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:
-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 :)