I'm very lucky to carry a British passport. It makes my life wonderfully easy at border crossings around the world – particularly in South America, where I've watched numerous Americans being forced to hand over wads of dollars for a visa I get for free.
The bad thing, however, is that an English passport is usually so problem-free that I often forget it's necessary to double check a country's requirements. You'd think that travelling a lot would make me a pro at how to enter and exit a country correctly, right? But while my passport is stuffed full of stamps, my brain still hasn't quite caught up.
And sometimes, not knowing how a country operates can really screw your travel plans up.
I've had issues with visa restrictions before. Last year in Asia when my six month India visa expired, I travelled onwards to Thailand, planning to fly back into Indian airspace solely to catch my pre-booked return flight from Mumbai to London. I forgot, of course, that my two separately booked flights would require me to pass through customs in Mumbai, collect my bag and recheck in – and that's simply not ok when you don't have a visa.
Luckily, things ended up being OK, but it still warranted a very stressful 48 hours in Bangkok and at Mumbai airport. And the situation still didn't teach me the requisite lesson.
The task: trying to extend my Bolivian visa
I'd been in Bolivia for over two months when I realised I wanted more time to travel around the country than the ninety days my initial visa offered me. The problem was hearing rumours about those who'd overstayed their visas; some people facing fines at the border, while others actually got deported. Something I really didn't fancy. And by the time I reached Tupiza, in the very south of Bolivia, there were just ten days left out of my ninety.
Luckily, Tupiza is a mere hour's drive away from the Argentinian border – so, after a quick Google search informed me I could simply cross the border, reenter and get myself another thirty days, my plan seemed simple.
Deceptively simple, as it turned out.
Step 1: leaving Bolivia
I left Tupiza on a bus bound for Villazón which arrived in a cloud of dust an hour later, to the catcalls of tour guides and drivers wanting to take me as far as Buenos Aires. I pushed through and started walking – only to halt a few blocks later when I realised I didn't know where the border crossing actually was.
A nearby cab took me five minutes down the road and the driver indicated across a bridge.
“Aqui es la frontera,” he assured me – so off I went, crossing the dusty bridge and balking slightly when I saw a double decker coach and a lengthy queue ahead.
I settled into the queuing system – typical Bolivia, with approximately forty people waiting to be seen by a single Bolivian clerk, responsible for allowing us to leave the country. It took at least two hours for me to shuffle forward enough to reach the man's desk.
He asked where in Argentina I was going. I explained that I was simply crossing the border to come back in again – “yo necesito solo una visa nueva por Bolivia,” I said, confident that I'd see him smile in understanding, hand me back my passport and close the first of four sections to this process.
But he didn't.
“Tu puedes tener solo noventa dias cada año,” he said. There was no chance of a smile appearing on this guy's face.
Only ninety days a year??
My brain began to panic, calculating what on earth I was going to do. We had a whole month of travel planned out for Bolivia – surely I wasn't going to have to bail on it all?!
The man in front of me clearly didn't care in the slightest that this English girl was having a semi-breakdown in front of him. The speed of my Spanish increased tenfold as I got more irate (my Colombian teachers would be proud).
Eventually, despite my protestations about simply needing those extra thirty days, the guy pointedly started to deal with the man behind me. And since I couldn't really handle having both their arms stretched across my shoulder, I made an unhappy exit from the queue.
Step 2: Entering Argentina
As I wandered miserably towards the next queue, a much more helpful Argentinian official monitoring said queue listened to my sob story with patient ears, and reassured me that once I'd re-entered Bolivia again, I'd definitely be allowed a new thirty day visa. Buoyed by his words, I powered through the next hour of queuing until I reached my second counter of the day: the one that would let me enter Argentina.
By this point I'd made friends with the Bolivians around me, to the extent that one of the guys let me go in front of him. He also very kindly helped me explain my rushed exit/entrance/exit/entrance strategy to the border guard, who looked confused when I tried to say it solo.
But I got my entrance stamp, and it was like gold dust. Two counters down, two to go…
Step 3: Leaving Argentina, entering Bolivia. Again.
Once I walked the few steps to the other side of the bridge and reached the Argentinian exit queue, things moved a lot quicker. I shot through departing the country, and was suddenly at the last window of the requisite four.
Handing my passport over to the Bolivian at the counter I was already sidetracked, thinking mainly about what kind of lunch menu I'd look for back in Villazón.
And then he wrote '10 days' next to his still-fresh stamp.
I started speaking rapidly in Spanish once again – except this time there was less anger and more tears. I couldn't believe I'd managed to waste three hours of my life standing in queues for absolutely no reason – not to mention wasting two pages of my already uncomfortably full passport.
And absolutely nothing had changed. I was still in the same situation, with ten days left in my visa and a desire to spend at least another month in Bolivia.
Through my tears of frustration, the man explained what I already knew – that I could only have ninety days a year. When I tried saying the Argentinian official had said otherwise, he only shook his head at me. But then a friendly security guard behind me piped up.
“Can't she go to an immigration office and get more days there?”
The Bolivian official immediately began to nod. Yes, that was certainly a possibility. Apparently the border guards can't issue more days, but in any of the bigger cities – La Paz, Potosí, Cochabamba – you could easily get an extra thirty day visa.
Lucky, then, that Cochabamba was my next destination after visiting the salt flats – and that I'd be arriving there within my allotted ten day window!.. Or so I thought.
So what happened in Cochabamba?
The first day in Cochabamba started off interestingly enough. Our overnight bus stopped at 6am in the middle of a long line of trucks, cars and other buses, about 30km away from the city. There were protests, held by the drivers of Cochabamba's public transport system in demand of higher ticket prices, and no vehicles were going anywhere.
So we started walking.
After four hours of carrying all my possessions on my back under the steadily shining sun, through fifteen blockades comprised of a never-ending sea of minivans, and getting déjà vu of a very similar experience in Peru, we eventually made it to the immigration office.
And unsurprisingly enough, my day didn't get any better.
Step 4: the actual reason why I can only have ninety days in Bolivia a year
The man in this final office was actually wonderfully blunt. I explained my situation for the umpteenth time, hand shaking somewhat as I offered him a sheaf of photocopied passport stamps. I reiterated that “all the men at the border told me I could get a visa extension in the city”. And, as ever, I received a shake of the head.
It turns out that I, and many other English passport holders, definitely cannot get more than ninety days of travel in Bolivia per year. But what I'd never understood until the Cochabamba immigration office was exactly why.
Because UK passport holders are entitled to a free 90 days, any extra time they want to spend in Bolivia after this period needs to be paid for. Although it's explained in terms of 'a fine', it's actually just a nominal fee for each day that you've overstayed your visa.
Therefore, when I leave the country at the start of January, I'll need to pay about twenty days of overstay time – and at approx. 20 Bolivianos a day, it's little more than £40 altogether.
Searching for a moral in the mess
It's not all bad, though. After travelling for seven years, on this continent for eleven months, in this specific country for long enough to know how ridiculously bureaucratic it can be, I still manage to royally screw up – and that's an important thing to bear in mind. I sometimes forget how easy it is to get tripped up while travelling.
What I've learnt from such a debacle is this:
- Do your research. Google can be great for most things, but a few results giving you the answer you've already decided you want isn't always going to cut it.
- Sort visa issues out with time to spare. Hearing I only had ten days gave me shivers – but I knew that if it turned out to be my only option, I could still easily sort a new plan and get out of Bolivia in that timeframe.
- Don't give up hope. Although the first guy gave me the same info as the last, if I hadn't bothered going through the whole process I wouldn't have realised I had a potential chance to fix everything in Cochabamba.
- A little local language goes a long way. This may seem like an obvious one, but its one of the times I've been so glad I can actually speak Spanish. Who knows how I would've handled it with a language barrier as well as a literal border in front of me?
My only question now is: can I still use my Argentina entry stamp for a later visit?