Friday, January 30, 2009

Chile & Argentina

On January 6, I took a bus from the Bolivian border to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The bus ride was mostly all downhill and it seemed to be about 20 degrees warmer when I got there, which I was happy about. I got a room and a bus ticket out of town for the next day.

San Pedro is an adobe style town in the Chilean desert. With it's trendy restaurants and shops, it reminded me of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Due to having a cold and due to lack of sleep, I went to bed early and slept late. So late that a guy was knocking on my door the next day. OK, so I didn't know that checkout was at 10:00. I also didn't know that Chile was an hour ahead of Bolivia.

I bought a first class bus ticket to Santiago that left at 4:00pm on January 7. The first class seats recline to 180 degrees so even I can sleep. This was nice because it was a 23 hour bus ride. When I got to Santiago, I really didn't want to get off the bus. The bus was really comfortable and the movie (Ratatouille) wasn't over yet.

I got into Santiago on January 8 and spent about four days there.

Chile seemed to be a well-organized country. The streets are named, addresses are numbered, they have an efficient, clean subway, and pretty sweet malls. It has been called the Germany of South America.

Not much out of the ordinary happened in Chile, but I had a good time. I went to another club with some people I met at the hostel. We got there about 1:00am and it closed at 5:00am. They played good music and not just techno crap. It was pretty decent. I watched my first Titans game of the season (with commentary in Spanish). It was the Ravens playoff game. Wow, what a crappy game! I took a day trip to Valopraiso on the coast. There didn't seem to be much going on in Valpraiso. It was a sunday and the central market was open. I bought some fresh tomatoes, strawberries, and peaches. It's summer in Chile.

On January 13, I took a six hour bus ride to Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is a wine growing region noted for it's malbecs. I saw a lot of vineyards in Chile and in Mendoza. I'm not sure what it is about grapes, but they only seem to grow in beautiful locations. I went on a tour of some wineries and had one of the best lunches ever.

44,000 liters of cabernet sauvignon.

On January 16 I took an overnight bus to Buenos Aires. I actually had a few things I needed to do once I got to BA. First of all, I had to see a dentist. I was flossing a little too hard and chipped a tooth. The same tooth I seemed to have trouble with flossing earlier and that the Panamanian dentist said was fine. I don't know what it is, but more than once I've been to the dentist when I thought something funny was going on with a tooth, they would say it was fine, only to have it chip or break a few months down the road. I went the Dental Argentina Clinic ( It's a clinic that specializes in tourists from the US and Canada. It was a good experience. I thought I would need a crown, but got an overlay, which is a less sever form of tooth repair that keeps more of the actual tooth. It cost about $340 US for the exam, x-ray, and the overlay. I went for the prep work and impression on January 20 and went back on January 26 to have the inlay put in and completed. I've been reading a lot about medical tourism. I didn't think I would be experiencing it myself. I'm pretty pleased with the results.

The other thing I had to do in BA was go to the Brazilian Consulate and get my visa. Brazil requires Americans and Canadians to get a visa ahead of time. It cost 520 pesos (about $150 US). I wasn't really sure what to expect. I've heard very differing stories on what documents one needs to get a Brazilian visa. The consulate's website stated I needed to bring a passport sized photo and copies of my passport, yellow fever certificate, two months of bank statements, and round trip ticket to and from Brazil. I had all those things except the round trip ticket. I only had a ticket leaving Brazil, so I was a but worried that I would have to get it and come back. I didn't really know what to expect in a Consulate's office. I was picturing a really nice office with mahogany desks and maybe animal skins on the floor. It actually looked a lot like the DMV. It was kind of dark and dingy and had three windows. I greeted the lady and spoke to her in Spanish. She didn't ask for any of that stuff other than the photo. She just asked if I had a credit card. She didn't want to see it, she just asked for it. Three days later I had my visa to enter Brazil.

If Chile is the Germany of South America, then Argintina is the Italy. Buenos Aires has a distinct European look and feel. If you took Rome, set Paris on top, and added a crazy amount of beef, you would have Buenos Aires. I stayed at the Milhouse Hostel. You gotta love a place named after a character on the Simpsons (and thus, named after our 37th president).

I have a love-hate relationship with Argentina. On one hand, it's a very cosmopolitan place with great food. I had some really, really, really, really good steaks. The people are really friendly. The women are ridiculously gorgeous. On the other hand, there are some thing that really drove me crazy. There are not enough coins in circulation. Every time you buy something you normally have this back and forth so you can pay with money that they can make change for. Twice I was refused because we couldn't make the change work. Two times store owners lost sales because of lack of change. This would be frustrating enough, but add to that the fact that you need 1 peso coins to ride the buses. I think in America we'd be taking to the streets if something like that happened. It seemed like something that can be corrected fairly easily. Just open the mint and make some more coins! Also, going out is weird. In the states, going out until 2:00 or 3:00am is considered a pretty late night. In Buenos Aires, going out means going to clubs. The clubs don't get started until 2:30. They go until about 8:00 in the morning. Often, people will leave a club at 8:00 am and go to another club until about 10:00 am. I don't get this. How did these hours come to be?

Also, my backpack got stolen again in an internet cafe in Mendoza. It was my fault. I didn't loop it around my foot. Mendoza was really nice and I just got too comfortable and didn't watch myself. It was found in the bathroom minus my Ipod before I knew what had happened. Damn it!!!!!!

Recoleta Cemetary - a city within a city. The most expensive real estate in town.

Grave of Juan and Eva Peron

Casa Rosada - The presidential palace.

Tango is the national dance of Argentina, but no one actually does it. Tango was started by pimps and prostitutes in the immigrant neighborhood of La Boca. It's popularity spread and it became the national dance. However, it faded in the 50's and 60's. People quit learning how to tango. In the last 10 or so years there have been efforts to revive the tango. But today, tango exists mostly as performances for tourists. People don't go to tango clubs and dance the way people in other countries dance salsa and meringue.

Me trying to tango dance.

Real tango dancers.

Pro-Palestinian rally on the street outside my hostel in Buenos Aires.

Along with the obligatory burning of the American flag.

On January 24, a bunch of us loaded up and went to Mar Del Plata (about five hours away) for a day on the beach and a soccer match. The Beach at Mar Del Plata was small, but very crowded. Most of the women wore thong bikinis. That is not necessarily a good thing. Women of all shapes and sizes and ages were wearing these things, so you had to take the good, the bad, and the ugly. Still, there was something kind of cool about Argentinian women letting it all hang out and not being too self conscious about not having perfect bodies.

The soccer match was Boca Junior vs River Plate. They are supposedly the two best teams in Argentina and bitter rivals. The match was exactly what I expected. Argentinians are passionate people and they are extremely passionate about soccer, or futbol. The crowd, which was more entertaining than the game, chanted and jumped up and down during the whole match. I have some video of the crowd. I'll try to upload, but the internet connections have been too slow so far.

There was a large police presence at the match. Apparently, it is perfectly acceptable to throw trash out onto the field. The cops made me throw away my camera batteries on the way in, so the pics I have are from other peoples cameras. The game started at about 10:20 and ended about 12:20. It's really a late-night country. Boca won 2-1.

On January 26, I took a bus to Puerto Iguazu, on the Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay border to see Iguazu Falls, which I'll include in the next post covering Brazil.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


On Sunday, December 28, I took a bus from Puno, Peru, to Copacabana, Bolivia. Everyone had to get off the bus, go through Peru exit and then Bolivian Entry. As an American, I had to apply for a visa and pay $135 to enter Bolivia. I think I was the only American on the bus because everyone else zipped though the line. Generally, people from about 25 countries, the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc., can get into most countries for 30-90 days with just a valid passport. Americans are most likely to get screwed with visa fees, as I was entering Bolivia. I had to fill out a 3 page application. It asked for all kinds of information, including employer information. I put down my old information from HCA. I didn't want to write down that I was unemployed, and possibly have my visa rejected for fear I would try to get a job in Bolivia making $2 per day, or whatever the wages are here (Bolivia is the poorest country in South America). So if anyone still at HCA gets a call from the Bolivian government, please do me a favor and lie to them. I had exactly $110 in USD to enter Bolivia. My 2009 guidebook indicated the Bolivian visa would cost $100. When I got there, I found out it was $135. There were no ATMs in this little no man’s land. I had to change most of my money to get $35 more. I also had to provide a copy of my passport and yellow fever certificate (which I could get next door) and a passport sized photo (which I couldn’t). Since I didn’t have a passport sized photo, I was charged another $10, which I’m sure went straight into the border guy´s pocket. I was the last one back on the bus. I entered Bolivia with only about $5 in various currencies.

I got into Copacabana at about 11:45. I was informed by the hotel clerk that there were no ATMs and the town's only bank closed at 12:00 and would be closed the next day. So I made a beeline to the bank, where the only way I could get cash was to do a cash advance from my credit card (bad rates and fees). But alas, I had enough for a hotel, bus tickets and tour tickets. I purchased a tour of the Isla del Soul and a bus ticket to La Paz for the next day.

Having taken care of the immediate business, I went to an Internet Cafe to book some plane tickets. I then had to deal with the idiots at Capital One, who denied my charge three times. That’s three times I had to call Capital One, then call the airline to put through the charge. I spent a good hour on the phone in three different skype sessions to do something that should have taken about five minutes online.

I hate to start out the post being negative, but this day was an extreme example of some of the bureaucracy I have to deal with.

Lake Titicaca from my $13 hotel room.

On Monday. December 29, I took a tour of Isla del Sol. It took about 1.5 hours by boat to get there. We were dropped off on the north side of the island. The north side includes several archeological sites from the Inka days. We then hiked three hours (seemingly all uphill), to the south side of the island, where the boat would pick us up to take us back to Copacabana. The scenery around the hike had the look and feel of the video ¨Shout¨ by Tears for Fears. I had that song stuck in my head the whole time. It was a nice hike though.
Our non-English speaking tour guide. I was suprised at this since most people in the group did not speak Spanish.

Table where the Inka's sacrificed virgins (really).

At 6:30 that night, I took a bus from Copacabana to La Paz. About 30 minutes in, we were told to deboard the bus and take a water taxi across the lake. There were about 40 people (seemingly way too many) in this little boat. The bus boarded a ferry that was just slightly larger than the bus. I could see the bus (with my luggage strapped to the top) swaying right and left as it crossed the lake. I'm sure that saved some time.

The water taxi.

We arrived in La Paz about 10:00pm. I met three Brits on the bus. Since we were all going to the same place, we all shared a cab. I thought I would be hanging out with these guys while I was in La Paz, but I fell in with another group of Brits, Germans, Australians, and an Israeli. The dynamics of being on the road are interesting. There are a lot of people doing what I’m doing (long-term solo travel). Every new place is a little like the first day of school. Lots of opportunity and a little anxiety. Groups form, you have a good time, and in a few days, these groups disband when people go in different directions. It’s an interesting dynamic.

La Paz sits at over 13,000 feet. It is the highest world capital. It is usually cold year round and the air is very thin. I don't think I ever adjusted to the altitude, as I was winded most of the time. Central La Paz didn't seem to have any supermarkets, but had plenty of street vendors selling drinks, junk food, and llama fetuses. According to tradition in Bolivia, it is necessary to bury a llama fetus beneath all new homes to appease Pachamama. I didn't take any photos, but if you want to see, go to and search on the keywords Bolivia, Llama, and Fetus.

Government palace. About as nice as La Paz gets.

I spent new years in La Paz. It was a lot of fun. There was a gangster themed party in the hostel bar. No one really had costumes, so most were cheap little costumes bought locally. Mostly plastic hats and ties. I wore a bandana around my head. I was a 90's gangster, but most others were 1920's gangsters.

One of the tours many visitors take is to San Pedro prison in downtown La Paz. San Pedro prison houses about 1,500 inmates. It is unusual in that the prisoners have basically taken over, not by force, but by bribery. Prisoners sentenced to San Pedro have to buy their cells. The most expensive areas have pool tables and cable TV, as well as apartment like amenities. The cheap areas are small, cramped, and smelly. Wives and children of prisoners can live there, for a price, and can come and go as they please. Prisoners set up stands to sell food and suppolies just like on the outside. Each of the seven areas of the prison elects a governor to administer the area and represent it's members' interests.

I was a little hesitant about going, since many of the travel offices had signs saying not to ask about San Pedro tours, because they are illegal. But everyone I talked to went and said the same thing. You go to a park across the street from the prison and sit on a bench. Someone will approach you and ask if you you want a tour. The tour would cost 250B (about $35 US - a lot of money for Bolivia), use of a camera would be 15B, and an unspecified amount to tip the guide. Also you would need to bring cigarettes to give to the prisoners and candy to give to the children.

On January 2, I went with Regina, a German, to tour the prison. We stopped at a street vendor and bought about 5B worth of candy (40-50 pieces) and a pack of cigarettes (5.5B). We went to the park and sat on a bench. About 20 minutes passed and no one came. We started eating the candy we'd bought. Finally after about 30 minutes, Kenny, a tall guy in a Manchester United football jersey approached us and asked if we wanted the tour. He explained the prices and the process and it was just like I'd heard. He said there was a group of Australiains he was waiting on and when they arrived, we could start the tour. There were a total of 11 of us on the tour.

We entered the prison through a metal detector that was obviously not turned on. They escorted us into a little room where they took our money and introduced us to our guide Angel (a prisoner) and three body guards. He took us around the prison and explained how it operated. The whole tour took about 2.5 hours. About half of the prisoners there are awaiting trial and the other half are serving sentences. Apparantley if you have money, you can pay off the judges, jurys, and clerks and get a speedy trial. If you have no money, you could sit there for years awating trial. The Bolivian justice system is pretty corrupt even by Latin American standards.

Our English speaking (sort of) guide.

Home made water heater for laundry. A brick wrapped in a coil with two wires coming out of the wall. Seemed a bit dangerous.

Rec room and courtyard in one of the expensive areas.

Hallway in one of the cheaper areas.

Coca-Cola has an exclusive agreement with the prisoners to market and sell coke products inside the prison.


It was lunch time.

One of many kids running around the place. This one was wearing a Barney costume.

At the end of the tour, we all entered a small room and then they shut the door. With the same intonation as explaining other parts of the prison, Angel informed us that they had a cocaine processing plant in the prison and they would sell us 99% pure cocaine for 100B per gram. No one in our group bought any, but they said selling cocaine to tourists brings in significant revenue for the prisoners.

I had mixed feelings about the tour afterwards. First, I was financially supporting the system by paying to get in. A lot of people on the outside had it a whole lot worse than many people on the inside. Second, I was giving candy to a bunch of kids with rotting teeth. For the kids, every day was like Halloween. Thirdly, it felt like I was at the zoo. It was an experience to say the least.

On January 3, I took an 11 hour, overnight bus to Uyuni. Uyuni is a jumping off point for touring the salt flats and the southern Bolivian desert. The road was unpaved for the last five hours of the trip and man it was rough. My rear and back were getting pounded. I was never more glad to get off a bus than when I got to Uyuni. They really need to pave some of those roads. You would think with my $135 visa fee that they could pave a few miles. At Uyuni, we met up with Bernardo, our tour guide. There were eight of us packed into an old Toyota Land Cruiser. The hotels were very basic. The first hotel had no running water. The second had running water, but no shower. Neither had heat and it was prety cold at night. It was a lot of riding (off road) and stopping to take pictures, but I think I got some of my best pictures of the trip. The salt flat was amazing. The Bolivian desert looked like New Mexico (minus the paved roads).

Railroad graveyard.

Salt Hotel.

Licking the Salt Hotel.

The Salt Flats.

Bolivian desert.

On the third day, January 6, three of us were dropped off at the Chilean border while the rest headed back to Uyuni. From the Chilean border, we took a bus into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The bus ride was about an hour and was seemingly all down hill. I welcomed the warmer weather of Chile being as I had caught a nasty cold in the Bolivian desert.