In the lovely northern Argentinean town of Salta, one of the main discussions over the hostel kitchen table is about making the leap into Bolivia. Argentinean bus companies will not take you into the country, so you have to travel to La Quiaca and then walk to La Frontera (the border) before going through security and hopping onto another bus.
Rumours and scare stories abound, and many backpackers grab a cab for the ten minute walk to the border officials. When we make the journey, it’s the morning after the night before Carnaval, and the town is dead to the world. We follow the stream of travellers through a mass of empty beer bottles and discarded silly string. It’s freezing cold, and everyone is serious about getting where they need to go.
We reach the border just as it opens at 6am. There’s a queue, but after an hour and a half we’re at the window. It’s really straightforward, and two stamps and one form later we’re allowed in for 30 days.
It’s within spitting distance of Argentina, but Villazon could be on another planet. The change is instant and fundamental. Old ladies are suddenly donning little bowler hats and brightly coloured shawls, and the roads are throbbing with life. Dogs are roaming, babies are bundled up on backs, old women are wielding carts filled with tasty empanadas and fruit juices, and you can buy everything from phone chargers to beach towels.
We are literally bowled over. After the quiet order of Salta, it’s a bit of a shock. We scramble to the bus station (just walk straight ahead along the main road and keep going through the main square) and everyone is shouting the name of their company’s destination. We listen out for Tupiza and begin an easy if somewhat bumpy journey through red mountains and cactuses. It’s possible to take the train, but the buses are more frequent.
Crossing the babbling river into Tupiza, things are slightly calmer but still pretty raw. Snacks and drinks stalls abound, and these little old ladies with impossibly balanced hats still seem to be running the show.
Bolivia is an adventure – it feels authentic and so very different from home. The people are genuine and kind, if a little more reserved than their Argentinean neighbours. They are probably sick of being reminded that Bolivia is the poorest country in the Americas – they’re more concerned with getting their kids to school and earning an honest living. Everyone’s just getting on with life, making the best empanadas known to man and somehow attaching 1920’s British millinery to their noggins. And why not?
Buses in Argentina are generally much better than in Bolivia. Visit www.omnilineas.com to check timetables and prices. Bolivian buses tend not to take bookings until the day, and once aboard the facilities are very basic. Most don´t even have a toilet. The best company for security and punctuality I’ve found so far is Copacabana Flota. Opt for a ‘cama’ seat if you´d like your seat to recline enough for a nap. Check for more information: http://www.boliviatravelsite.com/busesandtrains.php