I walked to the Estrella del Sur office a little before 8am. Three other people were already there waiting for our tour to start: Matthew and Natacha, a friendly French couple in their late-20s/early-30s; and Jean, a baby-faced 23-year-old software developer who, despite his French-sounding name, was Brazilian and had just met Matthew and Natacha.
The four of us were eventually joined by the rest of the group – two Danish guys and eight friends from Canada, England, Australia, and Brazil, all in their 20s. A bus took us to the Chilean immigration office just outside of San Pedro, and – once we’d all officially checked-out of Chile – we continued up a steep dirt road to the Bolivian border, just over a mountain pass.
The primitive building that served as the Bolivian immigration checkpoint made it clear that we weren’t in Chile any more. Back in South Africa, when I mentioned I’d been to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, I often heard something along the lines of, “Oh, you’ve seen the real Africa.” Now, after seven weeks in Argentina and Chile, I felt as if I’d crossed over to the real Latin America.
An immigration agent sat behind a plain wooden table in an unheated room. We lined up to have our passports stamped, most of us light-headed from the altitude. “¿Americano?” the official asked me.
“Si, soy Americano.”
“Espera,” he said brusquely, indicating that I should wait off to the side. The others in my group adopted that look schoolkids give to a troublemaker who just got busted by the teacher.
It turns out that as an American I was supposed to have paid $135 for a visa before crossing the border. Many South American countries, in retaliation for what they view as the exorbitant amount their citizens must pay to visit the U.S., have instituted a reciprocal visa fee. But in Chile and Argentina that fee is only charged when an American enters the country through the primary international airport (in Santiago and Buenos Aires, respectively). Foolishly I’d assumed it would be the same in Bolivia, and, even if it wasn’t, I thought I could just pay at the border.
But I needed a visa and the border post wasn’t equipped to issue one. I thought I might be prevented from continuing with my group, but the immigration agent decided to let me pass. He returned my passport – with no stamp – and said I could buy my visa at the immigration office in Uyuni. Losing a day wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but I was relieved I didn’t have to turn back.
More good luck followed. The roads ahead were too rough for a bus, so once we crossed the border we had to switch to four-wheel-drive SUVs. The tour agency, of course, hopes to squeeze as many people as possible into each SUV, but they promised the limit was six (plus the driver). That meant our group of 14 needed three SUVs, and none of them would be full. Matthew, Natacha, Jean and I spread out in one SUV, with five people in each of the other two. With several days of driving ahead of us it felt great to have plenty of room.
Our driver, Marcos, was an unfailingly polite Bolivian in his 50s. He didn’t speak English and rarely even spoke at all, but he drove safely, and when he answered our questions it was clear he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. Based on some of the horror stories I’d heard from other travelers who’d made this trip, many drivers were not nearly as competent (or sober) as Marcos.
From the immigration office our three-SUV caravan turned on to a bumpy dirt road and drove to our first stop, a saline lake called Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon). Right from the start, the scenery in southwestern Bolivia’s altiplano was stunning, a desolate moonscape of volcanoes, bizarre rock formations, and strangely-colored lakes. After Laguna Blanca we visited the appropriately-named Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon).
Natacha, unfortunately, began suffering from altitude sickness. She had a bad headache and felt nauseous. Marcos dug around in the back of the SUV for a canister of oxygen, but it didn’t seem to help much.
In the afternoon we arrived at Hostal San Marcelo, our home for the night. We stopped just long enough to unload our bags and then set out for the nearby Laguna Colorada, a large red-tinted lake frequented by James’s Flamingos. Natacha, still not feeling well, stayed at the hostel. A storm had moved in and dark clouds rolled across the horizon.
After exploring the lake we returned to Hostal San Marcelo, which could generously be described as basic accommodations. Matthew, Natacha, Jean and I shared one room with four single beds. The room had a light, but no windows, no power outlet, no heat, and no bathroom. The shared bathroom down the hall didn’t have a shower or any toilet paper.
When the sun went down the temperature dropped so dramatically that we weren’t sure we’d be able to stay warm enough in our beds. So we bundled up. I slept in two T-shirts, a fleece jacket, my new down jacket, a ski cap, and jeans. But it never became unbearably cold and we were fine, although the altitude (about 4,300 meters, or 14,110 feet) gave us all headaches that made it difficult to sleep soundly.