From southern Peru you can hop on an overnight bus, cross the Bolivian border, get your stamp at immigration, and be on your way. This is the experience travelers from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and most other developed countries will have. Unfortunately, if your passport is blue and says United States on it, things will not be so easy. U.S. - Bolivian relations have been stressed for decades. Outspoken Bolivian disapproval of U.S. policies, questionable U.S. intervention on Bolivian soil in the name of the “war on drugs” and general governance disagreements have not fostered an atmosphere of trust between the two. It’s quite hard for a Bolivian visitor to receive a tourist visa for the U.S. and thus, in reciprocity, Bolivia treats visitors from the states in the same manner.
As a U.S. Citizen a formal visa is required to visit Bolivia and even the most thorough preparation and research doesn’t guarantee a smooth border crossing. There are varying accounts on what is needed to acquire a visa, and I found the collective combination was still not sufficient. After all my research I had prepared the following packet of pristine and protected documents which I had carried around with me throughout Peru:
- $160 in CRISP USD. They do all but break out a magnifying glass to make sure there isn’t the slightest tare, blemish, or other mark on the bills. They must be pristine
- Two photocopies of your passport
- Actual Passport
- Two passport photos
- Printed itinerary of your time in Bolivia (I made this up but its needs to have Spanish translation)
- Printed proof of onward travel (I booked the cheapest bus ticket into Chile and canceled it once in Bolivia)
- Printed reservation of at least your first night accommodation
- Proof of financial solvency (bank statement)
- Bolivian visa application form
- Yellow Fever vaccination certificate
And yet still, the above was not enough. The first line of document inspectors did not like my passport copies. I made them in the U.S. so the paper was a different size compared to my Bolivian documents, I needed new ones. This process is no secret to locals and there are plenty of stalls eager to become your copy supplier. It’s important to have small denominations of Peruvian Soles for this otherwise they charge extreme fees in other currencies. Next was the main agent and he was not satisfied with my packet either. The yellow fever vaccine certificate, this needed photocopies as well, front and back; outside to my photocopy pal. After over an hour of waiting in lines, running over to the photocopy stall outside, going back to the agents, back to the photocopy guy, and so forth they accepted my money and gave me a visa. As icing on the cake, once I received my visa they sent me back outside to get a photocopy made of the visa they just supplied me! Abi walked up to the agent, got a stamp, and 30 seconds later had formally entered Bolivia.
Visa in hand, it was time to dive into Bolivia and La Paz was my platform. The largest city in the country is a bustling and lively place. Having arrived right around Christmas massive markets flooded the streets. Every square was decked out with lights, trees, nativity scenes, Santas, and a fair bit of security presence to make sure the massive gatherings didn’t get out of hand. It was a festive scene, and at night the squares lit up with Christmas lights, open fire street food, and live entertainment of every variety.
La Paz is a city persons city. It’s big, loud, crowded, and full of smells. Many travelers I have met didn’t like the it much, but I disagree. It is full of personality. Unlike the colonial towns of Peru with white buildings and centuries old stone work, La Paz is a sea of red brick with dots or brightly painted walls peaking out like fish. Home to about 2.3 million people (in the metro area), the city fills a large, deep valley and expands out up the hills all the way to the high plane above. The city covers a vertical spread of about 700m and tops out around 4100m. Cars, buses, and motorcycles rip through the winding mountain roads with little regard for their surroundings. Their small engines gasp for anything they can get in the oxygen scarce altitude.
The walls are rich with street art, and the food options are endless. La Paz is also cheap...really cheap. We are talking three course lunch for two totaling $3 cheap. The numerical value of an item tends to be similar to Peru (I.e a coffee might be 10 in either place) but all of a sudden the currency was worth less than half. Needless to say a feeding frenzy began and did not end.
Probably the most unexpected, and quite pleasant thing about La Paz is the public transit system, an extensive network of gondolas linking the city. Up and down the mountain faces and across the valley the brightly colored cabins glide along gracefully, high above the honking maylay of the cars below. The system is still under construction but five of nine planned lines are installed and operating. The goal is to help alleviate the ungodly traffic while making the further, often higher and underserved regions more accessible. Rail based transit options would be no match for the elevation changes; and the massive scale of any road infrastructure redevelopment project cost prohibitive, so plopping in some ski lifts makes sense. There did seem to be a little bit of focus on the positive environmental impact the system could have as well, but based on the severe lack of vehicle emissions regulations I don’t see this making much of a dent in that problem for the city.
La Paz has a few world class trips that one can embark from the city. Climbing Mt. Hyuna Potosí a 6088m mountain that plays backdrop to La Paz. Mountain Biking down death road, a 60km stretch of winding mountain road made notorious by the number of deaths associated with both the construction and use of it, considered the most dangerous drive in the world. And visiting the now abandoned, former highest ski resort in the world, Chacaltaya. Precariously perched at over 5000m the once lively glacial ski resort closed its doors for good in the early 2000’s when global warming claimed the glacier and the snow was no more. After seeing some photos from a friend I had to check out the spooky remains. The weather didn’t completely agree with the visit but that only added more mystery to the defunct hill.
BONUS: One last theme from La Paz: dogs in clothes.
I can’t say for sure if it was a holiday thing or just the way people do it there, but I have never seen such a large percentage of dogs being dressed up by their owners. It was a very strange yet hilarious phenomenon and I can only hope it’s a trend on the upswing.