Salta, Tilcara, and crossing into Bolivia!

I didn’t think Northern Argentina would be quite so memorable, but the scenery blew me away. From Cafayate we drove through the Quebrada de Cafayate which turned out to be a series of gorgeous canyons full of bright red rock formations.

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The drive itslef was gorgeous and popping out to explore a few areas we felt again like we could easily have been driving through the American Southwest.

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The vistas provided lovely photo ops.

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We even drove through a cute little village called Santa Barbara – the same name as my home town, although the vibe was just a bit different :)

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From the Quebrada we kept blazing North. We were eager to reach Salta because we were finally meeting up with Ciaran and Anas, friends from Berlin who were on a similar trip through South America. We were so excited to see some familiar faces and to have a couple of travelling companions as we made our way into Bolivia.

We’d heard a lot of awesome things about Salta from backpackers and overlanders alike so we had high expectations. And I suppose I can see the attraction from a backpackers perspective, but for us, driving through Salta was a bit chaotic and stressful. We stopped at the central park to make lunch and relax in the shad for a while, and then moved on to the ice cream shop for a sweet treat, air conditioning, and a bit of wifi. A few hours later we showed up at the bus station and were delighted to see Ciaran and Anas waiting for us with smiling faces. We sat at a café and caught up over cool drinks before piling into the van and setting out towards a campsite at the southern edge of town.

Once again, the site was a glorified public pool that was absolutely packed full when we arrived. It was fun showing Ciaran and Anas what Argentinian camping looked like.

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We found a spot in the corner near a couple of German overlanders and set up shop. Camping in the van with four people was a completely different experience and much cozier, but we were super excited to be able to share our space and an experience that we had grown to love with good friends. When it threatened to rain, we pulled out the canopy we’d been carrying around for months and finally figured out how to set it up.

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Safe from the elements, we cooked dinner together, played cards, and enjoyed bottles of wine we’d each picked up along the way. It was an awesome start to a journey together.

Waking up on the top bunk of the van with Ciaran and Anas sleeping below was super fun. It felt like summer camp but way cooler. We started our normal routine of making breakfast, putting the water on for coffee, setting out muesli on the picnic table… suddenly we realized that the stove was no longer lit and our water wasn’t boiling… we had finally run out of propane. Fortunately, the nice Germans next door were kind enough to boil some water for us, but we knew then that we would be spending the morning in Salta in order to try to fill up our propane tank. After watching the start of swim lessons in the campsite pool, we headed back into the city, dropped Ciaran and Anas off to do some sightseeing, and Wolf and I set off on a mission to solve our fuel shortage.

Our first stop was a specialty gas shop that we’d read would be able to fit out car with an adaptor. The nice folks in the shop took one look at our LP valve and told us they wouldn’t be able to help.

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They had adaptors, but nothing that would  fit with our threading. They suggested a few places we might try anyway, just in case they had a nozzle that would work for us. Our next stop was a hardware store for a voltage converter so that we could try plugging into electricity at the next campsite and a sauntering iron to fix the lighting wiring that had been jostled loose by hundreds of miles of unpaved roads. The first gas vendor we stopped at couldn’t help us – they catered only to residential customers and focused mostly on propane canisters that could be replaced and exchanged. The next stop, despite reviews that indicated they could fill and not just exchange, was the same story. Defeated, we met Ciaran and Anas for one last venture to the outskirts of town which looked promising, but again we were told by the man behind locked gates that he couldn’t help us.

Our only saving grace was the entertaining traffic through town. Llamas in the back of trucks, horse-drawn carts… it seemed like anything goes.

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After a quick grocery stop we finally started heading north, still with an empty propane tank. We’d heard from the bikers in Belen that this part of the route would be quite narrow and mountainous. They weren’t lying. The road looked more like a bike path than anything else, but it sure was pretty, traversing through lush, green valleys, and then along mountain passes with moss- and bromeliad-covered trees on either side.

Luckily for us, we had a couple of sous-chefs in the back who made lunch while we drove on and entertained us with travel stories. The day flew by with good company.

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Coming down out of the mountains into the Quebrada de Humahuaca the landscape changed a bit but certainly remained beautiful. The hillsides looked as though they;d been painted in rainbows of colors and with each village we passed, things started looking a bit more unique.

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Even the people seemed different – more and more women walked around in what looked like typical Bolivian dress.

We arrived in Tilcara in the early evening and decided to stop for the night. Before settling in, though, we decided to check out the Pucara, a pre-Hispanic fortress and archeological site. What looked like a major road on the map turned out to be an interesting off-road adventure on our way there, but we made it in one piece and even had the pleasure of paying a couple of five-year-old girls to “watch” our van.

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The hilltop site was a bit disappointing in terms of the rebuilt fortress, but the views didn’t disappoint.

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Back in town we inquired at a few campsites and chose the nicest. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the fridge to work off the electricity and we still didn’t have gas to cook with, but we pulled out our backpacking stove and made ourselves a pasta feast anyway. A little propane deficiency wasn’t going to stop us from having a good time. We spent another lovely evening camping and even enjoying hot, clean showers.

The next morning, I wasn’t sure Ciaran would be willing to leave all the cute little dog friends he had made, and we laughed over breakfast watching the neighborhood pups fight over his attention.

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We were all excited about the day’s adventure – we would finally cross into Bolivia. After spending a few minutes at the town square using the free wifi, we left triumphantly, ready to blaze a trail northwards. And then we saw the gas station line. As usual, we lined up behind 15 cars and waited 30 minutes or so for our turn. We’d started hearing horror stories about gas in Bolivia – both in terms of the low-quality of the product, but also in terms of availability. So, we wanted to make sure we crossed the border not only with a full tank, but also with a can of Argentinian gas that might be of higher quality. Having dealt with what we think may have been bad gas in remote parts of Southern Argentina, we wanted to arrive in Bolivia prepared, and we set off from Tilcara set for adventure.

After a few hours drive we arrived in La Quiaca, the Argentinian side of the border crossing. Already, the town felt chaotic; it was full of backpackers, cute little Bolivian old ladies, and tons of tour buses. We drove up to the border, parked our car, and headed towards what seemed like the right line. I asked an official looking lady where to go and she shooed us behind a long line of backpackers.

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About two-thirds of the way through the line I decided something didn’t feel right and went back again to ask where the customs office is and where I could get my Bolivian vehicle permit… only then did she tell me that we were in the wrong line and we needed to go around to the other side of the building. Ack.

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We dutifully obeyed and found another set of windows with an equally long line. I asked another lady what to do and she pointed to another window and told us to wait there. I waited while groups in front of us elbowed ahead and worked through paperwork and then stepped up the front, only to hear the border official call out a number for the next person in line, just like at a deli counter. I was baffled. Where the heck were people getting numbers, and why didn’t I have one? I went back to the lady who had told me to just stand and wait there and she looked at me with surprise, as if I should have known to ask for a number first when I asked her for help. Finally, we got a number and stood back, again waiting our turn at the end of another long line.

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Meanwhile, Ciaran and Anas were having a ball, making friends with more local dogs and even entertaining the kids waiting in line with us.

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Slowly, we made progress, starting with our exit stamps from Argentina, eventually relinquishing our vehicle permit. As the only one in our group of four travelling with an American passport, I had the distinct honor of being the only one required to pay a reciprocity fee to the Bolivian government. The only issue is that I didn’t have any Bolivianos yet and the border official wouldn’t allow me to pay with anything else.  When I asked where I could exchange money, the border official told me to walk across the border to Bolivia and use one of the exchanges there. Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical. I assumed that this was how I would somehow end up in a Bolivian jail – innocently crossing to exchange money, I would be arrested for entering without the proper documentation. Double checking the immigration officials suggestion, I asked the border guards who concurred, giving me advice on the best exchange houses to try and even telling me what rate I should be getting. I said my goodbyes to Wolf, Ciaran and Anas, and told them to continue without me if I ended up in Bolivian prison, and I walked across the border to change money. The first couple of exchanges I tried would only change USD in denominations of $100, which I didn’t have. Eventually I found one that would help me, and made my way back across the border carefully.

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Relieved, I was able to pay my reciprocity fee and we finished up with immigration, only to then wait at the customs window. The agent inside first looked at my paperwork and then told me to wait a minute. He disappeared and we waited and waited, eventually realizing that we were waiting for him to take his smoke break. He took his sweet time and, eventually, returned to look at our paperwork again before processing a new vehicle permit for us. Finally, more than three hours after arriving at the border, we all jumped back in our van said hasta luego to Argentina, and crossed into Bolivia… this time legally :)

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We made good time getting to Tupiza, our destination for the evening. Along the way we learned about the Bolivian road tolls, enjoyed the prevalent pro-Evo Morales graffiti, and were amazed to see that there really did seem to be a change in the people and the landscape. Arriving in Tupiza, we went straight to La Torre Tours where we hoped to arrange a Salar de Uyuni tour. Wasting no time, we arranged a four-day tour for the following morning. That gave us just enough time to gather a few supplies we wanted for the tour, grab a pizza dinner, and enjoy a few beers to celebrate our successful crossing into Bolivia. The next morning would be a whole new adventure!

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