Sunday, November 11, 2012

Getting to Bolivia one way or another

Since the Bolivian consulate in Arequipa was non-existent (and may always have been?) one of our primary errands in Puno was to secure our Bolivian visa. With that in hand, we would check out of Peru (by post dating our stamp at migración in Puno) and get the bike paperwork turned in as necessary to travel around the 'other' side of Lago Titicaca. There are a few small towns around that way, but not much public transport that goes that way - sounded perfect! Since it's seldom traveled by international travelers, there are no border service on the Peru side, and minimal border services on the Bolivian side (migración is there but apparently tough to find, and not always open, and we saw mixed comments on aduana, some saying it's there, others saying you have to take care of temporary import in La Paz). None of this mattered after our visit to the Bolivian consulate.

We had stayed in touch with Mark, who arrived in Puno just a couple of days before us. So we met up with him for a quick coffee before heading to the consulate. The man running the office was really nice and offered good information, but no visas - they had run out of the stickers needed for the American passports. Shoot! He promised that they had been sent, and sent DHL, but could only suppose that they would arrive on Wednesday or Thursday of that week. Since it was Monday, that would be 2-3 days of hanging out in Puno hoping that the Wednesday or Thursday delivery actually worked out. He mentioned that we could also take the route we had planned and try to get our visas in La Paz, quoting some part of the code that made that an acceptable approach. I asked him if he would provide a letter stating that we had attempted to get our visas and that the consulate couldn't provide them yada yada. He couldn't get that done until Tuesday (the next day). So part of the reason to go the 'other' route around Lago Titicaca, to avoid the hassle of border towns, was completely thrown out the window. This process could turn out to be a major nightmare. The decision was made - go to La Paz through a major crossing. Today. So Mark went to collect his gear, we did the same, changed some money and got some snacks.

on Arequipa street in Puno.  Getting ready to head to Bolivia with Mark (Radioman)
(grouping back up with Mark in front of Hotel Arequipa)

The ride around this part of the lake was not all that pretty. I kept looking across the lake to the low lying hills, with snow covered peaks in the background, wishing we were over on that less developed side of the lake. It was one of the few times on the trip where I wished we were on a different route. (But it ended up working out fine in the end.)

fields on the shores of Lake Titicaca
(fields on the shores of Lake Titicaca)

We still hadn't decided which main crossing to take - Copacabana or Desaguadero. And no one really cared that much. Giving heads to Copacabana (since 'cabeza' is close), the coin flip said Desaguadero.

at Desaguadero, border with Bolivia
(pulling into Desaguadero on the Peruvian side)

in Desaguadero
(turns out Desaguadero is a pretty chill, easy crossing. The line at Peruvian migración moved quick and the customs officers gave us back our document receipt in a matter of minutes. One small municipality fee of S/5 per vehicle and to Bolivia we went)

Mike and Jill crossing into Bolivia

After the bridge, we parked on the immediate right, but all of the offices are on the other side of the building (for outgoing traffic). So a better place to keep your eye on your bike would be the other side of the road, but with 3 of us it's less of a concern. First stop - visa.

paperwork in hand to get our visa
(paperwork in hand, including application form, passport, passport photo (they don't really care what size, and in fact, we've heard rumors that if you don't have one they have a gringo picture stash that they can try to match you to), proof of yellow fever vaccination (didn't ask for it) and some passport copies. We still had to make another copy once the visa was in the passport and then come back to finish the process, but it was easy enough. Oh yeah, you also have to have US$135 in clean (as in not dirty physically, you're on your own as to where you procure your money) un-torn bills. They will refuse bills, and wanted to refuse an old style $20 bill that the ATM had given us, but telling them that they still circulate got it through)

Customs was easy. And the office is actually on the first corner of the building that you get to entering Bolivia, so I lied earlier. The guy was helpful and had both of our bikes in the system within 15 min. While watching the bikes, Jill had talked to a number of national policemen and they had been extremely nice. One of them told us we had to register in their records as well. Mark came back from their office and told me to take my passport and DL over there. After writing my info on one line, he told me I had to pay for the service. I told him that I had talked to the ministry of tourism and that the only 2 steps we had to take to enter were with migración and aduana, and that we shouldn't pay anyone else. He then said that registration, and paying, was voluntary. I told him that I volunteered not to and walked out. With a group of 5 or 6 national policemen still around us, we jumped on the bikes pretty quickly and rode about a block and a half to change some money.

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(a few of the policemen)

Luckily the shakedown was easy to get out of, and the other cops didn't harass us any more. This was the first time that we've been in a situation like that - all of our stops by police and military have not included any mention, not even a hint, of payment (...except for that one time in Costa Rica, but we were actually doing something illegal then...). Even so, we got out of it without paying and had no more trouble. We keep talking to travelers who seem to be eager to pay off cops, and some of those stories are frustrating, creating an expectation for all of those cops. I know there are sketchier instances than others, but keep your money in your pocket if you can!

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