It Took Me 30 Hours to Get to Bolivia. And Then I Couldn’t See Straight Because of the Altitude.

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I hope you don’t feel bullied into traveling to Bolivia,” my editor at Bloomberg Pursuits jokingly asked me. “Not at all,” I replied. “I’m honored that you’re sending me to the poorest country in South America.

Make no mistake. I did not want to go to Bolivia to write about a restaurant. I wanted to go to Meadowood in Napa Valley to write about a restaurant. But my editor chose Bolivia. And I was quickly schooled in the intricacies of finding a way to (legally) enter the country, a process that can make getting into China feel like a walk in the park.  

I’m certain there is no other country in the Western Hemisphere that is harder for New Yorkers to enter. Cuba included. 

All things considered, it served me right. Bolivia could use more press than Bill Harlan’s wine country (nothing against you Bill, I once sold one of your Bordeaux blends for $500 back in my waiter days, and my table left me half the bottle). And it was high time for me to get pushed out of my comfort zone — my last trip overseas was a cushy vacation to Brighton, where I drank ginger beer and ate fresh mackerel on the British seaside. 

Sometimes it takes a good editor to straighten you out. So it goes that I was sent to Bolivia to preview Gustu, which will probably be the country’s only high-end restaurant when it opens in April. It’s all brought to us by Claus Meyer, who, along with Rene Redzepi, co-owns Noma in Copenhagen, the so-called best restaurant in the world. You can read about Gustu’s food and philanthropy in this month’s issue of Pursuits. 

But here I thought I’d devote a bit of attention to a more practical question: Is traveling to Bolivia worth the money, time or altitude sickness? It’s an important story to tell because Meyer will count on gastro-tourists to populate Gustu. And to say that getting there (and breathing there) is half the battle would be an understatement of epic proportions. As such: 

Cost: From New York, a round trip economy class ticket to La Paz will set you back about $1,200 via LAN airlines. The flights, which are are routed through Lima, are redeyes in both directions, which means you never lose a day. Then add on visa costs ($135 base fee + $60 expeditor fee), yellow fever shot ($14), plus two nights at, say, Hotel Europa ($220 total), along with dinner for one at Gustu ($130), and we’re talking $1,885. By comparison, flying to Copenhagen, nonstop from Newark via SAS ($883), plus two nights in a good hotel (71 Nyhvan, $380) , plus a wine paired tasting menu at Noma, will cost $1,699. No visa necessary.

Cost Conclusion: The total cost of a trip to Gustu in Bolivia, for Americans, is about the same price as a trip to Noma in Copenhagen. Just sayin. 

Time:.Flights to Bolivia range from 13-19 hours, each way, including layovers. That ain’t pretty. But there’s a larger penal-based issue to deal with. New York-based applicants must obtain a certificate of criminal clearance, which can only be obtained by the NYPD, and which requires about 10 business days to process by the police department. This is Bolivia’s way of saying that the burden of proof is on your to verify that you’re not a narcotics trafficker. I have not been able to find a single other country in the world that requires such a document, Turkmenistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia included. Luckily, this is a jurisdictional requirement, so you can use a Visa expeditor route your application through Washington DC to avoid this lengthy process. 

The Catch: The Bolivian consulate in Washington, which doesn’t require a certificate of criminal clearance, is much slower than the New York branch. My expeditor even warned me that the Bolivians were running out of visas — and I’m not talking about any quotas I’m talking about the actual physical vista sticker that gets attached to your passport. If you had any illusions of how poor a country Bolivia is, things should be quite clear now. So because of this delay (or who knows why), I had to travel on Acela to pick up my visa in DC, fly back to New York, them begin a 16 hour journey to La Paz. It was a 30 hour journey, including a stopover in Santa Cruz, where flight attendants spray down the plane with insecticide. Alternatively, you could just hop on a direct flight to Copenhagen, no questions asked, no visas necessary, no insecticide inhaled.  

Time Conclusion: Bolivia is as hard as hell to get to. Copenhagen isn’t. 

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The Altitude: Still want to go to La Paz? Better check your altitude tolerance. Football player, who are usually in pretty good shape, often complain about competing in Denver, which is 1,6000 meters (one mile) above sea level. Then there’s Machu Pichu in Peru, where fainting from altitude sickness is not uncommon amid the 2,430 meter elevation. Then finally we have La Paz, Bolivia, which hovers around 3,600 meters, and hits 4,000 at the airport. It is the highest capital city in the world. 

How does La Paz feel? Like someone crushed up a xanax and put it in your vodka martini. Everything is in slow motion for the first few hours. Took me 30 seconds to put an iPad into a shopping bag due to loss of dexterity. It’s so high that Major League Soccer briefly banned play here in 2007. After about eight hours, I didn’t seem to mind the elevation, though I should disclose that I accidentally banged my head into various objects about 4-5 times that first day and a half. So yeah.

Altitude Conclusion: If those Andean women and men, who’ve lived in Bolivia all their lives, are still chewing coca leaves to combat altitude sickness, you know it’s not something you’ll entirely adjust to in a few days. That’s another way of saying: Go easy on the alcohol. 

There you have it. Still want to go to Bolivia? Well, you’re in for a treat, because it happens to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. And now that I’ve got my visa (valid for five years), I’d happily go there again in an instant, if an instant can be expanded to include 16-19 hours of travel time.

*Editor’s Note: You can also apply for a visa at the Bolivia border, as I watched one gentleman do, but do you really want to leave that up-or-down decision to a border guard?

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