Argentina to Bolivia, crossing the border

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A series of unfortunate idiocies

Trying to cross the border from Argentina to Bolivia was, for me, a series of inconveniences that really ranged in their severity. Hopefully you can be smarter than me, and avoid spending hours squatting in the street with the hobos and the canine gangs.

 I started out in Salta, taking the night bus from there to La Quiaca, the border town that you’ll stop in before your onwards travel to Bolivia. I booked a ticket on Busbud, thinking that I’d save myself the trek to the bus station while the big festival celebrating the death-day of General Güemes was in town. I didn’t think ahead to the fact that busbud tickets need printing, and that pretty much everywhere with a printer was shut for the festival. The hostel had lost all wifi that day and thus could not help with anything at all, apparently. I opted to go down to the bus station and beg the man behind the counter, which was somewhat effective. I spent a couple of hours wandering around every place in town that he said may have a printer, which was a dead end. I came back and tried to explain in my fairly dreadful Spanish that there was no options, looked fairly panicked, and eventually had him take pity on me.

 I considered this a pretty good victory, and figured I’d overcome obstacles ok so far. This was the smallest hiccup of the journey so far, but I was already needlessly stressed about it.

 The journey itself was unremarkable, a generic, freezing night bus in relative comfort. I didn’t sleep, which I didn’t think important at the time. What I didn’t account for, was the bus arriving early. Generally in South America you can rely on your bus rocking up anywhere from on time to many, many hours late. This was the only bus of my 8 month journey that made it early. 1.5 hours early. It was around 5am, Argentina time. This was the moment I thought it would be wise to have listened to the people who said to just take the day bus and face the long queues.

 From here I took a taxi to la frontera, all simple. You can walk too, but I didn’t much fancy it at 5am. It probably should’ve been a warning sign to me that almost nobody else took the trip to the border, and that I was the only gringo. It was early days, I was naive.

 The border opens at 6:30-7ish in the morning. The time my bus was meant to arrive. What I didn’t appreciate in advance, was that it operates on Bolivian time, meaning I would need to wait around 2.5-3 hours at the border. Alone, in the dark, at -5 degrees, with a number of sketchy men and sketchier dogs loitering around. I asked if I could stay inside the building where the border guards were, which I wasn’t. I then asked the policemen at the station down the road if I could stay there, which I couldn’t. I then asked about any hostels, hotels, any places, that were open in town, which apparently there were none of. I then settled, hunched over my backpack, at the side of the street and braced for a few hours mingling with the homeless population of the border crossing.

 The cold was the first issue. I pulled on any clothes I could get out without getting too much out my bag, not looking to draw even more attention to myself. Trying to avoid dozing off, I sought shelter from the wind in a stairwell, which I decided was a bad idea when I spotted a man relieving himself in the next corner. I settled for sitting directly under the window of the border crossing guard, thinking that if he was awake it might deter passersby from approaching me, or robbing me.

 After years travelling, and particularly travelling in this region, I’ve developed a pretty severe fear of street dogs. All dogs, actually, but particularly street dogs. I’ve seen them bite tourists, chase locals snarling, one badly attacking the leg of a very young girl in rural Peru. I don’t like them, I don’t trust them, I stay away from them. This border crossing was largely patrolled by a large gang of stray mutts, mean looking dogs that would chase any men trying to pass with goods, barking. I can’t tell whether they could tell that I was scared of them, or whether they could just tell I was scared in general, but one approached me as I was sat on the side of the street. It placed one paw on my knee and stared directly into my eyes for a solid thirty seconds. I was pretty convinced I was about to get bit in the face, which I’ve heard of happening in a couple different places on my travels. Instead, the dog broke eye contact, curled up on my feet and settled there. It was the weirdest moment I’ve ever had with an animal. I guess he knew I was scared.

 The dog and his mates then proceeded to aggressively chase away anybody that tried to come near me, which was nice, and weird. So weird.

 Once the border crossing opened for the day, I bid farewell to the canine gang that had adopted me, and got through very quickly. Other reports remark that the border crossing is one of the longest in South America, but I guess if you’re literally the first person there everything’s pretty straight forward. Entering Bolivia was equally smooth. Make sure you get a green immigration form, and make sure you don’t lose it. You will be required to show it when you leave Bolivia.

 I managed to change a couple dollars at a casa de cambio on the border. I normally try to avoid this as they’re often a prime spot for fake money exchangers, but I was frozen and hadn’t slept and was desperate to leave the border. I took a taxi to Villazon bus terminal, though you can walk, it’s only around 10-15 minutes. I wasn’t much in the mood, to be honest.

 I bought a ticket to Tupiza at the bus station, leaving at 8am, giving me about 45 minutes to wait at the bus station. It was cold and I was exhausted, but I was very relieved to be there. The bus was short and simple, around 2 hours. I fell asleep and some elderly Bolivian ladies put blankets on me while I was passed out, which I was very grateful for.

 Tupiza is a nice little town, where you can sign up for your tour of the Altiplano, up to Uyuni. I stayed at La Torre hostel, where a private room was only £6, which I was incredibly grateful for after a very unnecessarily stressful and weird journey to Bolivia.

 Read more about my onward journey through the Altiplano here.

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