Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Welcome to Bolivia, Here comes the marching band

What a welcome!
Our tourist bus from Puno to Copacabana... If you now think about Ipanema beach, suntanned girls in skimpy swimsuits and Caipirinhas. Sorry! That's another Copacabana.

Copacabana / Bolivia is about as far from its Brazilian sister as it can be. The sand on the beach is brown mud, it sits on a lake, and the temperature resembles that of the Caipirinha. There is none of the "heat or fire" that you would get in Ipanema.

The temperature in our bus also feels like we are on a safari...in Antarctica. Somehow, we missed the Information Alert that tourist buses in Peru don't necessarily have heating.
We arrive nicely chilled at the Peru/Bolivia border and thankfully none of the buildings are heated either – that way we don't need to thaw out and risk losing a body part in the de-icing process!

Looks like we are in Bolivia.
Now where is immigration?
Exiting Peru is easy: first we go to the police to collect a clearance stamp on our tourist card – evidence that we are not "Wanted" by the Peruvian police. Wonder how the officer here would actually know if we were criminals or not; he doesn't even look up at our face as he smacks his chop on our tourist card. Next, we go to the immigration building and exchange our tourist cards for an exit stamp. We are now officially out of Peru.

We walk up the hill to the Bolivian side where we are greeted by a Navy military band... that wasn't really needed guys, but we are flattered anyway! But wait, why are you stopping now that we just arrived??? Uhh, this concert was not for us?

So we didn't get the VIP welcome (unless the cold drizzle could be considered a baptism from their goddess Pachamama?). Instead the officer at the door to the immigration shack was playing VIP himself, carefully inspecting every passport before "admitting" us to the building – not the country yet! One guy got rejected; he didn't have his Peruvian exit stamp. The actual immigration officer was much friendlier. When he saw the front of our passports, he immediately recognized them: "Suizas! Bienvenido!"

There isn't a custom's check; nobody wants to see our luggage...fine with us too.
We are now officially in Bolivia, the crossing was much easier than any other land crossing thus far on this trip.

She looks as Bolivian as
they do in National Geographic
Not so lucky are holders of USA passports. They are the only western nation that needs a visa for Bolivia costing $135 and requires endless submitting of forms including getting a on-the-spot yellow fever vaccination if they don't have proof of it on hand. Reciprocal treatment...considering what Bolivians need to endure when they want to travel to the USA. Actually it's fair play, don't you agree?

A tip for our fellow travelers that may read this Blog: change your money in Puno, the exchange rate is much better than at the border: don't believe what Lonely Planet writes about changing at the border. By the way: there is now a working ATM in Copacabana, keep your fingers crossed that it will stay in operation too. (We think the numerous money changers must vandalize the ATM machine so they can get tourists into their clutches as their rates are really crappy)

The "spitting llama bookstore"
All other passengers in our bus also clear immigration fast (no Americans on board!) and we are soon on the way for the last 6 kilometers to Copacabana. Just before we reach the town center, there is another stop: this time a guy gets on and wants to collect some sort of entrance fee for the town. Apparently someone decided that Copacabana town now is a sanctuary and visitors must fork out some cash to visit or even pass through with the bus on their way to La Paz. It's not much though; just 2 Bolivianos (30 cents) but we are all surprised about a town fee. We hand him a 50 Boliviano bill – he doesn't have change... too bad buddy, if you want to collect a fee you got to have change! He ended up leaving without collecting a fee from us after hearing many complaints from other passengers too. I think he was fed up with the hassle of this job.

So here we are in Bolivia's premier "beach" destination. Ever since Bolivia lost its Pacific coast access to Chile, it now has only a beach on Lake Titicaca.

We arrive still chilled from our bus ride and have no opportunity to warm up. Instead of warming sun, we have chilling rain and icy winds... Lovely!
This seems to be a continual travel theme now.
We are told that the last days have been unusually cold – no kidding!

The clouds finally start to break up
on the day we leave lake Titicaca!
Obviously there is no problem to find an available sun (aka rain) chair on the many restaurant patios. But a place to warm up is in short supply. We finally find a place that has a wood fired oven and we are not the only ones that sit close to the "heater" sipping a cup of coffee.

It doesn't take us long to decide to leave Copacabana the next morning early. This may be a nice place when it's sunny, but when it's cold, it's a pretty miserable place to be. Hopefully it will be sunny when we come back in a month's time on our way back to Peru? Please Pachamama!?

This black smoke out of the
tailpipe is a trademark of
Bolivian buses
After heavy rain all night long, we see a few breaks in the clouds, but leave for La Paz anyway. The condition of buses in Bolivia seems to be much lower than in Peru. It kind of reminds us of the chicken buses in Central America

Buses are also cargo carriers. So luggage
is just piled in on top. Nice fish, eh?
But instead of chickens, we get a bunch of dead fish on board and one of the fellow passengers smelled like a gallon of stagnant urine – we wonder if Bolivians ever shower and wash their clothes? Maybe they just layer on the clothes and wait for spring to wash again (especially if the lake is their bathtub!).

Our particular bus model was actually quite new, maybe only 30 year's young. It takes an hour for the bus to fill up but we got the prime front seats for that "price" which is nice as the route is a spectacular one. 

Beautiful scenery on the way
to La Paz
At one point, our bus becomes a
amphibian vehicle. Our backpacks are on
their way to the "mainland" inside.

Not your typical "flat tire"breakdown
On the way to La Paz, we had a bus breakdown (another Bolivian travel trademark). But this was not your usual flat tire: Nope, our bus has a completely busted rim on one of the rear wheels. Fun fact: our bus captain drove with this loud clonking sound for over 2 hours...constantly sticking his head out of the window to try and ascertain the problem.
But your typical "wait and see"
while the spare wheel is mounted
He even stopped the bus to try and find the problem. Remember we are on a steep mountain road and a good vehicle is of critical importance.

Welcome to Bolivia !!!