Crossing the border from Puno, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia

To make our way down through South America, we purchased a multi-city airline ticket which would bring us through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina via its’ major cities. We had taken our Bogota, Colombia to Lima, Peru flight a few weeks back, but we were now near the southern-most tip of Peru. We were in the city of Puno, which is just under 150 km from the Peru/Bolivia border.

Since we were already so close to the Peru/Bolivia border, we made the (in retrospect, very wrong – but more on that in a later post) decision to skip our Peru to Bolivia flight. Instead, we would take the bus over the Peru/Bolivia border, saving us a flight back to Lima to catch the second leg of our multi-city flight.

We’ve read that crossing into Bolivia from Peru can seem a little sketchy, but if you’re prepared for the chaos, it’s actually quite okay. We had read about other travellers’ experiences that made it seem there were quite a few bus scams (i.e. purchasing an overnight VIP bus ticket from Cusco, and then being forced to switch to a rickety old local bus once you cross the border into Bolivia, being told to pay extra for the bus they were being switched to). Most of these negative experiences seem to stem from the Cusco – La Paz route. Since our trip from Puno to La Paz would be relatively short (~7 hours), we didn’t need a take an expensive overnight bus. But just in case, we read up on which bus companies to avoid (i.e. PeruTour, and/or any bus company that used Diana Tours) and went to the main bus terminal (Terminal Terrestre) in Puno to inquire about tickets for the next day.

From our initial research and after talking to a few bus companies, we discovered a few things:

  1. There are two south shore routes from Puno to Bolivia:
    • the safer, more scenic, more popular route through Yunguyo / Copacabana (most bus companies from Puno will take this route).
    • the shorter, less safer, more direct route through Desaguadero (Ormeño offers this route). We read that the only reason you would take this less safe route is if you’re pressed for time. Try not to spend the night in Desaguadero and note that the Peruvian police have a bad reputation here for requiring you to pay an imaginary ‘exit tax’.
  2. Almost all bus companies will make you switch from a Peruvian bus to a Bolivian bus once you’re in Bolivia. The sketchier ones will switch you to another bus run by a totally different bus company. We ended up going with a bus company called Tourismo Titicaca as they repeatedly assured us that the bus switch in Copacabana was to another bus run by the same company.
  3. The one-way trip from Puno to La Paz will run you about S/. 35 (CDN $13)
  4. Most bus companies will require you to leave early in the morning so that you make it past the Peru/Bolivian border before it closes. (Yunguyo/Copacabana border closes at 6pm Peruvian time, Desguadero border closes 8:30pm Bolivian time) Tourismo Titicaca offered a 2:30pm departure, which allowed us to visit the floating reed islands in the morning.

The next day, after visiting the floating reed islands, we caught our bus at 2:30pm. Tourismo Titicaca offers a fairly comfortable tourist bus. We picked up some sandwiches at the bus station since this bus company does not offer any refreshments onboard.

The 3.5-hour ride to the border to Yunguyo was calm and scenic. We drifted in and out of sleep until the guide woke us up by announcing instructions on how to cross the Peru/Bolivia border in Spanish. Jason and I were dumbfounded as to what was going on as people packed up their things and got off the bus. Once we got off the bus, we were met with absolute chaos.

The bus stops in front of the casa de cambio (exchange office) on the Peruvian side and drives off with our luggage, leaving us in the dust. One of the guides must have noticed our wide-eyed confusion as he came over to provide some instructions in broken English. He told us that there are exchange offices on the Bolivian side too but we had read that the exchange rate on the Peruvian side was a little bit better, so we hustled over when the guide told us to hurry.

After some more wide-eyed confusion, we were instructed to first visit the Peruvian police where they make sure you have all your necessary exit papers and documentation. Then it’s next door to the Immigration Office.

After all the paperwork, you then walk up a dirt road, weaving through all the bus traffic, diesel fumes, road vendors, and sketchy exchange stands towards the archway at the border. I’ve never walked across any country border before so I thought it was pretty cool, as we stepped foot under the archway and over the border to Bolivia. You’ll be greeted by the “Welcome to Bolivia” sign at this point. But no time for dilly-dallying. You’re swept off to the Bolivian immigration services at that point. Save time by making sure you complete your Bolivian entry form before you get there. Also, if your country requires you to arrange for a visa beforehand, make sure that’s all in order too. Currently, North Americans don’t need a visa, but US citizens will need to pay a hefty US $135 entry fee.

Bolivian Immigration Control Office

The Bolivian Immigration Control office – the only picture I took all day since it was so hectic.

Afterwards, some guides pointed us to our bus – which was parked patiently on the side of the road. All in all, our border crossing took us about 20 minutes in total.

Half an hour later, as the sun was setting, our bus stopped in Copacabana. Tourismo Titicaca had originally told us that we’d have about an hour to explore the city, but we were hustled off the bus and taken to another bus that was waiting for us. Unfortunately, Jason and I were the last ones to board the second bus and when we got on, we discovered there were no more seats! Our guide took us off the bus and had a frantic conversation with the lady who took our tickets when we boarded the overbooked bus. The two English-speaking guides who would remain with the overbooked bus reassured us that the lady will bring us to another bus heading to La Paz. Our first thoughts were: ‘We had read about these scams beforehand! This can’t be happening to us!

But we had no choice but to grab our backpacks and follow the lady. We saw a bus with the sign “La Paz” on the windshield that was slowly driving by. She knocked on the door and I would imagine said something to the effect of “We have two extra travellers that need to get to La Paz – will you take them? to the Spanish-speaking guide who peeked his head out. He hesitated, then appeared to agree, and took our backpacks to the luggage storage. As we boarded the bus, the English-speaking guide who would remain with the overbooked bus quickly relayed some instructions: ‘you’ll be getting off the bus at a ferry crossing about an hour from now. Make sure you take a picture of this bus so you know which bus to get back on‘. Did we just hear that correctly? Take a picture of the bus? What’s worse is that we no longer had our bus ticket to La Paz with us – the lady had taken them. We were now on a bus that we had no proof of payment for, bound for a city that we hoped would be La Paz.

As we go on the bus, we realized that this second bus was also full! The Spanish-speaking guide tried to motion for us to move down further into the bus, which would require us to step over passengers who were already sitting on the aisle floor. And then some of the passengers started motioning for us to come towards to the back of this very sketchy-looking, jam-packed bus. There were two seats at the very back of the bus, wedged between a sleeping Peruvian man and an overweight Bolivian woman. We settled in and readied ourselves for a bumpy, high-speed bus ride through the pitch-black Bolivian countryside. Every once in awhile, I would catch glimpses of the edge of a cliff as we hurtled down the dirt highway. Weren’t there a lot of Bolivian bus accidents? were one of the many questions that crossed my mind during the hour to the ferry crossing.

After we arrived at the the ferry terminal at the Straits of Taquina, we followed everyone off the bus. But while I was taking a million pictures of our bus and committing the license plate to memory, everyone disappeared. We asked the Spanish-speaking guide where to go, but we couldn’t understand anything he was telling us. One of the stragglers, a nice old Bolivian lady, motioned for us to follow her. We followed her to a ticket booth where we had to pay $b 2.00 (or $CDN 0.30) for the motor boat that would take you across the water. They pack a lot of people onto the little motor boat. As we were boarding the little boat, we noticed our bus being driven aboard a large wooden raft. The giant bus and all our luggage would cross the same water on that rickety raft. The entire ride across the water took place in complete darkness. There were no lights on the boat – so if we hadn’t already crossed the Bolivian border, I would’ve thought they were trying to smuggle us into the country. The whole operation was majorly sketchy and kind of insane. What’s more, it felt like the lady sitting next to me in the dark was trying to pick my pocket. Welcome to Bolivia.

Once we reached the other side, we waited patiently for our bus (which did, in fact, survive the ride over via the wooden raft ). While we were waiting to board our bus, we actually saw our original overbooked bus and our English-speaking guides. They recognized us and waved – although, to me, they looked a little bit guilty for leaving us behind. We reboarded our jam-packed bus but managed to score the window seat, so I didn’t have to endure another 2.5 hours of a Peruvian man falling asleep on me.

After the crazy ferry crossing and bus switcharoo, the rest of the ride to La Paz was (thankfully) non-eventful.

So here are some highlights and tips:

  • Try to search long and hard for a reputable bus company (i.e. highly recommended by other travellers, trusted travel guides, etc). Even though we tried our best with advance research, we still ended up with a bus company that provided a sketchy travel experience.
  • The ferry-crossing and bus-switching was a little more nerve-wracking since it was all in pitch-black darkness. Take an earlier bus if you want to avoid travel in the dark.
  • Purchase your bus ticket a day in advance and at the bus station in Puno, as buses fill up quickly.
  • Hang onto your ticket or ticket stub to prove you’ve paid for your entire trip to La Paz.
  • There’s a one-hour time difference once you cross into Bolivia. Adjust your watch forward an hour if you’re travelling from Peru into Bolivia.
  • Exchange your Peruvian Soles for Bolivianos on the Peru side, since the exchange rate is a bit better.
  • Be prepared for some chaos, regardless of how much you read up and ready yourself.
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Sardines in a Can Van

Interior of the Chiva bus

The more eclectic the decor on the bus, the faster and crazier the driving.

Whenever possible, Jason and I try to avoid intercity or inter-country bus travel.  But in South America, there isn’t really any sort of useful passenger rail system – leaving us with either expensive flights or the dreaded ‘superlong, head-tossing, stomach-churning, hairpin-turning, traffic-weaving, over-air conditioned’ bus rides.  So we have accepted the fact that ‘superlong, head-tossing, stomach-churning, hairpin-turning, traffic-weaving, over-air conditioned’ bus rides will be part of our South American adventure – or the actual adventure itself.  Let me tell you about our epic bus adventure from Cartagena to Medellin- a whopping 16-hour, multi-part saga.

Exterior of the Chiva bus

The bus ride from Jerico to Andes was one of the most interesting bus rides we’ve taken so far. Unfortunately, the one from Cartagena to Medellin was the exact opposite

Part 1: The Negotiation

Getting to the main bus terminal in Cartagena took a 40 min cab ride (which surprisingly only cost CDN $11). Once we arrived, we found out the next available bus would require us to wait another 3 hours in the sweltering bus terminal. We couldn’t afford to leave Cartagena that late since the estimated 13 hour bus ride would mean we would arrive in Medellin somewhere around 3am. We had read warnings to only arrive in Medellin during the day.  Note: Although this warning was directed specifically to people flying into Medellin (i.e. to avoid the stretch of highway between the airport and the city at night), we decided that it might be wise to apply this to our bus travels as well.

After a game of Colombian Charades (i.e. Charades with Colombian locals) with a few random men hanging around a couple of passenger vans, we were able to negotiate a ride to Medellin that would leave immediately.

Part II: Sardines in a can van

12 people crammed into a van that is supposed to seat 8. This part lasted 6 hours.

sardines in a van

Squished into the 2 front seats were 3 people. Squished behind me in the 3 back seats were 5 people.

sardines in a van

Jason and I were lucky enough to get our own seats!

Part III: Language barrier

Our bus driver stopped at a bus station in some unknown town. Everyone got off the van and got into another van.  A Colombian fellow took our bags and loaded them into the van too. Just before we took off, Jason asked “á Medellin?” The driver looked at us as if we had both grown an extra head.  Then a stream of Spanish words came out of his mouth, of which none were ‘Medellin‘.  He waved us off the van, while a Colombian boy unloaded our backpacks.  He then put them both on (one on his back, the other on his front) and walked off around a corner.  We scurried after him and when we caught up to him, he was loading our backpacks onto an entirely different bus.  “Medellin?“, we asked one of the random men standing around the bus. “Si.”, one them replied.  So we hopped onto the slightly bigger, more run-down, dark and dank bus and hoped the guy outside knew what he was talking about.

Part IV: Musical Chairs Buses

Another 5 hours later, we arrived at a bus station in another unknown town.  We got off the dark, dank bus because everyone else did.  This time, our bags got moved into one of those fancy coach buses.  The conductor started drawing up new tickets for us, and I thought we’d have to pay again for the next leg of the epic saga titled “The never-ending bus ride”.  Luckily, there was an English-speaking Colombian man in the mix.  We’ve discovered on this trip that finding someone who speaks English in Colombia is like receiving good customer service from Rogers Cable…a rare and pleasant surprise!  He told us that this was the last bus transfer and that we should be arriving in Medellin around midnight.

Dirt road from Cartagena to Medellin

On this bus ride, we spent 3 hours travelling on a dirt road. We probably could’ve walked it faster 🙂

The Epilogue: 

I can’t really title this part, “Part V”, since we were still on the same bus.  But around 11pm, we came to a sudden stop on a winding mountain road.  At first I thought we were having engine trouble or maybe a flat tire.  The bus driver adjusted the bus a bit and then turned the engine off.  We were plunged into darkness and silence.  No one was panicking so I didn’t think we were in trouble.  Everyone else on the bus just sat back and went back to sleep.

After sitting in the dark for 15 minutes, I asked Jason to find out what was going on.  The English-speaking Colombian was not with us, so we tried to patch together whatever Spanish we understood and figured out that we were going to sit here until the road construction up ahead was finished(?!!)  We were flabbergasted!  We had to wait here for at least another hour until the construction crew finished building, apparently, the only road between here and Medellin.

So we sat.

And sat.

And sat some more.

When we finally got started again, and drove over the newly-formed “road”, we gaped at the line-up of cars, trucks, and buses on the oncoming side of traffic.  Colombian efficiency at its best, I tell ya.   Who schedules construction on the only road in the area when there’s obviously still plenty of traffic?  We finally rolled into Medellin at 2 in the morning.

Ten minutes later, the bus that left Cartagena 3 hours after we left also rolled in.