The 5,000+ mile jaunt from San Francisco, CA to Bolivia is no easy trip.
I’m the kind of traveler that likes to get to the airport early. Real early. So for our 6:55am departure, we got to the airport right around midnight. Sounds crazy, I know, but hear me out: FAA says you have to arrive 2 hours early for an international flight. That puts us at 4:55am. SFO is about a 30-minute cab ride from our place, so that means leaving the house by 4:25am. And that’s the bare minimum, planning on no wiggle room for unforeseen variables. With my pre-flight anxiety, that means the panic attack starts right around 3:30am. We usually go to bed around midnight so what are we going to do, try to get 3 hours of shitty sleep just so we can start this trip groggy and hurried? No thanks.
So instead-- like a couple of goddamn geniuses-- we got in an Uber at 12am with the intention of finding a cozy corner of the airport to bunk down and grab a few Z’s before check-in. Security opens at 4am so we could get a few hours of rest then cruise over to our gate, grab a cup of coffee, and pick up a few magazines. Piece of cake.
We brought the maximum allowed luggage: 2 bags each, 50 pounds per bag. And I’m talking 50 pounds on the button. Our friends and family in Bolivia sent us a shopping list of items they can’t get down here: vitamins, some high quality paintbrushes, a bottle of local SF gin (St. George), and one of those little cats that they sell in Chinatown that sits on the windowsill and waves.
We only made one error in our calculations,
And that was the size allowance of carry-ons. We flew with Avianca, a Columbia based airline, and the dimensions are slightly smaller for carry-on luggage than they are on the domestic airlines we’re used to. We’d each brought a roller case and a small “personal item”, but both of our roller cases were too big. We figured one of them would have to get checked and we were willing to eat the fee for an extra piece of luggage, but I was determined to carry at least one of them on to the plane.
So I unpacked my roller case, busted out my handy pocket knife, dissembled the extending mechanical handle, removed the wheels, cut out the rigid spine, and shortened the bag by about 4 inches. I stashed all of the pieces that I took out behind a potted plant and we checked in with our newly compact, no-longer-rollable roller case. Once we were all checked in, I retrieved all of the parts, proceeded through security, and rebuilt my luggage.
Remember when I told you we were a couple of goddamn geniuses? Well I wasn’t lying.
The trip lasted, in total, a bit over 24 hours. SFO to San Salvador to Lima, Peru to Bolivia. Smooth and easy the whole way. Avianca is a fantastic airline. Comfortable seats, free movies and food, and even free booze. After nearly a full day of traveling, we held each other’s hands in exuberant anticipation as the captain announced that we were making our final descent into El Alto airport. Except then… we didn’t.
The captain came back on the PA system to announce that due to severe weather conditions, we were unable to land. It was snowing in El Alto, the largely Indigenous city adjacent to La Paz which is home to the airport. He announced that we could circle for up to an hour and half, waiting for the weather to break before we would have to divert to Santa Cruz.
It took the full 90 minutes, but our pilot came through and got us on the ground at our proper destination just short of 3am, 24 hours (with the 3-hour time zone difference) after we hopped in an Uber in San Francisco.
Maria's brother picked us up at the airport and we made the snowy drive down the hill to his place, where we crashed hard. When we woke up later that day, the sky was still gray and foggy.
There is a chill in the air at night but the days are warm. Winter in the southern hemisphere is almost over. For most of our trip, it will be springtime in La Paz. Flowering trees are starting to bud and the days will be getting longer and warmer. We got through the first step of our trip, but it turns out being in Bolivia is no joke either.