August 10, 2009
I had fun plans for my last day in La Paz, but ended up spending the whole day trying to resolve my money issues. My ATM card was gone. Though my trip was winding down, I didn’t have enough cash to complete it. I went from bank to bank trying to figure out if I could get a cash advance with my credit card. It was impossible because the only card I had was American Express. Don’t listen to AmEx’s slogan. Do yourself a favor and leave home without it. Outside of the U.S., it’s useless.
After hours of waiting in the longest lines I’ve ever seen in banks, trying to communicate what I wanted, and constantly being told it wasn’t possible, I gave up and went back to the hostel. I tried paying for my hostel bill with dollars. But each time I gave the receptionist bills, she took them to a back room where the manager inspected them and told her to tell me they couldn’t accept them. In Bolivia, you’ll often get completely tattered Bolivianos after completing a transaction. But for some reason, dollars, which are widely accepted, have to be neat and perfect. I was already scared of running out of money and this stressed me out more. If a foreign-run business wasn’t going to take perfectly acceptable money from me, what was going to happen as I continued on with my trip into even less developed places?
I went to talk to the manager and explained the situation I was in. I asked if he could accept my dollars and he completely refused. It was appalling the way he handled everything. He didn’t try to relate to my situation and acted like all that mattered was me paying my bill for my room, food, and drinks. All 34 dollars of it. And with no rips in the bills, even if the tear could only be measured in millimeters. He then had the galls to say that if I wanted to give him my 40 dollars, he would take my money at a low exchange rate and not give me any change back. It may sound like a small amount, but 6 dollars can go far in Bolivia. With my uncertain situation, every little bit mattered.
I was very upset and disgusted and took off to find a place that would take my money. Just two blocks around the corner, I found a money exchange place that took my dollars, gave me a good exchange rate, and only cared about whether or not my bills were real.
I headed back to the hostel where I discussed this with both the manager and hostel owner. I felt like I’d been lied to about how “ripped” money was never accepted in Bolivia and that they cared about nothing more than money. For your information, the hostel I stayed at was called Wild Rover. I absolutely do not recommend it.
I was catching the night bus to Uyuni that night and needed to sign up for a tour to begin the next morning. Two of my hostel roommates from England who were very cool and chill had signed up for a tour with three other people. There was one spot left that I could sign up for. I looked all over for their company but couldn’t find it. I found another one that had been recommended by some other people and haggled for a discount since I really was low on cash.
Back at the hostel, I finally packed my stuff up and hung out in the courtyard with one of my English roommates. I was approached by the hostel’s finance person who was clearly sent to smooth things over so I didn’t leave the hostel with a bad impression. She did seem really nice and understanding, but it didn’t erase how awful the manager and owner were.
By then, I’d gotten a Visa International emergency cash phone number. It was my last hope before asking a family member to wire me money. I called them and finally, there was a breakthrough. After such a frustrating day, I couldn’t believe how accommodating and helpful the Visa people were. They set me up with a claim and said I could pick up the cash at any Western Union within three days. If I couldn’t get to a Western Union within three days, I could call them back on a toll free local number and they would set it up again. I wish I had known earlier that I could do that. It would have saved me from a day of stressing out. But now I know!
I went back out to chat with the English girl. She’d had her phone stolen that day. She was in a crowded area using it to take pictures when someone knocked it out of her hand, grabbed it, and ran. In the past two days, I’d heard many stories of stolen and misplaced goods. There were two other ATM card losses, two purse snatchings, and my French roommates had their things stolen by fake tourists and police. I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting La Paz, but it’s definitely a place where you have to be careful. It’s too bad my time in La Paz ended like it did, because I really did enjoy the city.
My English roommates were on the same night bus to Uyuni so I caught a cab with them to the station. On the bus, they served us a small dinner. It was unexpected and welcome after running around La Paz all day on one empanada. They also gave us blankets for the journey. It was already cold, so we innocently wrapped ourselves in them. There was a welcome notice for each person which warned us not to drink to much of the complimentary water they gave us because it would be a bumpy ride. It seems like they must have had issues with people wetting their seats in the past. After the Amazon jeep ride, the bumpiness of the road seemed minor. What they really should have warned us about was how incredibly cold our night would be.