Bolivia: Let Us In! Please?
So, Americans trying to enter Bolivia can have a tough time.
This is nothing new and not particularly surprising: The United States is not known to be exactly welcoming to other citizens crossing our borders so receiving reciprocal lousy treatment is almost expected.
Bolivia charges every US citizen $160 USD to enter the country, precisely the same amount that the US charges Bolivian citizens for a visa (aka a reciprocity fee). Fair enough. What is surprising is that they want their money in US dollars, not Bolivianos. And those dollars must be in impeccably perfect condition. If you’re planning on going to Bolivia, friends, make sure you have brand new currency.
And if you’re Canadian, Australian, or from Western Europe? You lucky ducks don’t have to pay or obtain a thing. It’s just the Americans, Iraqis, North Koreans, and a few other countries that need to jump through the visa hoops.
Here’s the deal: smart travelers will apply for their visa at a consulate before they cross the border. For overlanders in Peru, there are embassies in both Arequipa and Puno that can issue the necessary paperwork. Unfortunately we were visiting neither of those cities so after a bit of research concluded that we could fill out the forms online, submit everything electronically and then we just assumed that the border agent would review all our paperwork that was now in their database (see that it was all in proper order) and give us the green light into the country. Just in case, we printed out a few hard copies.
Yeah, no. That’s not how it works. As far as we can tell, the online submital does absolutely nothing. We’ll give you the play-by-play.
We arrived at the Peruvian town of Desaguardero after our rough night in the Andean mountains. The border is located at the the south end of Lake Titicaca and consists of a bridge over the river that empties the lake.
We made three attempts to get to the border through the densely packed buildings on the Peruvian side. It was market day and the streets were filled with vendor stalls, motorbikes, and masses of people. Two of the access roads were under construction and subsequently closed; we tried another route but were turned around by a policeman that told us that we didn’t have a prayer of getting through. In the end, he had us cross at the commercial truck border 3 kms south of the town, park in Bolivia, and then walk back into Peru to officially exit the country.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we would get very used to crossing that bridge. And that policeman? He was right. There was no way we could have driven through the market. We successfully checked out of Peru and turned in our Temporary Import Permit for the vehicle. Now to officially get into Bolivia.
Once we arrived at the Bolivian aduana, we quickly learned that the border guards were not enthusiastic about issuing visas. Why didn’t we go to Puno? What about Arequipa? They pored over our paper copies. They did not reference any sort of internal database; (which would have been hard anyway, given the lack of a computer in the office). For reference, we’d had to provide the following for each family member:
-Copies of passport
-Complete trip itinerary
-Bank account statements
-Proof of hotel reservation in Bolivia
-Proof of hotel reservation upon exiting Bolivia (Chile)
-Proof of yellow fever vacination
It would be the passport photos that would come back to bite us. And the USD (more on that later). Although we’d submitted electronic photos along with our application, we didn’t have copies of the pictures on photo paper. The guard gravely shook his head. You need the proper photos.
Ok, no problem. Where can we get those?
Not here in Bolivia.
Not in the entire town (or country)?
No. Try Peru.
Which, was fine, except we’d just formally exited Peru and changed all our money from Peruvian Sols into Bolivianos.
We walked back over the bridge, changed money, and after 30 minutes of wandering, finally located a photo shop. Ah, the woman said as she spied our passports, you are Americans needing proper photos for your Bolivia application. Clearly she’d done this a time or two.
Photos in hand, we trudged back into Bolivia, waited in line again, and triumphantly presented our photos to the agent. He frowned at the grainy photos but stamped us through and directed us to the cashier booth.
Problem #2: Money. We needed $640 USD to pay for our four visas; we’d stashed a stack of 20 dollar bills in the camper as our emergency fund. I’d gone through each bill beforehand, picking the very nicest of the bunch as we’d read that Bolivia was picky about accepting used bills. If you’re going to Bolivia, go to your bank in the US and get brand new bills. Trust me on this one, friends. The dirty, dog-eared bills that you saved from Ecuador and Panama aren’t going to work.
The cashier went through $2,500 dollars worth of US currency, inspecting each bill for the smallest rip, tear, mark, or imperfection. He probably touched each bill 20 times, holding it up to the light, and caressing the edges. We had stacks of money spread out over the counter awaiting his scrutiny. It was a mess. We offered a credit card, we offered to get Bolivianos out of the ATM, we offered to get Peruvian Sols from across the bridge. No dice. Frankly, we didn’t think he was going to let us into the country.
By some minor miracle he accepted our last bill and printed out our receipt. We were now the proud owners of a ten-year visa that was occupying an entire page of precious space in our passports. We were elated and exhausted, the kids asleep on my lap as we waited at the cashier’s desk. All in all, it took us 7 hours to clear Peru and get into Bolivia. The grouchy border guards were thankful to see us leave.
As we were leaving town and heading for La Paz, we were stopped by the police. Several additional officers were called over to examine our paperwork. Oh god, what now?
Welcome to Bolivia! the inspector said, just make sure you keep your visa and your TIP handy for police checkpoints.
Don’t worry sir, there is no way we’d let these things out of our sight – it took too much blood, sweat, and tears to get a hold of ’em in the first place.
Bolivia at last! We had no idea what a wild adventure it would be.