Saturday, April 20, 2019

Adios & Ciao Argentina, Hola Bolivia

After spending the past few weeks traveling from central to northern Argentina, I had to make a big decision: whether or not to cross the border into Chile for the sole purpose of visiting the Atacama Desert. The desert was always on my "must see" list for this trip, particularly because I enjoy looking at the night sky, and the Atacama is considered one of the best places in the world for stargazing. However, my timing was completely off and I would be in the desert during the week of the full moon, when the observatory is closed and all stargazing tours are cancelled. While there are still many days' worth of sightseeing in the area, I ultimately decided to skip it. Further explanation as to why will be given at the end of this blog post.
Desert landscape in Tilcara, Argentina.
I made this decision on Tuesday, April 15. That means I only had two days to plan and prepare for my next destination: Bolivia. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, as I'm accustomed to making my onward travel plans at the last minute. But Bolivia presented a complication: as a U.S. citizen, I am required to have a visa to enter the country. Of course, I did my research regarding visas, immunizations, and other requirements for entering every country in Central and South America before I left the U.S. last September. Thus I knew that, in order to enter Bolivia and Paraguay in particular, I would need very expensive ($160 each) visas. I could have applied for these in advance by sending my passport to the appropriate Consular Offices in the U.S. But I ultimately chose not to do this because I wasn't 100% sure I would make it to either country during this trip and I did not want to spend that amount of money for something I might never use.
Me at Teotihuacan in Mexico in September 2018. Only one week into the trip,
I had no idea if or when I would make it to Bolivia.
When I was in Santiago, Chile for two weeks in late March and had already passed the six-month mark of my trip, I knew the odds were very high that I would make it to Bolivia. I inquired with the Consulate General of Bolivia in Santiago, and they advised me to fill out the online application and get my visa at the border. I still did not know when or where I would cross into the country, which made me a bit nervous, but I knew I would be traveling through Argentina for several more weeks so I thought I had plenty of time to prepare.
Making new friends at a hostel in Santiago, Chile.
As so often happens, I was busy sightseeing, figuring out where to go next, socializing, etc., and never found time to prepare all of my documents for the border crossing. It's not that I forgot; I did ask at almost every hostel if they had a printer so I could begin assembling the necessary documents. I also tried multiple times to get U.S. dollars (from ATMs or from other travelers) which I needed to pay for the visa.
Another new friend, Agostina (Agos), in Salta, Argentina.
So when I decided to go from Tilcara, Argentina straight to Bolivia instead of crossing back into Chile first, I had less than 48 hours to prepare. Here's what the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia says you must have:

In addition to the visa fee of $160 USD, you must present a visa application form with a 4cm x 4cm color photograph, a passport valid until the date of departure from Bolivian territory, evidence of a hotel reservation or a letter of invitation in Spanish, round trip ticket or copy of itinerary, proof of economic solvency (credit card, cash, or a current bank statement), and an International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever.

I also read several blog posts from other travelers who had crossed the border at the same location without having a visa in advance. The most recent and most helpful post had similar information regarding what the author had to do to get her visa.

My hostel in Tilcara did not have a working printer so, after filling out the online visa application, creating a hypothetical itinerary, booking a hostel for my first few nights in Bolivia, and downloading a recent bank statement; I then converted all of those documents to PDFs and uploaded them to Google Drive. I also took photos of my passport and vaccination card and uploaded them to my Drive. Then I went to the local internet cafe, logged into one of their very old computers, and downloaded the documents to the hard drive so they could print them. Unfortunately, they did not have a color printer, and I soon discovered that in the tiny town of Tilcara there was only one shop which had a color copier. The girl told me she could make photocopies of my passport and vaccination card but that the copier was out of toner and more was arriving by bus (yes, that's how everything is transported in much of Central and South America) that afternoon. A few hours later I finally had all of the necessary documents in hand for a total cost of $2.12.
I had already walked into town and had a few hours to wait for the toner to arrive,
so I revisited Tilcara's church which was all dressed up for Semana Santa.
I had asked everyone at the hostel, the one local bank, other businesses, etc. if I could exchange pesos for dollars but no one had any. By pure luck a German guy and his Russian girlfriend checked into my dorm room and they were carrying some U.S. dollars as a backup. They had just enough to give me the $160 in cash that I needed for the visa and in exchange I sent them the equivalent in euros via Paypal.
La Albahaca was a great hostel with a friendly vibe, including
a delicious communal dinner on my last night in Tilcara.
On Thursday, April 18, I boarded a bus to La Quiaca, the border town in northern Argentina. After 3.5 hours of scenic driving through Jujuy province topping out at over 3,700 m or over 12,000 ft above sea level, I stepped out of the bus in La Quiaca happy to get some fresh air. The temperature was 74F but felt more like the mid-80's because of the intense sunshine and lack of shade. I asked a local for directions to the border and started walking. Fifteen minutes later I had reached the immigration checkpoint to get my stamp out of Argentina.
Approaching the border between Argentina and Bolivia.
There were only a few people in line and in less than five minutes I was standing at the window. The agent flipped through my passport and immediately said (in Spanish) "You know you need a visa to enter Bolivia, right?" I told him that I knew and that I had all of my documents ready. He told me to wait a minute and disappeared from sight. Then a woman came out to the sidewalk carrying my passport and told me to follow her. We walked across a bridge, which is also the official border, and into an office on the Bolivian side.
This is the bridge at the border between La Quiaca, Argentina and Villazon, Bolivia.
The woman, who appeared to be in her early 30's, asked for my paperwork, which I promptly handed over. After looking at each piece of paper, she got out a blank white folder and put all of the documents inside, then started writing my passport information on the front cover. In the meantime, she told me to step over to the next agent and pay the visa fee. I took out the $160 U.S. dollars and the agent immediately told me he could not accept it. I had seven $20's and two $10 dollar bills but the agent said he could only accept $100's. I asked where I could change the smaller bills for $100's. He said there were lots of currency exchange places along the next few blocks and I could try there. Then he said that I could also pay in Bolivianos which came as quite a surprise given everything I had read or heard from other travelers.
This is one block from the border on the Bolivian side. The vendors have put up
sheets and blankets to protect their wares from the afternoon sun.

The agents said I could leave my bags in the immigration office while I went in search of more cash. They also kept my passport. I took my day bag containing all of my debit and credit cards, cash, etc. and started walking up the street into the town of Villazon, Bolivia. There were tons of "cambios" on both sides of the street as well as shops and vendors selling just about everything you could possibly want. I went into a few of the exchange places to check the rates (I still had some Argentinean pesos that I wanted to convert to Bolivianos) and to ask if I could trade my $20 and $10 bills for $100's. The answer was the same everywhere, "no." I quickly realized I would need to find an ATM to get enough Bolivianos to pay the visa fee. The nearest one was four blocks uphill farther into town. Thankfully, it worked with no problem, and I withdrew enough money for the visa plus enough cash to get to Tupiza.
The view of the border from the Bolivian side.
When I returned to the immigration office a crowd had gathered on the bridge at the border crossing. A few members of the local press were there as well. Everyone was watching a group of school children along with several adults and a handful of musicians. They were all dressed in red and were either wearing or carrying large bags and boxes of food items like rice, flour, and potatoes. As I walked up they started dancing and marching at the same time. Even the immigration office staff and armed border patrol guards came out to watch. They told me it was a protest relating to the taxes or fees for transporting goods across the border. I honestly have no idea why children were involved but I suspect it has something to do with education or welfare. They danced their way back and forth along the Bolivian side of the border for about 15 minutes, then we all went back inside the office to process my visa.
The protesters.
I ended up paying 1,100 Bolivianos (approximately $156) for a 10-year multiple entry visa. Once they had put the visa into my passport and attached a copy to my folder, it was filed away in a large cabinet. The same woman took me back across the border into Argentina and gave my passport to the agent there so I could officially be stamped out of the country. Then she gave me my passport and said "It's finished now." We walked together back into Bolivia and I retrieved my luggage from the immigration office. I thanked the woman for being so patient and friendly (we even did the typical Latin American greeting of a kiss on the cheek) and we said our goodbyes. The total time from start to finish, including the currency exchange and trip to the ATM, was one hour. It would have taken less than 15 minutes if I had the "correct" cash.
Woohoo, I'm legal!
I then walked back uphill about six blocks to the rapidito terminal to catch a ride to Tupiza. I had to wait about 20 minutes until the next minivan filled up before we could leave, but since I was one of the first people to arrive, I got to sit in the front passenger seat. This turned out to be a good choice because they ended up squeezing a total of nine adults (including the driver) and two infants into the small van. Plus the road between Villazon and Tupiza was pretty curvy on the second half and I imagine I would have felt motion sick if I was sitting in the back. Two hours later I was settling in to my single room for the next three nights and feeling quite proud of surviving the border crossing. Keep in mind that I did all of this in Spanish and at an altitude of over 11,000 ft!
My ride from Villazon to Tupiza, Bolivia.
One final note on the reason why I didn't go back into Chile. I already knew from my travels in March that Chile was definitely more expensive than Argentina. I had done my research on San Pedro de Atacama and knew that I was going to spend an average of $75 per day on lodging, food, and tours into the desert. Even the bus ticket to San Pedro was almost $40, compared to a total of $10 to go from Tilcara to Tupiza by bus and rapidito. I would also still have to pay for a bus and/or tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia, a minimum of $30 for the bus and around $200 for a 3-day tour of the desert and salt flat.
The places circled in red are where I will
overnight on my tour (going clockwise).
Instead, I came directly to Tupiza and from here, tomorrow, I will depart on a 4-day/3-night tour all the way to Uyuni. I will still get to see the Bolivian side of the Atacama Desert plus similar geological features like geysers, hot springs, lunar landscapes, lakes filled with flamingos, an active volcano, and finally the famous salt flat. My daily cost here is less than $20 and the all-inclusive tour costs $200. Thus I will spend less the half of the money I would have spent getting to San Pedro, touring the desert, getting to Uyuni, and touring the salt flat. And when I went to the tour office to prepay for my tour yesterday, I was able to get rid of all of those "worthless" $20 and $10 dollar bills!
Catedral de Nuestra SeƱora de la Candelaria
in Tupiza, Bolivia.
So in the end it all worked out, which I was totally confident about the entire time but probably caused myself some unnecessary stress by not preparing everything for the visa further in advance. I continue to be thankful for so many things including all the friendly and helpful people I've met on this trip, my overall health and well-being, and the amazing scenery and culture of Central and South America.
Wall mural in Tilcara, Argentina.
Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Story About Safety While Traveling

I am compelled to write this post because of my friend, Matt Kepnes, also known as Nomadic Matt. I don't recall where I first heard about Matt, but I know he created his Nomadic Matt Facebook page in April 2008, which is around the time I decided to plan an around-the-world trip. I joined Facebook in late 2007 and quickly learned that it was a great resource for meeting like-minded travelers and for getting the latest information about places I wanted to visit.

I first met Matt in person at a meet-up in Portland, Ore. in July 2014. It was a fun night of making new friends with other world travelers based in the Portland area, several of whom I'm friends with to this day (shout out to Kalong Wong and Marin Hoag). Over the years Matt and I have followed similar paths, even choosing to live in the same cities for a while but never at the same time. He has continued to build his business through his website, books, online courses, and nonprofit organization FLYTE.

Today, Matt posted his story about getting stabbed in Bogota, Colombia, which inspired this blog post. That's because I was traveling in Colombia at the same time as Matt, and was literally days behind him on a similar itinerary going from Medellin to Bogota via the coffee regions of the northwest. I was quite surprised when he cut his trip short without any real explanation, and I honestly thought it was due to an illness in his immediate family that necessitated a last-minute flight back to the U.S. I missed seeing Matt in Bogota by just over one week and now I know why.

You need to read Matt's story to fully understand why I'm writing this. One of the most frequent questions I have gotten, both from locals and other backpackers over the past six months of solo travel in Central and South America is, "Do you feel safe as a female traveling alone?" The others, paraphrased here, are similar: "Is it safe to go to Honduras, El Salvador, or Nicaragua?" "Has anything happened to you?" "Were you ever afraid?"

So here's my experience.

The overall answer is "No, nothing bad has happened to me on this trip." The truth is that I have taken many precautions including not going out after dark in many places, not walking on deserted streets, not traveling on overnight buses, and not going to a bar alone, especially at night. I have met many other travelers, male and female, who have run into trouble in this part of the world. After listening to them tell their stories, the bottom line in almost every case is that they got complacent.

The reality is that all over the world there are people with bad intentions. Whether it's desperation as a result of extreme poverty, mental illness, or addiction, if you need money quickly one of the easiest ways to get it is to snatch a smart phone or other valuable electronic device, jewelry or wallet from an unsuspecting tourist. This is such a common occurrence in the big cities of Central and South America that the hostels and tour companies will almost always make you sign a disclaimer voiding them of any responsibility for your personal belongings or else will have signs posted throughout the premises or will verbally advise you to not have anything valuable in your pockets; to carry your purse or day bag on your chest; and to never have your cell phone unsecured in your hand.

The firsthand accounts I have heard have ranged from minor (but still a big hassle) like having a wallet pickpocketed from a backpack (worn on the person's back without locks or other security measures) in Valparaiso, Chile a few weeks ago to an assault that required hospitalization. In the second case, the victim was a middle-aged man who had gone to a bar alone to have a drink and, while he went to the bathroom, the drink was spiked with some type of drug that made him completely forget the next 48 hours. The assailants took him to an ATM where he withdrew his maximum daily limit, then they kept him in a locked room and forced him to give them his bank account information so they could get even more money. When they had taken all they thought they could get, they left him in an alley.

The closest I have come to being scammed or robbed (that I'm aware of) happened just a few days ago. And the only reason it wasn't a complete success was because I kept my guard up.

I was sitting on the seawall in upscale Vina del Mar, Chile last Friday afternoon. I had been walking all day and was tired, plus my phone was down to under 10% battery power and I wanted to connect it to my portable charger. I needed enough power to navigate my way back to the bus station in Valparaiso and then back to my apartment in Santiago. It was around 4:00 p.m. so still full daylight and there were lots of local families as well as tourists strolling by. I had my day bag in my lap with the straps looped over my shoulders and across my chest. I opened the bag to get out the battery pack, connected it to my phone with the micro USB cord, then immediately closed it again. As I was doing this, an older woman approached me.

She started speaking to me in Spanish, asking where I was from, how did I like Chile, etc. I have met many friendly locals in Chile so this was not that uncommon. Then she told me she was from Yugoslavia, said I was very pretty, and that she wanted to give me a travelers blessing. She asked me to give her some change and demonstrated how the blessing worked. Essentially, she would hold the coins in her hand along with a sprig of rosemary. She would say a prayer for my health, safety, onward travels, etc. and then would return the money to me.

She was sweet and seemed harmless and, initially, I didn't want to offend her by just telling her to go away. So I played along and put two 10 peso coins in her hand (worth a total of $0.02 U.S.). She didn't scoff at them and said the blessing, which I thought was a nice gesture. But then she told me that for it to really work I need to put more money in her hand. At this point I became more suspicious and did a quick check to make sure my bag was completed zipped up, even though it was still in my lap and physically strapped to me. She was very insistent that I should at least put paper money in her hand. Honestly, at this point I just wanted her to go away but didn't want to make a big scene. I knew I had a 1,000 peso note (worth $1.48 U.S.) so I got it out and let her do a more elaborate blessing. Then I told her "thank you, but that's enough."

After another minute or so of dialogue during which she tried to convince me to put a much larger bill in her hand (she was specifically referring to the 20,000 peso note which is worth almost $30 U.S.), another younger woman approached us. She was also holding a sprig of rosemary. That's when I knew for sure it was a scam. I remained friendly but insisted that I would not be getting out any more money for any reason. Soon enough, they left me alone and then I saw them join up with another woman and then a man as they walked off.

I know I was lucky because they did not get any money from me other than that 1,000 peso note. Nor did the woman ever physically come in contact with me. Considering that I now know there were four of them working together, I can only imagine how easy it would have been for them to follow me and overpower me, even though it was daylight and I was in a very affluent area with plenty of local people around.

I was angry at myself and at that woman for the next 24 hours. But, like Matt's very scary experience, it did not change anything about my overall impression of this country or of this trip. It just reminded me that I do have to be vigilant all the time, even though it's tiring to constantly be on guard. At least 90% of the local people I have come into contact with through all of Central and South America have been so warm, welcoming, friendly, and helpful, and they have often gone out of their way to make sure I was being cautious, felt comfortable in my surroundings, and was not alone.

I have felt far more threatened in other parts of the world and then I was traveling with a male partner. The only time I've ever been pickpocketed was in Paris, France when I was 15 years old. I was traveling with a group of about a dozen students from my high school. We were waiting on a train in the underground metro station one evening and a man and woman approached us and started asking where were from, how long we were visiting, etc. Then they frantically said they were on the wrong platform and were going to miss their train. Our teacher had instructed us to stand in a circle facing each other so we could keep an eye on our belongings. But when the couple ran off, another man standing on the platform told us to double-check our bags because he thought they were acting suspicious. Sure enough, I opened mine and my wallet containing all of my cash, travelers checks, and passport was gone.

The moral of this story is that bad things can happen to people anywhere, including to seasoned travelers. Yes, the frequency of events like petty theft is higher in certain parts of the world. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit those places. You just have to take a few more precautions than you might at home.

In case you're wondering, I also have comprehensive travel insurance and do not travel outside of the U.S., particularly on longer trips, without it.