Bolivian Border Crossing: For Americans
The Bolivian Border Crossing: For Americans
I booked a bus for the wee hours on Sunday morning. It was set to leave at 3 a.m. When I got to Bolivia, I found out that this was a clerical error on the part of the woman at the ticket counter. The bus didn’t come until nearly 6 a.m., so I spent all night playing a little game that I like to call “Tina, Don’t Fall Asleep and Get Your Shit Stolen”. The ride was arduous. The bus kept overheating, so we had to stop multiple times on the side of the road in the desert and wait for the bus to cool down. This amounted to at least a couple of hours in the desert heat sans AC or windows that open. The bathroom was disgusting and there was no food provided on what amounted to a seventeen-hour journey.
As much as I hate the total failure of a system that is South American buses, I hate bordering crossings even more. And a border crossing on a bus? It is my personal version of hell.
I have heard, time and time again, that the Bolivian border crossing is a nightmare for Americans. I say specifically Americans, because Europeans (or Kiwis or Canadians) never seem understand what Americans are bitching about with regards to the utter hell that is the Bolivian border crossing. It is important to understand that because of American-Bolivian relations it is a different experience for us. Our governments don’t play well together, and we pay the price for this tempestuous political relationship.
Note: The Bolivian border crossing discussed in this article is not the Copacabana border crossing, but the Bolivian border crossing on Lake Titicaca. It is is much smaller and much faster than the one at Copacabana.
Before heading off on this journey, a Peruvian man said to me, “Don’t trustanyone at the border.” He had good cause. It was some of the best advice that I have heard thus far in my travels of South America, and I’m glad that I took it to heart…
There is a bridge that you cross on foot leaving from Peru. The bus will stop, let everyone off, and then you go through Peruvian immigration before crossing into Bolivia. Peruvian immigration took all of 3 minutes. However, I was immediately stopped before the bridge and asked to enter an office with three police officers. I have to say, I am still utterly shocked by this experience. In the last year of living in Peru, my experience with Peruvian law enforcement has been quite positive. Needless to say, what happened next was quite jarring. I was interrogated (yes, interrogated is the appropriate word) about whether I had drugs in my bag. He went through an extensive list of substances. I answered no over and over again. I told him that he was welcome to search my things. Then he pulled everything in my bag out, including my money. He counted my money in front of me and asked me if it was all that I had with me. I lied. I was wearing a money belt. (I was recently reading another travel blog by a girl who “braves” the developed world. She made cracks about money belts. Girl, you had better stay in your cushy countries, because what you called foolish kept me from getting robbed.) I knew that if he knew how much money I was carrying on me he would say that I would have to pay a tax for crossing the border. He knew I was lying, but I smiled and said that he could continue searching my things. (Besides, a tax for the amount of money that I had one me would also have been a lie.)
He asked me what I do for a living. When I said writer, he asked me if I had a receipt for my computer. I said no. He said that he was going to have to fine me. You are allowed one computer without questions. I know this. It is stated very clearly on immigration information at the airport. I said directly, “Sir, I am not paying you anything.” He was surprised and got upset with me. I told him, “Sir, look at my passport. I have legally entered and left Peru two times in the last year. I know that I am permitted one computer without questions.” Another cop gave him some weird signal, he shoved my things back in my bag with complete disregard for their fragility, and let me go.
I lost 15 minutes in that office with these men trying to make me sweat.
Once across the bridge, you will have to pay for a visa and fill out additional paperwork. Peruvians and Europeans walk right through sans issues. They tell you that you can pay in bolivianos, soles, or dollars, but there is a catch: They have no change in soles or bolivianos. They try to “keep” the change. In fact, they don’t even do math. If you don’t know exactly how much the exchange rate is they will just act like a nice even number is peachy. I took the calculator from behind the desk and punched in the exchange rate in front of him and asked him, “My change?” He said, “Oh, I don’t have change.” I told him that I wasn’t giving him free money, so I had to walk back over to Peru, and change MORE money so that I could pay for my visa. Then I had to fill out additional paperwork.
The salt in the wound is that you have to go get copies of your passport and visa. This relationship is obviously corrupt. There is only one place that makes photocopies and they charge you FIFTY BOLIVIANOS (roughly seven dollars) for three pieces of freakin’ paper which you need in order to get the stupid green sheet that goes with your visa and permits entry and exit from Bolivia.
So basically, you get fucked over and taken advantage of as many times as they can. The police are as corrupt as they say, and it is a total shit show.
Here is what I recommend in order to prepare to cross the Bolivian border as an American:
Bring exact change in soles or dollars, or change money before crossing the border into Bolivia. The dollars and soles have to be in excellent condition. No pen marks, not too worn, and fairly new. And, perhaps most importantly, know what the exact rate would be in all three currencies.
Know your rights. Someone will very likely try to charge you some bullshit fine for something that they have no right nor justification to charge you. That may be for bringing a camera or a computer into the country. I’ve even heard of people being asked to pay the police because, “You have to pay us a service tax for searching your things.”
If you get pulled aside, don’t panic. Smile and let them search your things, but be firm. If they ask you to pay a fine, tell them that you read the entry and exit requirements and import and export regulations on the embassy’s page for theircountry. Tell them that you know that you don’t have to pay insert-whatever-the-hell-they-are-talking-about-here.
Smile. Smile. Smile. After getting through the nightmare of paperwork and a million different people making my already long day a nightmare, another cop came onto the bus and looked at everyone’s passport. When he got to me, he spent ten minutes looking at it and asking me, “Where are you from?” and looking at some ambiguous piece of paper in his hand that looked like chicken scratch. His cop-friend didn’t believe that I was from America. (This actually happened at Peruvian immigration as well. Yes, I took this terrible picture of myself when I was 17 and recently had this fake document made since being a traveling America is so easy.) He thought that I was South American. Jokingly I said, “And I would want to fake being an American so that I would have to pay $135? I don’t see the benefit, sir.” One of them laughed, handed me back my passport, and moved on. A sense of humor can go a long way in these situations.
Oh, and if you don’t speak Spanish? I don’t know, man. Pray and smile? Act really stupid? At the very least, know the damn exchange rates.