When deciding on what countries I would visit while traveling around South America, I didn’t think politics would come into play. Being so close to home, I thought it would be easy for an American to get around. A lesson I learned the expensive way. After hearing other travelers talk about recent adventures, it became clear that while not originally on my list, (because, visa fees) Bolivia was a country I’d regret not seeing. When you shell out close to $200 in taxes and fees to enter a country, you really feel the pressure to make it worth the expense. So I set out to see as much of it as possible, by bus. A lot harder than it sounds when you’re dealing with a country that has an average elevation of 14,000 feet above sea level and sky rockets up to 21,000 feet in some places, only to drop to 300 feet above sea level in others.
Luckily, once I got to La Paz the visa and altitude sickness paid for themselves. Not in dollars… But in sheer amazement. I’ve never seen such a strange and beautiful city. It’s like someone decided to scout out the most remote, mountainous, treacherous place in the world and build a capital city in the clouds which now has a population of about a million people. The city is built on such an impossible layout that the best way to get around is in the sky. La Paz has a very modern aerial cable car system that gets people to and from the various mountain tops in the city. Taking the Teleférico (as they call it) provided amazing views of the cluster fuck that is the highest capital city in the world.
But as much as La Paz has to offer… I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my attention was elsewhere. Not on trying the local cuisine or seeing the various town squares or even taking in a Cholita wrestling match. (google it, you won’t be disappointed) Nope, I was busy trying to get into prison. No, really. San Pedro is unlike any other correctional facility in the world. There are guards, but they don’t ever go inside the walls. Their only job is to make sure the prisoners don’t get out. The inmates have jobs inside the community, buy or rent their “apartments” and usually even live with their families, who are free to come and go as they please. If you’ve read the book, “Marching Powder” you already know why I wanted in those walls and why I was willing to throw away three solid sightseeing days to post up out front, hoping for my big break. The book talks about inmates giving prison tours for cash and even though the government started cracking down on it in recent years, I was hoping to slip through the cracks and see the inside of San Pedro for myself.
I dusted off my resourceful reporter hat and secured that shit to my head with perhaps misguided confidence in my ability to make this work. After hours of research and even trying to hire a professional fixer, (a news business term for a local who handles logistics in a foreign country) the last resort was just to sit outside and stare longingly at the gate. Watching wives and children go in and out, hoping someone with the right connections would name their price. And trust me, I would pay. Backpacker budgets and Visa fees be damned, you don’t pass up an opportunity to see something like that in person. But despite my best efforts, and you better believe I tried everything; I wasn’t able to gain entry into San Pedro. It took a day or two for the failure and disappointment to fade away but eventfully I was back on track, focusing on what else Bolivia had to offer. Next up, the salt flats.
I hadn’t ever even heard of this magnificent, majestic place, so when I arrived it was that much more amazing. From the town of Uyuni, a group of six of us packed into an SUV, our luggage strapped to the top, setting out on a three day adventure that would include sleeping in a hostel made completely out of salt. There were no floors, just salt that felt like sand between our toes. The beds were simply thin mattress pads placed on solid salt slabs. The next night the accommodation was similar, made of salt with no electricity or hot water for showers. This may sound off putting to many, but I wouldn’t trade those three days for the most luxurious hotel in the world. The places we were able to go, the sights we saw and the things we experienced while camping on the vast salt flats is something I will never forget and I’m so grateful I decided to pay the damn visa fees to go to Bolivia.