Sleepless in Salta

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Time was of the essence… Once our three day adventure through the Bolivian back country was over, we overnighted in Uyuni to get ourselves a shower and were up at 5am the next morning to catch a bus to take us to Salta, Argentina, where we would overnight just to break up the extraordinarily long trek to get to Iguazu Falls in Argentina. From Uyuni, Seb and I took an 8 hour bus to the border which turned out to be the worst bus ride of my entire trip thus far. Considering I spent 24 hours on a chicken bus -read about that adventure here- (an old converted school bus, with the original school bus seats still in tact, albeit without any of the padding left), that’s really saying something.

It was unbelievable how awful it was. Uyuni is bitterly cold. Especially at 5am. And like all the buildings, their buses also don’t have heat. I didn’t know this, but I should have. I wasn’t wearing nearly enough layers, as all of my clothing was absolutely filthy from the three days in the desert. We did everything we could to snuggle up and share body heat, but we basically shivered until the sun came up. I had to take my shoes off and sit on my toes to get feeling back into them. Only the sides of our bodies that were touching were able to keep a little warm, so we kept moving around in awkward positions to try and distribute the heat to other parts of our bodies. It was pathetic and frustratingly uncomfortable. Once the sun finally did come up, it took a couple of hours to get the bus to a normal temperature.

And then it absolutely skyrocketed.

The bus was completely full – I mean every seat taken and then the aisle completely stuffed with all the extra bodies.  Road rules don’t exactly apply in Bolivia.  With the sun blazing, and us cruising through the desert in an overcrowded bus with windows that don’t open, in full mid day, it didn’t take long for the bus to become a sweltering hot pot of cooking human meat. The air became so hot, heavy and humid that I nearly gagged on every breath I took. Each breath was a challenge, pulling the tepid, pungent air into my lungs, tasting the sweat of everyone on the bus.  There was a young woman on the floor holding her two year old child in her lap. She had nowhere else to go and so fell asleep against my leg. I thought about giving up my seat, but to be honest, I don’t think we could have managed the seat swap in our cramped quarters, nor did I have the energy to move. I had stripped everything off that I could and rolled up my shirt to expose my stomach which was dripping with sweat by this point. I was getting to the point of desperation and thought about taking my water bottle of now warm water and pouring it over my head and upper body to help bring my temperature down as I was feeling woozy and nauseous.  But a short while later (after being in this sweltering sauna for two hours already) we finally stopped and most of the people disebmarked. I toppled out of the bus after them, desperate for fresh air that didn’t burn my lungs with its temperature and fetor.

After an all to short 10 minute break, the few of us continuing on had to get back on the awful bus. We tried our best to open every window in the bus after most of the passengers left, but we had no luck. The only window that opened was next to an already occupied seat. We luckily found the roof hatch and popped it open. This, coupled with so few people left on the bus continuing to the border, allowed the temperature to drop significantly. Otherwise I think we surely would have perished on that awful ride! From plummeting temperatures in the negatives, to soaring temperatures surely near the 40 degree mark, it was a shock to the system.

We got off at the border and had to find ourselves an internet cafe as I needed to print off my Argentina Reciprocity fee papers so I could cross over, something I wasn’t too prepared for as I thought I would just be able to do it at the border- oops! We lugged our heavy bags around the town and asked in several places that looked like internet cafes, but were turned away, and told they didn’t have internet (apparently they were only open for gaming). I asked around in my shaky Spanish and finally got some directions and found a place that had internet. We got the papers printed and hailed a cab to take us to the border where we found a cheap bus heading into Salta in just 20 minutes and even managed to exchange some money here into Pesos. We got on our bus and after some confusion with our tickets on board, we realized we would have to change buses in another town and had a two hour layover in their bus station, meaning we wouldn’t arrive into Salta until around 3am. We had tried to book some accommodation online the day before, however the system was telling us that not a single hostel had availability. I figured there must be a glitch as there were well over 100 hotels and it just wasn’t possible they were all full.

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I had talked to Anthony who was in Salta at the time, and he said there were several hostels on his street, that we could surely just take a cab and find one with a room. So we got the address and hopped in a cab to head to the street. We got out on said street, went to the door of the first hostel we saw and were told they were full. Damn. So we walked down the street and tried the next one. Also full. I started to get worried. We walked by several more hostels and they all had signs saying they were full. Okay now I started to panic. My bag was dreadfully heavy, it was 330am, we hadn’t slept in nearly two days, and I just wanted to rest! We decided we better just check the next hotel and suck up the awful cost for one night. So we stopped at the first hotel, and they were full. So we stopped at the next one, an elegant, posh looking one, and they were full too. You’ve got to be kidding me! This couldn’t be happening. How could an entire town be booked solid? We asked to use their internet to see if we could find anything, and they graciously let us, taking pity on the poor backpackers knocking at their door at 3am. We went online and couldn’t find a single room anywhere. Defeated we headed back out into the streets and walked around to a few streets where we saw lots of hostels online to see if we could luck out.

I finally decided that this was stupid- we were walking targets with our bags at 4am. We hailed a cab and hopped in, and I explained to the cab driver our situation. He said he knew a few places and we could go check. With nothing to lose we went on a wild goose chase with our taxi driver. That night, we checked over 50 hostels for a room, either going to the door and asking, or just driving by to see their signs of ‘completo” on the door. Defeated, I asked the cab driver to return us to the bus station where we had no choice but to sit and wait a few hours until morning. The bus station was bitterly cold as they don’t heat it, and we snuggled up, miserable and freezing, once again. By this point, we couldn’t do much other than try to laugh at our pathetic situation. For the second night in a row we were stuck in some awful freezing place instead of in a warm hostel bed. So we made a plan. We would huddle up as best we could for the next three hours. Then we would grab a coffee and some medialunas (croissants) at the little cafe once it opened, and then we would cab it back to Anthony’s hostel and hang out with him for a bit before catching our bus at 3pm that afternoon. Once the sun came up and the bus depot stopped being an ice castle around 8am it wasn’t nearly so bad. We had our meagre breakfast and went off to get Anthony. We didn’t have any internet so I couldn’t even explain what happened before showing up, red eyed and wild, probably smelling of the stinky, sauna bus.

It was so wonderful to see Anthony again after our long seperation. His beard had grown considerably and he looked like a sexy, wild, bushman. We spent the afternoon together, the three of us, wandering around Salta, and popping into a cafe to use their internet and get some caffeine to keep us functioning. I was sad to say goodbye to Anthony after our brief visit, but knew we would be meeting back up Buenos Aires in less than a week after I was done my time in Igauzu falls.

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A Parade? In South America? What a surprise… kidding! I think I’ve seen one in every single town I’ve passed through! Locals gather to celebrate a holiday that left the entire city booked solid, and left us on the streets!

Seb and I booked the absolute best bus we could find in Salta, sparing no expense (literally, the 20 hour ride cost us $180 Canadian, ouch!). But guess what? It was worth every penny. This was the first nice bus I had taken in my six months of travel. I always went the cheapest route possible, sacrificing comfort and sleep to save a few bucks. But after two days of no sleep and a living nightmare on the last bus, I just couldn’t take it anymore. We had massive, plush leather seats that were at the very back of the bus. We had a warm pillow and blanket waiting on our seats for us when we boarded. The arm rests were huge, more than wide enough for two arms side by side. The seats reclined to nearly 180 degrees, making a comfortable enough bed. The temperature was just right, not too cool and not too warm. Shortly after boarding, the stewardess – that’s right, we had a stewardess – approached us with a tray of candies. A few minutes later she returned to take our order of tea or coffee and give us snacks. An hour later to then deliver our dinner.  Movies played in English and we had wifi. What?! What is this?! I had died and gone to bus heaven at last!

After writing in my blog for a couple of hours, I put everything away, snuggled up, got comfortable, took a sedative and slept for the next 16 hours. I can’t sleep on buses. Ever. At least not for more than an hour at time, tops. I slept for hours on end and when I awoke, I simply couldn’t stay awake, I was so comfortable and relaxed and happy! I had to be woken for breakfast delivery, and then went right back to sleep yet again. It was marvellous and I wondered why I hadn’t travelled like this my entire trip! However, Argentina is known for it’s top of the line bus service, unlike many other bus lines in South America. And I simply couldn’t afford to ride the first class bus system – I was a backpacker after all!

We had to change buses 3 hours outside Puerto Igauzu, and while not as posh, I still slept all of this trip as well. Clearly my body, which was only just recovering from my terrible illness, desperately needed massive amounts of rest. We pulled into the temperate Puerto Iguazu and sighed relief at the warm air that greeted us when we stepped off the bus. What a treat after the bitter cold of Bolivia! Our hostel was a mere 2 minute walk from the station and we dumped our bags and went straight for the showers. Our hostel was amazing, equipped with a pool, and the most incredible meals, and the staff were commendable. This place was ran by a professional, there was no doubt about it. I ended up staying three nights, I liked the place so much! The next day Seb had to leave and so he could only explore a small sampling of Iguazu falls, so we had to say goodbye in the morning.

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Bizarre, thorny trees in downtown Salta.

It was a whirlwind 12 days with Seb, but we sure did have the experience of a lifetime barreling down death road, safariing through the Bolivian Salt flats, and nearly dying of frostbite and then suffocation on a bus together. We realized 12 days is no where near enough time to try to do as much as we did, and cover as much ground as we did. In the end we should have just stuck to Bolivia and explore this country a little more instead of rushing around trying to get down to Iguazu on sketchy buses. But regardless, we still had an unforgettable time on our adventures. In the morning, Seb went for his mini tour and I went with a group of girls I met that morning to see the falls, and we alas parted ways. Until we meet again in Yellowknife my friend, adios!

Keep tuned for my photo essay of the majestic and magnificent Iguazu falls, coming soon!

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