Yes, unfortunately the title is true. We were illegal immigrants into Peru. As mentioned in our post “Santiago y Ilda,” we took a 27-hour bus ride on Ormeño from La Paz to Lima. After bouncing around for five or so hours on the atrocious Bolivian altiplano roads, we pulled into Desaguadero, a border town between Bolivia and Peru. As the only two foreign tourists on the bus, we copied the other passengers and got off the bus. An hour or so before, we had done something similar at a Bolivian police check-point. Therefore, we figured this wouldn’t be much different: get off, walk past Inca-cola selling stands and foul-smelling holes in the ground where you can pay to urinate/defecate, show our passports, and get back on-board.
However, this wasn’t the case. Instead, we were nudged by pushy passengers from our bus and others into a tangle of people between a window for a Bolivian immigration slip and an office for passport checks. Confused and worried of being pick-pocketed, we navigated between the two stops and left with a new stamps on our passports. Uncertain if this disorganized process included both our emigration from Bolivia and our immigration to Peru, we decided to ask the police standing outside the office. After a quick look at our passports, they assured us we were finished and should proceed across the bridge to the other side. Once across, we inquired similarly dressed police officers again, who eagerly waved us to run to our departing bus. Flustered, we boarded Ormeño once again and assumed our immigration process was complete. After all, no country would let you enter across a bridge without making sure you passed through their immigrations, right?
Wrong. A few weeks later, in Cuzco, we discovered otherwise when asked for our passports by our hotel. The staff wanted to check our stamped immigration date to ensure we were just the usual tourists, since Peru charges an 18% tax for natives and foreigners who have been in the country for longer than 90 days. Shocked that we didn’t have a stamp, they insisted we would need to pay the 18% tax. Already frustrated from the taxi driver’s price gouging on the way to the hotel, we refused. Wisely, they acknowledged our exacerbation and stubbornness, deciding to bypass the law by accepting cash. Obstacle one successfully averted.
Shockingly, though, the Bolivian embassy doesn’t seem to notice – or care – as they give us (not before much hassle) our Objeto Determinados (a temporary visa; a blog about this nightmare will follow).
Quickly, we ran into trouble again, only this time in Puno. It was the same scenario. Our hotel insisted we pay the tax because we couldn’t prove our immigration date. This time they won, though not before the manager intervened and warned us that we could be imprisoned for illegally entering Peru. Kindly, she contacted an immigrations officer and attorney, and helped us plan our escape. We would leave by bus through Desaguedero, not the touristy Copacabana, to cross at a place with a lower density of police officers. Hide on the bus, we were told. If caught, play dumb and bribe always.
Great. Compliments of the government’s disorganized immigration mess, we are hiding from the law when all we want to do is leave their country. Weary of visiting the Peruvian embassy and risky detainment, we follow the hotel manager’s advice and call a cab for Desaguedero. And we pray.
Not 15 minutes into the 2-hour long taxi ride, our driver is stopped by the police. This pubescent boy-of-a-driver is asked for his insurance, driver’s license, proof of ownership of the car, and other documents. Of course, he has none of the requested slips of paper. Immediately, he is told to exit the car and a swarm of 8 officers surrounds our car asking for our passports. One inquires about the contents of our luggage, asking leading questions about what drugs we are smuggling. Meanwhile, another officer flips the pages of our passports for our Peruvian immigration stamps that don’t exist.
Please Lord, don’t make my wife and I the first American medical students to not graduate due to detainment in a foreign prison.
Miraculously, the officer nods, closes our passports, and asks me what America’s like. “Where do you fly for the cheapest fares? Is Miami beautiful?” Only having been to Miami’s airport, I embellish extravagant tales of Miami’s beautiful beaches, the great fares on American Airlines, and the amazing cuisine. He smiles and now I’m telling him about Chicago, Texas, our food…anything he wants to hear to get our passports and rite of passage back. After what seems like a week of waiting, our driver slides back into his seat, brow beading with sweat, and pays a 20 Soles bribe to get us back on our way.
God is good.
We wind along the southwest border of the expansive Lake Titikaka, finally arriving in Desaguedero once again, only this time to meet our fate. Though we insist otherwise, the taxi driver pulls directly in front of the Peruvian immigration office, which we take note of for the first time. Like kids who have broken a window throwing the ball in the house while their parents were away, we awkwardly fumble around trying to hide our guilty faces. Acting intrigued, like tourists before the Statue of Liberty, we browse through loads of hideous tourist gifts wide-eyed, with heads bobbing. We must be acting too well, though, because people seem to think we really want to buy something. Then, in a spur of genius, I decide we should pay a 12 year-old kid on his “bike-taxi” to tow us across the bridge to the Bolivian side.
“Have you been through Peruvian customs yet?”
“Shut up, kid, and bike,” we say to ourselves.
Though we intend for him to stop at the Bolivian immigration office, the kid peddles us past the building into the town without anyone taking notice.
“Too easy,” we think. But we know this won’t work. We still need a Bolivian work visa, and this surely will require an official entrance into the country.
The poor kid turns us and our 100+ pounds of luggage around.
Here we are again, this stupid, disorganized office. Please just let us through. We aren’t morally opposed to bribing you, since it’s that, or prison.
Sadly, in a surge of unprecedented professionalism and order, the Bolivian immigration officers refuse to let us pass. We must go to the Peruvian office first.
But we can’t, they will detain us. Please, we are medical students working with the poor in your country. We have our Objeto Determinados already. Carolina’s mom is from Santa Cruz. She was the carnival queen. I only look Gringo, I’m really Bolivian at heart.
Our third crossing of the bridge is our most despondent. Heads down, bracing for the worst, we slump forward, defeated, into the Peruvian immigration office. First, we play dumb. This fails, so we plead our case.
This is a serious offense. I’m obligated to report your delinquency to the police. I understand you unintentionally did this, but I must consult my friend in the police department.
God is good. He has a terrible sense of humor, but He is good.
After a scolding and a $60 exchange, our passports finally received their crowning decoration: a Peruvian entrance (and exit) stamp. No mind that 28 days had been erased from history (the records has us having entered and left the same day), we escaped Peru and finally returned to Bolivia!
Travel Tip #902: It’s ok to be that tourist who shows off all his/her stamps from different trips, as long as that means you check for a stamp from your current trip!