Festival Season in the Sacred Valley

Whilst in the sacred valley location of southern Peru, Machu Picchu is obviously the star attraction, and not without merit. Nonetheless, other towns in the region host a number of smaller ruins, that if not overshadowed by Machu Picchu’s grandeur, would be stunning enough sites to tour in their own right. It was for this reason we decided to visit Pisac, a small town overlooked by a sprawling collection of former Incan buildings atop a hill.  It was for a completely different reason, however, that we almost wound up never leaving.

On the afternoon of July 15th, when we arrived in Pisac and couldn’t locate our hostel, we wandered to the main square to get a better sense of direction. Instead we saw a man on a horse holding a chicken, while trying vigorously in vain to grab a box tied to a string hovering above him. Considering we had just arrived in town, I took the bold assumption that everyday in Pisac unfolds as this one. Instantly, I was hooked.

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

so close!

so close!

In reality, once a year Pisac puts on a spectacle – a town-wide celebration dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. As of about a week ago that meant nothing to me, and likely still means nothing to you, but it just so happened that we randomly arrived the very day this annual festival kicked off, a recent rare bout of inadvertent but perfect timing. We stood in awe at this half parade, half horse race, half grab-the-box contest, and all street party. I didn’t care if we ever found our hostel at this point, I was ready to live here. Cooler heads (i.e. Christine’s) prevailed, and after about two hours and with dark rapidly approaching, we managed to pull our eyes away from the main square to go drop our bags off. But that’s all I was prepared to do, for as soon as we located our abode for the night, I was jetting back to the main square.

Luckily, as we found out via our helpful hostel hosts, today was just the first of a four-day fiesta (anything less than that really doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fiesta’ per say). There would be plenty of fun to be had, with non-stop music and action until the Virgen del Carmen herself had enough and limped back to church. Returning to the main square, the horse racing part had ended, but the plaza had descended into an open-air party, with a multitude of street food options. Opting for chicken necks, a chicken sandwich, beef hearts, and three rounds of a local drink made from the fava bean (ponche), we got our fill for a total of $4. But that’s was not even really the exciting part – the entire time in the corner we had seen people constructing these weird looking structures, which they kept stacking on top of each other. There were three separate groups more or less, and the structures kept getting bigger and bigger. It was like a team of engineers were competing the build the weirdest looking possible useless wooden robot. Still perplexed, while walking by Christine noticed what she thought was “dynamite” attached to one of them. They were going to blow these things up!

soon to be on fire!

soon to be on fire!

And blow them up they did. Without warning a few hours later, one of them light up next to the unassuming crowd, forcing many to take a few steps back as the next few minutes descended into a dizzying array of lights, smoke, fireworks, and other spinning things (take a look for yourself).

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The spectacle of these three firework buildings, for lack of a better term, effectively brought a close to the first day of festivities. I couldn’t believe there were going to be three more days of such action! The next three days, of which we witnessed two, largely consisted of music and dancing. Usually not my cup of tea, but then again usually the people don’t look like this:


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Divided into 18 associations, the townsfolk of Pisac dressed up in various costumes that included intricate masks, and performed a number of cultural routines that evoked common historical traditions and themes such as Spanish people are horrible, Chile is an aggressive land-stealing nation, big noses and monkeys are funny, and that the job stability brought on by indentured servitude doesn’t fully mask its negative consequences. Ostensibly a contest, the 18 associations each had a party headquarters scattered throughout town, while at any given point two or three would be parading about. It could perhaps be described as a more tame, less sexy, poor man’s version of Rio’s Carnaval. Or perhaps not, since that doesn’t make much sense. But you get the idea (maybe).

Profile of some of the associations

Profile of some of the associations

The third day was an official contest, with each association getting about half an hour to show their best. Some were rowdier than others, replete with the occasional danger-inducing but somehow never injury-filled firework into the crowd. In addition, the dances often included whips, interactive crowd measures such as child stealing, candy/fruit tossing, drink spraying, and even silly string. People of all ages partook in each association’s dance routines, including unhappy but ostensibly voluntary child labor.

some good ol' fashioned child-stealing

some good ol’ fashioned child-stealing

silly string battle!

silly string battle!

(un)happy child labor

(un)happy child labor

Given a previous scheduling conflict, we were unable to stay for the fourth and ultimate day of the festival. Perhaps for the best, as our hostel host informed us that in the early afternoon the associations would go around and steal everything they could from anyone they found on the street, only to then return to the plaza and set up a makeshift market where they sell you your items back. But it’s ‘funny,’ she said. Despite moseying on before the finale, we considered ourselves fortunate to have participated in 75% of Pisac’s locally famous Virgen del Carmen festival, all the more remarkable given that we had arrived in town for a completely different reason. The next time we make it to Pisac, however, won’t be under such oblivious circumstances, but rather to begin an annual tradition of partaking in the madness – and everyone is invited!

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16 Reasons Bolivia is More Interesting Than Streaming Another Cat Video

There are a few guaranteed facts in this world. The Internet is a passing fad, a koala will never pay you back in full, and Bolivia is a darn interesting country. Not convinced and want further proof (at least on the last point)? Well I thought you’d never ask.

Number one: There is a lot of salt, and salt is delicious. It also apparently makes for great photos shoots.

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Numero dos: Coca leaves are everywhere, and even the Pope is all about them.

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Three: It is one of the few countries that views butterflies and guns as equals before the law, and thankfully prohibits both to ensure a just, fair society.

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Cuatro: There is always some sort of something, like a parade or festival, happening nearby you. Always.

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Sweet number five: Many women retain a unique style of traditional dress, replete with fancy hats that vary by region.

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They also apparently wrestle.

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Six: You can keep ñandú in your yard, or better yet two.

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Siete: Llamas are pretty revered, but not so much that you can’t cut them up, light up a grill, and put them on a plate. (In addition, the burial of their foetuses, openly sold in certain shops, make for handy ritual offerings).

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Nueve menos uno: You can try your hands in the mines, if you’re trip budget is exhausted and you need a few extra bucks.

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Nueve: Chocolate covered strawberries on a stick cost 44 cents. A slice of cake is even less, meaning you can get diabetes for pennies on the dollar.

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Number ten: Occasionally you might have trouble pooping, but there are remedies for that. On more frequent occasions, you will have the exact opposite (with no viable remedy in sight!).

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Numero once: June 23rd is San Juan Day, supposedly the coldest and shortest night of the year – and also when everyone gets together to specifically eat hot dogs. Apparently sometimes there is so much lingering smoke from the public bonfires the next day, that is it “impossible to go outside.”

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Twelve: Zebras have been tasked with regulating traffic, a job they perform dutifully.

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Unlucky thirteen: Apparently the high altitude turns Christine into an air hockey maven.

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Catorce: Cable cars are a normal means of daily transportation.

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Quince: Bolivian mannequins have personalities, and are often cooler than you or I.

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El Ultimo: Dinosaurs are everywhere – need I say more!

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A Culinary Tour of the Southern Cone – Part II (Argentina Awakens)

Regardless of what the Argentines can and cannot figure out, they got the food game down. Centolla, or spider crabs, a speciality from Ushuaia, alllll the way down south. This was cooked in a parmesan cheese sauce, and thus was delicious by default. 06-photo 1 We lived off of Choripans for a while in Argentina, a clever combination of chorizos and pan (bread). Submerged in chimichurri sauce and plied with other vegetable-related toppings, this is a ubiquitous and tasty street food item. 08-IMG_2955-001 And now we come to the most famous of all Argentine sandwiches, the Milanesa. In an attempt to rival the Chilean chacarero (but in between us falling a bit short), a thin strip of veal is breaded and then put on more bread. Milanesa can refer to a type of meat preparation as well – usually veal, but you can have chicken, pork, or even llama milanesas. Found all over Argentina, they are also typically as big as your face, but could use some sauce (i.e. aji from Chile as well! – ok fine, we just really want a chacarero instead). 09-IMG_2985 You can also get it not as a sandwich as well, for those more Atkins inclined (its still breaded and massive). 10-IMG_3018 A typical Argentina barbeque, filled with as many different types of meats as you can count, or an asado, is a blissful event. In this case, we had a combination of blood sausage, sweet breads, and intestines – nothing goes to waste. 12-IMG_3067 13-IMG_3068 Parillas (grill) restaurants grill up a lot of delicious things, but its hard to top the Chivto, basically a young goat. I could never be a vegetarian. 16-IMG_20150511_152327 15-IMG_3082 Pulpo, or octopus – homemade in this case with potatoes, pepper, and olive oil. The Chinese in Buenos Aires apparently have the best octopus, which may or may not be manufactured in a factory. 17-IMG_20150510_205126 Random places, such as a mechanical garage, will set up a Sunday BBQ outside, throwing tons of meat on the grill until they sell out. In this case, we came late but still managed to secure one of the last pieces of beef, and of course a chorizo – drenched in chimichurri as usual. 26-IMG_3935 Argentina bakeries are some of the best places on earth. Most of the cookies are alfajor based, or with dulce de leche in between two layers. These are also mainly dipped in chocolate, and thus are amazing. Trying to buy just one is simply impossible (something I attempted here, and come home with seven). 31-IMG_3986 Llama steak – we thought it was rare, but see it in Bolivia now all the time! Doesn’t make this first fancy foray into the world of llama consumption any less delicious. 33-IMG_4023 If you ever go to Argentina (or even South Carolina randomly), go to Freddo’s Ice Cream. Get any dulce de leche flavor, and then you can die a happy person. They even had an ice cream alfajor sandwich (something Christine simultaneously invented), but I’d stick to the ice cream itself. 14-dg 27-IMG_3973 In Argentina, but especially Uruguay, people carry unwieldy thermoses of hot water with them all over the place to make mate, a bitter looseleaf tea that you drink out of a open cup, often a gourd, via a metal straw with a filter on the bottom. Often a social activity shared amongst a group, mate is also highly caffeinated, and may help explains Uruguay’s recent decision to legalize certain substances as a counterbalancing effect. 11-IMG_3053 How could we go this long without talking about licuados? Take any fruit, add milk or water with a little sugar, and you’re good to go. Strawberry tends to be the most manly choice. 30-IMG_3983 Submarino, or basically make-your-own hot chocolate. You are provided hot milk and some chocolate on a stick, the rest is up to you (don’t worry, it’s hard to mess up – even if you look like a cartoon). 07-IMG_2794 Ok time to go eat!

A Culinary Tour of the Southern Cone – Part I

Everybody loves food, and even better to write about food is to show it! Now in Bolivia, we have completed our tour of the southern cone (which to me means Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay – but we visited Paraguay as well, so I’m just going to include it here). Given the length of time we spent and the variety of delicious foods, Argentina will just have to occupy its own forthcoming post (which will do little to diminish their ever-present vanity for all things Argentine).

Thus, a sampling of what we ate in Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay:

Chile

Pino empanadas – beef, a hard boiled egg, and an olive. A Chilean classic!

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The most famous of the famous Chilean sandwiches, the Chacarero. Along with half a jar of mayonnaise, the base is thinly sliced beef, fresh green beans, and spicy peppers. Best paired with aji, a delicious and salty Chilean hot sauce. It usually as big as your head, unless you have a really big head. We shared this one at supposedly the best chacarero place in Chile, Fuente Alemana

02-IMG_2086-001Another famous Chilean speciality – the completo! A hot dog, or in this case two hot dogs, smothered in yet more mayonnaise, cheese, vegetables, and various other toppings. This was purchased from the also famous Sibaritico in Vina del Mar, where Anthony Bourdain even got one once. They also make their own mayonnaise there, so Hellman’s lost some business on that one.

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Cuddly guanacos, a llama cousin, make for great photo opportunities, but also fit nicely on a plate.

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Curanto is a seafood medley encompassing clams, mussels and multiple varieties of fish, in addition to various meats and potatoes, all cooked in a hole in the ground. The tinfoil did not taste as good as the rest.

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Churros! Need I say more?

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Uruguay

Confusingly, the Southern Cone at one point ran out of food words, and starting using the same phrases in different countries to describe completely different things. Thus while Lomito refers to pork in Chile, in Uruguay it serves as the national beef-based sandwich, competing with the Argentine Milanesa and Chilean Chacarerro alike. Simple but with tender meat, Uruguay in our opinion takes home a well-deserved second place in the regional sandwich game (but don’t tell the third place Argentines that!)

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While in Chile a large hot dog with everything you could imagine on it is a completo, in Uruguay it’s a pancho – both ertain the ratio of a kilo of mayonnaise per hot dog.

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Uruguay also does up its Sunday bbqs – in this case we got a pizza chicken, or literally cheese and sauce atop a grilled piece of chicken.
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Paraguay

Poor Paraguay is often overlooked, but it does has some specialties of its own commonly found on the street, such as a food drink salad and chipa guasu (i.e. Paraguay cornbread).

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If you ever find yourself lost in the chaos of the markets of Ciudad del Este, take a deep breath, walk west, and don’t stop until you hit a Quiero Fruta. While juices are found everywhere in all four countries, this stand has it going on.

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Meat is just often so much better when grilled on the side of the street. Throw in some yuca too for girth.

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And of course, don’t forget that you can get an entire chicken meal for a few bucks!

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The Trials and Tribulations of a Bolivian Visa

Visas can be a pain. The following is a not terribly exciting but more frustrating account of a multi-nation attempt to obtain one for Bolivia. 

I hate visas. Really, it’s one of my four most hated things on this planet, along with mosquitos, the Cowboys, and genocide (in that order). So before undertaking our trip, I did my research to ensure we (re: I) wouldn’t run into any issues. Luckily for Christine, her Brazilian passport absolves her of all such concerns, in addition to the financial burdens associated with the right to enter various South American nations.

Of the countries we were likely to visit, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia required paperwork. Argentina was easy enough – I just had to pay a $160 ‘reciprocity fee’ online (most of the South American visas derive of a similar revenge motivation, in which high fees are imposed on US citizens who wish to enter, are in return for the increased fees the US imposed on their citizens entering America – can’t say I blame them honestly and the visas are multi-entry long term affairs, but it still occupies a healthy chunk of the trip budget).

Paraguay’s visa could not be arranged on arrival, so I took care of that one at the embassy in Washington D.C. prior to departing. That only left Bolivia. According to all the information received, the visa could be arranged ahead of time for $160, or on arrival at both land borders and airports for $135. There is always a greater sense of security in obtaining the visa ahead of time, knowing that you won’t be turned away from the country, so it is generally one of the few things I try to plan in advance when traveling (except in the case of West Africa, as the Shark Force Five can attest to). Especially at random land borders which can be subject to the whims of whoever is manning the border at that particular point, having the visa in advance gives you so much more leverage. But given that the paperwork at land borders can be significantly lighter than going through an embassy, and that the Bolivian visa was actually cheaper on arrival, it seemed a no brainer to worry about it later.

When we arrived in Asuncion, Paraguay, I started to change my tune a bit. I read on a blog one horror story of an American girl who was turned away at the border (though I couldn’t exactly figure out why), while others we met who had come from Bolivia did not put too much faith in officials working the border we wanted to cross. The main issue is that we were planning on crossing into Bolivia from Paraguay via the Trans-Chaco route, which is 24-30 hour bus ride across a sparsely inhabited and harsh area (dubbed the ‘Green Hell’ by the Mennonites who went to settle there in the early 20th century). There are no real major urban settlements and only one road (which is just paved on the Paraguay side). The schedule of the daily bus ensured we would arrive at the Bolivian border around 3am, and the prospect of being turned away because the official on duty was cranky at still being awake that late in the evening, and thus being forced to wait hours for the one daily bus all the way back to Asuncion, seemed perilous enough that a little extra effort now to avoid such potential issues seemed like a good idea.

Unfortunately we didn’t really have the time in Asuncion, so we resolved just to go ahead with the border process – it’d be an adventure at least, and that’s what we were here for. We headed out to the Chaco, spending a few days in and around the main “settlement” of Filadelfia. While there I thought it might be a good idea just to call the embassy to double check one more time (you can sense the unusual level of anxiety I have with regards to visas, can’t you?). This call happened to take place on 02 June. I called the Bolivian Embassy in Asuncion, and surprisingly they actually answered the phone (before I had to call the embassy in DC each time to get a response, since apparently other regional embassies or consulates obtained phone numbers without installing actual phones in their offices). Of course, this phone call may have saved me in one respect, but also gave us a whole lot more trouble. Apparently as of 01 May, the policy for US citizens had changed, and they were no longer able to obtain visas on arrival. Fortunately, however, there was a grace period of one month, meaning that US citizens could still get their visas all the way up to 01 June. Unfortunately, however, the aforementioned date of my call occurred on 02 June.

That call initially gave us little recourse but to return to Asuncion and spend 4-5 days taking care of the process. A bit dejected at the prospect, I began to search around for alternatives. We had really wanted to cross from Paraguay to Bolivia as it’s an infrequently traveled land route (perhaps for a reason). But I discovered that in northern Argentina alone, there were four Bolivian consulates, given the number of Bolivians who migrate for work in their more prosperous southern neighbor. A quick call to the embassy in DC, given that those consulates and other regional embassies reverted back to their practice of brain cancer prevention by avoiding phones, confirmed that consulates would be able to issue visas as well. We kept calling around some more and the consulate in Jujuy finally answered the phone. The man on the other end had no idea if his consulate wielded such visa-issuing power, but he asked someone else who confirmed what the DC embassy had already confirmed (for visa issues, I seek double confirmation!). That meant no more Asuncion, we were headed to northern Argentina!

There are really worse places to be stuck trying to get a visa, but we hadn’t planned on visiting the northwest of Argentina, so we tried to spend as little time as possible on the actual particulars of obtaining the visa. We arrived in Salta, where there was a consulate, a bit after 9am. Quickly dropping off our bags, we found an Internet café where I could print all my documents and ran over to the consulate, getting there at 10:30am (not bad considering 14 hours prior we were far away in the town of Resistencia, waiting over two hours for our bus to arrive after suffering a mechanical problem, which also caused it to break down once during the overnight journey).

My biggest concern was that the consulate was for some reason going to say it didn’t have the power to issue the visa, and we’d have to take a long road to embassy in Buenos Aires. As we ran over, I was nervously envisioning such scenarios, and anticipating what our next move could be in the forever legendary chess match that had become me versus a Bolivian visa.

Arriving at the consulate, there was no one else there – good, no line. We went up to the front desk and I explained that I wanted to apply for a visa, with bated breath. The man at the desk said, and I quote, ”ok.” I was elated, all of this would end today! But then he asked which country, to which I replied the United States. This was not a problem (still elated!) usually, but . . . [translated via broken Spanish] “we have run out of the stickers.”

What?? The consulate literally did not possess any of the actual stickers to put in the passport signifying a visa, though just for US citizens of course. In all the doomsday scenarios I had envisioned in my head on the way to the consulate, this one did not even remotely not cross my mind. I asked if one might still be able to get the visa at the border, given the recent change in policy, but this individual could not answer either way – he literally did not even know his country’s visa policies (which made me start to think perhaps the real reason they ran out of stickers was because he had appropriated for his competitive sticker collection, he seemed like the type)

At a loss of what to do, I remembered there was a consulate in the town of Jujuy, about two hours north. I asked if they would be in possession of these precious stickers – “yea, they might.” Might, could you call your colleagues to inquire? No, he gave us the number and recommended we called instead. At the very least he could give us the address of the Jujuy consulate since it was clear at this point we were just going to have to go in person and try our luck. He debated with another consulate worker to ensure we got the “correct” new address, the only of our incredibly complex requests to which he was able to fulfill (somewhat – a little bit of foreshadowing here).

So we were going to have to go to Jujuy, which wasn’t such a bad situation as it was on the way to Tilcara, a pretty town we were planning on spending a night before heading to northern Chile. But really, all because of a lack of stickers?? (I even offered to let him use my own collection of Hello Kitty stickers circa 1989 that I always travel with, but he insisted they were not yellow enough).

It was a Monday, and we figured it’d be best to leave tomorrow and try to take care of this visa situation as quickly as possible, since we had a bus ticket to Chile for Friday morning. We went down to the terminal in Salta to buy our bus pass in advance for early tomorrow, so we could still get to the consulate to allow for plenty of visa waiting time before it closed around 11:30.

We found plenty of buses that go north of Salta along the route to Jujuy, with some leaving early enough in the morning. This would be pretty easy logistically, as according to Google Maps the Bolivian consulate was a convenient 11 minute walk from the bus station. However, it was odd that each time we actually tried to buy a ticket, the attendants said they weren’t going tomorrow. That was fine as there were plenty of companies, so we kept asking each one and kept getting the same response. Finally, frustrated, I asked one of them why not – he politely explained to me what was apparently obvious to him and everyone else in this country already – there was a nation-wide 24-hour transport strike in Argentina, that just so happened to be scheduled for tomorrow.

24-hour transport strike . . .

24-hour transport strike . . .

Fitting, with all transport halted (and routes likely to be blocked by protestors even if you took a private vehicle we were told), there was no way to get to the consulate in Jujuy tomorrow, another day wasted in what was quickly becoming an extraordinarily elusive Bolivian visa hunt. We waited out the transport strike on Tuesday in Salta, and arrived in Jujuy early Wednesday morning instead. Again, not a huge deal as it still left us some time, but these comical obstacles were mounting up.

Of course though, upon arrival in Jujuy on Wednesday morning, we discovered the bus terminal was nowhere near the consulate as Google Maps had promised. The terminal itself was actually a few kilometers out of town. Our bus was a bit later than expected, so we got to Jujuy after 10:00. We needed to make it to the consulate before 11:30, so eschewing normal procedure, we jumped in a cab rather than take a public bus. Of course (sense a theme here?) we hit serious bumper-to-bumper traffic, to which our cab driver expressed much chagrin, as in all his years driving around this town there was never a traffic jam at 10:30am. Turns out the main road was blocked by some (non-transport) protestors, who for reasons still not determined, had gathered around this one fancy-looking house that was heavily guarded by police folk. It looked like an intense stand-off, with many of the protestors waving signs with imprints of Che Guvera on them, but we didn’t have time in investigate. Going anywhere in a cab at this point was futile – we jumped out and decided to run past the protestors to the consulate instead.

At this point, I was convinced there was a higher power at work that so desperately did not want me to visit Bolivia. Perhaps it was for my own good, or perhaps Bolivia just wasn’t ready for me. Either way, there was no way this entire series of events could be just mere coincidence.

The house of the protestors, post-protest

The house of the protestors, post-protest

It was about a 15-minute jog across the town of Jujuy, which is actually quite pleasing to the eye. At any rate, we made it to the address given to us by the consulate in Salta. When we had showed that address to our cab driver and told him we needed to get to the Bolivian consulate, he said he thought it had moved a few blocks away. I normally trust cab drivers since it is their profession to know where things are located, but we had just received this address yesterday, and I foolishly believed that the incompetence of the Salta consulate would not extend to such basics like knowing where its sister office two hours away is located.

Getting frustrated in Jujuy!

Getting frustrated amongst the lovely backdrop of Jujuy!

We arrived at the given address, and it was a broken, seemingly abandoned building, with the outside gate locked. The door 20 feet in front of us was cracked ajar slightly, so we yelled out, with nary a response. This clearly was not the consulate. Thank goodness that our cab driver had been well informed (we got something out of paying him to drive us barely anywhere) – so we scoured around the next few blocks looking for a Bolivian flag. Luckily we found one without too much trouble, just two blocks over and up. But I was again left wondering, what exactly is going on with the Bolivian consulate in Salta?

No matter, we made it. It was about 11:00 now, so we were cutting it close especially since there was a line, but we were officially in the building before close. Smooth sailing from here I figured. Our documents were reviewed by a man sitting at a desk in the waiting area, who instructed us to wait for his female colleague in an office next door. I figured she would be the one to issue the visa, so I began to relax a bit.

We waited about half an hour while she dealt with some others, before calling us in. We tried to sweet talk here about Bolivia and our plans to visit her beautiful country (stressing the beauty part and leaving politics aside), which I think worked to a degree. She seemed genuinely interested in our travel plans, even putting in a plug for her hometown. A young, fashionable lady in her mid-30s, she explained that she was a traveler herself and recounted some of her own journeys in South America, establishing that she understood our frame of mind. Eventually she said everything was in order, and I thought she was on the verge of issuing the visa (we had made sure she had stickers in her possession!). Buuuuut there was one little problem – she actually didn’t have the authority to issue visas, and the vice-counsel had randomly left this morning and didn’t tell her when she was coming back.

No big deal, we can wait her out I said. So we returned to waiting area, hoping this main lady would return from wherever she was soon. We got hungry, so Christine went out to search for empanadas around 12:30. The consulate actually closed at 1:30 instead of 11:30, so that gave us some more time. Around 1:10, the fashionable lady came back over explained that the vice counsel was probably not returning, so we would have to wait until tomorrow for the visa. We had been on good terms with her, so I politely said that wasn’t going to work as we were leaving for Chile tomorrow (emphatically despite my complete lack of leverage in this case), and tried to push her for action by reminding her that we had been trying since Monday to get this visa (given the sticker incident in Salta, the transport strike, and now the mysterious and unexplained absence of the vice-counsel during the already abridged working hours of the consulate).

I think she truly felt bad for us, but explained there wasn’t really anything she could do. I hoped to guilt her into calling her boss by explaining our situation over and over, but did not overtly make such a request, as it seemed clear that she was not in a position to question her superior. I finally said it was fine, it wasn’t quite 1:30 yet, so we could wait in the small hope that the vice-counsel would somehow materialize in the next twenty minutes. I think our resolve surprised her somewhat, and she retreated into her office. A few minutes later we heard her talking on the phone. Lo and behold, just before 1:30 the vice-counsel lady strode in, and the fashionable lady greeted her immediately with my visa application.

They talked it over themselves and then approached me. The vice counsel lady said it was normally at least a 24-hour process to issue the visa, but they would make an exception in this case, and I could pick it up at 4:30 this afternoon. I couldn’t believe it, it was really happening! While we were waiting I had began stewing internally a bit, and decided if I did not get my visa today after so much effort, Bolivia was going on my blacklist of countries (of which India currently is the only one, having been denied a visa there previously). While Bolivia may not have be fully aware of existence or even the ramifications my list, as the fate of India since 2005 can attest, no country should want to be on the list. Teetering so close to the edge, Bolivia was saved by the timely intervention one of their saintliest citizens, who clearly called her boss in defiance of local customs, and told her to come back to work for us.

We came back at 4:30, I gave them $160, and they gave me a visa. It was legit, with a (non-Hello Kitty) sticker and everything. We thanked them, especially the fashionable young fellow traveler lady profusely, for without her I probably would’ve given up on the country in anger. It was about two weeks of a classic chase in the making, replete with some very random circumstances, but I got me a Bolivian visa!

Got the visa!

Got the visa!

It really worked out in the long-run, as the abrupt change in policy for US citizens “forced” us to forgo what promised to be an awful 30-hour bus ride across the Chaco and spend a few days in Northern Argentina instead. Without such an outcome, I would’ve never seen this:

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Post script: Of course, all of this was for naught. Despite the Bolivian Embassies in Washington D.C. and Asuncion informing me that it was no longer possible to obtain a visa at the border, that proved not to be true at all. At least in northern Chile, where many tour agencies operator cross-border excursion from northern Chile to the stunning salt flats of Bolivia, I could’ve definitely obtained a visa at this shack. Just goes to show you, when it comes to visas, no one really knows what they are doing (myself included)!

Bolivian immigration at the Chilean border by Uyuni

Bolivian immigration at the Chilean border by Uyuni

The Damn Itaipu Dam

A Guest Post by one Christine Ribeiro 

On the Paraguayan side of the tri-border area (Argentina and Brazil) where you visit the Iguazu Falls, the main attraction is the Itaipu Dam. This dam was the largest in the world, until the Chinese built Three Gorges just recently. It provides over 80% of all of Paraguay’s electricity and about 15% of Brazil’s. In reading the brochures at the hotel, I discovered that the dam offered not only tours, but also a nighttime illumination show on Fridays and Saturdays. We happened to arrive on a Thursday afternoon, so I thought, we can do both, right? The only site to see, might as well. The hostel receptionist convinced us it would be best to do the tour that day and the lights the next night. We set out on a local bus and arrived about 45 minutes later. They information center sent us to an auditorium where we watched two 10 minute videos on the dam in Spanish, most of it above our heads. Then we got on a bus with the other visitors and went to see the dam. It spans the river between Paraguay and Brazil and thus, after crossing the Brazilian border earlier that morning, we crossed again, with no controls (again), to see the dam from both sides, before heading back to town in the local bus.

Dam in action!

Dam in action!

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Sunset at the dam

We learned that the next day, the bus could take us to the ‘light show’ but that it did not run late enough, so we would have to organize a taxi back. After two locals told us we absolutely had to do the show, with the lights set to music, we decided to arrange the taxi through the hotel. They told us the show was about 2 hours and so the taxi would pick us up at 9:30pm. At this point, I am very excited about the light show. I am imagining the Eiffel tower on Bastille Day, with lights and fountains choreographed to music. It was something not mentioned in the guide books, but what all the locals did. It was going to be great! We got on the local bus around 6:15, as check in was at 7pm. This bus was even slower than the day before and, as 7 approaches, my anxiety rises. I don’t want to miss the show. We get close the entrance, which we are familiar with from the day before, and I tell the bus driver but he refuses to stop. He tells me that is not where we go for the light show, and continues on a little while. I try to argue, but really, what do I know? He lets us off at the commercial entrance to the dam at 7:07. We are already late. We find a guard and he tells us that it used to be there, but that we would have to go back down the highway to the reception area. Anxiety levels rising. What are we to do but run down the highway in pitch black (sunset is around 5pm here) in our jeans through the humid weather. We make it to the reception at 7:15 with no issues, minus being out of breath and our jeans sticking to our legs from all of the sweat. We check in and they tell us the bus does not leave for the lighting until 7:45. So glad we ran. At least we didn’t miss it, right? We head to the water fountain we knew from the day before, behind the main auditorium, and chug three cups of cold water to try to cool down. There is live music playing and artisans selling. I relax now, knowing that we made, we were going to see the show.

Concert in motion, time to relax

Concert in motion, time to relax

our favorite water fountain

our favorite water fountain

We get on the bus and drive out to the look out spot on the Brazilian side (yet another uncontrolled border crossing for us!) and move up to the front row. The MCs come out for an introduction and say they are going to show a short documentary. Guess what, it is one of the two movies we sat through the day before. We sit through it yet again and then, the screens go dark and the music starts to play. This is it! The show is beginning. Over the next 5 minutes, dramatic classical music plays as the dam slowly lights up. And then, the show is over. I thought I was seeing a two-hour show, what is this bull?? Everyone else is oohing and aahing, snapping pictures, because, well, they had not been there the day before. What crazy person would come see this dam twice in a row?

Illumination!

Illumination!

We head back to the bus, deflated. All of that effort, four total hours, for that? What is worse, we are back at reception at 9pm but our taxi is not scheduled to come for another 30 minutes, and there is nothing around us. Even the security guards for the dam come to check on us, given how weird it is to be lingering around for so long after the show and everyone else has left. In fact, the driver doesn’t even get there until 9:40pm. I guess there is a reason this is not written up in any book. At the same time, I can finally say I have fulfilled a life-long goal to see a 300 second light show at a South American dam while straddling two countries!

illumination selfie

illumination selfie

‘Lawlessness’ in the Tri-Border Area

A quick Google search describes the Tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina as “lawless,” “a classic terrorist safe haven,” and “Hezbollah’s Western Base.” Somehow they always seem to forget to mention it as the site of the spectacular Iguazu waterfalls – which are a rare mega-tourist attraction that lives up to all the hype. That was our main draw to cross through the region, starting one day in Argentina and ending in Paraguay, while spending the middle part in Brazil – but the allure to see how “lawless” this region actually is, was another significant draw.

Also in the tri-border area

Also in the tri-border area

Much of the source of concern dates to the post-September 11th era, and fears that financing to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Al Qaeda emanated from the area. Fears not necessarily unfounded without a body of evidence, but the true extent of the threat may have been exaggerated in some accounts. It was almost a niche sort of item in the terrorism studies field at the time, basically a way to show-off – “oh you don’t know about the tri border area?? Well let me enlighten you with my vast array of obscure terrorism-related knowledge . . . “

The region is home to an estimated Arab community of 25,000, who mainly came from Lebanon after WWII and during the civil war in the 1980s. Combined with its renowned reputation as a contraband “oasis,” concerns were raised to the point where the United States even established a joint intelligence center on the Brazilian side of the border. At any rate, much of that concern dated from the mid-to-late 2000s, with nearly half a decade elapsing by the time I showed my face in the area (which perhaps is never a good thing in the vicinity of a Middle Eastern-focused intelligence center, especially two months into a beard).

Starting in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina that day (we had seen the Argentine side of the Iguazu waterfalls the day prior), we left early on a bus for the Brazilian side of the falls. The border processes there were simple enough – on the way past the Argentine side, our bus driver collected all of our passports and got the exit stamps himself, while on the Brazilian side we had to individually appear, but it went quick enough (note: want to talk about suspect financing?? I had to obtain a Brazilian visa in Buenos Aires for $160 just to be able to visit the falls! Even if it is a ten-year, multi-entry affair).

We toured the Brazilian side, which offers significantly different but equally as stunning views as the Argentine side, then made our way on a city bus to the main terminal in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. Things began to get a bit more interesting here – there is a normal city bus that runs between Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, as they are just across a bridge over the Paraná River from each other. We waited at the stop for the frequent bus, and headed for what was technically the fifth country of our trip (if you count 5 hours, at the cost of $160, in Brazil).

I had read a bit before that this border crossing can be a bit confusing, as most people do not stop to do the border check. That is correct – the bus typically just runs in between both countries without stopping at all between the borders; rather it is up to the individuals on the bus to decide whether or not they are in the mood to chat with customs and immigration authorities that day. It is this sort of lax approach to border controls that led Ciudad del Este in particular to be described to us as the “contraband capital of the region,” in turn igniting similar fears with regards to support for terror networks from certain communities in the area (I still have no idea why this border has developed this way, and wondered if it could really be possible to just fly into Paraguay and travel throughout Brazil without an expensive visa, if you entered and left the country through the tri-border area?)

Anyways, we had to get off the bus to get a Brazilian exit stamp (or rather I did), so we told the bus driver at the beginning that would be the case. He handed us a slip of paper so we could get back on a different bus – as this one would not wait around for us to complete our formalities. We got off at the border control, willingly I might add, while the bus plowed across the bridge, barely even slowing down. It took us about 5 minutes to complete Brazilian immigration (given that we were the only ones who showed up), then waited for the next city bus to come. We contemplated walking across the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) as it was broad daylight, but had heard rumors that this was not safe at all, Not sure how really – it was had a narrow pedestrian walkway on either side – maybe someone could pin you against the edge and threaten to push you off whole taking your bags, but it was crowded and narrow enough that I would doubt they’d get too far. At any rate, we did not bother to find out, as the next bus came in less than seven minutes.

We flashed the slips of paper handed to us by the other bus driver, and hopped on the back. Once we had crossed the bridge we expected the bus to stop at the Paraguayan border control, so we could get off and complete formalities there – a reasonable expectation in my mind, even if most people do not get off the bus. This it did not do. Rather it sped right across the bridge and past the apparently optional immigration office into town – we were already in Paraguay!

the site of our illegal entry into Paraguay!

the site of our illegal entry into Paraguay!

We cried for the driver to stop, not wanting to invite any sort of troubles for illegally crossing over. He did a few hundreds meters past the border and at the start of the expansive contraband market that dominates the first few streets on the Paraguayan side (although there a number of geographically-oriented and orderly shopping malls as well, such as ‘Mina India’ and ‘Bonita Kim’). Getting off we looked around confused – maybe that wasn’t the actual border post and we were supposed to go a bit further? But we were clearly in Paraguay now – you could tell immediately upon crossing the bridge that this was a much poorer country (street food, market stalls, dust, taxi drivers harassing us – you name it, all the elements were there).

the path towards Brazil

the path towards Brazil

We decided to walk back to the office immediately after the bridge – they could redirect us if they had to. We went in the first door we saw, hoping no one realized we were coming from the wrong direction (i.e. from Paraguay already), and encountered an disinterested man sitting at a desk, a tv blaring beside him. I approached and he did not look up initially, but grudgingly turned to us – I guess since this border process seemed to be “optional,” with most people choosing not to exercise that option, he did not quite have the experience or people skills I would’ve expected.

He looked over my passport and visa in less than two minutes, giving me an entry stamp. I was surprised by how quick this was, how few (re: none) questions he asked, and the fact that he did not appear to care about the contents of my luggage, nor barely looked at my face to confirm the passport. I was so taken aback that I asked in broken Spanish if there was anything else we needed to do, since I personally love completing as many formalities as possible at South American land frontiers, but he just waved us off to be gone (actually, I had read some horror stories of people not receiving the proper entry stamps during some of their South American travels and being forced to return to their point of entry to acquire them before they could exit the country, so was determined not to let the laziness of an apathetic border official put us in a similar situation).

Following we went back to the area we were dropped off, and boarded the next and third city bus of our 30-minute journey, unsure of where it was going or even if it was the right one (turned out to be fine). It took us past the market section of Ciudad del Este – which actually is a bit chaotic but replete with anything contraband you could want, from electronics to clothing to kitchen goods. A lot of likely not contraband goods as well – we saw an entire selection of Kirkland Costco products in the upscale Mona Lisa department store – and Brazilian & Argentines frequently cross the border to purchase supplies (when you are not slowed down by any border controls, why not?). We even had a tour guide later at the grand Itaipu Dam tell us you could buy a brand-new car for $200 in Ciudad del Este – an intriguing idea, but given my inability to drive without endangering the lives to today’s precious youth, one we never looked into.

shopping galore

shopping galore

Anyways, Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, the heart of all this ‘lawlessness,’ is actually a very pleasant city after leaving the market area. At the same time, there isn’t much else to do there – everyone we asked just told us to go shopping, especially given that the city was only established in the 1950s and thus lacked the deep history of monuments, buildings, and other pretty things to look at that occupies our time in many a other locations. Regardless, we stayed about a 20-minute walk from downtown in a newly-constructed suburb around a lake, at a hostel with a great view and a pool. So nice it was that Christine, who was previously scared to even set foot in the city after I had informed her of its reputation, expressed serious consideration into purchasing property there (it did help that we also located the best empanada and juice spots of our entire trip nearby). We never did get involved in Ciudad del Este real estate market during our short stay, but at the rate of $200 for brand new cars, perhaps we should have!

Quero Fruta juice - fit for lawless contraband smugglers and colorful parrots alike

Quero Fruta juices – fit for lawless contraband smugglers and colorful parrots alike

I was also determined to find some of the supposed ‘Arab’ terrorist sympathizers, and we did (well the Arab part at least)! Mainly we were in it for the food, hoping to score some delicious shawarmas, as we stumbled upon a tall green building in the city center, which contained a food court, barber shop, mosque, and apartment building. The shawarmas lived up to their billing, and as much as I was intrigued, we left discussions of political allegiances and sympathies to a minimum.

a mosque, apartment building, food court, and barber shop all in one!

a mosque, apartment building, food court, and barber shop all in one!

In short, I can see that the lax (or non-existent) border controls in the area and the endless rows of shops and markets stalls plied with counterfeit goods (along with ever-menacing ‘Arab’ population) in Ciudad del Este may give rise to concerns for some, but calling the region ‘lawless’ is simply inaccurate. Perhaps many of those articles were written from afar, but from our experience on the ground, admittedly a few years later on and without serious investigation, it seemed more an intriguing mix of cultures and an orderly-enough place, despite the lax border controls between neighbors who evidently feel comfortable with each other’s citizens. So nice it was, that we may even be future property investors!

Not a bad spot to hang

Not a bad spot to hang!