our hostel kindly had prepared for us. The bus took us first to the Chilean border control, conveniently located in San Pedro. There we got our exit stamp as we both had been good enough not to loose the receipt that we got when entering Chile.

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After this the bus drove us to the Bolivian border control, at an altitude of about 4000 meters even walking made us need to stop to catch our breath. The border control is quick and without anything fancy, EU passport holders just get the stamp, others might have to pay and get the stamp. At no point did anyone mention anything about a “fee” to get the stamp other than the official one for US citizens among others.

After getting the stamp we were served a very nice breakfast, leaving the one we brought from the hostel redundant. We were asked to arrange ourselves in groups of six in each group, we found a great group!

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In the picture above, taken by Fran who was the 6th member of the group is, from left to right:

Diego, German, Linn, Felipe and me, Jon. We all had a great time together during our trip through the desert, along with our driver Richard. And thanks to Fran who brought a real camera we will have very good pictures from the whole tour!

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Here we have our first stop to actually see something on the tour, Laguna Verde, the green lagoon. The green color comes from minerals that are stirred up by the wind. We were actually lucky to see it as the wind started blowing just as we made our stop.

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Back in the Land Cruiser for a while before we arrived at Desierto de Dalí which is a part of the desert that got its name because looks very similar to the paintings of Salvador Dalí. If you imagine some melting clocks in the frame above you might understand where they got the name from. (picture by Fran).

After another while in the car we visited some hot springs which we got an opportunity to take a dip in. at 38 degrees Celsius it was more than welcome. It really gets cold at altitude, we were wearing double jumpers, a wind jacket a winter hats but still felt cold at times. The only bad thing about the hot springs was that you needed to get up after a while as we had to continue to our next destination.

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At a lovely altitude of almost 5000 meters my headache was getting worse even though I tried to chew as much coca leafs as possible. Linn was also enjoying a worsening headache combined with some dizziness.

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But you have to sacrifice something to see the planet do things like this. A big field of geysers with some gray boiling substance was presented to us. Some of the geysers even gave away big whiffs of smoke, with a smell of sulfur, somewhat hard to decide if it smelled like matches or a fart.

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After yet some more time in our lovely car we arrived at our stop for the night (photo by Fran) at an altitude of 4700 m. Here we were served a late lunch consisting of mashed potato, sausage and a salad. After all we had done during the day, nothing ever tasted so good!

Linns altitude sickness was getting worse, and the plan was to leave the hostel for a while to see a nearby lagoon that is home to a lot of flamingos. When walking to the car Linn almost fainted and decided to stay and try to get some sleep. I and the rest of the group drove to the lagoon while I was teaching them some Swedish words and they taught me Chilean slang. Cachai? Snö. Filete.

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The lagoon was colored red by algae and is housing a population of at least a few hundred flamingos. A lot nicer than to see the few flamingos in a zoo living more or less in their own excrement (at least that is how it usually smells). The flamingos were not even that afraid of us, we could get rather close to watch them dredging the lagoon for food.

After our flamingo spotting we went back to the hostel to have some coffee and some well earned rest. Most of the day was spent sitting in a car, but that takes its toll when it is at high altitude. Linns altitude sickness had worsened further, symptoms including nosebleed and getting rid of the lunch. We made her some coca tea and our driver Richard gave her a pill. In the end I think that the pill did the main part of the work and the coca tea was there as a helper, but she felt a lot better and slept like a baby.

We all slept great, the beds were not too comfortable but we got many thick blankets and stayed warm even though I and Linn did not have any sleeping bags with us. The exhaustion from a day filled with too many things did also help to make sure we slept good.