We’re in Bolivia! Woo! The border crossing was relatively straightforward albeit loooong. Two bastard hours we stood in a queue for as one single human being processed everyone crossing into Bolivia that day. Also we’ve no idea how long we’re allowed to stay for as there’s nothing on the stamp to tell us and we forgot to ask. We’re only here for three weeks so here’s hoping we won’t get arrested at the airport for overstaying.
In a classic rookie error situation, we didn’t know that we’d be rocking up in the midst of a public holiday. Doesn’t sound too awful no? Probably good fun, yes? But the banks, and therefore the Western Union, would be closed until Wednesday and we had no money.
“Well just use the ATM!” I hear you cry. Oh that was the first thing we tried but there are only two. One doesn’t accept Mastercard and the other got halfway through the transaction before crashing. It did this every time. Well, shit.
We had US$36 dollars in change and found a shop which bought said dollars at an acceptable rate. All our other dollars were in large bills though so the mission for Monday was try to find somewhere with enough Bolivianos knocking around to change a couple of hundred dollars which we did so we’re not going to starve or worse, have to go without a motor impairment beverage. The woman in the cambio was delighted when we told her where we were from.
“Good music!” she declared, then proceeded to rattle off her favourite British bands. There doesn’t seem to be an issue with the amount of dollars you can change either.
We extended our stay to Thursday so we could get to the Western Union on the Wednesday but the thing with Tupiza is, despite the slew of tour agencies offering the four day trip to the Salar de Uyuni, it’s very much just your standard Bolivian town. There’s not a huge amount to do. You can have a wander around the markets selling coca leaves and 96% alcohol that you can actually drink much to the chagrin of your liver but once you’ve done that, what next?
So there’s a little walk you can do to some named rock type things and no, we’re not bored of rocks yet. These are different rocks! We got up early on account of wanting to get as much of this circular walk done as possible before the air turned to lava and our eyeballs melted. None of this shit is signposted, you need a map, so carefully following a GPX file I got off the mighty Interwebs off we fucked to the outskirts of Tupiza, through a gauntlet of dogs.
Dogs are a thing here. They all seem to belong to someone but they also just go about their day like they own the town. The ones on the outskirts are a bit too shouty for my liking, since I became a postie I’ve developed a wariness of shouty canines. Once you’re out of town you’re walking along a litter strewn section which I think does lead to an actual rubbish dump but I guess some people just couldn’t be arsed driving that extra little bit. It fucking stank too. The kind of stench that puts your gag reflex to the test.
Then you swing a right past a large, dilapidated board welcoming you to the Ecoparque Encantado and yes, it’s a stunner. There’s a big formation you can put in your eyeholes called Puerta del Diablo, Devil’s Door, and that’s a bit of alright. But what’s really going to have your drool glands working overtime are the towering spikes dominating the landscape. Tarrant said they looked like massive termite mounds and she’s not wrong. Some of them also look like a giant sex toy collection. For lesbians we’re far too easily amused by phallic objects.
It’s a very flat trail so far, aside from veering off for Puerta del Diablo you’re on a 4WD track. It’s covered in fine gravel so it’s a bit like walking on sand which is a ballache but it’s manageable. Then you get to Cañon del Inca and someone has built some, well, some stuff. None of this trail is waymarked at all which made the fact that someone has taken the time to install tables and seating and an actual composting toilet even weirder. It’s like, nothing nothing nothing… random infrastructure.
It’s gorgeous though. We made our way up a tiny stream to a dead end. Hmm. There should be a way through. Tarrant spotted a turn off which led us up through the rocks but again, we were at a dead end. We searched for a way through to no avail. I’d read there was a bit of climbing involved but it was easy. I think whoever wrote the walk report was seven foot tall. We couldn’t find anywhere we’d be comfortable climbing. Well that’s that then. Our circular walk became an out-and-back but it was still a very enjoyable morning.
We spent the rest of the day chilling at the hostel in between wandering around town. Today was the last day of Carnaval and it was an odd mix of people just going about their day and people very much in the party spirit. There was a band wandering through town with trumpets and drums led by a bloke waving a flag and several women dancing. They were relentless. We saw them in the morning and several times in the afternoon and when we couldn’t see them we could hear them.
People had decorated their vehicles with streamers and balloons and they’d made piles of coals in front of the cars to burn coca leaves. Then they’d get a litre of beer and pour it on the wheels, then they’d take turns to shake the bottle and walk around the car, spraying it with beer. We stood and watched, absolutely fascinated. I’m going to assume it’s something to do with offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth, for blessings. All over town people had these little coal barbecues, or they’d put the coals onto a tile, and it seemed they were all for burning offerings. Firecrackers were also very definitely a thing, they’d been set off all day by adults and children alike.
Later, when we went out to get some dinner, the whole town had turned into one big water fight and everyone was fair game. Kids with water guns fired at us, a little girl lobbed a water balloon out of a car, people were hurling water from balconies. I was feeling quite smug that I’d gotten off lightly simply by using Tarrant as a human shield before I was caught with a direct hit to the tits by someone from the back of a tuktuk. What a shot! We were hit again as we left the restaurant, and again by a group from the back of a pick up truck. If we’d known this was going to be a thing we’d have armed ourselves. It was a lot of fun though.
By Wednesday everything returned to what I assume is normal. The bank was open and there was no queue. Woo! The guard stopped us and said something in Spanish. I replied with, “Western Union?” It took a few tries but we eventually understood that we needed some photocopies and printouts and there were plenty of places to do this, so we did. By then there was a fuck off great big queue which we stood in for about fifteen minutes. We got to the front, showed the guard everything and he told us we needed a face mask. Fuck. I’d stopped carrying one of those. We hurriedly bought one and he let me to the front and handed me a number. Right. I was number 90. We were on 65. I took a seat.
It was about half an hour before my number was called. I got to the desk, handed over the paperwork, showed her the tracking number on my phone… yeah I know, I should have fucking realised. I needed a printout of that too. Y’know what? No. I’m not standing in that queue again. Fuck no. I cancelled the transfer and we went back to our Rolling Stones loving lady in the cambio on Calle Avaroa and changed more dollars. Sure, the rate isn’t as good and you always lose out at exchange houses but I’ll take that £10 hit just so I don’t have to queue at the bank again.
I’ve struggled a bit with Tupiza. It’s not the town itself, it’s the money thing. I hate not just being able to get money. The extra hassle with the Western Union didn’t help my general mood either. Tarrant is struggling with the culture shock of Bolivia. There’s not really a culture of sitting somewhere like a bar or a café and just chilling and once you take that out of the equation she’s no idea what she’s doing with her life. The altitude has had a bit of an impact too, we’re just shy of 3000 m.a.s.l. in Tupiza which is higher than we were when we hauled our unfit selves up Mount Olympus so it’s no wonder my braincells periodically feel like they’re exploding and breathing after walking upstairs has become quite the event.
Jump to “Useful shit to know…”
Tupiza, Potosí Department, Bolivia
Stayed at: Hostel Valle Hermoso, Tupiza
Useful shit to know…
How To Get From Salta To Tupiza Via The La Quiaca – Villazón Border Crossing
- The earliest bus I could find left at 4.40am with Andesmar. You can book online or you can buy your tickets at the station.
- At the time of writing the tickets were AR$4360 each.
- We arrived at La Quiaca about half an hour earlier than scheduled, Argentinian time.
- Bolivia is an hour behind Argentina.
- It isn’t far to walk to the border but it’s not signposted so if you don’t have a map you’ll need to ask directions.
- If you have an Argentinian SIM card you’ll already be on roaming by now and my 4G absolutely did not work on either my UK or Argentinian SIM.
- There are five portacabins. The first one is where you’ll exit Argentina. The queue was small and we were done within 10 minutes.
- We were told to go to the third cabin next. The queue was huge and snaked around the back of the first cabin.
- Another foreigner said he’d been told if you didn’t have a car then you could just walk through but we’d been directed to this cabin. He asked an official for us in perfect Spanish and she confirmed that yes, we needed to queue for this cabin. Basically if someone says you can just walk through, you cannot.
- We queued for two hours. There’s no shelter so if it’s hot then make sure you have suncream and water. The guy behind us fainted.
- Once you’re at the desk just hand over your passports. They’ll ask you where you’re going.
- They don’t stamp your passport but instead they give you a separate piece of paper with a stamp. I’m going to assume we need to keep this very safe. There’s also nothing to say how long you have in the country and we forgot to ask. That’ll be fun when we come to leave.
- There’s a QR code on the slip of paper which takes you to THIS WEBSITE where you need to create an account and declare where you’re staying.
- We’d already done this but if you haven’t already I believe you have 48 hours to get it done.
- You also need to update it as you move around the country.
- You’re almost in Bolivia. Walk over the bridge to the Health Point where you need to show them your Covid vaccination certificates.
- They’ll ask you where you’re going in Bolivia and where you just came from in Argentina, plus your nationality.
- They took one passport and entered some details into a computer. They asked us if we were travelling together and as we are they only needed one passport.
- Once you’re through and into Villazón there are loads of places to change money but you’re only going to get about half what your pesos are worth.
- There are loads of toilets too. I was charged Bs1 to use one.
- Colectivos leave from the road by the old bus station going to Uyuni and Tupiza. Maybe other places too.
- We were initially quoted Bs20 to get to Tupiza but a guy then sidled up to him and said he should charge us Bs25 so he did. Foreigner tax I guess.
- They’ll leave when the minivan is full.
- It only took about 90 minutes through some stunning scenery and we were dropped at the bus terminal in Tupiza.
About The SIGEMIG Migratory Management System
- The Bolivian government now requires you to fill out an online form detailing your accommodation.
- You’ll need to visit http://sistemas.migracion.gob.bo/sigemig and create an account.
- I spoke to someone whose .co.uk email address wasn’t accepted so they had to use an old .com email account.
- Once your account is created your username and password are the same, and it’s your passport number.
- When you are entering your accommodation details there’s a drop down with a list of hotels. Don’t worry if yours isn’t on there, you can input it manually.
- We had to do this but kept getting an error message though of course it doesn’t tell you why.
- Tarrant had the idea to take the gaps out of the phone number that we’d copied and pasted and that seemed to solve the problem.
- You’ve got to update it as you move around the country. Honestly, Bolivia never used to be this difficult!
Western Union In Tupiza
- The Western Union is part of the Banco Union. You use the same counters as people doing their day to day banking.
- It’s not as simple as it is in Argentina where you just need to show your tracking number on your phone and hand over your passport.
- You need a photocopy of your passport and entry stamp, and a printout of your accommodation declaration and the Western Union tracking details. They won’t accept it on your phone.
- Then you queue to get in. A security guard will give you a number and you go and sit down and wait for your number to be called.
- At the time of writing, face masks were mandatory inside the bank. A shop across the road sells them for Bs1.
- You can get your photocopies and printouts done at a shop diagonally opposite the bank on the corner of Calle Florida and Calle Cochabamba.