July 30, 2009
Overland border crossing is all about formalities and symbolism. Real border crossing happens when you dive into a country’s customs, food, or any other aspect of a culture that pushes you to do something you haven’t done before. Nevertheless, I’m always intrigued by borders. Years of imperialism led up to lines in the middle of nowhere; lines that can be very significant, but often seem trivial when you cross them.
The drive to Copacabana was scenic as promised. There were wonderful views of the sparkling blue Lake Titicaca the entire way. When we arrived at the border, I hurried ahead knowing that I would take longer than most because I had to get a visa. I didn’t want to be left behind.
Getting stamped out of Peru was fairly easy. The only person who had trouble was a guy from Colombia. They eventually let him through, and he explained later that they wanted a copy of his criminal records, just because he had a Colombian passport. He said it was not the first time he had issues like that at customs.
I walked across the border. The only noticeable difference were the red and white flags replaced with red, yellow, and green ones. The process for U.S. citizens to get a Bolivian visa is pretty detailed. It’s all about reciprocity. But the governmental issues don’t seem to trickle down to the ground level. The Bolivian border officials were friendly and laid back. They asked me where I was from and responded with an “Ah, Americana!” and a smile. Their one request was that I make copies of everything– my visa application, yellow fever certification, passport pictures, and passport. There was a cheap place to do it next door.
As I was finishing up with the visa and getting stamped into Bolivia, I bumped into the one other American in the group. He and his friend from England had forgotten to get stamped out of Peru and had to go back across the border.
We all got back on the bus. The driver assumed everyone was there and began to drive. Suddenly there were shouts from the back, “Americano! Americano!” We almost left the American guy behind. A few days later I heard similar story from another traveler. I think it’s not uncommon for buses to leave people behind at the border. The man ran on to the bus, very frazzled but clearly happy to have made it on.
When we arrived in Copacabana, I was ripped off by a taxi driver. I asked to be taken to a hostel I’d found in my guidebook. It took under a minute to drive there and the taxi driver charged me way too much. But it was a trivial amount by American standards so I let it go. The hostel turned out to be really shoddy and looked like a place where I’d freeze at night. Realizing that Copacabana wasn’t very large, I decided to walk through town where I found a hostel that was recommended by two English girls.
It wasn’t very nice either, but it wasn’t as bad and it was right on Copacabana’s main street. I spent the rest of the day wandering through Copacabana. I passed by a gleaming white church where I saw people getting their cars blessed for safe travels. Bolivia is notorious for its bad roads, including the most infamous, “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Car blessing includes washing your car, decorating it with flowers, spraying it with champagne, pagan and Christian blessings, and firecrackers. I kept walking and came across a parade rehearsal, the first of many parades and rehearsals I would see in the days leading up to Bolivian Independence Day.
Puno turned out to be drab, so I was happy find that Copacabana had an aesthetic sense. It’s a charming little town with colorfully painted buildings and flowery courtyards. But of course, this doesn’t compare to the natural beauty of Lake Titicaca. Before heading to a dinner of wonderful Lake Titicaca trout, I watched the sun drop down behind the seemingly never ending lake. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude. I was content– I’d made it to Bolivia and sensed that my adventure was just beginning.