Checkpoint Smuggling

Bolivia – December 2014

We’ve just finished a tour of Bolivia and find ourselves back in La Paz with two free days. This trip was my wife’s first experience in altitude and they didn’t get along, but she seems acclimatized now. For our first free day we explore the city, including a cable car ride to a lookout point and a visit to the Witches’ Market. We also head out to the nearby Valley of the Moon. For our second day, we have no plans, so we head to the travel agent attached to our hotel and explore our options.

Many years ago I was in Peru and near the end of my trip spent a few days in and around Lake Titicaca. As I always like to see both sides of sights that reside in two countries, like Iguassu Falls (Argentina and Brazil) or Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe), we decide on a day trip out to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Many of our travel friends who have seen both sides highly recommend the Bolivian side. As one friend put it, “Bolivia gets the titi, while Peru gets the caca.”

It’s a three-hour bus ride from La Paz to the lake and around two-and-a-half hours in, we come to a river. In order to cross it, everyone disembarks so that the bus can be driven onto a vehicle ferry while passengers board a commuter ferry. It seems a bit complicated for a five-minute crossing, but there are bigger concerns to address. As we start to get off the bus, we’re told to bring our passports, as this is a checkpoint. We’re crossing from Bolivia to Bolivia, so I’d never thought to bring our passports and the travel agent didn’t tell us.

I catch our local guide and explain the situation. He thinks for a minute then tells us to stay on the bus, crouched down, as they never check inside the bus. If they do check and find some stowaways without identification? Not to worry, he assures us, they never check the bus. So we duck down in our seats and cross using our senses. Sounds like we’ve driven onto the ferry. Now it feels like we are floating in the right direction. Five minutes later, we slow and dock. Then the driver reappears to take the bus off the ferry. We’ve successfully crossed from Bolivia to Bolivia without passports.

Personally, I preferred the Peruvian side of the lake, even though that visit did not require being smuggled across a checkpoint. On our way back, I ask our guide if we need to stay on the bus again when crossing back over the river. “No,” he says, “they don’t check passports going this direction.” I’m still not sure why they check passports going the other direction, but don’t want to dive into the bureaucracy.

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