Crossing international borders by bike has perhaps obviously been a pattern of mine over the last couple of years. Each crossing has its own unique flavor and is more or less memorable depending on the details involved. Some crossings felt like triumphant transitions from one way of living to a whole new world of potential. Others were quick, easy and somewhat lackluster. One thing is for sure: the more difficult an experience is, the more you remember it. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting my entry into Bolivia anytime soon…
On the route South out of Cusco, one has various biking routes to choose from in order to enter Bolivia, but all options must either go East or West around Lake Titicaca, the enormous body of water shared by Peru and Bolivia. The obvious way to go is West around the lake through Puno, then cutting around the South shore to cross into the small Bolivian gringo trail stopping point of Copacabana. Obviously, the obvious way is just not that interesting, nor is it my style. Eastward ho!
I’d already taken a day off to bus to Puno to resolve my soaking wet and illegally faded passport stamp and returned to Huancané. Now ready to cross the border fully legally. Or so I thought.
With newly dried and legally stamped-out passport, I return to previously scheduled plans of descending the Eastern side of Lake Titicaca into Bolivia. Arriving at the border was oddly similar entering Guatemala from Mexico over a year back. No customs or border offices at the border proper. Just a small statue with “Bolivia” engraved to face the Peruvian direction and Peru on the opposite side.
I arrived at the border sign in the very late afternoon as the sun began revealing the “golden hour” with it’s golden reddish hues. There should at some point be a customs office for the Bolivian side to provide my necessary entry stamp, but none was in sight thus far.
I continued on into the fading light, watching the sun dive behind a radiant cloud formation over the immense lake surface. A long climb over a coastal hillside eventually led to a steep descent into the border town of Puerto Acosta.
It’s never preferable for me to end up across a new border in the final hours of light, but that’s exactly what occurred. I didn’t yet have any local cash, had no idea the current exchange rate from the Peruvian Sol to the Boliviano, so would easily be swindled in a late evening cash exchange. I also didn’t know local customs in terms of finding a cheap place to sleep for the night. Was the word hotel? Hostal? Hospedaje? Pension? Faith carried me through the dingy dirt streets of Puerto Acosta. Apparently the common sight of a well-kept town square that had been common for countries to the North was no longer a standard. I randomly drifted through the trash-lined streets in search of food and lodging, not easily noticing any signage for either one. A few blocks into town I did see a general store type of place and inquired about a local beer to help usher in the new nation. Luckily they took Peruvian cash and returned my changed in Bolivian currency, also directing me to the nearest hospedaje — a thin-walled tiny room with only enough space along the bed side to jam my bike inside and shut the door. What could I expect for under $3USD?
The following morning I rolled out in search of the customs office which was rumored to be along the main road heading South from town. A short distance along the road and I reached a closed gate next to a small one-room structure. Out walked a uniformed man with badges and a pistol mounted to his belt. After a friendly hello and welcome, he asked if I had my visa. Assuming Bolivia operated the same as every other country to the North, I said yes. Surely by visa he meant my exit stamp from Peru. I assumed that the “visa” to enter Bolivia would be a formality of him stamping my passport and letting me know how months I would be allowed to stay within the borders.
He informed me that specifically as a US citizen I was required to have a specific entry visa at $160USD! With not enough cash in hand, I was in a conundrum. None of the cyclists I’d spoken with about this route were actually US citizens, so didn’t run into the issue. Backtracking to the nearest customs office would require going around the lake. Lake Titicaca, the 2nd largest lake in South America. It’d be a bit of a detour.
Luckily with some kind words and helpless expressions, the customs officer got clearance from his superior to write me a handwritten hall pass with which to enter the country and pay my visa within 48 hours. So lucky, but now I must detour the route around the Southern edge of Lake Titicaca to the customs office near Copacabana. So glad I speak Spanish right now. Here we go!
Seeing this grand structure rise up over the horizon as I rolled South, I had to ride up the trail off the road to see what it was. Some internet sleuthing revealed it is the Chakana, known as the Inka Cross. Representing the image of the Southern Cross astrological constellation in the Southern hemisphere, the Chakana is among the most sacred of Inkan symbols. This would be the first of many sightings!
That evening I entered the busy trade city of Achacachi (so fun to say that out loud!). The town square teaming with merchants selling anything and everything to everyone. I choked down some fantastic friend chicken and drifted to slumber in a dirt cheap hotel room.
The Walmart of the Southeastern shores of Titicaca, Achacachi is the place all rural folks come to stock up. You need a rainbow colored selection of brooms? They have that.
Leaving Achacachi in the distance, I hopped on an initially well-established dirt road heading West toward my required Peru/Bolivia border return. The 21,000’ Ilumani mountain towered in the background.
Very quickly the established dirt road ended after a township, leading to a rocky steep track. Back on the trail!
Just before reaching Copacabana one must cross the meandering arms of South Lake Titicaca. The only way across is by rickety platform boat.
I rolled my bike to the front down cracked and rotted wooden planks, and took a deep breath as the huge tour bus slowly occupied the length of the boat, each turn of it’s wheel causing small cracking and creaking sounds as the boat bowed to accommodate the weight. Trust in the locals, I said to myself, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.
A quick but expensive visit to Bolivian customs provided my necessary visa and passport stamp. So now what? I’m in Copacabana, which turns out to be a quite touristy little lakeside town. Upon inquiry the big tourist pull here is visiting the various ancient island communities on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) and Isla de la Luna (Moon). There was a trail around the entirety of Isla del Sol… so… was it bikeable? I intended to find out…
… Coming soon to a travel website near you!