Breaking into Bolivia

Three days. Three long, exhausting, dusty days.

That’s how long it took our gang of five backpackers to cross the border from Peru to Bolivia. For most travelers, the border jump from Puno around Lake Titicaca and onwards to La Paz is a simple six-hour bus ride. But for us, it was a three day adventure which took us down winding gravel roads, through the back woods of Peru and on a boat across the lake.

Three journeys to get from Peru to Bolivia during farmer strikes that blocked the border

Day One:

Our bags were packed and we were ready to go, albeit groggy, at 6:45 am. The day before, our trusty Puno fixer told us we wouldn’t be able to take our planned mode of travel (a bus across the Bolivian border to Copacabana and then up to La Paz). Instead he had planned for us to jump a boat to the border and then a private car would take us to Bolivia’s second largest city.

We patiently sat and waited and waited and waited. Finally just after nine, our two solemn-looking fixers arrived at our hotel to inform us that their plan B was not going to work. But, alas they had a new plan. We would board a mini-bus the next morning, take the back roads around the northern side of Lake Titicaca, jump the Bolivian border, catch another mini-bus and be in La Paz within nine hours. Our spirits were high and we were ready to take the road less traveled.

Day two:

Our two smiling face fixers were waiting for us in the lobby of the hotel just before nine in the morning. We happily marched to immigration to have our passports stamped. According to the authorities, we left Peru on May 16th. But after boarding our “personal bus,” driving four hours over bumpy, twisting roads to the Bolivian border, we found ourselves at a border crossing with no border patrol. We lollygagged for a bit, soaking in the amazing Titicaca views. But soon it became evident that we would have to soldier on to the next town where hopefully we would stumble upon somebody who could take us to La Paz.

A Peruvian festival we encountered on the road

The shaman at the festival offered us beers and told us to join the fun

High security at the Peru-Bolivia border

Leah straddling the Peru-Bolivia border on the northern side of Lake Titicaca

As we drove along the road, between small plots of land being farmed by local Bolivian women in brown bowling hats and baggy skirts, the gravel turned from bumpy small pebbles to massive rocks. The tension in bus was palpable. The driver was shaking his head, the fixers were whispering in hurried Spanish and we realized that this little adventure seemed to be becoming a fruitless endeavor.

And then we saw it – a landslide, right in the middle of the road. The bus stopped, our fixers climbed down and within moments the decision was made. We were heading back to Puno. Our second attempt to jump the Bolivian border was a failure.

The rocky route our poor bus had to meander through. Just ahead is a landslide that blocks us.

As we doubled over our tracks, we passed a troop of marching Bolivian soldiers. Before we knew it, the bus had stopped and the boys were climbing aboard. We broke out in giggles as the commander pulled out a camera and started snapping pictures of the motley crew of travelers and his fellow soldiers.

Our new buddies from the Bolivian army

Just after nine, we rolled back into Puno to be deposited at a new hotel where we would crash for a few hours before we tried attempt #3 – an eight hour boat ride across the lake before another three hour bus ride to La Paz.

Day Three:

By the third day, we made our best attempt to appear hopeful but our spirits were considerably lower than they had been for the previous two attempts. For the third time in a row, we had packed our bags and we were waiting in the lobby for our faithful fixers. They loaded five sleepy travelers into taxis and raced through the Puno streets to the port. About 20 other Bolivian bound travelers joined us on our final crusade to reach La Paz. We bobbed through the lake over the next ten hours at a painfully slow rate. As the clock struck four we began to panic – “what if we don’t make it to immigration before it closes? We’ll be in border control limbo?”

Sunrise as we leave the Puno port by boat for (hopefully) our final attempt to reach Bolivia

Finally, the boat stopped. We were about 25 meters off the shoreline and it seemed the captain was NOT planning on getting any closer. Confused, exhausted and slightly disoriented, the murmur among the passengers was becoming more and more stressed. Suddenly, as if summoned by the traveling Gods, five different row boats were spotted off the shoreline approaching our boat.

The fishing rowboats that would take us to shore

“It’s just like the Titanic,” someone muttered. As they bumped into the sides of the mother ship, we heaved our heavy bags over the side and climbed down into the rickety old row boats. Moments later we were approaching the shore, taking off our shoes and trudging through the shallow Titicaca water, holding our bags over our heads.

Lexi fell into some really stinky manure. The local kids had come to see what what was up with this refugee boat full of gringos and helped Lexi clean off her feet by rubbing them with grass.

Our graceful entrance into Bolivia through recently manured farmland

We had made it! We were finally at the border and silently marched single file into the immigration office where we smiled graciously as the immigration officer furrowed his brow at our Peruvian exit stamp. In broken Spanish we tried our best to explain why our passport said we left Peru the day before. He seemed unimpressed and thoroughly confused. After taking a moment to contemplate his options, he shrugged and suggested he just change the entry date for Bolivia to match the exit date from Peru.

“How perfect,” we agreed, thankful that we weren’t handcuffed and hauled out of Bolivia back to Peru.

Relieved to finally be stamped into Bolivia

The sweet feeling of relief was almost contagious as we boarded the bus to La Paz – the final leg of our third day journey.

Our crazy journey was endless. Here our bus was ferried over a section of Lake Titicaca to get to La Paz.