Breaking into Bolivia

Copacabana Travel Blog

 › entry 53 of 74 › view all entries
In the morning I woke early to catch my 7 am bus to Bolivia, and upon arrival the cab driver told me he couldn´t break my 20 sole note for the 3 sole ride.  Now, after all this time down here I'm well used to the mystery of why large bills even exist as no one can break them, but the way he shrugged his shoulders indifferently and expected me to solve the problem really struck a nerve.  I very rarely get upset at waitresses, cab drivers and the like even if the service is terrible, but this time I told him in no uncertain terms, in somewhat flawed Spanish, that if I hadn´t been shortchanged by one of his coworkers the day before I would have had the change, and it was not my problem to run around looking for it now.  He got the point and took my bill, cashing it with another cabbie close by and returning with my change.

    The bus was a fairly long one of 10 hours, and there were the 5 Irish I had met the day previously on it as well, so I was glad to have some other gringos with me for the border glad I would be was soon apparent, for the border crossing turned into a nightmare!  The first issue happened about 3 hours into the ride when the bus driver came around to check that everybody had their papers in order.  "Tiene su visa?" he asked me, to which I replied no, as I had read online the visa application could be attained at the border.  "Pero hoy es Domingo" he told me, Today is Sunday, and I was supposed to have it sorted in Puno already.

  Crap!  He also informed me that the visa was 135 USD and not 100, meaning I wasn´t carrying enough cash to pay my way through.  I was slightly panicky at this point, so he reassured me he´d try to help me and that it was still possible to cross over today. I still had some travellers cheques tucked away for just such an emergency and thought maybe I could pay with one of those.  Before the border however the bus stopped at a cash changing office so I traded one in there for dollars, a lengthy process that resulted in me being pushed to the end of the line repeatedly and my bus almost leaving without me.  I also changed what few soles I had into Bolivianos, something I debated greatly on, for I figured if I got refused I´d need soles to get a bus back to Puno.
  I told the Irish about my predicament whilst in line and decided to hope for the best, so I went for the Bolivianos in the end. 

    A few minutes later we were at the border, and we all filed off the get our exit stamp from Peru.  The bus driver sought me out and walked me across the "no mans land" between the borders to the Bolivian entry port.  He explained to the official I was American and didn´t have the form yet.  This turned out to not be an issue as he had one for me, and I reluctantly paid the 135 usd (I had thought initially he was trying to rip me off, but frantic texts back and forth to Darren proved that the Great World Web confirmed it had been raised).

  What I didn´t have however were copies of my passport and vaccination, as I thought I only had to present the originals.  The officer explained I could copy them on the Peruvian side, so it was another jaunt across no mans land to get copies of both made, and then back over, which took about 10 minutes.  At this time loads of tour buses were pouring in and the lines were quite long, so the bus driver informed me they couldn´t wait for me and I´d have to catch up with them in the next town of Copacabana.  I, and the Irish, tried to convince him to wait but he refused and told me to catch a colectivo over and find them.
  But where? I asked, to which he replied the central station, as there was only 1. I hated this idea but the bus, with my luggage, pulled away anyways and I was still there, not yet granted permission into the country. 

    Luckily all went well and I got my stamp in, so I hopped into a collectivo made for 10 people but carrying 15 to try to catch my bus.  I knew they were stopping for 1 hour for lunch but I was still anxious to get there as fast as possible, and cursed the 10 different stops on the way to unload locals and their gigantic hauls of produce.  Finally, we reached the town, and along the way I spotted the Irish crowd walking.  "Pare!" I cried, "Stop!" and I paid my fee and jumped out of the van, and ran to catch up with the group.  Once there they reassured me all our luggage were safely waiting for us, and for the next hour we wandered around the tiny lakeside town, laughing about my adventure.

  I was so relieved to have people who noticed I was missing and watching out for me, and James, the one guy in the group told me ow he argued with the bus driver to wait 10 mins but he insisted our schedule was way to tight.  As usual, the bus leaving was half an hour late so obviously it wasn´t that tight after all.  It also left from some random street and NOT the main terminal, so thank god I saw the group walking or I never would have relocated the bus!  The driver who I thought at 1st so nice turned into an ass, refusing to let us on the bus to use the bathroom and telling us to use the next bus´s instead, why I don´t know.  We had to take a van to the next bus on the other side of town, and once there discovered it didn´t even have a bathroom!  We piled in however and soon were off again.
  A short while later the driver announced we were all departing to get on a ferry across the lake, so we had to shuffle off and grab a tiny boat across the choppy water, while our empty bus took a separate purpose built ferry.  On the other side we had a few minutes to kill waiting for the bus and finally found our long lost bathroom, to the relief of everyone in the group.

    Eventually we were back on the bus and on the road again, and without further incident arrived in La Paz for around 5ish.  The Irish and I had all booked into the Loki so shared cabs down there, where I changed my reservation and moved into their room.  We soon left the hostel to explore the city, which was huge, busy, smelly and dirty, and had similarly red coloured brick for all the buildings.  We wandered through the streets completely overtaken by little market stalls, selling mostly shampoo, watches and bootleg DVDs, but were also varied with pretty much any other miscellaneous crap you could possibly want.  There was even one stall of only diapers!

    We eventually went for a meal in a lovely place, after much ado about locating an ATM (we had found 3 earlier, all broken).  After such a day I treated myself to a large steak with some wine, and we had a great dinner conversation, mostly about the different Irish accents, as the group was mixed between many counties, plus my own half breed Cork accept that creeps in now and again.  I really liked this group a lot, and I must say out of all the travellers I´ve joined up with along the way I "fit" the best with these guys, and we continued afterwards with a few drinks at the hostel bar.

    A "few" turned into many, and towards the end we were all pretty much drunk and rowdy.  The Loki Hostel chain is ran by an Irish crowd as well, and right before closing all the well known overplayed Irish tunes came blasting through the large bar, firing everyone up.  They even played the Christmas tune, Fairytale of New York, definitely too early in the year, but it made me once again homesick for Ireland and my life there, as has happened so often on this trip.

    Once the bar was closing some of the group went off the bed, myself included, while some stayed for one last cigarette.  I was changed and in bed when the rest came bursting in, insisting we all get up and go out clubbing.  This evoked a pretty negative response from James, but I figured what the hell, got up and changed again, and the 4 of us headed out.

    We tried to go to the local dance club but it was too late, so we had to take our cab drivers advice and go to the place he recommended.  The place turned out to be Route 36, infamous in its own right for its lax attitude on some types of drugs, which I had heard about from many many travellers along the way.  I was curious to check it out so didn´t mind at all that we ended up there accidentally, one of the girls however freaked out and decided it was way to seedy for her.  In the end we reassured her and she stayed, and we hung out there until around 6 am before finally heading home for bed.

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photo by: aliciaaa