Saturday, December 31, 2011

Buenos Aires to the Bolivian Border

During my flight from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina I discovered that the man sitting next to me was from New Zealand and he is a geologist.  He was not at all like the geology grade school documentary; you know the ones that just talk about rocks and sediment?  Murray is a consultant for mining companies searching for lithium; the material used in our cell phone and computer batteries.  He then asked me what I was doing and I explained that after living and studying abroad in Santiago, Chile and traveling the world for many years in a prescribed kind of way, I decided to trade in my Travelpro for a backpack and hit the airports, roads, rails, boats and whatever else comes my way in South America.

This is what I love about traveling and not having a defined itinerary.  You meet fellow travelers and most are helpful at pointing you or literally taking you in the right direction. After our flight Murray was kind enough to offer me a ride to the Salta Bus Terminal.  Some people I end up hanging out with for a day or so but in this case it was welcomed ride to the bus terminal.

The Salta Bus Terminal is somewhat new but nothing fancy.  There is a café where you can connect to their wifi as long as you make a purchase.  Buying bus tickets in Argentina is fairly easy to do but it can be overwhelming with a dozen bus companies trying to sell you tickets.  First, have a few questions ready.  Things to keep in mind are what kind of bus are they using like a microbus or a larger tour bus.  Ask to see a photo and photos of the types of seating.  Semi-cama is good for long rides up to 10 hours, but for me I will purchase a cama seat for 12+ hour bus rides.  Argentinean bus companies have rather nice buses.  There are one or two companies that could use some upgrading, but overall the buses are really nice, especially the “cama” seats that lie (almost) flat.  Some companies provide complimentary snacks and some for sale.  I usually bring my own supply fruit and nuts and water.  Second, ask how much it costs and what time it leaves AND arrives.  In some places ticket prices are reduced as it gets closer to departure time so don’t be afraid to ask for a discount.  If you don’t ask then the answer is no.  Thirdly, ask to see which seats are available.  I usually go for the front row window and far from the toilets. 

After purchasing your ticket you will head to the rear of the bus to check your larger backpack or suitcase.  They will tag it and give you a receipt.  Be prepared with a couple of coins to give a propina (tip) to the guys loading bags (equivalent to .50 - $1).  In most cases they will ask for propinas.  Because I want to ensure my bag stays on the bus or train and intact, I have no problem handing over a buck.  It’s money well spent. 

On this bus trip I have a front row semi-cama seat on the second floor that provided panoramic views.  The ride from Salta to La Quiaca, the Argentinean border town to Bolivia was a stunning ride.  My 7-hour bus ride departed at 3:00pm, which I got to cruise through the mountains during sunset and is was beautiful.  I had not expected such amazing scenery from Salta to La Quiaca.

Arriving in La Quiaca late at night leaves you nothing to do because everything is closed, including the border.  It’s best to just head to your hostel and make the border crossing the morning.  This is one of those times where I made my arrangement ahead of time because I knew I would arrive after border closing and rather late at night.  Upon arrival I recommend using a taxi and negotiate your fare before getting in the cab.  I think my 5 or 6 block ride to my hostel cost about $6 ARG pesos, which is about $1.50 USD. 

One thing you should know about most South American bus companies is that they show movies, which are usually Hollywood “B” or “C” shoot’em-up movies.  Listening to men screaming over helicopters and constant movie gunfire could be migraine inducing because it’s not like airplane where you can choose to unplug the headset because the volume is played throughout the entire bus.  Once or twice I told the bus attendant that the sound was “más fuerte” meaning very strong and they were kind enough to lower the volume.  Being that most of the movies are dubbed in Spanish and have Spanish subtitles no one will miss anything.  Either way, I recommend bringing a fully charged iPod or high decibel rated earplugs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Highway Cowboys - The Bolivian Bus

The title pretty much says it all.  Bus drivers in Bolivia ARE highway cowboys.

I had read that the road to Tupiza and Uyuni from Villazón was a bone-breaking washboard road so I wanted to take the train to Tupiza.  Since trains do not run on schedules like the modern transportation systems in developed countries and I wanted out of the border town!  I decided that the next bus to Tupiza (in 3-hours) was the way to go. 
The Bolivian buses are a completely different experience than that of the Chilean and Argentinean buses.  First, the prices are cheap, like really really cheap.  My ride from Villazón, Bolivia (border of Argentina and Bolivia) to Tupiza, Bolivia costs B$20 (B-Bolivianos), which is about $2.89 USD.  At that price I knew I shouldn’t expect much so I bought the window seat for my backpack and the aisle for myself. 

All three buses departing at 3:00pm from Villazón depart at the same time and each one was in a hurry to get there.  Sitting in the front row on a double-decker bus in Bolivia is not for the faint-of-heart types.  The ride was fast and furious.  It was as if we were playing leap-frog because the three buses kept passing one another throughout the entire 1.5 hour ride, which isn’t so bad when roads are flat and straight.  The twists and turns through the mountains had made me wish I had had a glass of wine, no, make that a bottle wine.  At one point we reached a detour where a tunnel through the mountain was closed for repair and a new makeshift tunnel had been carved.  The double-decker narrowly crept through the tunnel and successfully to boot.  Also, that washboard road I mentioned?  It was paved!  I made it to Tupiza in one piece with my nerves barely intact.  And of course upon arrival at my hostel I met a few other travelers who told me that I could have taken a taxi for B$25, $3.62 USD, minus the 3-hour wait and minus the nerve jumping bus ride.  Go figure.

In Tupiza I had planned to stay for just a day and I had hoped to catch a Salar de Uyuni tour, the 4-day salt flat tours going Uyuni since that was my next destination.  One thing I did not anticipate was that traveling solo to Tupiza and catching a 4-day tour would be a challenge.  I spent hours going from one tour company to tour company and had no luck of getting on a tour.  If the tour operators do not have enough people (usually 4-6 people) then the tour is a no-go.  Even after hanging around town and hitting some gringo hangouts I still could not gather enough people to make the trip happen.  Many of the people arriving in Tupiza are coming from Uyuni, on a tour of course.  Being that is was “off-season” did not help the situation either. 

So now what?  I can hang around Tupiza or make my way to Uyuni and hopefully get on a salt flat tour.  I decided to hang Tupiza for another night since it is situated in a beautiful mountain range.  As the sun shifts over the mountains the colors in the mountains turn from reds, orange, rust colors and then the clouds appear to be pink and blue cotton candy.  Besides, the train was leaving the next afternoon for Uyuni and I did not want to take a Bolivian night bus because sleeping in my brand new comfy hostel is a better choice for Bolivian bus rattled nerves.            

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time Well Spent - Family Time in Buenos Aires

Family time has its ups and downs and its ins and outs, but overall family time is usually a good time.  These days it seems that families are spreading out and it’s not uncommon to have relatives on other continents.  Staying in touch has come a long way and it is much easier to stay connected with the help of technology and applications like Facebook, Skype, Google Chat, etc, although I am still a fan of sending postcards.  After all, who doesn’t like to receive postcards?

Although I do not get to spend as much time with my entire family as I would like, I am appreciative of modern technologies that enable me to stay in touch.  Those same technologies are also helping me connect with other people who live abroad.  For example, I have a friend Isaias, who lives in Puerto Rico and thanks to Facebook we can keep up with each other.  Before leaving for South America I reached out to several people who I know also know other people living abroad, specifically South America.  Afer reaching out to Isaias, he put me in touch with his friend Daniel, who lives in Buenos Aires.  After meeting Daniel and family for a brief 24 hours, I knew I had to go back a visit with them in Buenos Aires before setting out on my journey across South America with a backpack. 

Daniel and family are just so kind and thoughtful.  When I stayed with them the second time I felt right at home.  It was so nice to spend time with a family that really enjoys spending time together.  They treated me so well and they made me feel like part of the family.  We shared wonderful meals and spent a day touring La Recoleta Cemetery where many of Argentina’s famous people have been laid to rest like Evita Peron. Also, we toured La Manzana de las Luces.  “Manzana” is an old name for a city block and “las Luces” refers to the area being an education or intellectual center in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Luces translates to “lights” in English, but more like the “light bulb” that goes on when you have a brilliant idea.  You get the idea? 

After spending five months in Santiago, Chile and not having any “family time,” it was a treat to spend a few days with Daniel and family.  It was the prefect way to recharge my batteries and feel somewhat normal and connected to people; to be a part of a family.  This really meant so much to me because I knew for the next 5-6 weeks I would be traveling alone through South America and I am especially grateful for their time and more importantly – their family time.     

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making it Happen in South America

For several years now my friend Paul had made several attempts at planning a trip to South America, specifically Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina.  Unfortunately those trips fell through for various reasons, some being that potential travel companions backed out or the timing just wasn’t right.  I have been in this situation several times so I know the letdown and disappointment.  Travel is exciting and for many people they prefer to travel with a friend. That’s usually the case for me but I think solo travel is also good for the soul.

Knowing that I was heading back to Chicago in November for a few days and returning to South America, I invited Paul to come to Argentina and Chile with me.  I knew I could help make it happen and all he really had to do was show up.  At first there was a bit of a glitch because the flights I wanted to depart on from Washington, D.C. to Buenos Aires (BA) were oversold.  I decided it was best to wait another day, which worked out wonderfully because we were both issued business class seats to Buenos Aires.

Upon arrival in BA, my new friend Daniel (that's another story) graciously greeted us in the arrival hall.  Although I had requested to be greeted with balloons, Daniel took a fantastic photo of our arrival.  Thereafter he whisked us away to city of Buenos Aires.  During the one-hour drive Daniel had suggested we had to give the Reader's Digest version of our life stories with about a 7-10 minute time limit.  It was perfect because we had arrived at Daniel’s house just as we finished our Reader’s Digest life stories.

Once we arrived at the house, Daniel’s lovely wife Teresa greeted us along with daughter Jasmine, two dogs and two cats.  Of course I felt right at home.  Unfortunately I could only stay for one day but it was a fantastic day!

After spending the afternoon walking the streets of BA, Paul and I met up with Daniel and family (minus the pets) and had a lovely dinner at a restaurant called Bahama.  It was the first time in almost five months that I have had beef, like really good beef.  What was even better was the company, which was a great start to making it happen.