I decided to write about my experience trying to obtain a visa in La Paz, because I know it is something many U.S. citizens traveling to Bolivia are curious about, as we technically need to obtain a visa to enter and leave the country. You don’t need to get the visa — which costs $135 — beforehand, but can obtain it once in the country; however, I was in the country a week before I went to get it, and I’m still not sure it was really necessary. In fact, I met an American backpacker who had crossed without obtaining one.
“Go to window four,” instructed the man at the door, as I told him my reason for visiting the immigration office. Looking over at where I was being sent, I was happy to see there was no line. Score.
The man at window four went through my papers, and aside for having me go up the street to make some photocopies, the preliminary process was pretty painless. That is, until I was instructed to go to window three. The line wrapped around window two’s line and went out the door. I wanted to cry.
Three hours later — literally — it was finally my turn. I practically threw my passport at the woman, my heart racing with the fear of missing a document. The woman scribbled a code on a piece of paper in my passport.
“Go to the cashier to pay.”
While pissed I had waited three hours for her to write a few numbers, I dashed to the cashier, which only had two people waiting. As I paid, I noticed the man putting my documents and passport in a strange envelope, but I didn’t think much of it.
Handing me a receipt, the man instructed me to go back to window three, which now had an even longer line than before.
“But, I just waited on that exact line for three hours!” I protested, getting upset. He shrugged.
Luckily, during my excruciating waiting period I had befriended a nice Aussie, who let me cut him in line. When I got to the front, I was given a slip of paper and told to pick up my passport the next day.
Now I began to panic, as I had booked a ticket to Puno, Peru, to leave that night. Before anyone judges me for leaving the task to the last minute, there are many reasons I waited. For one, the immigrations office had been closed for four days straight due to a holiday. Moreover, on the one day it was open, it was my only day to bike Death Road, one of the main reasons I had visited the city in the first place. Additionally, I had been told countless times how easy it was to get the visa. Basically, I was supposed to give up two full days to do this, which I refused.
“I need it today,” I explained. “I’m leaving the country tonight.”
After many explanations to and from various officials, I was told if I went back to my hostel and got the bus ticket as proof, they would rush the process. Looking at my watch, I saw I had less than an hour before they closed. I began to sprint.
I ended up making it back with moments to spare, especially as — like everyday in La Paz — protests were causing major traffic; however, I was told I could come back at 3:00 pm to pick it up. This left me just enough time to make my 4:30 pm bus.
I returned at 3:00 pm on the dot, and was sent back and forth from window five to the assistance desk and back again. Finally, I was told to “have a seat and it will be right out.” Ten, twenty, thirty minutes passed, as I sat in front of the assistance desk staring helplessly at the man in charge.
“My bus leaves in less than an hour,” I finally said. “Is my visa almost done?”
“Oh, sorry, you were supposed to go to window five awhile ago,” he replied.
Despite my blood boiling at the knowledge that he had seen me waiting idly in the wrong place — the place he had instructed me to wait — I gritted my teeth and stomped over to window five.
“Por favor,” I begged. “Yo necessito mi visa muy rapido.”
The man told me he just needed my signature, and it would be right up. As I had been told this the previous night at a restaurant where I waited an hour and a half for nachos, it didn’t surprise me that it took 25 minutes for it to come out. I now had exactly 30 minutes to get to the bus station, check in, store my bag, and get on.
Luckily the bus was late (shocking), and I made it; however, the real kicker of the story is that when I showed the man at the Bolovian border my passport, he didn’t even look at the visa.
*Note: I’m not saying not to get a Bolivian visa. You never know what can happen, and you definitely don’t want to be caught trying to leave without it. I’m simply sharing my experience to let you know how frustrating the process can be (and hopefully get you to laugh at my pain). Give yourself some extra time when obtaining it, just in case you run into issues like I did.
Have you ever had to obtain a Bolivian visa? What was your experience like?
Photo credit: flickr photo via quinn.anya