Thursday, July 17, 2008

Arica, Chile to La Paz, Bolivia

Since I couldn´t find a regular bus to the tiny town of Putre, I took a tour from Arica to Lauca national park in Chile. It´s supposed to be one of the most incredible national parks they have, and although it was beautiful and full of four of the five types of Camelidae- alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos (no camels) - as well as an incredible variety of birds including flamingoes, I wouldn´t say it was the most incredible park I´ve ever seen. What it WAS was high. We reached 4,500 meters, which is about 13,000 feet, yikes! It was by far the highest I´ve ever been other than in an airplane. I think I was letting it get to me mentally since I had a headache before we even passed 2,000 meters, but I drank lots of water and it was what I like to call a "car tour", i.e. drive, stop and get out for five minutes to take pictures of hieroglyphs or an old church or a scenic vista, get back in the car, drive until the next 5 minute stop, etc. Suffice to say it was not very demanding, physically. Still, at our last and highest stop I was embarrassed how out of breath I became after climbing an indiscernable slope.

The tour stopped in Putre for a late lunch, where they deposited me before heading back to Arica. I was told I´d be able to book another day tour to Reserva las Vicuñas from here, which also has a salt flat and supposedly a ton more flamingoes. Alas, this one-horse town was almost tourist-free and there were no tours leaving the next day. Did I want to pay for a private guide? No I did not. Nor could I, it turned out: I figured I would just head to Bolivia a day early since Putre has nothing to offer, but it was a holiday and the bank in Putre (the only one for about 100 kilometers) would be closed the next day. Bolivia recently started charging U.S. citizens a $135 reciprocity fee, and I did not have that kind of cash on me. I didn´t fancy risking it and getting stuck at the border in the Andes, so I essentially became a prisoner of Putre for a day and a half. I slept about 12 hours that night, partly from exhaustion from the altitude, partly from boredom. There was actually a happening town-wide holiday party, but my head was pounding and I was already in bed by the time I heard the drums and pipes a-playing. I do regret missing out on what was probably a unique cultural experience, but it was freakin´ COLD up there at 3,500 meters and I was already so cozy under my five, count ém five wool blankets.

The next day (yesterday) I went to some fantastic hot springs that were quite relaxing. I exfoliated with this dark red clay/mud and as a result my skin is now super soft. That only killed about 3 hours, though, so after I ate lunch I napped. When I woke up I ate dinner with two other gringos and a Frenchie that were staying at the same hostel, and went back to bed for another 10 hours. This morning when I woke up the bank was blessedly open and I had no problems taking out money. I had bought my bus ticket to La Paz in Arica since the bus doesn´t actually STOP in Putre. I had to get a ride to the freeway and wait... and wait.... and wait for the bus to finally arrive two hours late. Luckily there was a bus shelter and I wasn´t the only one waiting. I chatted up two Mapuche Indians and, when they left, two Spaniards. The bus came and before I knew it we were at the Bolivian border.

Now, I had pipe dreams of using my Chilean ID to avoid the hefty entrance fee, but after hearing how strict they had been with other tourists I had given up hope and was ready with about $75,000 Chilean pesos. I also had my all-important yellow fever vaccine, which turned out to be not so important as I spent a total of 60 seconds at the customs window. I told him I was a Chilean resident with a US passport. Did I have $135 in American dollars? No, I told him I hadn´t been in the states in months but I had Chilean pesos. He pushed my passport back at me, said the equivalent of "I´m going to pretend I didn´t see this" and stamped me into Bolivia as a Chilean. SCORE! Although I am a tiny bit sad about not having a Bolivian stamp in my passport, I´m much more happy to have an extra $135 to spend, which I will dutifully spend in Bolivia.

The bus ride went through a Bolivian national park with some awesome rock formations and canyons that would have reminded me of Utah if I´d ever been, as well as some very random little farms and brick towns that seemed to be either half-completed or half-destroyed, it was hard to tell which. I´m amazed people live in these barren landscapes, but I loved seeing all the camelidaes grazing and being herded by women in colorful skirts and men with wide-brimmed hats. Also, every town, no matter how small, had a dusty soccer field.

The bus being late turned out to be sort of a good thing since we pulled into La Paz as the sun was going down, which turned the whole brick-filled valley a glowing red, as well as the snow-capped volcano behind it. Quite an introduction to the city. My hotel/hostel is sweet, a bit expensive, but in a good location and WARM which is nice. I´m happy to have a full 6 days here as I can already tell I will love this city. Dinner was a bit of a disappointment, I spotted an Indian place and immediately missed the hell out of Taste of India. I should have known better... the rest of the food I´ve tried here has all been great, however, and, not surprisingly, from the street. My travel book told me not to eat street food; was it kidding me?? Street cuisine is quite possibly my favorite aspect of going to a new place, and literally the first thing I did in Bolivia, while still AT the border, was buy baby potatoes and alpaca jerky from an indigineous woman in a bowler hat with a baby on her back. Once here I bought a savory, bready item and then a sweet pastry from two other indigineous women. Sorry, Fodors. My stomach is clearly more adapated than your normal readership´s. (I also brush my teeth with tapwater and order drinks with ice...)

About the altitude... I think I am adjusting pretty well. I´m still tired but that could easily be from traveling and, frankly, sleeping too much. As long as I´m not exerting any effort, I feel fine. Even walking on a flat plane is no problem. The instant I introduce any sort of a hill, however, forget about it. (The Inka Trail will be the death of us, Robyn and Matt, but I´m still really excited!!) They do have a few things to help combat altitude sickness, and so far the best (other than drinking lots of water and taking deep breaths) is mate de coca, which is a completely legal tea made from coca leaves. Randomly, CHEWING the leaves is allegedly illegal, but drinking them is no problem... anyway I´ve been taking good care at altitude, constantly using sunscreen, not drinking anything alcoholic, and getting my fill of mate de coca. Tomorrow I´m going to try to do a good walking tour of part of La Paz, which will be the first real test.

It´s 9;30 pm and clearly time for bed, so that´s more than enough for now, I think. I´ll update again soon, maybe? I never can tell when travelling but I seem to always find my way to the Internet, so keep your eyes peeled. I hope all are well!


Momma Archer said...

Reading your posts are better than any travel book. You make me feel like I'm there. The sunset in La Paz sounded incredible.
Have fun, wear that sunscreen, and be careful! (I know I'm such a Mom.)

Sarah P said...

Hello Blog friend! I love reading your writting, so eloquent. You give such great decriptions of your experiences. Take care lady!