The road into Tupiza, Bolivia, from Salta, Argentina, was interesting to say the least. We boarded the bus and said farewell to the most beautiful city we had seen up to that point (later to be rivalled by Sucre in Bolivia), and started the overnight journey toward the culturally rich, indigenous land of coca leaves (which isn’t actually a drug) and outdoor wonders.
The change in altitude in Bolivia was felt harshly, despite us boarding a bus and making our adjustment to the 5000 metre-plus high landscape. You would have to be an absolute idiot to consider flying into Bolivia or Peru from a low altitude – people suffer enough gradually adjusting to the thinner air, and from what we’ve been told, flying in to such a high altitude is not only irresponsible and silly, but dangerous. Hence the oxygen tanks waiting to breathe new life into the gringos getting sick, as they step off the planes at the airports.
Anyway, getting off the bus in La Quiaca, we teamed up with a Frenchman and a Brit called Salam, and at five in the morning, we attempted to make our way through the dark, freezing, rural zone bordering Bolivia. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and the moon was still illuminating the vacant fields and mud houses. We put on our backpacks and started to cross the border. We trekked up and down hills, past wild dogs, crumbling mud huts, half-built houses, and down toward a river. It looked like a studio set out of a war movie. La Quiaca, heading toward Villazon, could easily be mistaken for some kind of war zone in Iraq. This was the beginning of what we envisioned South America to be like – raw beauty, faded grandeur, simple surroundings, and indigenous culture. Suffice to say, it was a welcome break from the wealthy cosmopolis’s of Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.
As we crossed the river by foot, with only a few unstable bricks to stop us from falling in, the four of us arrived up a hill and officially arrived in Bolivia. A few men came up to us and offered us a taxi ride into town. It was still pitch black, and our first impressions of Bolivia were rugged. The area we found ourselves in was poor. Maybe trapped in time. The people were kind and in no way the stereotypes they’re sometimes portrayed as in the West.
We asked where the immigration office was so we could officially check into Bolivia. The men pointed us in a completely different direction from whence we came. Turns out we crossed the border illegally – a common route that locals use to enter Argentina to buy fresh produce. No border protection here.
After making our way back up the hill and over a bridge, severely puffed out to the extent that I honestly was about to faint, we passed immigration and caught a taxi into Tupiza. For half the amount of time and about $8 Australian dollars, the ride into Tupiza was worth it. The bus takes approximately three hours, and given how freezing the conditions were, we couldn’t be bothered saving a small bit of cash and taking longer to get to Tupiza. The ride was awesome – it reminded us of the road to Mendoza, via the Andes. The landscape was like that of a country and western film. We passed by remote villages, vast red and rocky earth, and large boulders. If the road to Mendoza looked like a journey through the moon, then the road to Tupiza was a trip through Mars. Spectacular.
Tupiza itself is a small village that is home to a large population of indigenous Bolivians. We stood out a lot. The people here seemed more friendly than elsewhere. The small town had a few streets of kiosks, clothes shops, and bakeries selling empanadas and other fried food. Pretty much all the street food is made by little old women in traditional dress, who can be found on most street corners as well as the market in the centre of town. The market is worth checking out, especially since you’ll need to throw out whatever gear you thought would suffice for the subzero temperatures, and replace it with alpaca and llama woollen beanies, gloves, and sweaters. We never knew true warmth until we bought genuine alpaca clothes. They keep the heat in like nothing else, and are a real lifesaver as you head into the remoteness of Uyuni.
Something peculiar we noticed in Tupiza, as well as other parts of Bolivia, was the obsession with hotted up Japanese cars. Think of a Latin version of Fast and Furious. These cars are decked out with decals, body kits, and sound systems which thump through the narrow streets and open roads. It was peculiar to us, since Tupiza is extremely barren and remote, and relatively poor and undeveloped. Aside from this, first timers to Bolivia who cross over from Argentina will notice the old, traditionally dressed women selling bags of coca leaves toward the outer part of town. Coca leaves are mostly associated in the West with cocaine production, although it’s a fair stretch to think that it’s feasible to actually produce some.
For the record, Bolivians hold the highest disdain for cocaine traffickers, as the attempts by the US government to destroy coca plantations hit a nerve. It takes an insane amount of coca leaves to produce even a small amount of cocaine, alongside a complicated refining process with added chemicals. The coca leaf is a national symbol in Bolivia, and is very much apart of Bolivian culture. People chew the leaves or infuse it with hot water to make a tea, in order to get rid of altitude sickness, headaches, toothaches, and to provide the energy required to farm at such a high altitude. It’s legal here and in Peru. Lonely Planet and the medical world in general recommend having it to protect yourself against altitude sickness, since the effects help to balance the body when acclimatising to the lack of oxygen. Hostels serve it up each morning, or if you want to buy your own bag, it’ll cost you less than $1.20 Australian dollars. The only taboo that came about was when the US wanted to destroy all coca plantations (destroying a significant part of Bolivian culture along with it), in order to try and prevent cocaine production. Doing so is about as relevant as deciding to ban any other natural ingredient used in any kind of drug production. Thankfully for the Bolivians, saner heads prevailed as the United Nations ruled the US government as being out of line.
After a couple of nights in Tupiza, it was time to catch the night train to Uyuni. We would leave Tupiza with positive impressions of Bolivia, for the hospitality, warm reception, and helpfulness of the locals was the best to date in South America.