After a fantastic month in Peru we were ready to up our adventure quotient and cross into Bolivia. Bolivia is a land of rugged contrasts, amazing nature, and the lowest GDP in South America. From all accounts travel here is both eye and soul opening.
First things first, we needed to cross the border. Bolivia has a bad reputation for corrupt border guards. Scams such as demanding extra money, searching luggage for "fake money", and falsifying exchange rates in their favor as you pay for your visa. In addition we heard that they accept nothing but pristine bills, freshly minted. To prepare we went to the bank and got the nicest dollars we could find in Cusco and stashed our extra cash (about 100 Peruvian soles and 200 Bolivian bolivianos) in my bra. Classy, I know, but they are forbidden from male to female pat-downs.
As Americans we are charged $135 US dollars to enter the country. This is retaliatory, since the US charges the same to Bolivians who want to come visit the US, as well as all sorts of legal hoops and interviews. Most nationalities can enter for free. We had many sympathetic/condescending bus mates at the border crossing as we ponied up $270 for Visas. We were, as usual, the only American tourists aboard. I admit that I feel generally super duper lucky to be American (America is AWESOME in so many ways. Say what you will but I love my lifestyle.) and thus did not really mind the fee. It seems fair- I just hope it goes to making Bolivia better for all it's citizens.
Although we took care to get the nicest money possible, standing at the Bolivian visa counter the official peered at each bill with a care I have never seen. "Si, Si, Si, no, si, si, no ...". He rejected $60 of our bills for teeny tiny rips where they had been folded in the middle. Shoot! We had one extra perfect $20, found an acceptable $5, but our other emergency dollars were like most US currency, slightly battered. The official looked at us and said "soles?". We had Soles. Into my bra I went. Again, classy. He tried to tell us we owed him 150 soles. WRONG. At an exchange rate of 2.8 sea to the dollar, $35 US equals 98 soles. We pulled up our exchange table and he heaved a huge sigh- "100 soles". Done. For the tiny bribe of 2 extra soles we got our visas, received our stamps, and crossed the border. The moral of the story is that when they say perfect bills get perfect bills!
We feel like given potential complications we got off easy and should have been more aware of things like Buerocrats are Vogons everywhere.
Our first Bolivian stop was the pleasant sleepy lakeside town of Copacobana. A famous icon of Mary, the Virgin de la Candelabra, is housed in the beautiful cathedral in town. The people of Bolivia believe calamities are prevented when she is in her proper home, and disaster strikes when she is moved aside from designated feat days. On Easter she is carried to the top of Cerro San Cristobal above the town in a pilgrimage.
We took the opportunity to seriously relax, staying at the lovely Hotel La Cupula. Wandering down to the beach and to the cathedral for less than a mile of walking were our big excursions of the day. Other than that we hung out in hammocks and read a Jack Reacher novel aloud while we admired the lake. The next day we huffed and puffed our way up Cerro San Cristobal (45 steep minutes) to the shrine on top. The stations of the cross mark the path and Bolivians took the walk alongside us, taking the walk as a pilgrimage. One of the stranger things about the walk was the paradox of true religious devotion with a horrific amount of litter. Trash lined the pilgrimage.
At the top pilgrims buy miniatures of items they would like to achieve during the upcoming year. Stalls lined with toy cars, doll houses, dump trucks, diplomas, and Monopoly money share space with stalls selling beer and liquor and stalls selling devotional candles. Pilgrims buy what they want, go to small stone alcoves along the hilltop, light the candles, put the item into their mini-shrine, pray, pour beer all over the ground and the item, then finish the beer themselves. In doing so they have earned both the Virgin of the Candelabra's (Catholic) and Pachamama's (indigenous earth goddess) blessing and assistance in achieving their goals.
In the afternoon we caught a bus to La Paz.