In the Realm of Cowboys - Tupiza, Bolivia

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Tupiza
June 28th 2011
Published: August 6th 2011
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Cafayate to Tupiza

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Bolivian Border Crossing

Before we got to Tupiza there was a fairly hefty multi-legged journey, including the border crossing - I will begin with that.

Our bus from Cafayate arrived in Salta in the early evening, where we initially planned on spending one night, before making a bolt for the border in the morning. Our plans changed when we realised that there were night buses and so we spent a few hours wandering around Salta and speculating over how low the temperature inside a bus, during the night, whilst the altitude is increasing, would drop. As a result we all boarded the bus to La Quiaca, the Argentinean border town, wearing too much clothes. It wasn’t long into the journey that I took off my extra jacket and Ciaran did the same, the bus was too hot, as opposed to too cold, the heaters were set high. A short while later we turned round to laughter from the row behind us, to see a highly amused Sarah enjoying the comedy of hers and Mark’s leg which were covered in some utterly ridiculous looking leggings. Of course, on the bus, they could only take off the top layer, making them look fairly special.

We arrived in the border town around 0530am and exited the bus to a punch of cold air to the face, it was not a pleasant feeling. We were joined by a red headed girl from the States, Liz, who had boarded the bus at one of the many stops during the night. She was crossing the border as well. Unfortunately, the border post had not yet opened, and so we glumly and sleepily joined an increasing pile of people huddled on the small dirty floor of the bus station. For an hour we huddled here, moved when a cleaner lamely attempted to do his job, and enjoyed watching Ciaran getting mauled by an over enthusiasm small dog whilst the person we assumed was the owner looked on passively. At what seemed and felt like an ice age, we got word that the border posts were open we wandered slowly and coldly there.

Signing out of Argentina was no problem at all, as expected, also as expected, the Bolivian was a bit of a pain in the ass.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America; with this in mind I had pictures of poverty and relative carnage, all of which were pulled from my experiences of India. I couldn‘t help this unintentional comparison. As a result, I expected a rabble and bureaucracy at the border, from this perspective I was not let down. We joined a queue, there were a few somewhat visible in and amongst the rabble of miscellaneous people, lurking all over the immigration booth, with all sorts of luggage and numerous people in indigenous clothing. After a wait with no noticeable progress, we were eventually able to speak to a roaming immigration officer who ask where we were from and allocated us the appropriate paperwork to complete. It was standard, but also vague in some of its questions. One of them asked how the person was planning on leaving the country, to which the only overland option to note was by truck. Fortunately for me and the other three British folk in the group, we required no actual visa for the country, Liz however had no such luck and we exited with our stands whilst she was still completing the extensive paperwork required for citizens of the States. After a lengthy wait she appeared out of the exit and we were glad for a moment that she had jumped through all of their hoops, only for her to ask if any of us were carrying any US dollars. US folk have to fork out $135 for a visa, which ridiculously, has to be paid for in bank notes that are in completely perfect condition, one of hers was rejected for having an almost microscopic tear, which I swapped for one of mine. She returned inside and after presenting proof of her bank funds to sustain her time in Bolivia and after handing over the payment, forms and passport photographs, she was finally allowed to enter Bolivia proper, much to our relief.

The hurdles Liz had to make to enter Bolivia may sound like harsh treatment, but it is something of a petty thing between the two countries and they have similar entry requirements for the respective citizens. The biggest different between the two is that the States requests prospective visitors from Bolivia have an interview and of course $135 to enter the US on the economic scale, is an insurmountable amount of money for the average Bolivian. Generally getting into the States is a bit of a ball ache for most people though, apparently when I head there this year I have to pay a fee now, allegedly for security, hopefully we do or will make them to the same to enter the UK.

We were now all officially in Villazon, which didn’t appear to have any redeeming features except a nasty toilet with no lock or functioning flush and so we all changed some Pesos into Boliviano’s and paid a tiny amount of money each for a taxi to Tupiza, a couple of hours away.

Everyone slept on and off during the journey to Tupiza, whilst sleeping in a car is normally difficult, doing it in Bolivia is seemingly impossible. The road was entirely unpaved, the closest it got to being so, was at the start in Villazon where there was some half assed cobbled. We dodged several gaps in the road where bridges were inactively under construction, that meaning nowhere appeared to be working on any of them and passed through two tunnels which would not pass any safety test in Europe. It was an interesting road trip at the very least and a good introduction to Bolivian travel. As the morning sun reached its height in the sky and after a mammoth trip from Cafayate, we reached Tupiza and were dropped off outside a hostel recommended to me by a Saudi Arabian in Rio, Hostal Los Salares.


Not much really went on during out first day in Tupiza, a small dusty town at just over 3100m and legendary home to the spot where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed when the Bolivian military finally caught up with them. All of us were far too tired to do much, but fortunately there was only a couple of objectives to complete during out stay - buying some cold weather clothes and organising a Salt Flats tour to Uluni. We ask

There was one main objective for everyone in Tupiza and that was to get out via a Salt Flat tour and with the addition of Liz to our group, we had our group of five which would make organising it much easier. As such we spent much of our time scouting out tour agencies and comparing prices and tour options, which varied considerably. Another objective was to get cash to pay for the tour, this proved to be difficult as none of us had noticed pretty much every travel information source indicating that Tupiza had no ATM’s that could be used by international cards. This gave everyone two options, get a cash advance at a bank for a heavy percentage hit or exchange money at a crap rate. I had a lot of currency from elsewhere left over and so opted for the latter, sadly however, the traditional theory of border towns being lousy for exchange rates due to their captive markets and internal towns being much better does not apply to Bolivia, perhaps because the lousy roads and relatively poor communication. Walking around town, checking for the best rates, I eventually traded in my leftover Guarani’s from Paraguay, Real’s from Brazil, Peso’s from Argentina and some backup US Dollars I was carrying to get enough money to last a few days and pay for most of a tour.

Another mission of our time in Tupiza was to stock up on cold weather gear and novelty animal toys for the trip, the latter to be explained in a latter blog. We found the clothes we required, although Tupiza wasn’t a great place for it. For some reason in backpacker land, everyone seems to want clothes made from alpaca, and not llama. I am sure there is a sensible reason why, maybe the wool is better, I don’t know, either way people were slightly disappointed to come away with llama products. Us guys though, we managed to hook ourselves up with some Denis inspired poo pants, oh yes.

Bolivian legend has it that Tupiza was the location that the shop shut up its doors for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and just outside the town is where the Bolivian military caught up with and killed them, as such and due to the fantastic landscapes, Tupiza has become home to a large amount of horse riding tours and we managed to sort out a three hour ride the afternoon before we were due to leave on our Salt Flat tour.

We convened separately at the Torres Tours office and all payed up half of the Salt Flat tour fee, we had agreed to pay the rest of arrival in Uluni and once we had finally all made it, we met a guide with basically no English skills and we walked to a small shack where our stallions were waiting. It wasn’t exactly a mind blowing few hours, there were unfortunately a few teething problems which prevented it from becoming interesting. For what would not be the first time in Bolivia whilst travelling in our five some, time and money were an issue. I would have happily have taken more of an exchange hit, in order to spend longer in Tupiza in order to really get to know the horse, and to learn how to ride over a few days. By the end of a few days and whilst camping, you generally end up able to get the horse to canter and to even gallop successfully. It is Bolivia, not Europe, so safety, training and licences are not exactly key and hence it should be much more fun!

Sadly on our three hour tour Sarah’s horse, who was not so affectionately nicknamed Satan by us, insisted on being in front on the other animals the whole time. This was something that our guide knew, and yet he still brought the horse along. Any and every time any horse came close to even walking in line with it, he was charge at the horse, scaring Sarah in the process. We had a brief section where we got the horses to move at a faster than walking pace, but with this demon in front it just wasn’t a brilliant idea.

The scenery was amazing, relatively similar to Cafayate and its surrounding valleys, we passed some nice rock formations and many cacti. We stopped halfway and some rocks for a while which broke up the trip nicely, but being long we were walking endlessly slowly in the evening glow back towards town and I was glad for it to be over. My best amusement of the afternoon was being able to steer my steed and to constantly lead it onto slightly different trails in an ultimately failed attempted to overtake Sarah. Instead my horse seemed to have a strong bond with Mark’s and they gently pushed into each other on numerous occasions. Mark had unwittingly dressed as a mountie on this day, which also gave me some amusement. Liz’s horse was quite content to let her follow behind the pack at its own pace.

Eventually our wander came to an end an we dismounted where we began and returned for a quiet evening with a couple of beers, some good food and The Kung Fu Kid on DVD. Fortunately the beds were particularly comfy in the hostel and set us well for an early start for the Salt Flat tour the next morning, which I will leave for my next entry.

One Final Thing...

We all woke the next morning at the same time to shower and get ready to head out, unfortunately there was only one shared bathroom between all of us and the young son of the hostel owner was hoarding it for a considerable amount of time. Morning calls us men and the two guys in turn snuck into an unoccupied bedroom with a private bathroom and destroyed the oxygen count within. I was sadly third up quite a while later whilst our shared one was still occupied. Disturbingly, there was a knock on the door which in typical Bolivian style, was poorly fitted and started to swing open mid-expulsion, the owner was not happy with us using the bathroom. After I finished dropping off the kids at the pool, I was told off by the lady who was extremely unimpressed. I took it on the chin, even though one bathroom for so many people is ridiculous. Arguing with someone who would actually brave breaking into a bathroom whilst a travelling male is sitting on a toilet sounds like a lose-lose situation.


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