Crossing to Argentina – A week with the Gauchos, July 2010

I left Tarija early in the morning and arrived at the border by noon after crossing a very beautiful mountainous zone. I got my exit stamp from the Bolivian immigration office while chatting with the agents about the defeat of the Brazilian team. The agent counted the days I stayed en his wall calendar and then put the stamp and gave me my passport with a nice smile: “Todo bien!” he said.

Then I got back into the mini van and we drove another 2 kilometers to the city of Bermejo. He left me near the place where one crosses the river on a small boat for 2 bolivianos. The place was very busy with all sort of shops selling toys, clothes, kitchen items and many restaurants. I went immediately to get my ticket and crossed the 30 meters river. Nothing looked like a border. I was in Argentina! Oh yeah?

On the other side, no road. Nothing! I was wondering if I would find an immigration office. I followed people who were carrying all kind of things – much cheaper in Bolivia than Argentina – and got to the custom office of Argentina under some trees, 200 meters from the river. I walked straight in front of a long line, entered the building wondering if anyone would tell me to wait for my turn. Nobody did! The custom agent, a lady with a strong argentine accent, asked me to pen my backpack and without checking it told me to go to the next building with immigration. Guys were trying to sell me bus tickets to places I never heard about. It was hot and sweaty.

An immigration agent was outside the small office smoking. He welcomed me, took my passport and gave it to another agent inside. “Wait here” he said kindly. I got a cigarette and talked about the Brazilian defeat while the other agent was doing the paperwork. After 5 minutes he came out and gave me my passport. “How many days did you give me?” I asked. “90 days” he said. “Excellent, thank you” I replied. I asked where I could exchange bolivianos into pesos argentinos. They sent me to a small shop in the village nearby. I learned that a shop is called a “kiosco” in this country!

A few shops were closed. Lunch time! But I found one that sold beers and liquors where I could exchange money. I had no idea of the rate, just trust. I later checked the rate on the Internet and saw that the guy had been pretty honest. From this little community of Aguas Blancas, I got a shared taxi for 10 pesos to Oran, about 40 minutes away. The landscape was very different, extended plains with a lot of agriculture, banana, sugar cane, corn, tomatoes and many greenhouses with plastic covers like in south Spain (but not so many). I could see irrigation systems and some machinery. Farming in this area is more industrial, the European way!

So far, everyone had been very nice and friendly. The driver and the man sitting in the front were “coking”, with a huge ball of coca leaves in their mouth that was deforming their cheek. The taxi dropped me in front of the bus station of Oran, a hot and dusty place in the middle of nowhere. I found a hostel just nearby for 60 pesos (12 Euros) , a small room with TV and private bath. I immediately realized that I would not be able to afford a full month in Argentina. Cost of living – hostel, food and transport – was a least 4 times more than in Bolivia. After 2 days, I estimated that my daily minimum expenses would be near 20 Euros, 600 Euros a month. No way!

I spent 2 nights in Oran, watched the soccer game between Argentina and Germany on a large screen downtown in a depressed atmosphere as Argentina was getting badly bitten. In Oran, I figured that I could eat rice, French fries and a salad for about 15 pesos for lunch in a restaurant and then buy bread – better than in Bolivia and a bit of a reminder to French bread – lettuce, tomatoes and avocados and eat sandwiches for breakfast and dinner for 10 to 15 pesos a day. After looking at myself in a mirror after a nice hot shower in my room at Oran, I saw a very thin man and I allowed myself to eat a few local pastries and chocolate bars.

On the third day I took a bus to Tartagal for 18 pesos, 2 hours and a half bus ride. A man I met in the bus between Santa Cruz and Tarija had suggested me to go to Targagal and from there to Formosa and then go and see the amazing waterfall of Iguaçu and maybe enter Paraguay. When I got to Tartagal, I decided to follow my instincts and walked straight to the city center, 6 or 7 blocks from the bus station. It was very hot. I got to the central square and saw the City Hostel. It looked nice and above my budget but I felt that I could get some answers there. The cheapest room was for 90 pesos, far too much for my budget. But the man at the reception called another hostel nearby and found me a room for 40 pesos. “If you don’t like it, come back here and I’ll see what I can do” he said.

The hostel was OK, humble but clean. I got a small room without windows, and with the shared bathroom outside. A bit depressing, but that is the price one has to pay on a low budget trip. I decided to stay there and left my backpack. Then I returned to the City Hostel to thank the man. He was very nice and offered me to return next day and stay there for 50 pesos. The place was much better and for 2 Euros more, a great deal! He had a room with bathroom, TV, fan and AC that got a bit damaged by a water leak and he was waiting for the wall to dry to fix it. Breakfast was included! He could not really rent it but would let me use it for 2 nights. The damage was minimum, I took his offer. “Come back tomorrow at 8 am with your backpack. I’ll get you breakfast!” I thanked him, spent the day checking this small town, went to bed early and returned next morning.

Argentina was far too expensive for me. Even the bus between cities, compared with Bolivia, was very expensive. I spent all day on the Internet looking for options. I got on couchSurfing looking for places to stay. I just had 2 or 3 days in front of me to find a solution. Legally, I had 15 days left in Bolivia but I needed a month before entering to Brazil, since I could only stay 90 days there and I still had 4 months to travel. I needed to find free room in Argentina and get into Paraguay where life is cheaper for what I heard. But getting to Paraguay from Tartagal was not obvious. I had to go to Formosa first and the bus was costing 186 pesos! A fortune compared to Bolivia. I was only 50 kilometers from the Bolivian border and 1000 or more from Paraguay. What would be my next move? I gave myself 3 days to figure out.

People here and in many other places believe that a white man from Europe with high education has plenty of money to spend and must live as a prince. They just can’t understand or imagine that one might be struggling, feel alone, and even starve looking for ways to move around at the lowest possible cost, still spending much more than your local citizen who usually spends a better time eating better food and sleeping in better places for less! Locked into my windowless room, after spending a few hours on the Internet, I was looking for the best solution to my budget crisis. The TV was on, on an English speaking channel. I needed a change, the TV was a way to get my mind somewhere else. I was smoking the cheapest cigarettes, had my bread, lettuce, tomatoes and two avocados and my 2 liters bottle of water. I was looking at options…

From here, I could go back to Bolivia. Legally I had 15 days left. I could try to reenter Bolivia and get 30 days or more, if the immigration agent didn’t know or did not care about the 90 days per semester limitation that Europeans get. In fact, I was wondering if our limit was not just 90 days per year in Bolivia! If I got in, I could get into a farm next to Santa Cruz as a volunteer. I had been in contact with them and they were expecting me since June. I could stay a month and then enter Brazil from Puerto Suarez/Corumba. In Brazil, I could get 90 days so I had to enter after August 7th. The immigration agent of Bolivia could also simply give me 15 days. In this case, I would have to enter Brazil earlier and then maybe stay 2 or 3 weeks in Paraguay. Any of these two options were probably the cheapest ones.

Another option was to reach Formosa, near the border with Paraguay for 186 pesos, stay with a couchsurfer in Formosa for 2 or 3 nights and then get into Paraguay for 2 or 3 weeks before entering Brazil. What was the best option? I was not getting much positive answers from Argentine couchsurfers. In fact, I was getting better answers from Paraguay! I was running out of time!

I decided to return to Bolivia and see what would happen at the border. I left on Wednesday July 7th, took a shared taxi to the border for 10 pesos and got my stamp out of Argentina before crossing to Bolivia. When I got into the Bolivian immigration office, I saw three agents behind a large counter. One of them was wearing dark sunglasses. I knew that I would not be getting my stamp so easily. I filled up the form and wrote 60 days as the length of time I wished to stay. Then I gave it with my passport to one of the agents happy to see that the guy with sunglasses was out for a moment. The agent looked at my passport and saw that I had just been in Bolivia.

– You can’t enter the country, he said. How long have you been here?
– About 60 or 70 days,” I replied.
– You can’t get in,” he repeated.
– But I understand that I am allowed a total of 90 days, I said.
– I only have entry stamps for 30 or 60 days, he said. You need to go the Bolivian consulate in Argentina and get a visa for 300 US dollars.

I knew that was not true, but I did not want to argue. At this point, I also knew that I would have to get him some cash if I wanted to enter.

– I need to get to Puerto Suarez and cross to Brazil from there. How can I enter? I won’t stay if this is the case, I just need to cross up to the border, I said as a sad and depressed lost man.
– How can you help me? he asked.

I got some change out of my pocket, 2 bills for 30 pesos, about 50 bolivianos or 6.5 Euros.

– I only have this left, I told him.
– This is very little, he said. We are 5 here.
– I understand, but that is all I have left. What else can I do?

After a dramatic pause, he opened my passport and put an entry stamp on it with a permit for 30 days. I took my passport leaving the 30 pesos in his hand, said thank you and left. I was ragging inside. I hate giving money to these bastards! I was just happy it did not cost me too much. But I felt like leaving to Brazil right away… I had to calm down. I took a shared taxi to the bus station and got a bus to Santa Cruz right away, the bus was leaving, I got into it as it was reaching the gate out. I had 9 hours of travel to calm down…

When I got into Santa Cruz, I had decided to stay until the 5th of August. I had a permit for 30 days and I was going to use it, unless I was not happy in the farm. Then, I would go south of Brazil after working here and there in farms if I got some good answers, see the waterfalls at the border of Paraguay, Brazil adn Argentina and stay maybe 2 weeks in Paraguay before moving back north to the area of Rio de Janeiro where I had a farm waiting for me. I had gotten their positive answer a few days earlier. Brazil would not be a problem. I got to downtown Santa Cruz to a hostel that a guy at the bus station recommended me. I had met a French traveller and his friend from Argentina in the bus and we shared the taxi. It only cost me 3 bolivianos. I was happy to back to Bolivia! Cheap place indeed.

When I entered the hostel, I saw a small flyer of the farm where I was planning to go on the wall next to the counter. I felt that I had to be at the right place and had made the right decision… One should follow the signs of life, right? Then I checked my email. I had 3 positive answers from people in Paraguay, one of them at the falls and two in Asuncion. I had none from Argentina. I also had a message from my contact at the farm, he was out for a few days and would be waiting for me on Sunday. I had 3 days to relax, eat good food at a few vegetarian restaurants that I was discovering in Santa Cruz for 15 bolivianos a meal (less than 2 Euros). I had a room for 25 bolivianos (3 Euros) a night, not a very nice one but I am used to it. Once again, I was to take it easy and relaxed and use some free time to update my blogs.

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