Border Crossing: Peru to Bolivia (and the joys of being American)

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Time to say "goodbye" to Peru!

Time to say “goodbye” to Peru!

Being that this was our third border crossing in the past two and a half months, we thought we knew the drill. We exited the bus and got in the front of the line at a currency exchange office to change 50 soles into bolivianos. We learned in Ecuador the hard way that you don’t want to be stuck in the “nowhereness” that is land near borders without the local currency.

After getting a small wad of bolivianos – which look strikingly similar to Monopoly money – we power-walked to the police checkpoint to have our immigration cards stamped, then went next door to the Peruvian migration office where we handed them our immigration cards and got our exit stamp. We were ahead of most of the others in the bus, and everything was looking good.

Now the thing about Bolivia is that historically, they don’t really like Americans – and for valid reasons. In order to understand the rest of my story, I’m going to give a little background information. Back in the 60’s and 70’s during America’s “War on Drugs”, the government funded the eradication of many coca plantations.

Many Bolivians earned their livings and supported their families by growing coca – a plant that when it’s processed is a staple ingredient in cocaine. Regardless of your stance on the drug, the United States did take away the source of livelihood of many people. Ironically, much of the demand for this cocaine came from America, but I’m not going to get into the politics of it.

So, as you may imagine, some Bolivians (not all or even the majority) dislike people from the United States. There is even a fee specifically for Americans to enter the country of Bolivia. At a hefty $135 per person (plus a $25 exit tax), it isn’t surprising that Ben and I were the only Americans on our gigantic double-decker bus.

The rest of the passengers formed a line and were able to get their passport stamped, without any charge of course, and head back to the bus.

Ben and I skipped the queue as the bus attendant had directed us. Some people waiting in the long line gave us dirty looks as if we were cutting, but we had to go to a separate counter and the process for us took much longer. For one thing, we had to fill out a visa “application”, and then we had to fork over $140 crisp US dollar bills (they don’t accept creased bills, credit cards or any currency other than US dollars). So why did we have to pay $140 when the fee is only $135? Well, the Peruvian ATM we drew the dollars from only had twenty dollar bills, and conveniently for them, the Bolivian immigration office does not keep change.

So after obtaining our visa – which really is just a small sticker – and a stamp on top of that, we thought we were in the clear. I asked the man whom we had paid if we were done, and he gave a simple nod of his head and returned to his cell phone. Just to be sure, we showed the bus attendant our passports and asked if we were done. He started shaking his head and yelling at us in Spanish. He grabbed my elbow and brought us to the front of the line where the rest of the people on the bus were waiting for stamps. He motioned for us to cut in front of everyone, still shaking his head, so we could get another stamp.

“Americans!” he said loudly to the rest of the line, rolling his eyes.

Sorry we didn’t know to cut in front of everyone to get our stamp.

And that was our welcome to Bolivia. From then on, we vowed we would tell everyone we were from Canada.

Spoiler Alert: That was really the only experience in Bolivia where we encountered prejudice toward Americans. Most other Bolivians were very friendly and didn’t seem to care that we were from the United States. Our plan to pose as Canadians didn’t come to fruition, after all.

Read about other border crossings here:

Colombia to Ecuador

Ecuador to Peru

And "hello" to beautiful Bolivia!

And “hello” to beautiful Bolivia!

Bottom Line:

-There is the option to get your visa in advance online, but we would recommend against it. There was an American woman ahead of us in line who had paid for her visa online, but since the man couldn’t look it up on his computer, he wouldn’t give her a stamp. She was on the bus ahead of us and needed to catch a flight that afternoon, so she forked over ANOTHER $130. 

-Remember that if possible, bring $135 and make sure the bills are crisp. They won’t accept worn bills and they will not give change. If you’re like us and can only withdraw $20 bills from the ATM, just know that you’ll be paying an additional $5 “tip”. 

-Don’t let our experience scare you or make you nervous. Chances are, you may have a much nicer bus attendant, or there will be other Americans in your bus so you won’t be the only one. Sometimes we have found that when we read other peoples’ negative experience we put up a guard and realize that it was unnecessary.

-If you do have a bad experience at the Bolivia-Peru border, take comfort in knowing you’re not the only one 🙂

Comments (8) on “Border Crossing: Peru to Bolivia (and the joys of being American)

  1. fairy840@outlook.com says:

    Thank you for the article!

    Happened to me several times to be in small cities where payment by card remains uncertain, as well as as easy access to ATM but even in big cities where buying a simple bottle of water at some airports requires to have cash.
    Just discovered a new mobile app for my next trip Fairswap. It allows to exchange cash currency in real-time by meeting with each other at a pre-agreed location.
    Widely, you can post your need in foreign currency and if there is someone nearby facing the reverse need, then he can contact you and you will meet him and make the swap.

    Could be a good way to change before travelling or get rid of some leftover after holidays.

    • bwzweber@gmail.com says:

      Thats not a bad idea. Thanks for the tip. Of course you would need to have a SIM card in the other country in order to have service at a border, but still a pretty good idea.

  2. amrine.obermueller@gmail.com says:

    Ohhhh Bolivia and Peru border crossing. It is one of the most exhausting, difficult, and yet most rewarding (because of the story you get at the end of it) that a traveler can set out upon.
    You never know whats going to happen or what difficulties you will experience. Thankfully, we speak Spanish (and my husband is from Bolivia) so we never have too much of a problem, but it has always been entertaining to watch what happens to the other gringos in line and help out when we can (of course). However, the key to crossing the border is patience, SNACKS, and an empty bladder. I can’t tell you how many times I was not prepared for crossing the border and all the waiting that would happen and suffered because of it.

    Great article! Happy Traveling! We love the Bolivia posts that you have!!


    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Hi Amrine, So interesting to hear that you’ve seen others have similar experiences! This was our third border crossing in South America, but prior to that we hadn’t crossed many border by land (other than Europe, which doesn’t really count since they often don’t even stamp or look at your passport!). Since this crossing, we’ve done it in many other countries, and the border between Peru and Bolivia still remains the most hectic journey we’ve made!

      Your tips are on point! Definitely what we’d recommend to anyone else making the journey. And not to be too put off, because Bolivia is SO worth it!

  3. damir.delaney@outlook.com says:

    Ah…the border to Bolivia..it truly is an amazing..no skip that…aweful place. I once wanted to hire a guide to cross the border from Puno. Said it was impossible. Then I was like: guys..this is like 40 kilometers. And he said..okay we can contact a Bolivian travel agency. Next day they quoted 400 US-Dollar per person for the trip. Needless to say I declined. Then I asked a local taxi and they too declined – or rather told me they could get me to the border and wait all day for me to come back. But i would have to find a taxi from the border.
    Thx for sharing your story. never knew Americans were charged extra anywhere outside jewellery shops and restaurants lol

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Hey Damir, I’m sorry to hear you didn’t have a great experience on the border either! Border crossings are never fun, but this was one of the worst in our experience (and we’ve done 15+ land crossings, so that’s saying a lot!). No matter where in the world you are, it’s always good to be wary of scams near borders (like you were). Often times people are most vulnerable when crossing into a new country and sometimes locals take advantage of that. Good thing you didn’t accept that first offer! Wow!

      And on the note about Americans having to pay more, it was for a visa fee. I don’t believe any of the Europeans or Canadians on the bus had to purchase a visa, but as Americans we did ($135 USD, and no change given!). But we learned that Bolivians have a very hefty visa fee to enter America as well, so usually this is reciprocal.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and thanks for sharing your story! I hope your next land crossing is a better experience 🙂

  4. janescho@gmail.com says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s very eye-opening. I’m planning a trip to Bolivia in July and am also an American citizen. Did you obtain a tourist visa to Bolivia prior to your trip also? I’ve been looking online and it sounds like I need to apply for a visa through the Bolivian consulate prior to leaving the states. I don’t live anywhere near a consulate and if I’m able to get a tourist visa at the border, it may be easier….

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Hi there, I’m glad our story helps give a little idea of what to expect 🙂 And great question! We got our visas on arrival (so we didn’t apply for them in advance). There are a couple pros and cons to both ways.

      First question: Are you going to be making a land border crossing? (ex. from Peru into Bolivia) This process will most likely look different if you are flying directly into Bolivia and are getting stamped at immigration at the airport.

      Our experience/advice is regarding land crossings.

      In theory, it should be easier/quicker at the border to have the paperwork already done prior to arriving in Bolivia. We did not do this because we weren’t exactly sure when we’d be entering the country.

      At the border, we had to fill out some forms, make a payment, then wait in another line to get stamped. We were the only Americans on the border crossing bus, so we were the only ones required to do this, and we were worried we would hold everyone up. But it turned out to be fine.

      Here’s the part that made us glad we were doing a visa on arrival: There was an American woman ahead of us in line (who had arrived to the border on another bus) and she had applied for the visa ahead of time (and had already paid the fee). The border crossing official "could not find any record of her paperwork", so she had to pay for an entirely new visa because otherwise her bus driver said he would leave without her. I’m not too sure how common this is, but I don’t know if I’d want to risk it. Plus, it sounds like it might be easier in your situation to just get your visa on arrival. (I would look into the up-to-date requirements just to be sure, as our experience was 2 years ago).

      Also, be sure to bring the EXACT amount of money required. And be sure the bills are CRISP! They refused to give us change, so we lost a bit of money that way 🙁

      Other than the border crossing fiasco, we really enjoyed Bolivia. So don’t let this scare you away! Good luck and have a great journey!

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