South America borders are not the cheapest places for Americans due to Visas and reciprocity fees and without prior planning they are also not the easiest to cross. We’ve already been hit with $160 for a Brazilian Visa, $160 reciprocity fee for Argentina, and more recently $135 for a Bolivian Visa. We were lucky in Chile because you only pay the $160 reciprocity fee if you arrive by plane on an international flight, conveniently avoided as we entered overland from Argentina.

After our debacle heading into Argentina from Brazil you would think we would know better, but oh no, lets leave things to the last minute as it makes it far more exciting! It was Friday night in a crappy hostel in Corumba when Andrea asked if I knew all the requirements to ensure we could get into Bolivia the following morning – haha, I checked on the internet and read conflicting reports where some people had made the crossing with only a passport, photos, and application form, and some needed an itinerary, hotel reservations, onward travel and credit card copies. Of course we needed everything!

We had already been approached by a three-toothed, 80 year old Greek a week earlier whilst looking for a hotel in Corumba. On that occasion we quickly snubbed him and found our own accommodation, something we should have done on our next encounter too. After getting off the bus we made the mistake of walking down the same street with a couple of Aussie friends looking for City Hotel, the hotel where we had stayed previously. The guy collared us at the exact same location only this time the four of us followed him to the hostel of his choice. It was actually no worse than where we were heading and for less money! He said that he would see us at the hostel at 8am the following morning as he could assist with the border crossing, jump queues, and translate for us. There had to be a catch so we left at 7.30 for the frontera bus only to have the wiry old boy join us on the bus at the last minute, and not before ‘borrowing’ a couple of Reais from Dusty for his breakfast!

Crossing from Brazil into Bolivia

Crossing from Brazil into Bolivia

The lines at Brazilian immigration were small but El Greek still shuffled us through the exit door straight to the counter for our exit stamps bypassing all the Bolivians and Brazilians patiently waiting in line. At this point he was starting to earn his keep. We then had a very short walk to the Bolivian immigration where the line was much longer. He insisted that one person wait in line whilst someone went with him to the bus station, some 4 km away, to get tickets to Santa Cruz. His reasoning was that all the people standing in line were going to be getting buses to Santa Cruz and that we would not get to leave today if we left it until we all had our entry stamps. At this point I dropped it on him that Andrea and I were not getting bus tickets until we knew that Andrea could get her Visa due to being the only one potentially slowing us all down. We showed a military policeman her passport and he handed us a shopping list of required documents causing us some alarm and concern that we would not be crossing any time soon. The list included…

1. Passport copies x2
2. Photographs x2
3. Credit card copies x2
4. Itinerary x2
5. Hotel reservations x2
6. Onward travel x2
7. Yellow Fever certificate x2
8. Payment x$135

Getting copies of Andrea’s passport, credit card, and yellow fever certificate was the easy part. We took El Greeks advice that we go with him to the bus station, passing a local hotel that also had a place in Santa Cruz, who apparently would be able to give us a copy of a reservation. Not sure this would work but they booked the room over the phone, then on the back of a business card wrote down the cost per night, our arrival date and the hotel name – there was no way this would fly! At the bus station we purchased tickets for the 6pm overnight bus to Santa Cruz, not noticing who the bus company was, or the class of ticket, actually only really seeing that we were paying $20 each which was well overpriced. As we walked away we watched the guy on the ticket desk handing over at least 120 Bolivianos to El Greek, and not really thinking anymore of it. We raced back to immigration, jumped out of the cab and were astounded when the cab fare was another $14, again astronomical considering we should be able to travel across the whole of Bolivia for that price.

Now we had to get the rest of Andrea’s documentation. I persuaded a woman in a tourist office to allow us use of her computer and printer to write up our itinerary – never had to do this before but attempt number one went something like this…

Andrea Morris Itinerario
Junio 22 – Autobus a Santa Cruz
Junio 23 – Una semana a Hotel Biboli
Junio 30 – Autobus a La Paz
Julio 3 – Autobus a Cusco, Peru

This looked pathetic and I never expected it to work! We headed back to immigration, seeing that our friends were now close to the front and El Greek nowhere to be found. Apparently he had made his salary from fleecing us on the bus tickets and headed back to Brazil to offer his services to travelers going the other direction. We handed over what we had to the military policeman, who in turn handed the info to the man behind the bars at immigration. We could see he didn’t like our itinerary and explained that it needed additional information and formatting. We hoped that everything else was satisfactory. Again we persuaded the woman at the tourist office to use her computer and hashed out another itinerary, only this time looking like something generated by Expedia…

Nombre: Andrea Morris
Pasaporte: 1234567890
Fecha: Junio 22
Lugar: Puerto Quijarro
Autobus a Santa Cruz
Fecha: Junio 23
Hotel Biboli: Siete noches
Fecha Junio 30
Autobus a La Paz
Hostel Wild Rover Backpackers: Dos noches
Fecha: Julio 2
Autobus a Cusco, Peru

Off we went again for the 100 yards to our friendly policeman. This time he handed over our documents and unbelievably we received a nod of approval. Our friends had just reached the front of the line and after completing an entry form we were pretty much through. The last item was payment in crisp Dollar bills. We had a hundred Dollar bill and a fifty but due to the hundred Dollar bill serial number beginning with KB they wouldn’t accept it, apparently the banks don’t like those. After fishing out another with a different serial number, Andrea had a pretty new sticker in her passport and we were all good to go, woohoo! We had made it before the Bolivian immigration staff disappeared for a 3 hour lunch and in plenty of time for our 6pm bus!

Having fun at the Bolivian border

Having fun at the Bolivian border

After an afternoon spent wandering aimlessly through the streets of Puerto Quijarro, drinking beer, and watching Brazil play Italy in the Confederations Cup we jumped in a cab to the bus station, this time paying around $3 – we think our wiry friend took a cut of the previous taxi fare too! At the bus station we noticed some classy double decker buses, and also a few in a definite state of disrepair. Well, guess what, one of those was ours. We couldn’t believe that we were getting on the worst bus in the station, really just a glorified Guatemalan chicken bus with cama seating, when there were luxury buses for considerably less all around us. Fortunately 9 hours later, at 3am we were pulling into Santa Cruz, alive and well.

Coach trip to Santa Cruz from the Brazilian border

Coach trip to Santa Cruz from the Brazilian border

Lessons learned, never trust a three-toothed, 80 year old Greek!

June 22nd 2013

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