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Anyway, I planned to cross into Bolivia on Route 9 at La Quiaca / Villazon. I researched the internet for information and read some ‘horror stories’ about it being disorganised with multi-hour delays. Readers may find my experience useful for their own planning purposes …
I started my journey in Tilcara. You may start from another location.
PLEASE NOTE: Normally, you only need to buy an advanced ticket if you are travelling on a night bus. If you are travelling on a day bus, you can just turn up on the day and buy a ticket. Obviously be smart on holidays, etc.
The bus arrived slightly late. My stowed luggage was ‘receipted’. I ignored the porter’s attempt to extort money from me (see, ‘SCAM‘, below). We left at 9:25am. The view along the way was pleasant but not spectacular (I was spoilt for views in Cafayate).
RECOMMENDATION: Ask for a seat on the right side of the bus. You get better views.
I have read that you can get a taxi from there to the border for about US$1. After 3 hours sitting on a bus, I walked. It is an easy 10 minute walk with good streets – you will have no trouble if you have a suitcase on wheels (like I do). Just walk east to Route 9 and, then, north to the border.
THE LUGGAGE SCAM:
One SCAM that they run in Argentina is on your stowed luggage on the buses.
When you board the bus, each bag is ticketed for security. A receipt sticker is put on your bus ticket (just like they do in airports with a sticker on your Boarding Pass). ‘Gringos’ are all asked to pay A$10 (the locals pay nothing).
When they unload at the other end they check off the matching stickers to make sure that everyone gets the correct luggage. They, again, ask all of the ‘Gringos’ for A$10 (and the locals pay nothing).
If you don’t pay when your bags are first loaded, don’t be surprised if your luggage is treated ‘roughly’ (on purpose) and don’t be surprised if you find it damaged at the other end (on purpose).
CROSSING THE BORDER:
On the internet you will read about 3+ hour long queues to exit Argentina and the same to enter Bolivia … and, problems with ‘paperwork’ …
Bolivia seems to have a ‘thing’ about people from the USA. I guess that they are being ‘reciprocal’. Check online for your own Visa Requirements. Most countries can get a ’30 Day Tourist Visa On Arrival (VOA)’ which involves no paperwork.
People travelling on a USA Passport are excluded, they need to turn up with all sorts of things, fill in forms, and pay about US$150.
I travel on a United Kingdom Passport, so I can get a VOA.
I joined the queue at Argentina Immigration. There were about 4 windows … the people in the queue just went to the next available window. It happened so fast that I was at the window before I had time to get my passport out of my bag! I was the one that was holding up the queue!
The Immigration Officer cleared me within a couple of minutes, handed me a printout (like a till receipt), and said ‘Enter Bolivia’ with a smile.
I read online that the Bolivia Immigration window is next to the Argentine one. I couldn’t find it. I found a Bolivian official and asked. They pointed at my ‘receipt’ … at the bottom it said that I was cleared to enter Bolivia.
PLEASE NOTE: I kept the ‘receipt’ for later – I hear that you need it when you exit Bolivia. They have, obviously, tried to address the border problems of the past and they have re-organised themselves. I found a much more efficient operation than I read about on the internet.
I heard worst-case stories of 6+ hours to clear the border. I was expecting 1-2 hours. I cleared the border in 2 minutes.
ABOUT – VILLAZON:
Villazón is a busy trading hub between Bolivia and Argentina. It is also a heavily used transit hub for tourists passing into Bolivia. A train line connects Villazón with Tupiza, Uyuni, and Oruro. Two train services (the Expreso del Sur and Wara Wara del Sur) each run 3-4 times a week. Buses also connect directly to many destinations including as far afield as Sucre.
And, it has a lot of shops near the border that sell electronics at much cheaper prices than those in Argentina. It also has a street market.
However, for the best priced shopping you need to go where the locals go which is around the junction of Sebastian Pagador and Calle Chichas.
I didn’t know how long it was going to take for me to cross the border so, since I am not in any hurry, I planned to stay a couple of nights in Villazon to take advantage of the low prices and do some much needed shopping.
This is what you can expect online 1 week before your arrival (mid November 2018).
PLEASE NOTE: BOOKING displays prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. Surprisingly foreigners are exempt from the 13% Value Added Tax.
AirBnB listed no accommodation in Villazon.
Online, you have a choice of 3 hotels.
I wasn’t including Villazon in my GRANDPAcking ‘holiday destinations’ options, so I went ‘cheap’ and booked a Single Room with Private Bathroom at the Hotel Santusa. I chose to include Breakfast at an additional cost (about US$2) and paid US$10.13 / night.
The in-room wifi was good too and, most of the time, good enough to stream video.
All-in-all it was reasonable value for money.
However, the problem with the Santusa is that they were so unfriendly. When I checked in they gave me a towel and TV remote control before leading me up 2 flights of stairs. They left me to carry my backpack and suitcase – they made no attempt to help me – not even to carry the towel! The restaurant was just as bad. They made no attempt whatsoever to help you nor make you feel at home. It was almost as if they didn’t want any ‘Gringos’ there.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
I wasn’t in Villazon long enough to get around to many places.
What I can tell you is that you can get Almuerzos (set menu lunches) / Comida Del Dias (Meals of the Day) for B$10-13 in the small cafes in the side streets.
There is a noticeable lack of ‘drinking establishments’. A 1 Litre local beer costs B$22-B$25 in a restaurant.
For ‘cheap eats’ get down to the indoor Mercado which is located 1 block east of Plaza 6 De Agosto. It opens at 6am and closes at 8pm.
The Train Station (Estacion Central) is located about 1.5kms up Route 14 north of the border. The New Bus Terminal is located even further away on the north east corner of town. If you want either of these, you will need to catch a taxi. Expect to pay about B$5 and B$7 respectively.
However, if you are going somewhere local such as Tupiza or Tarija, you can catch a Minivan from the terminal 1 block north of Plaza 6 De Agosto (at the roundabout). These are 7-seater Minivans. They have no schedule … they leave when they are full. The 1.5 hour trip to Tupiza costs B$20. The 4 hour trip to Tarija costs B$100. They also go to places like Potosi … but, I am not sure that I would want to spend 7 hours in one of these Minivans …
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY:
BUREAU DE CHANGE:
I arrived with A$3,615 (Argentinian Pesos) that I needed to change into B$s (Bolivian Bolivianos). Before my arrival, I got online. The Wholesale Exchange Rate on that day was B$1 = A$5.34. This meant that my A$s were ‘theoretically’ worth B$677. Anyone who has travelled knows that you always have to pay some % to someone to actually effect the exchange: read about Travel Money.
For ‘folding cash’ transactions, I expect to pay up to 5% commission (no more). Therefore, I was willing to accept anything over B$643.
Immediately after the border into Bolivia you find a string of Money Exchange Kiosks. I went into the first one. She offered me B$650.70. I accepted.
BANK / ATM:
There are a couple of ATMs in the centre of town. The Banco Fie ATM is conveniently located next to Plaza 6 De Agosto. I went to the ATM and withdrew B$2,000 (about US$290). It accepted immediately and charged me US$4 for the privilege (I am not sure what the maximum withdrawal is). This was a pleasant surprise compared to the ATM SCAM going on in Argentina.
INTERNET / WIFI:
Your accommodation should provide free wifi but, in our hotel price range, don’t bet on it being any good.
I did my research before my arrival. I had, also, learnt from my SIMcard experience in Argentina. In Argentina, I bought a Movistar SIMcard … soon after I changed to Personal. Personal have the biggest market share and the widest coverage. Out of the main towns, I often had a 4G Personal signal when I had no Movistar signal at all.
The service provider with the biggest market share and widest coverage in Bolivia is ENTEL. To buy a SIMcard you are best to go to a ‘Multicentro ENTEL’. You have to be registered so take your passport. They also register your mobile IMEI (just in case your phone gets stolen).
The ENTEL ‘Multicentro’ is conveniently located 2 blocks from the Plaza 6 De Agosto. I popped in on my way from the border to my hotel. I was lucky, I caught them just before they closed for their mid-day siesta. They were friendly and helpful. It took about 20 minutes to register my SIMcard (B$10). Whilst I was there, I bought a 1 month 2GB Internet Plan for B$50 (the ‘4G Package 50’).
Buy an ENTEL SIMcard. ENTEL have better coverage in the rural areas. They have a Mobile App that you can download but even the guy in the ENTEL Multicentro said that it is ‘poop’. The only downside is that you will need to use USSDs.
HEALTH & SAFETY:
As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Latin America. Don’t leave anything unattended. Lock up your hotel room. Lock up your valuables within your hotel room (single lock hotel room doors are notoriously easy to break into without a key).
I didn’t notice any mosquitos.
Don’t drink the tap water.
I am pretty much the same ‘me’ everywhere I go. I am a full time traveller. So, I don’t think that it is me when I say this … I found the people in Villazon to be generally ‘cold’ and ‘unwelcoming’. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they have so many people coming across the border to come shopping and exploit their cheaper prices.
You can clear the border, get money (Bureau De Change or ATM), get an ENTEL SIMcard & Data Plan, and catch a bus on to Tupiza or Tarija the same day. In fact, you can do all of the above within 1-2 hours of your arrival. Everything that you need is located around Plaza 6 De Agosto.
If you arrive too late to catch your connection, there are a couple of reasonably priced hotels to stay at.