The overnight train from Uyuni to the border town of Villazon is great, especially after our last overnight bus ride. We buy Baller Class tickets for a few extra bucks and it’s money well spent, the car is almost empty and we’re all able to spread out across multiple seats. The lights are turned off after rail employees bring us blankets and pillows and we’re in the zone, making distance overnight but sleeping well in process.
With the rising sun comes on a Hit Ballads of the ’80s and ’90s video montage on our car’s AV system – multiple Bryan Adams tracks, some Whitney Houston / Kevin Costner tuneage, all that good shit – and as we’re really feeling it we roll into Villazon. We jump out and grab our gear but our good-sleep-feeling-good-buzz is immediately cramped on by guys trying to sell us bus tickets. “Donde va??” “Where you going???” “DONDE VA?!?” I hate that shit, give me some space! One guy throws out “Salta??” which is actually where we’re going so we give him a second to explain himself. Cheaper here than the other side he claims, which might make sense (we have no idea). “Come on, follow me.” Okay, we take the bait.
Fifteen minute hike through town and we reach the bus company’s office. Something weird about this border town… it doesn’t feel as sketchy as most. Kind of feels like a regular functioning town rather than a gritty frontier like we’ve become accustomed to. The guy who walked us down here springs a weird catch about our tickets – we can’t catch the bus here in Villazon, we have to walk across the border to La Quiaca and grab it there. We’ve got two hours to make the first bus, three hours for the second. Surely it can’t take that long to cross the border… We hope?
We wave down a cab and we’re at the border crossing a couple of minutes later. There’s a bridge that appears to be the border, with Bolivian checkpoints in front of it and a large group of backpackers ahead of them. We watch the line-up of backpackers for a bit and the checkpoint, trying to get the feel for what’s happening. Locals seem to be walking past unimpeded but these guys are waiting for a reason so we ask them what’s up – turns out they’re just waiting for more friends to arrive before they cross over. Oops. Okay let’s go.
The real border consists of two integrated buildings, one containing passport control for both Bolivia and Argentina and another building on the other side of the road for customs. We’ve arrived at the same time as a bus which has just emptied everyone out, putting us WAY back in the line, outside the shade and directly in the sun. The line’s moving slow. It’s a good thing we have the option of catching that second bus in three hours, at this rate we’ll need it…
After a long wait we get up to Bolivian immigration and check-out without any issues. Argentinian immigration is ten feet to the side so we saunter over to a non-line and we’re actually looking good, if this goes smoothly we might make the first bus. We grab some paperwork from the window and begin filling it out when we’re approached by an Argentinian border guard. Where are you from? Canada. You need reciprocity. What’s that?
Apparently the governments of Canada, the US and Australia charge Argentinians a fee to enter, so the government of Argentina has retaliated with a similar fee for us. Just under $100 US. Okay, where do we pay? Are cards accepted?
You have to pay online before you come to the border. We have to return to Bolivia, find Internet, pay up, get our receipts printed off and come back.
You’ve got to be shitting me.
Now the proper thing to do would be to get into the Bolivian line and “check-in” to the country again, seeing as how we’d just received our exit stamps. Right now though we’re racing to make our bus and the line-up on the Bolivian side is still pretty stupid, so there’s no time for that. We hustle across the bridge, evade the notice of any of the border guards and police and re-enter Bolivia without a visa or entry stamp, in other words, completely illegally.
We walk around for a few minutes but come up empty-handed – the blocks directly around the border have little but money-changing offices and touristy crap. Grab a taxi and ask the guy to take us to an Internet cafe – he does so but charges us an exorbitant rate, grinning. We didn’t explain our situation to him but given our immigration statuses we can’t really raise a stink and risk having the police show up.
The cafe is mostly filled with teenaged gamers playing FPSs. We grab a machine in the back and try to bring up the URL that the Argentinian border guard gave us. It loads absurdly slow and it isn’t clear what we’re supposed to click on. Eventually we get linked out to another site that crawls and is equally unclear. Finally a third, where we actually find the form. We take turns punching in our details and credit card numbers and trying to get the receipts printed out at the desk. There’s no chance we’re making the first bus at this point but the second is still a possibility.
Another cab, another rush across the bridge, bypassing the now-empty Bolivian side and going straight up to the Argie window. I go up first, stampy-stampy and I’m through. On the way out of the compound I’ve waved down by some Argentinian border guards who lead me to a Mercedes van with a mobile x-ray in the back. Run the backpack through, they take a quick look and wave me past. Shit, we might actually make this!
I’m waiting. And waiting. The boys are still standing by the Argie immigration window, and aren’t getting through. I walk over and see what’s up. Nobody knows. The bureaucrats took their passports, reciprocity receipts and paperwork and just disappeared.
I kill time by scoping out the area. Not much going on, a cab stand and ice cream vendors is about it. A dusty road leads to town but there doesn’t seem to be much in the vicinity. I sit down under a shade tree and an older guy, I’d say prettttty drunk, sits down next to me and starts talking to me about randomness while getting what appears to be chewing tobacco down the front of his shirt.
The boys still aren’t out. I walk over again but this time a surly border guard blocks my path, saying I’m going back and forth too much, I’m banned from the border compound. Standing on a slightly elevated patch of dirt I play charades with the guys to try to figure out what’s up but all I get are shrugs. Back to the shady tree and the drunk old dude I guess. I don’t have the time on me but I’m pretty much certain we’ve missed the second bus by this point.
After shooting the shit with the drunk guy for a while the boys make it out. Turns out the computer they need to validate receipts crashed immediately after I’d gone through, leaving them stranded. We grab a cab and head to the bus stop – who knows, if we’re lucky maybe they’ll refund part of our tickets? Holy shit, even better, they just let us jump the next bus instead, no extra fees. Nice work Fletchabus.
Rolling out of town the terrain turns desert-y and strange. Different geological layers are popping out of the hillsides similar to what you’ll see in a place like Arizona but with a couple of quirks – there’s a lot of green and even blue and the way the layers are arranged is incredibly strange at times, almost like the rocks have been folded over sideways or something.
About an hour into the drive the bus stops and people start clearing out. Military checkpoint, and they’re unloading everyone’s bags out of the back. I’ve got my shit in the overhead so I decide to leave it there, I don’t want to have to repack my tent. We all stand in line with our bags for inspection and when I walk up without anything I just kind of shrug. The Man-In-Charge says some stuff to me then dismissively waves me off. The boys get similar treatment, quickly flashing their passports and getting waved past. Which is very fortunate for Murphy, as he still has his Halloween geisha costume stuffed away in his bag.
We make brief stops in podunk towns but stop for reals in Jujuy, switching buses en route to Salta. The city’s really nice and super modern – the driver in me, mostly absent since Panama, makes note of how smooth the pavement is and how well-marked the roads are. Something else is different here too… Oh, it’s all the gorgeous women. Everywhere. It’s not Colombia but it’s the best thing since and a definite neck injury risk. We grab some Argibucks from an ATM then have to hustle back to get on our next bus, almost missing it. The baggage guy’s a dick, demanding a tip to let our checked bags on (and not being careful with them at all when he does put them on), but the bus is nice and the view’s changing but still really great, with snow-capped peaks breaking up the clear blue sky.
We land in Salta and grab a cab to the main square. Damn, this place is awesome! People everywhere, the buildings are gorgeous, the girls are better, there are cafes and bars all over. We pass on a couple of hostels that aren’t really what we’re looking for – i.e. family-run with kids around, we want to have some drinks and be idiots tonight – and settle on one that’s mediocre but fuck it, it’s a place to sleep. The Expendables is on in Spanish, making it hard to leave, but we eventually haul ourselves down to a cafe-bar. The boys drink negronis (apparently the worst they’ve ever had) while I drink a local dark beer that’s decent, the food more than makes up for the drinks though. All of our meals are top-notch. Let’s hit the town.
The town’s a really nice place, the plazas are swanky and ringed with patio-drinkers. Kind of quiet but it is a Monday. Or a Sunday. Or something like that.
Sitting ourselves down at what is definitely a locals bar, poorly lit with surly waitresses, fantastic. I keep drinking the dark beer I’d been working on and the boys get in on some too, slamming them back pretty fast. Not much going on so we split after two drinks but as I’m leaving I turn back to look for Drisdelle, who’s trailing. I locate him just in time to see him grab a wooden pole in the middle of the bar, raise a hand to his mouth and puke beer foam up onto the floor. He comes out and Murphy and I have a hearty laugh at his expense while drops of beer are still dangling from his beard. Good times.
Roaming the town a bit later we call it quits with a “nightcap” at a fancier, better-lit place that has a friendly between Man City and CSKA on. The nightcap turns into two bottles of wine and we’re feeling pretty good but the town’s starting to die off. We head back to the hostel as stragglers.