Looking Back: Bolivia Border Crossing and My Only Bribe

July 26, 2016

Back in January, I crossed from Peru into Bolivia. Aside from the “Border Helper” scams in Central America where Judith and I had a very pushy and fraudulent “helper” crossing into Honduras, all of my other border crossings were relatively painless, even if they took some time. Except Bolivia. I intended to tell this story after I left Bolivia and crossed into Chile or Argentina, but somehow it got lost, until I was telling it at dinner the other night, and was reminded that I hadn’t mentioned it in my blog. So here goes:  my only bribe I paid in my first year on the road.

Leaving Tinjani Canyon in Peru, I headed for the border at Lake Titicaca. I was already aware of the “reciprocity fee” that I was going to have to pay as an American in order to enter Bolivia, and I had US dollars ready. I checked myself and the bike out of Peru (after standing in line behind a busload of student tourists), and rode the short distance to the entrance to Bolivia. There I gathered up my paperwork once more, and headed for Immigration.

The Immigration officer asked for my passport, and upon seeing it was issued from the United States, his demeanor rapidly went downhill. He asked if I was aware of the reciprocity fee. Yes, I was. He demanded the $160 in US currency. I pulled out eight $20 bills and laid them on the counter. Ever so slowly, he picked up one at a time, held it up to the light, and inspected it closely. Each time, he shook his head, tossed the bill down, and said “this one is not acceptable”, and pointed to a tiny one to two millimeter tear at the edge of the bill where it had been folded in half. Normally I wouldn’t have even noticed this. He informed me that the Bolivian bank would not accept these “damaged” bills, and asked for another. Fortunately I had several more, and eventually I was able to appease him with bills that were acceptable.

Next he asked for my visa application. I mistakenly had assumed that I would be able to fill one out at the border, and I didn’t do it in advance. Wrong. No forms available. It must be done online, printed, and brought with me. There is a copy place next door to Aduana (Customs), since you have to make multiple copies of all of your forms, and they had internet service and would complete the form and print it for a reasonable fee. So I walked next door and stood in line.

It turns out there was a line because the internet connection was down. So we all stood around and waited for an hour or so until the connection was restored, and my visa application was prepared and printed. (Side note: in the two hours that I was in the copy place, I made several friends, including a woman who wanted to take me home to meet her daughter.)

Back to Immigration with my visa application (and two passport photos, which I had in my document bag), and my visa was accepted. Next, the Immigration officer asked for a copy of my hotel reservation for Bolivia. I didn’t have a hotel reservation. I was planning to camp, or worst case, to find a hotel in Copacabana when I got there (which is about three miles away).

“You can’t enter Bolivia unless you have a copy of your hotel reservation.”

Great. Well, I could go back and stand in line at the copy place again, and maybe pay the guy there to get on the internet and book me a room, but at this point, I was growing tired of this.

“I don’t have a reservation. I am going to Copacabana and will get a room at the Hotel Lago Azul” (I remembered the name of a hotel I had seen advertised a few days earlier). We went back and forth for a good five minutes until he finally sighed heavily and stamped my passport.

Next step: Aduana, to import the bike into Bolivia. Aduana asked for copies of my title, registration, and passport. I knew this would happen, so while I was getting my visa application, I had them make copies of these. The customs officer was very friendly, and after walking out and verifying the VIN on the bike, he completed my temporary importation paperwork and handed it to me.

At this point, at most border crossings, I would have been done and headed out. But here, there is one more step. You must present all of the documents you just obtained to a National Police officer for review.

I walked into his office and handed him my paperwork. He briefly looked it over.

“Where is your insurance?” he asked.

“What insurance?”, I replied, playing just a little dumb.

“You must have insurance for your moto before you can enter Bolivia.”

“Okay”, I said, “Where can I buy it?” Normally there is a small shack selling insurance at the border.

“You cannot buy it here.”

“Where can I buy it?”

“La Paz.”

La Paz is about a hundred miles from the border. Into Bolivia.

“Okay, then can I get it when I get to La Paz?”, I asked.

“You cannot enter Bolivia without insurance.”

“So how do I get the insurance?”

“You must go to La Paz.”

We went around and around like this for a while until I finally realized that I was going to have to buy my way into the country.

“Is there some way I can get to La Paz in order to buy insurance?”

“Well, it is my wife’s birthday today. You could buy her flowers.”

Whoa. That was original. And unexpected. Not the straightforward bribe request I had expected.

“Okay, how much are the flowers I should buy your wife?”

“Ten US dollars.”

I reached into my pocket to pay him, and realized I only had $20 bills. I wasn’t going to give him a twenty. But I also had Bolivianos, the local currency.

“Can I pay you in Bolivianos?”


“How much?”

“Twenty Bolivianos.”

I did the math in my head. Twenty Bolivianos was about $3 US. I quickly pulled out twenty BoB and handed it to him before he could realize his mistake.

“Now can I go to La Paz and buy my insurance?”

“I don’t care what you do”, he said.

So off I rode to Copacabana, feeling a mixture of frustration over having been hassled and swindled, yet vindicated in having only paid three bucks.

And that’s the only bribe I paid in one year and 34 countries, which included more than 56 visits each to immigration and aduana. I don’t have a moral to this story, just a little advice for those planning a similar route:

  1. Carry at least $300 in US $20 bills; make sure they are crisp and not damaged at all (no tiny little tears), and make sure they are dated 2006 or later (many countries won’t take bills older than 2006). Hide the money on the bike, on yourself, or a combination thereof.
  2. Carry at least five or six photocopies of your passport photo page, driver’s license, title and/or registration, and at least four passport-sized photos. This may speed things up, but be aware that you’ll still have to make copies at the border, because they will ask for copies of documents that they just issued to you, and you will be responsible for making them. Six copies won’t last you more than a few border crossings, so you’ll have to make more later. Also, scan and upload copies of these documents to the cloud, and save them to your laptop, ipad, or phone or whatever you carry with you.
  3. Always approach a border crossing with the attitude that you have no time schedule, and don’t mind if it takes all day or longer. If you don’t act like you’re in a hurry and instead act like you could camp there for days if necessary, they probably won’t feel like hassling you as much. Be happy, smile, shake hands, and be ready to hand out your stickers. Most of them love the stickers, and will quickly forget to hassle you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to pay a bribe if it makes sense in the long run. I wasn’t going to sit at the Bolivian border for another couple of hours sweating the National Police officer out over three bucks. I don’t condone this system, but as I was told in Bolivia, “Bolivia runs on corruption. Without it, nothing would get done.”