The crossing into Bolivia will go down in history as one of the most miserable travel days of all time. (We all know I’m prone to exaggeration… But it’s true).We want to love Bolivia… But the simple truth is that Bolivia doesn’t love us… And really doesn’t want us here. Let’s give you a little insight as to why we feel this way…
Simply because we carried an American passport, crossing the border was a bit unpleasant… (I’m checking out any way I can get a passport with ANY other country…) As Americans, we were singled out as the ONLY people trying to enter Bolivia to be given hell. While every other country just needed to open a blank page of their passports for their stamp and were told to have fun and spend lots of money in Bolivia… It didn’t go quite as smoothly for us.
Together, four of us Americans were thrust aside from the rest of the world (again, I’m talking literally here). We were told we needed to pay extra to go take passport photos, as well as needed copies of our passports to hand in (we had this), a copy of our yellow fever vaccination, 2 passport pictures (Al and I ended up looking like captured criminals), an invitation letter in Spanish from whoever we’ll be staying with, and US $160. We had only brought $140 each per the US visa website, thus ended up short $40. Crap.
Although we were completely unaware at the time, at the hour of our greatest need… our savior approaches. Bouncing along with his thin mustache, lanky body, and absolutely Aussie “no worries” attitude, our savior at the Bolivian border turned out to be none other than the self-proclaimed Chino-flaco, Michael. (Michael introduces himself as chino-flaco, which literally translates to Skinny Chinese Guy.)
Michael (from Australia), is THE most upbeat, kindhearted, and positive person I’ve ever met. He loves to use the F-word, and truly does so in the most kind and pleasant way possible. When he realized that all we needed to cross the border was $40 American dollars, he looked exasperated and said “Well F$&@, why didn’t you say so?! Here you go!” And hands us $40 American bucks. With promises we would pay him back, he responds with, “I’m not worried about it at all! It’s ok if you don’t!” And we could tell he truly wasn’t worried about it. He insisted it wasn’t necessary for me to get his email to be sure we found each other again. What a good lesson for all of us to be as KIND and unattached to money as Michael, especially as most travelers keep a pretty tight budget… $40 isn’t chump change to ANY long term traveler.
So- Alli and I made it into Bolivia, despite the hour long threat from our bus driver that he would leave us. (I get it, the entire bus of 50 people was waiting on 4 Americans… But we paid for that bus too and we weren’t about to get left at the border thanks to Bolivia treating us like criminals! (The other 2 Americans actually DID get left at the border…. They didn’t have the proper papers…and were forced to walk back to Peru).
So Bolivia… I understand that “my country” makes it very difficult for others to visit the United States. I understand that they make the poor Bolivian people with little means pay hundreds of dollars for a visa to the US- I understand this is a political problem between these countries, and Americans traveling abroad having to pay these reciprocity fees is just a small piece of this big stupid and greedy game… But Alli and I hated it. Get it together, Obama…. But I digress…
After he saved us, Michael and Alli and I ended up spending the next week together! The three of us got along so well, we miss him quite badly actually now that we’ve parted ways…
Our first priority after crossing the border was to find a refrigerator for Alli’s meds that had already been out of a fridge for over 10 hot hours (they NEED to stay cold). After being refused at one restaurant, we warily approached the owner of another restaurant… expecting to be treated like trespassers again. When we asked him (Rudy) if we could keep the meds in his refrigerator, he said, “Por supuesto!” (Of course!) Alli and I looked at him in shock and relief, looked at each other- and both of us burst into tears. Rudy’s kindness in our time of great need will never be forgotten. We realized the emotional exhaustion and stress that the border had put us through after our reaction to the first kind-hearted Bolivian that we met was to start sobbing. (Granted- night buses seem to do that to us…)
First stop in Bolivia: Copacabana and Isla del Sol. We ended up spending the night on the north side of Isla del Sol, which is pretty rustic. Along with Michael, we took the 3 hour boat ride to the island, and found our way to a $2.80/night hostel with a view of the bay and Lake Titicaca. (Steep prices for such a view, I know.) Michael and Alli and I spent all our time at Isla del Sol hiking, drinking our daily beers, eating massive $0.72 empanadas for dinner, checking out 360 degree astounding views (water surrounding us, snow capped mountains in the distance), and being yelled at a bit more by some Bolivians. They made sure we knew they were happier without us tourists. Our bad- we had no idea…. Thanks for sharing your beautiful land and culture with us….
After a few days in Titicaca area we took a bus to La Paz with Michael. Michael ended up running into (quite literally) his Colombian friend, Nicolás, that he had hiked some old Incan ruins with weeks prior. Alli and I also ran into our Argentinian friends (that were in our hostel in Cusco) on the paths of Isla del Sol. The world of travelers is the smallest… The coincidental stories go on and on. (The same 4 German guys that we had seen at the top of the mountain back in Huaraz in our first 4 days, we ran into at a restaurant 3 weeks later and hundreds of miles away in a remote island in Bolivia.) HA.
Once we arrived in La Paz… Alli and I, along with Nicolás and Michael, and the 3 Argentinian guys, formed a group of 7. Together we searched for a steal of a deal and a company to bike down the Death Road with. It was definitely the best group of people to potentially die with. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. While the boys haggled for a good group price, Alli and I were off in the corner chugging the “free” water. (We bought only three bottles of water for our entire time in Peru. We had stubbornly used our Steri-pen and Lifestraw to save on water costs. So to us, tasting actually clean/filtered water was like tasting heaven!)
We found a reputable company (Barracuda- who we highly recommend) and after just a few hours sleep we were off again! After we finished the 5 hour descent thru mountainous, rocky, cliff-ridden, slippery roads with astounding views… We arrived at paradise. Part of the tour included a pool at the end of a sweaty incline (first time in 3 weeks that Alli and I felt what it’s like to be hot/not freezing!) where we sipped beers in the sun and reminisced about that time 3 hours prior in which we almost fell 200 meters to our sure death. But- there we were laughing about it! Our group was awesome and we had just one small slip up/fall… “He who shall not be named” slid off his bike on one of the hairpin corners, but he jumped right back up and kept going. Some passing by have described him as “Chino-flaco”, but it remains a mystery as to who it was…
That night, we returned to La Paz and hung out there for about 3 days straight with Michael and Nicolás. Over that time, we enjoyed some local food at the market, (each of us succeeded in paying just $1.30 for a massive two-course amazing meal), walked around the witches market looking for trouble, ate ice cream/fruit/yogurt creations made of heaven, walked around street vendors, checked out some dead llama fetuses, nearly got into trouble at la Ceja market (saved by the Colombiano sense), found the country’s best burger stand EVER, and went to a Bolivian club and succeeded in making the dance floor HAPPENIN’. (The locals either love or hate us gringos…), and we also found a friend who had a connection to all 4 of us. I have to tell this story because it shows how small the travelers world is and how we always run into each other!
Michael met Nicolás on a trip to Machu Picchu. They meet Derek, from NY, USA, who ends up convincing them to do a different trek with him. The 3 of these guys hang, doing the trek to some Incan ruins for about 4 days together, then they split ways. Michael runs into Nicolás again when we’re all in Copacabana. We all 4 hang. Our last night together at the hostel, this kid Derek from NY walks into our hostel. Derek freaks out upon seeing Nicolás and Michael again. Then, this kid I’ve never seen before looks at Alli and I and says, “I know you two as well. You were on my plane from NYC to Lima”. Later he also tells us that he saw us in Cuzco too, where he pointed us out to Michael, mentioning how we had been on his plane a few weeks ago. Michael remembers seeing us too and remembered the classic headband I’ve been wearing. Little did he know he would be our guardian angel a few weeks later!!
That’s enough rambling for now folks!
Up next: Alli and Elizabeth meet kind Bolivians who want them in Bolivia!
Things we’ve learned in week 3:
1) Bolivians aren’t interested in bargaining with the tourists they don’t even want
2) Taking a boat to Isla del Sol may take twice as long as expected because you have to make a stop to a small pueblo to unload cement to build an entire school.
3) It’s quite possible to enjoy a massive meal for about $1 in Bolivia.
4) If and when possible, travel with a South American- they can sense when danger is near.
5) Whether a Bolivian knows what time mass is or not, when you ask them, they’ll tell you a time with certainty, and it is most likely incorrect.
6) Sprinkling 99% alcohol on the earth, on your bike, and down your throat may contribute to saving your life while riding down Death Road. (Thanks Pacha-mamma!)
7) We finally learned how to eat like a local in South America.
8) When you need an 8-10 hour overnight bus, go to the station just 30 minutes before the bus leaves, and you snag it for 70% off. (Our last two 9-hour bus rides cost us about $4 each).
9) Any time you find yourself in a place with unlimited free water, drink more than your fill- it will NEVER happen again.
10) Sometimes all you need is a little more time to understand and warm up to a country. 🙂 but more on this lesson next week!!!