A Warm Welcome in Bolivia

30 08 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.01.08-6.05.08

Laura: We only stopped in run down town Puno, Peru because we couldn’t make it from Cuzco to Copocabana, Bolivia in one day. Then I got sick, so we waited another two days. While we were in Puno we heard about the Uros Islands also known as the “floating islands.” I originally thought they were floating the same way that that Ship Island is floating from Mississippi to Alabama. But these islands are made entirely of reeds and are literally floating in the water. They are anchored with ropes attached to stakes in the bottom of the lake. Because the reeds rot, the villagers who live on the islands must constantly add reeds to the top layer to keep the islands afloat. Your foot sinks a few inches into the dry yellow reeds with each step you take. As we crunched across the islands, a fine dust covered our feet.  All of the houses on the islands are made of these same reeds which grow in the lake. We visited three of the islands, which is plenty of time to see them, as some of them are only thrity meters wide. And, of course, the boat driver allowed plenty of time for the Uros villagers to display their handicrafts, which are similar to those on the mainland (and most of them are actually made in Bolivia). However, the villagers make amazingly intricate two story row boats out of these same reeds and use them to travel between the mainland and the islands.

While we both enjoyed our afternoon at the floating islands, we were ready to get out of Puno and head to Bolivia, the next stop on our itinerary. Bolivia is the only country we are visiting in South America where we would need a visa. We stayed an extra day (after my sick days and our island visit) just to get our paperwork together: a Visa Application form from the Bolivian consulate, a passport photo, a xerox copy of your passport, a xerox copy of your yellow fever vaccination, and “proof of sufficient funds.” When I asked what “proof of sufficient funds” meant, the guy at the consulate explained that they needed a xerox copy of my credit card. I thought I had mistranslated the Spanish, but no. He wanted a COPY of my credit card?!?! I said absolutely not. I didn’t know the word for identity theft in Spanish, so I explained it is very dangerous to give someone a copy of your credit card. He proceeded to pull out a binder with a few hundred visa applications. All of the applicants had provided a xerox copy of their credit card. I’m guessing that these are the people who also send money in response to emails from African “kings” who need their help to get a relatives out of jail. We wanted to avoid any hassle at the border, so we put black tape over the numbers of our cards, and xeroxed them.

The next day we arrived at the bus station to leave for Bolivia. The ATM at the station was broken, so Chris couldn’t get money out to pay for his visa.  The ticket guy assured us that the border officials accept Visa credit cards. He emphasized that it had to be a Visa credit card.  When our bus left, I barely noticed that we left thirty minutes late. The ticket collector asked us if we had our paperwork for our Bolivian visa and I showed him the stack of papers. A group of Americans sitting behind us had no idea that they needed a visa to get into Bolivia and started scrambling to get together the correct documents to try to xerox at the border.

A few hours later we pulled up to the Peruvian border and got stamped out. We walked through a few hundred meters of no-man’s-land full of money changers, beggars, and annoying children. We got to the Bolivian side and handed them our paperwork. Apparently, we were missing an extra photocopy of the Visa Application. They had only given us one to fill out, but they insisted that we needed two copies. We had no Bolivian currency, so we had to walk back across the border (and slightly illegally re-enter Peru) to use our last Peruvian dollar to make a photocopy. We then walked back to the Bolivian side. Before we went entered the immigration office Chris warned, “Be nice, or it will make things harder.” I have a way of being curt with inept people and the office seemed less than organized.

They seemed satisfied when we handed in our paperwork.  Then we tried to pay for our Visa.  Chris handed the immigration official his Visa card, the guy returned a few minutes later to inform us that they don’t accept credit cards. The guy who collected our bus tickets was in the immigration office trying to hurry us along. He snuck out of the room when he heard this, since he was the one who told us they took credit cards and that it wouldn’t be a problem. There are no ATMS at the border. Chris counted the dollars he had on him, and found that he was only $12 short, so he went back to the bus to try to borrow money from the other American travelers.  He got to the bus as the bus driver was about to pull away and leave us. He was actually in the process of leaving us at the border and driving off with all our bags and told Chris that Copacobana was only “10 minutes away” and we should be able to get there on our own.   Turns out a few of the passengers were trying to make a connecting bus to La Paz. Chris reminded the driver that we left thrity minutes late in the first place (along with some other choice words). The Americans had used all their money for their visas, but were able to scrape together $12 between the three of them. They assured Chris that they wouldn’t let the driver leave us. We both got our visas and got back on the bus as the driver glared at us. When we arrived at our destination, I had to remind Chris to “be nice” and not punch the bus driver in the face.

Click here for pics of Lake Titicaca at our Flickr site***

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