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Tupiza, Bolivia

The train journey to Tupiza was quite pleasant, with lots of nice, but dry, scenery on the way. This southern part of Bolivia is so dusty that we needed to keep the windows of the train shut to avoid getting grit in our mouths and eyes. Joanne was looking forward to leaving her contact lenses out for a few days.

When we arrived in Tupiza it didn't look like much, and it was still extremely dry and dusty. We tagged along with a pair of Dutch girls we had been chatting to on the train, and ended up at hotel more expensive than I had been hoping we would find; Bolivia is really cheap, we had been told. Continuing in the same vein, we went with the girls to a tourist restaurant, where I was finally able to get some coca tea for my altitude sickness; it wasn't as bad as it had been at the border, after all we had dropped about 500 metres, but I still felt terrible. We usually let ourselves overspend when we first arrive in a country, until we work it all out, but we were seriously going to have to change our ways in Bolivia to stick to the budget other people had led me to believe was possible: after paying the food bill we had already spent more than a day's money and we had only just arrived. OK, it was definitely cheaper than Argentina, but I was expecting it to be as cheap as Asia.

The next day I discovered there are no ATMs in Tupiza. Joanne claimed to have known this and told me so, but I only remembered that there were no ATMs at the border, so I had only drawn enough Pesos to change, to get us through one day in Tupiza. Which put us in a difficult position. Now our extravagance the day before was really coming back to haunt us: no way should we have eaten in a tourist restaurant if there are no ATMs in town! And we should have stayed in the cheaper hotel that I had suggested. After a slightly heated debate about what to do, Joanne and I agreed that we should simply change the stash of Euros if anyone would except them, since they don't seem to be as popular in South America, otherwise we would just change all of our emergency stash of US Dollars.

We did have enough money for a couple of days in town, but the main reason we had come here was to take a tour to Salar de Uyuni, the famous salt flats: the largest in the world, and the tour was going to be quite expensive. Also we really really needed to buy some warmer clothes, so we definitely needed more money. We went into the tour office to find out what the situation was: we could pay by credit card, but it would incur a 7% fee which is a bit hefty, so we weren't keen. Or, the agent said, beaming, we could simply pay a Bs200 deposit per person, clearly believing that we would obviously have such a tiny amount of money, and pay the rest in Uyuni, the town where the tour terminates, as there is a cajero automatico there. I showed him what I had in my pocket and he said that he would be happy enough to take Bs200 for the two of us, but that would have left us completely cleaned out and unable to eat or pay for accommodation. At my suggestion, he agreed to let me pay just the deposit on credit card, so the 7% wouldn't be so painful. But, he said, we should change some money as there would be things to buy on the trip, and directed us to a currency exchange.

The currency exchange was closed. It was Sunday and almost everything was closed. There was no way the banks were going to be open, but there were plenty of informal exchanges around town, however most of them were shut too. People kept directing us to one place or another, but it was always shut. Finally we found a Chinese run restaurant, though not selling Chinese food, which had a notice up in the window saying that they buy Dollars. The food was cheap, though, and fairly typically Bolivian I think, so we sat down to eat, then I asked about Euros, but of course they didn't want them. After looking around town more, we decided this was the only possible place and went back with our small collection of Dollars. When I offered the $36 to the proprietor, he seemed quite angry. I couldn't catch everything he said, but the gist was that he only wanted $100 bills or over; he wasn't interested in a Peso here or there, and he almost shooed us out of his restaurant. The Dollars we had were left over from Cambodia, where that was the only currency we could get, but I wondered what on earth kind of tourist he was used to, who has wads of $100 bills. I suppose some Americans must just go on holiday with a suitcase full of hard cash.

Hours more walking around, knocking on locked doors, then finally I realised that tocar is used for ringing a bell as well as knocking on a door, and we were let into one of the locked places people had repeatedly directed us to. Even here, the guy wasn't interested in the eleven $1 bills, which had been so vital in Cambodia, and we came away with $25 worth of Bolivianos; enough, in one of the only open shops, to buy me a pair of trousers which didn't fit all that well, but I reckoned would do, since I would definitely be losing weight after my Argentinian peak of 93kg. Even the previous day when shops had been open, the choice was awful, and I'm sure I was overcharged for the trousers. We really should have bought clothing in Villazon, but at least I had trousers again.

Finally we were ready for the tour.

permalink written by  The Happy Couple on October 18, 2009 from Tupiza, Bolivia
from the travel blog: Michael's Round-the-World honeymoon
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