The border at Desaguadero, between Peru and Bolivia, was the definition of insanity. At 7am, I was woken up by the driver of my overnight bus shouting “Caminar! Caminar a la aduana!”
I grabbed my passport and immigration documents, shoved my feet into my boots, and stumbled out into the middle of a marketplace. It wasn’t one of those clean(ish) tourist markets. It was a genuine chaotic cesspool of strange food, cheap plastic crap, and tiny cholitas with giant loads on their backs pushing you out of their ways. People were shouting at me to buy all sorts of things that I’m not sure why I should ever want, and my sense of smell boarded a tilt-a-whirl, suddenly taking up way more of my consciousness than I’m used to. This classic South American phenomenon is a sensory overload even if you’ve had time to chill and have a cup of coffee before actively deciding to put yourself in the situation.
There were a few people on my bus who didn’t seem to be weirded out by this, so I tried to follow them, but almost straight away, they disappeared into the sea of people. Plan B was to just walk, because it wasn’t like I was just going to miss customs. I walked and walked, right over a bridge with a man hocking jeggings in between Peruvian and Bolivian flags. I wandered into Bolivia with my passport in my hand, dodging the people driving bicycle carts who whistled and yelled “Move Gringo!” at me. Eventually the road turned from rough pavement with piles of empanadas everywhere to dirt with piles of more dirt everywhere. At that point, I figured that I had definitely missed customs, so I went back.
I asked a guard who was just standing there as thousands of people walked back and forth between the two countries where customs was, and he pointed to a very small black and white sign outside a window, dwarfed by the florescent red and yellow PAPELES HIGIENICOS next to it. Relieved and anxious to figure out what had happened to my bus, I handed in my passport, only to have them tell me I needed to sign myself out of Peru first.
I walked myself back over the bridge and located a similarly nondescript customs sign on the Peruvian side, stood in a line, got my passport stamped with no hassle. Then returned to the bridge, only to discover some sort of fancy uniform, national anthem playing, flag raising ceremony going on. It went on and on and on. And no, it wasn’t interesting. For about 45 minutes, I stood in the hot sun, having my feet stood on, wishing so badly that I were asleep.
When they finally let everyone across, the line was obviously terrible. I felt as if I had always been going through customs and always would be. When I finally made it out, I was in a panic about where in my bus was and what it was doing. I figured that it must have left without me, I’d taken so long. But then, out of nowhere, there was my bus, parked right outside the customs office. How that giant vehicle made it through that market, I’ll never know, but I was so happy to see it.
After that chaos, it was a real relief to arrive peacefully at Bunkie Hostel in La Paz, which features one of my favourite city skyline views of all time. The dark spots are cliffs, and the light is the beautiful chaos of a South American city, which is something I’m really growing to love. I spent 5 nights at Bunkie and didn’t spend a single one without going up to the roof to have a look.
The thing about travelling by myself is that I often feel like I just don’t have the time to not have any friends. So fuck social self-consciousness. If only 9-year-old Allie could see me now. Upon arrival, I did a quick lap of the hostel, saw a guy making jewellery in the common area, decided he was coming to get lunch with me, sat down, and said hi.
His name is Juan and he turned out to be a very good friend to have made. We got lunch about 10 minutes later, but didn’t return until it was dark. After walking through the surprisingly lame Mercado de Brujas, admiring the shrunken llama fetuses, and visiting the Coca Museum for about 30 seconds before we realized there was an entrance fee, we ended up at an abandoned children’s fun park.
That place was amazing. Not only did it feature bright colours slowly being encrusted with rust and mildew, and funky shapes, half obscured by weeds— it was also in the very centre of the city with a 360 degree view, over the tops of big buildings to the mountains. It would have been the perfect place to watch the sunset if abandoned places in La Paz weren’t terrible places for scrawny gringo hippies to be after dark.
On top of knowing about really cool places in La Paz, my new friend was also doing a work exchange for his bed at the hostel, which came with the added perk of kitchen access, something that the average guest at that hostel was not privy to. So, of course, I took advantage of this.
On Sunday, we went to the El Alto market— the biggest market I’ve ever seen or imagined. It puts the one at Desaguadero to shame. We walked around all day, guided by a lovely local girl named Naida, and I’m sure we didn’t even see close to the whole thing. It literally takes up the entire suburb of El Alto. You can buy just about anything there for super cheap, including food, of course. So for 17 Bolivianos ($3.25), with the help of Juan’s kitchen super powers, we had food for 2 people for 3 days. You can live like royalty even while broke in the third world. I like it.
I’m embarrassed to say that I spent maybe more time than I should have inside the hostel while I was in La Paz, but I had a lot of fun there and my body wasn’t really feeling that great anyways. I made a lot of friends and stayed up until sunrise a couple times, but I was also really productive there. I bought myself a ball of yarn and crocheted my first ever thing that came out how I wanted it to. Look at this!
After that lazy time, on the last day, I felt like I really had to do some things, so I grabbed my buddy and headed for the cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. It’s really cool and also free. Don’t miss it if you ever visit La Paz.
I never thought I’d spend 5 hours in a cemetery, even if there had been anyone I knew sleeping in there. It was so interesting, though. The graves are in stacks, like tiny fucked up apartment buildings or Japanese capsule hotels. People leave their loved ones gifts of things they loved during life, locked behind panes of glass. There were a lot of tiny Jack Daniels bottles, solar powered toys, and cocoa leaves. It was really fun and also uncomfortable to try and figure out who they were as living people. There had also recently been a mural festival, so there was a ton of creepy art to find hidden in the maze. It was like a really good giant park that just so happened to have a lot of dead people in it.
After we were done there, we headed to the legendary feminist anarchy cafe, Mujeres Grandes and split a beer, then returned to the abandoned park to say goodbye to the city. As is becoming a theme in this trip, I was not ready to leave La Paz when I did, and the people were to blame. But there’s too many adventures out there to stay in one place, and if that’s the biggest problem I have, then I don’t have any reason to complain.
One thought on “How to Arrive in Bolivia with Style”
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your magic trip with us. The light is with you – now and forever. First cousin thrice removed. Your granny and I were cousins. Lydia.
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