Crossing the Border Part 2: Bermejo, Bolivia

For Crossing the Border Part 1, see here.

Welcome to Bolivia
It says ‘Bolivia,’ but technically I wasn’t there yet.

“Immigration” on the Bolivian side was a small building that consisted of a reception desk and an office. You entered on one side, got stamped, and came out the other.

Or, if you’re me, you go in and hang at the desk for a really. long. time.

I had my passport. I had a photocopy of my passport. I even had a yellow fever certificate, which I didn’t have to show. I had the visa fee.

I didn’t have change.

I didn’t have negotiating skills in Spanish.

There were two men behind the desk, and neither of them showed me much interest. They handed me two forms to fill out, which I did. They looked at my passport.

$135, the short man said.

I handed him a crisp $100 and slightly-less-crisp $50.

He took the $100 and gave me back the $50.

$35, he said.

“No tengo,” I said. “Puede cambiar?” No have. Can you change?

According to the almighty internet, they were supposed to make change. They were supposed to give it to you in Bolivianos.

They didn’t.

$35, he said, and turned his attention to the next five people who came in.

When I was the only one left in the office and he couldn’t ignore me anymore, he finally made eye contact.


Bad decisions make great stories.
The lesson here is to MAKE SURE you bring change for visa fees.

He took the $50 and turned it over lazily. “Tienes pesos?”

“Yes!” I said. Yes, we had Argentinian pesos. We were saved! The stubborn $35 would come to about $167 pesos, but I was ready to give him $200 and be done with it.

245 pesos, he said.

I balked. That was just over fifty dollars! It was more than I could take. Finally, seeing my despair, he suggested that we go to one of the stalls down the street to see if they had any change. We had to change our pesos to bolivianos anyway, so I wearily agreed.

I stood guard over the bags while Jared ran down the road to the exchange booth. He returned soon after, angry.

“The guy was an asshole,” he said. “And he wanted one for one.”

One peso is worth about 1.45 bolivianos. It was a blatant ripoff. Jared headed in the other direction, with the same results. Eventually, we conceded, changing 317 pesos for 317 bolivianos, from a woman running a roadside restaurant-cum-black market money exchange.

But we still hadn’t solved the problem of the $35. I went back in to try one more time.

“No pueden cambiar,” I said, putting on my most dejected face, as if the guy cared. They can’t change it.

The man took my fifty. He scrutinized it carefully, pausing to examine every rip and fold.

In Spanish, he explained that this note was no good. It had an infinitesimal tear on one side, and it had been folded at least twice, rendering it useless. I’d have to get a taxi to Bermejo, the border town, he said. There, I’d find a place to change it for smaller notes. Then, I’d return, pay the cursed $35, get my damn stamp, and go back to Bermejo to catch a lift to Tarija, our final destination, three hours away.

I nearly cried.

After a brief discussion, Jared and I agreed on a plan.

I returned. I handed over the fifty. “Puedo pagar con esto?” I said. “Todo, no cambio?” Can I pay with this? All, no change?

Slowly, the man took the note, rips, folds, and all. He deftly slipped it beneath the desk. Without a word, he flipped open my passport, affixed a sticker, and THUMP!

I had a stamp.

“Hay un baño?” I asked, still busting for the toilet. Is there a bathroom?

The man laughed. “No. No hay.” No. No there isn’t.

Welcome to Bolivia.

Next: Part 3: Bermejo to Tarija

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  1. Well, thankfully after all the horror stories I heard about paying in crisp clean American bills, I never had an issue in Peru. But spending time in Puno, I heard horror stories about Boliva (plus that outrageous visa fee!) which made up my mind to not go.

    1. Glad to hear that as we’ll soon be on our way to the border crossing at Puno. Bolivia’s been…a challenge. In both good and bad ways. I’m glad I came, but I think I’ll be relieved to move on to Peru and see a new country.

  2. After your comment on my site (on your post) about the lack of dulce de leche in Bolivia, this isn’t painting the best impression of the country for me. Also, that visa fee is crazy! Rip offs make me angry…I wonder, is it a reciprocal fee though?

    1. I think it is a reciprocal fee, so I can’t really blame Bolivia…just that border guard! Are you going to Bolivia? I found it pretty tough going, to be honest, but really cheap with lots of good things to see. And, to give Bolivia its due, I did eventually find hostel breakfasts with dulce de leche!

  3. I had the same terrible, but to a lesser degree than yours, experience at the Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz. I had no exact change for the $135 visa fee (timbre) so I gave him $150 dollars. I stood there filling out a form and waiting for my change… the agent said nothing for a while after taking my money, so I turn in the form and asked for the $15 dollars change. For some odd reason, no one in the airport can break a $50. LOL! I think it’s a scam, but most of the vendors said they have been given counterfeited money so they avoid el cambio. Anywho, could not get the correct change, the officer did have a $15 dollars change, and my luggage was being loaded by some dude on the cart without me being present, so I told the officer to keep it as a tip to which he just grinned back. I got my passport and went on my way to customs… yea.. there is another mafia story there but that is all this one.

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