October 24-26, 2015
We arrived in Villazon around 5am. There were men trying to sell us tickets to Salta and other places immediately as we exited the bus…how convenient? We ended up following them into their shops (along with 7 other tourists who were also going to Salta). We bought the direct tickets for 180 soles (I ended up talking them down to 172). The border crossing was rather chaotic, though fairly easy. We left our bags at the ticket office and went to stamp out at the Bolivian emigration office, 15 minutes away. Then we got our entry stamps at the Argentinian office. Unlike everyone else traveling with us Sylvie and I had to show proof that we paid the $320USD required to enter Argentina. I had paid for this a week ago, but printed out the confirmation last night while Sylvie was sitting on a bench trying to feel better. The 2 pages were cheap to print, but it took 25 minutes. I have never seen a printer print that slowly (12 minutes a page!).
After stamping into Argentina we had to convince the border patrol to let us back into Bolivia to get our bags. We then sent all of bags through an x-ray machine and entered the Argentine border into the city of La Quiaca. Before doing this I changed the remaining bolivianos I had. The change counter gave me 15.4 Argentine Pesos to the USD. The official exchange rate is ~9.5 Pesos to the USD. There is a black market for money exchange in Argentina. They call it the Blue Market. The exchange rates fluctuate daily as Argentina experience ~40% inflation per year. I have done quite a bit of research into where to find these ‘exchange markets’ and their relative safety. I am bringing in a lot of US cash, in high denominations, to take advantage of this Blue Dollar exchange rate. Using this exchange we get >60% return on our money. However, using a credit card, ATM, or cash advance uses the official rate (9.5 pesos to the USD). This means a bus ticket that costs 950 pesos would cost $100USD if we paid via credit card or the pesos re received from an ATM. Using the pesos we acquired from the blue market the bus ticket would only cost ~60USD. Pretty amazing! If we run out of cash I will send myself a western union in USD and pick it up in Santiago.
Once we entered Argentina we had to walk another 15 minutes to find the bus terminal. Luckily we found a local woman, who had no more than 7 teeth, to help us find out way. We were all relieved when we actually arrived at our bus terminal!
I met a guy from London named Jeff who is trying to move through Salta fairly quickly and go to Mendoza afterwards. We discussed renting a car tomorrow to drive throughout Salta into some of its wine regions (Cayafate, etc.).
Shortly into our drive to Salta our bus stopped along a roadside checkpoint. Everyone was ordered off the bus and to have all their possessions on their body. There were half a dozen military wo(men) at the checkpoint. We filed into lines with our bags while several of the guards inspected the cargo bay of the bus. We were startled as to what we saw. It appeared that we had to empty everything from our bags as the guards went through each article of our personal belongings. They had already confiscated several electronics from previous passengers. When it came for our turn to be inspected they simply looked at our passport and told us to move along. I guess ‘gringos’ pose no threat?
Argentina has very strict import laws and high tariffs on the imports that they allow. Someone was telling me that an old iPhone 5 could sell for $600 USD here. I guess the guards were trying to prevent the locals from crossing over to Bolivia to acquire cheap electronics and sell them here.
We walked around the city and tried to find somewhere to exchange money then we shopped around for hostels for a while. We ended up on a room that has three beds, but we’re the only people staying in the room…for now. It’s a bi-level and very ‘cool’. Sylvie stayed in and went to bed early and I went out for a late dinner. I had some local dish—a pork and corn stew with a pumpkin and some other things I had trouble translating. I enjoyed a nice meal alone and read my book. I got back to the hostel after 10:30 and Sylvie hadn’t moved an inch. She slept for 12+ hours.
After a morning of trip planning Sylvie and I set out for the day. I exchanged $1,000 on the street from some money dealer just outside of a bank. There are guys who walk around with fanny packs and yell, “Cambio?” to gringos. I decided to change money with the same guy I did yesterday. He was talking with a Swiss man and told me he only had change for $600. Sylvie and I decided to come back later as he said he’d have more then. We then got a drink with the Swiss guy, Borris, who ended up being extremely friendly. He’s been traveling for some time and will be in the states in a few months. He’s been in Salta for a week and has gotten to know this particular guy changing money. I think Borris had said that 50% of dentists, or maybe 50% of the moneychangers are dentists and do this on the side. Either way, I felt more comfortable trading such large sums of money. I negotiated up to 15.85 pesos to the dollar, whish is just a fraction of a percent less than the 16.04 Blue Dollar rate. One other guy on a corner had quoted me 15.0. The next day I negotiated a rate of 15.95 pesos to the dollar.
We bought tickets to Mendoza. We leave tomorrow at 10pm and arrive 20 hours later. We were given a price of 1,377 pesos for the cama (full bed). The semi-cama was 1,108. Two tickets for the full-bed bus ride would have cost $290 if we had taken the money out from an ATM or used a credit card. We asked if they had any student discount or deals and the guy said they have a promotion and then quoted us new numbers if we paid in cash. We got a 40% cash discount. Using the money we obtained through the blue market and the promotion price we paid $100 for both tickets, a savings of $190. We paid a third of the price had we walked into the station and bought tickets with a credit/debit card.
The presidential election was today, which is part of the reason why the Blue dollar rate is so favorable for us. The sense of uncertainty about the future is great news for us! We went to a mall and shopped around a bit. They had a huge supermarket and I couldn’t believe how many types of cheese and meats they had. Again, thanks to the black, or ‘blue’, market money exchange everything seemed so cheap. Unfortunately since it is Election Day no alcohol can be sold. This seems like a cruel joke since it’s been the first time in a long time since I’ve seen actual beer (>5$ ABV). Sylvie and I are relaxing back in our Mad Men-style loft. (I bought a beer from our hostel and enjoyed most of it)
Just got off the phone with my folks—it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve last talked with them. My mom thought the following was a must-have for a blog post: Other than in the hostels no bathrooms are free. We must pay between $0.10 and $1.00 to use the bathrooms. There is a cashier waiting with a wad of toilet paper at the entrance of all bathrooms. In each dingy bus station or roadside porter potty there are woman waiting with TP as you hand her your boliviano, peso, or sole. I rarely use these bathrooms. I use the restroom behind buildings or other obstacles. While in Uyuni I walked into a building, the door was open, and found myself a bathroom. I then ran away before anyone was the wiser. My parents were shocked and told me to be careful because I may be arrested for exposing myself in public. I told her not to worry and that the judicial system here could care less about such petty crimes. It is so commonplace that they wouldn’t even care. Sylvie, too, does the same thing! We both actually prefer this to the for-pay bathrooms. Nature is much much cleaner and smells much less offensive than these ‘public banos’.
Salta is absolutely beautiful. The buildings are beautiful, parks are well landscaped, and the people here look healthy. Argentinians are much less indigenous and trendy here. Also, the food selection has so much more meat than the meager places we’ve been. But we knew Bolivia would be poorer and have been excited to try all the variety that the different countries provide. But getting quality meat is a nice change of pace.
After changing money during our last day in Salta we got a bite to eat at a cafe and use their internet. Sylvie and I bumped into Borris again and we talked for an hour or so. We went to a market and bought some fruit for our 20-hour bus ride to Mendoza. Afterwards we went back to the mall to catch an American movie--Sin Escape (No Escape) with Owen Wilson. Despite my minimal expectations it was rather enjoyable. On our walk back to our hostel we went into a casino where we tripped our money, yeah!
A Description of Our Workaway in Mendoza - A Week and a Half Volunteering on an Organic Vineyard
Sylvie and I will be in Mendoza, Argentina for a week and a half working on an organic Malbec vineyard and fruit farm. In addition to working on the farm I may an opportunity to sell the produce in a local market where I will be able to earn 25% of all proceeds. Since we won't have internet during our stay in Mendoza I wanted to post something about our experience in the meantime--below is a description of our workaway:
This is an old farm in Tupungato, Mendoza, the farm has 15 hectares of 1,500 walnuts plants and 4000 cheery trees. We also have farm peaches, apricots, apples, pears, plums, almonds, etc... The farm also has 5 hectares of Malbec, chardonnay, and pinot noir grapes that of pure high quality for very fine wines. We also have annual crops such as onions, garlic, potatoes pumpkin, carrots, etc. We also have a garden with fresh seasonal vegetables.
Life here is very simple, we live in the countryside with water, electricity, and linen beds coats. There is a communal kitchen where lunches or breakfasts are shared. You all can work in the morning or afternoon, it is not a problem. The rest of your time you can trek, take winery tours, or go to the village for free wi-fi. On Friday / Saturday you can go to the pub or bar 'CAMBODIA'. There is also an old cinema.
Each week there is a different free tour through the valley of Tupungato.
The Andes are very close, just 20 minutes away--many of the volunteers trek high into the mountains, usually for two or three nights. We have tents, shoes, coats, sleeping bags, and all other necessary things at the farm for your use.
The farm is organic, everything used here is natural. Your visit and experience will be centralized around organic plants. There are both advantages and disadvantages in the farming of organic produce. You'll learn about living without a clock, without connecting, and living slowly. You will discover how valuable your time is. Silence is our friend, the nights are very long, and only the rooster will the thing to alerted you that a new day will begin.
Those who have not lived like this will never know the difference, I'm not saying it's better or worse, just I say it's different .....
In October I will have a permit to explore the mine that belonged to the Incas where gold was extracted for years until they were decimated by Pizarro in 1531. It was the southern reach of their empire. It has been abandoned for almost 500 years and was called "Beyond the Potu". Geologists, adventurers, and experts who enjoy may be recorded and together try to achieve a goal ....
It is located in the foothills of the Andes at over 2000 meters. In Tupungato, Mendoza.