Bolivia | Accidently in Argentina

The journey to La Paz from Copacabana is easy enough, with frequent departures from the only major intersection in town.

You do, however, have to ford the lake, Oregon Trail-style, as there’s no bridge connecting the two parts of the country.

We had to get out of the minibus and watch as it floated across the most narrow stretch of Lake Titicaca, then take a separate boat that sat so deep in the water that it was one good sneeze away from submerging. What a hilariously exhilarating experience – probably the most entertaining thing that’s happened in quite some time.

Even with our cinematic crossing and theatrically disordered arrival, I cannot say that La Paz is the most pleasant of cities; the streets are chaotic and sorted in a disarray of sheet metal and frail planks, the external electrical wiring that is so typical in South America even more unsightly and suspect than average. Though the central cathedral is grand, it lacks a square to show off its virtues. Instead, a tangle of highways and vertically built markets clutter the area, clogging the land with traffic and fumes. It’s not an altogether cursed place, however, and does have some redeeming features. For one, La Paz’s main beauty comes from its dramatic location. A series of switchback-like roads leading away from the city can grant the observer a splendid view of the crumbling metropolis in all its creams and browns, laying softly in the bowl of the sharply descending valley. Houses cling to the edges of those dusty mountains and neighborhoods wind patternlessly toward the center, where a gleaming group of high-rises indicate the business center of town and mark the otherwise undetectable modern world.

The main draw in this area was, for us, the ruined city of Tiwanaku, which was once quite vast and powerful. Little is excavated, however, and Tiwanaku is relatively unknown, though surely Bolivia’s most impressive archeological site. Since it is in the absolute middle of nowhere, we had to hire a taxi to take us to the sight, then act as our chauffeur and wait for our return. Though I suspect the sight has been heavily reconstructed, it is not unimpressive. The ruin complex is pretty large, with the Templo de Kalasasaya and the Templete Semisubterraneo providing the most structure to the sight. In addition to the main ruins, there are two small museums and a smaller batch of ruins on site. The ticket is pricey for Bolivia, but includes admission to all four attractions. One of the museums is home to an enormous stone statue that is kept inside the darkest of rooms, making the place well worth the side visit. In the same pretty building, a multitude of other stonework lies undisplayed behind blocked doorway – we sneaked a peek over the barricade.

Overall, the journey to Tiwanaku ended up pretty ok. Upon our return, we almost immediately boarded a night bus headed to Uyuni – it was, shall we say, less than stellar. Seated across the stairwell in broken “sleeper seats” permanently fixed in the “horizontal position,” we were already frustrated when a woman across the way from us began throwing an absolute fit because we had our window cracked. She yelled and howled and banged on the stairwell partition until the attendant came. He took one look at our window, shrugged, then left. And, let me tell you, it was very hot in there. The best part is that the woman’s daughter proceeded to blast horrible Bolivian music on her cell phone, well over the contraption’s ideal volume maximum. This, mind you, is typical non-Western behavior, but never have we endured it for quite so long. Even through the film, the daughter continued providing the entire vehicle with her harsh melodies all night long.

It gets better: we are accidentally in Argentina.

You might be asking yourself, how exactly does one accidentally end up in another country? Well, it’s quite simple: one takes a bus to a town where the bus never actually stops. After repeatedly asking if the bus goes to Uyuni, having our tickets checked multiple times, and then asking the driver if we were in Uyuni on several occasions, we never stopped in Uyuni. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that we didn’t even take the road that goes near Uyuni. Isn’t that grand? By the time we figured this all out, however, we were in Tupiza, a town that is only a few hours from the Argentina border. So, we prepared ourselves for an unplanned arrival in Argentina while winding down desert roads, more amazed than anything else. We had been on the bus for somewhere over twenty hours by the time we reached the border town. Most of the time, we weren’t even on roads at all, given the extraneous number of “detours” along the only “road” for many, many miles. (A detour in Bolivia is just a spot of off-roading in vehicles that should not be off-roading in the first place.) The climate through most of our drive was so insanely inhospitable to human life that it is a miracle, as far as I’m concerned, that people have made their way to inhabiting these places at all.

The border crossing was particularly terrible. We got caught in a line that literally did not move for hours in heat that was pulsing and brutal. When we finally reached the immigration counter, I was amazed to find that only one man was “working” the counter, while a coworker sat on his left drinking Sprite out of a coca tea straw. They were just joking around and taking their leisurely time (including liberal siestas) while the crowd sizzled in the piercing sun. After a solid day on a crummy bus, I was infuriated to say the least, especially when our bags were searched. Exhausted but determined to settle somewhere decent, we followed two random people with luggage to what we hoped was the bus terminal, where we caught a bus to Salta that connected midway with yet another bus. And then we got stopped for a thorough government drug search, which took an hour at minimum, and required for us to queue up in lines of gender in the freezing night. And we still didn’t have a place to stay when we rolled into Salta near midnight. I think it’s safe to say we’ll be avoiding long-distance buses for a while.

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