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.


Ozzy Nelson said...

very cool. I love the pics.
Did they feed you any llama fetus while you were there?

Shaun said...

1) Llama fetuses??? Really?
2) Interesting story about the prison. Ironic that you have to do something "illegal" to get a tour...of a prison.
3) Amazing picture of the salt tree? rock?...

Anonymous said...

I love your blog - very descriptive! That prison tour sounds like a place where not everyone that goes in comes out. Creepy. Happy New Year Jay! Tina P.

toomuchcountry said...

Not sure what to think about your licking the salt hotel. On the one hand, its creepy to think about how many other people have licked it. But on the other hand, its a cool, South American re-created version of the Flick and flagpole scene in "A Christmas Story".

Jay G said...

I did a little research on the llama fetuses. According to tradition in Bolivia, it is necessary to bury a llama fetus beneath all new homes to appease Pachamama. I tried to ask a lady selling them what they were used for, but I don't think she spoke Spanish.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jay,
I have really enjoyed reading about your recent travels. It all sounds so interesting, esp. the part about the prison tour. I wish you continued safe travels!
Jenny Swinny

Jen Holt said...

You need to write a book of this year when you get back home! What amazing adventures! The prison sounded creepy...but sort of cool that you got to see their corrupt system first hand. Glad you made it out!