Lake Titicaca, Bolivia & Peru

AKA:  My 24 hours as an illegal immigrant. I kid you not.

Welcome to a catalog of errors. Here is how NOT to EVER cross a border.

I should prefix this some a little word from CNN News:  For weeks now there have been widespread protests and disputes between Bolivia and Peru, specifically about the opening of new mines in the North, the growing pollution of water supplies, and generally lots of other unrest that flares up quite frequently. Although I had heard about this on the grapevine, I obviously took it with a pinch of salt. There is so much media miscommunication in both countries; it’s hard to know what to believe.

Part Uno:  Over the Borderline (& Back & Back)

The Copacabana (Bolivia) to Puno (Peru) route is a well worn path on the Gringo Trail. So Niv (from yesterday) and I come off our boat from Isla del Sol, expecting to overnight it for 10 hours on the night bus to Cusco.  Easy Peasy.

“No bus” “No border” “No road” tells the 100 year old crazy lady in the ticket place. We try and ascertain which of these three it is. After 10 mins, and other similar 100 year old ticket ladies telling us pretty much the same thing, we are minded to believe them.

Never mind, we think, we will go tomorrow instead. Apparently there is a special boat . Of course there is. Here is where the fun starts.

Note 1 to self: When buses, borders and roads close in South America, they do so for a reason. Don’t ignore this!

Turns out, there is a big boss of the ticket ladies, who seems to have a monopoly on the special boat. She promises to save us a ticket whilst we go get cash, its 170bs. We come back 3 mins later and it’s gone up to 200bs. She shrugs, and we figure that’s supply and demand. After all there are about 100 travelers stuck around this border from the last few days, and she knows business wise she’s hit the jackpot. Fair play to her. We buy the ticket. Although £20.00 is extortionate in Bolivia, and double what it was yesterday before the crisis erupted, it’s nothing to get where you want to go, we think.

Pleased with ourselves we meet Anna and Stephanie and go for dinner. At some point one of us mentions passport stamps.  Good point. We head back to ticket boss lady. She tells us (in Spanish) that yes; we need to pop to the border to get our Bolivia stamp before it closes tonight. Good job we asked then. We haul ass in a taxi to Kasani, 10 mins away on the Bolivian side.

A drunken border official then giggles away from behind his desk, and seems to be amusing  himself practicing with his stamp on a blank piece of A4 in front of him. We hold out our passports, then realise it’s probably best to get the correct date (i.e. tomorrow) on them if possible. “20 (£2) boliviano’s” he says.  “Ok 10 (£1) bolivianos,” he adds two seconds later before we can even agree. He doesn’t notice that we leave with our stamp dated ‘16th’ without paying him anything.

Lesson to self 2: Never trust a Bolivian border official. Never trust a drunk border official.

So, pretty pleased with ourselves again, we head back to Copacabana. In the country that we have officially just been stamped out of.  We all go our separate ways and have an early night. Not before using the last of our Bolivianos on water/Oreos.  Bolivianos are pretty worthless in the exchange against the Peso, so we might as well, so we think.

8am the next morning. The real trouble starts. Just a random question that came to me in my sleep, but if we are stamped out of Bolivia, don’t we need a stamp into Peru? We seemed to have overlooked this, or assumed it would happen on arrival. We go consult the oracle (aka boss ticket lady) who says yes yes, we’ll get a stamp when we get off the boat. Naive Niv believes her. I definitely don’t. “And where specifically will that be then, Puno or Juli (we are not sure boat docks)? And why would either of those towns have an official man sat with a stamp, when neither are official border crossings?” I ask. “Yes, yes” she repeats.???

Lesson 3: Never trust a crazy ticket lady, when she sells or tells you anything.

It’s 9am. Our boat leaves at 9.30am. These are our options:

*Get on the boat. Hope she’s telling the truth and there’s a temporary stamp office into Peru, in Puno. If she’s lying we just entered the country illegally. In a month’s time I will be stood at an airport getting deported. Is this what British Embassies are for? Naive Niv seems to think this is fine – maybe the Israeli embassy is more understanding about these things, although I doubt it. Plus, I point out, who is going to believe this story, it’s our choice if we choose to enter a country illegally – not the crazy ticket lady who sold us a ticket on a special boat.

*Option 2: Don’t get on the increasingly dodgy boat, and wait it out in Copacabana until the protests stop. This might be days or weeks. It’s the sensible thing to do. Apart from the flaw is we have a bloody exit stamp dated the 16th May! Doh.

*Option 3: Mad dash to the border again. Hope that the Peruvian side at Yunguyo is open, despite the time difference. Hope that we can run across past the men with guns, get entry stamp with the correct date, and then turn and run back into the country we have just left (again) and make it back for the boat, all in half an hour.

We go for option 3. It works. The Peruvian officials seem sober yet are as relaxed about the dodginess of the whole situation as Bolivia. The irony is the stamp is so faint you can hardly see it anyway. Sigh.

Part 2: The long road to Peru.

9.30am. We board the boat. Actually no, we queue in the 100 deep pile of people and rucksacks on the beach for the boat. It’s like Dunkirk in Saving Private Ryan, apart from any stray body parts and Tom Hanks. But we are all united in the feeling that we are being rescued for a better life in magic Peru, packed like sardines in what will become known as Boats number 1, 2 and 3.

Boat 1 and 2 leave across Lake Titicaca to freedom. We find out later they sail straight to Puno, hassle free. I am in boat 3. Boat 3 waits for an hour, sets off, then gets stopped by the coastguard police who check our manifest. Turns out we don’t have permission to sail straight to Puno. I don’t know why.  Eventually we set sail. I sidle up to the noisy group on the top deck. They have red wine. It’s been a hard morning we’ve earned a glass. I sunbathe, and all is well, for a couple of hours.

After 2 hours we reach the far shore (it’s a huge lake), we dock and get out.  Welcome to Peru. Apart from there doesn’t seem to be a bus to collect us. It seems the nice fisherman boat driver has delivered us to the wrong place. We all pile back on the boat and go another hour North to Juli.

We all pile out again, and someone in a uniform checks the passport stamps that we worked so hard for. Apart from he doesn’t even look at the right page of mine, he seems distracted by the other pretty stamps.  Never mind. At least it’s kind of legal now, as he doesn’t really question how/why I already have stamps for a country when I’m just arriving in.

Then we wait. The bus is on its way apparently. There are 42 of us and most of us have booked tickets all the way to Cusco (which is a 2h bus to Puno, and then a 7h to Cusco). It’s 1pm when we arrive, and at 3pm we are all still sat there. Actually, I’m playing cards. Traveller Kim is very relaxed about such matters. There’s no hurry, it’s sunny, chill. I’m only slightly concerned that I only have the water from last night, no food, and no Bolivinos/Soles until an ATM in Cusco, but i’m sure it will be fine.

Lesson 4: Don’t cross a border with no money and no water.

The bus will be here soon though. Probably. That’s what a dude with a mobile phone keeps telling us. We are not sure where he sprung from but he seems an associate of crazy ticket lady, and he’s managing the situation, we think. Either that or he’s talking to his wife about dinner. It’s fascinating watching crowd mentality when things don’t go to plan. There is always one take charge eventually.  This is what happens when Spanish speaking guy in red jumper, decides enough is enough and we should walk to ‘town’ and get taxi’s to Puno. A few of us think it’s pretty weird that the taxis haven’t  come to us already, and capitalised on 42 stranded travellers.

So at 3pm we set off walking, following the mobile phone guy into the village. Something seems to be up however. He is well sketchy, and through the translation skills of Red Jumper, its clear the situ is serious. The protests that blocked the border and road have turned to mini riots, with children throwing rocks, and villagers lighting fires and slashing car tyres. This explains the lack of bus or taxi. No one is willing to risk it.

The solution, you would think, would be to sit tight in this tiny village, maybe for the night until it’s safer to get back on the roads. You would be wrong. It turns out what Mobile guy wants us to do is walk THROUGH the protests, and out of the other side to a village where the mystery bus can safely go and pick us up. The girls in the group have never heard anything so stupid, but find ourselves walking with massive backpacks, through remote Peruvian villages for at least 6k. In Juli especially, it’s like walking through a wild west scene. Whole families and children come out into the streets to stare. They rarely see travellers. We carry on like this for 2 hours, yet I am strangely upbeat and figure you have to laugh. The whole thing is so surreal.

By 5pm the sun starts to set, the temperature drops, and our water supplies start to dwindle. The laughter stops. We start to lose faith in Mobile Guy who is still promising ‘next village.’ The ‘good’ news is that at dusk, the protesters start to disperse (how fickle!) but we do walk 50 meters with our breath held, treading through broken glass, around huge rocks and slingshots, and the aftermath of the afternoon. The remaining gangs seem more curious in us rather than unfriendly, and even mutter a ‘buenos noches.’ They are polite protesters at least. What a relief.

I’m walking with a Dutch couple. The girl is getting as fed up as me, and although we have been tough little soldiers for the past 2 hours, we are starting to crack. The group of 42 of us is spread across a mile or so now. Then suddenly for the first time in hours a random car passes. Me and Dutch girl hysterically flag it down, and incredibly it stops. I have never been so relieved to be in a vehicle ever in my life, and six of us pile into the battered thing. We pay the guy $5 US dollars each to take us the hour we need to Puno. Possibly the best £3.50 I have ever spent.

By 6pm we pull up in Puno bus station and eat the best meal we have ever eaten. We also drink the best beer, but I give half of mine to a homeless guy. I figure I need to redeem my karma after leaving the rest of Boat 3 for dust by the side of the road as we sailed off in a car. And I never know, his day might have been worse than mine. To to be fair we did call for back up for taxis for the others when we reached civilisation. As far as we know they are not still walking.

So I take with me from this epic day: my final lessons in Bolivian/Peruvian politics, corruption at its best/worsted, and the fact that dollars talk. And if you can’t use emergency US Dollars to bribe border officials, enter countries illegally and hitchhike, when can you use them. I still have $15 left.

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An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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