(Not) Welcome to Bolivia
During our month in Chucuito, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we had explored as far as Acora. The bus to Bolivia would take us beyond, along the lake to the border. It was interesting to see how the geology changed, marshy lake margins gave way to sandy soils and pretty little beaches.
We reached the border crossing at Kasani and waited in line to have our passports stamped:
“Move over, not that queue.” A brusque official shouted at us.
When it was Franco’s turn, the man in the cubicle growled:
"Take your hat off friend!"
A strange use of the word ‘friend’ since there was absolutely nothing friendly about the guy, we had never met him before and hoped never to do so again.
On the immigration form we had asked for 60 days entry permission (Brits and Europeans are entitled to 90 days) but the discourteous official stamped our passports with 30 days only. When queried he said:
"You'll have to apply for more in La Paz."
These were the rudest officials we had met in South America and we wondered what the message was: "tourists are not welcome in Bolivia" or "a month is long enough to see Bolivia."
For a country that complains regularly on the international arena that its lack of access to the Pacific Ocean is curtailing its economic development, restricting tourism seems a little shortsighted.
Back on the coach we drove ten minutes to the small touristy town of Copacabana. The bus stopped to take on two men in local council uniforms who charged each passenger two Bolivianos.
"Excuse me, what is the charge for?" I asked.
"For coming to Copacabana."
"But we are going to La Paz, we have no interest in Copacabana." I explained.
"You still have to pay."
Two Bolivianos is nothing really (25 pence), but it is the principal. Town tolls were common in Europe during the Middle Ages and were abolished because they discouraged trade. Come on Bolivia, get with the programme!
The bus stopped in the centre of town and we were told to change buses, something the nice people at Puno station, who sold me the tickets, had omitted to mention.
"You want a hotel?" A man approached me.
"No thanks, I'm not staying in a town that charges an entry toll." I replied.
"In other cities they charge a platform fee at the bus station. We don't have a bus station so we charge you anyway," he replied.
Franco had stayed out of the argument until then but this comment seemed to annoy him:
"The platform charge is for the use of the facilities, you aren't providing any!"
Another thing the nice people in Puno hadn't mentioned was that there was an hour and a half wait for the bus! The Italian girl was furious, she had been told we would arrive in La Paz at 2pm when in reality it would be 5pm. At least they hadn't lied to me about the arrival time, I hadn't asked!
Franco in Copacabana wondering what to do for the next hour
We went to see the ‘ducks’, the fleet of paddle boats.
Bolivia or its full name ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia’ is, according to the CIA Factbook, “one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America.” We expected the worse but were pleasantly surprised.
The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca was very pretty, steep slopes descending to the water, similar to the Italian Riviera but without the resorts and tourists! The houses were in good condition, clad and painted in bright colours (unlike Peru where every town looks like a building site).
The bus was travelling down a peninsula with the lake on both sides. This seemed odd as I couldn’t remember noticing a bridge on the map. We came to a stop and the driver told us to get out, buy a ticket, catch the ferry and meet him on the other side. We had to cross the lake! The ticket was 2 Bolivianos, the same as the town toll, but this time we got a boat ride for our money.
The improbable way of transporting buses across the lake
Loading a brick lorry on the other side
At last we arrived in La Paz, a huge sprawling mass of ugly unfinished buildings, carpet bombed roads and gridlock. Hanging by the neck from lamp posts were man sized dolls, the neighbourhoods’ way of warning gangsters that they were in the lynching business. At the bus station there was a ‘disappeared person’ notice board, I counted eight 13 year olds that had gone missing just in the past two weeks! The pattern seemed to repeat itself “last seen at the bus stop on the way home from school”. Where were these girls? Had they been kidnapped by human traffickers? Would they end up in the brothels of Europe? The decision to continue our journey was easy. We bought tickets to Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia, on an overnight 'Premium Suite' bus service. The seats recline to near horizontal making for a good night's sleep.
Usually the long distance coaches do not allow street sellers on board but this one did when it stopped on the outskirts of La Paz to pick up a few more passengers. Suddenly we heard a girl crying, we’d met her and her friend in La Paz when, like us, they hadn’t realised they needed to check their luggage in at the office. Her small rucksack had disappeared, it contained all her valuables; passport, camera, money and credit cards. The two decided to disembark to go to the police.
The remaining passengers clutched their possessions. Our neighbour told us that Sucre was different, nobody stole there. He spent the night with his briefcase on his lap.
It was very warm so the driver turned on the air conditioning but only hot air came out of the vents. I convinced him to turn it off. Later a man asked if we could watch a video. The machine wasn't working.
"On the most expensive bus out of La Paz, the AC doesn't work, the video doesn't play and passengers are robbed. Where is the 'Premium'?" He asked the driver, a nice guy, who was probably wondering the same thing.
The man phoned up the company there and then and lodged an official complaint. Whether it will change anything is a different matter.
The road from La Paz to Oruro runs straight across the altiplano. When we awoke the next morning, we were winding down the foothills of the Andes towards the vast Amazon basin. Sucre appeared ahead, nestled in a valley at 2,810m.
A friendly taxi driver dropped us off in the main square at 8am and we had breakfast at the market to the sound of buskers playing traditional Bolivian music. Things were looking up.