A guide for getting to Puno to La Paz fast – and without a hitch
Considering flying from Lima to La Paz, but put off by expensive flights? Bit nervy about doing the border crossing on your way across up from Arequipa or down from the Uyuni salt flats, and searching for information?
Look no further.
Crossing the Peru-Bolivia border at Desaguadero is simple and completely legit.
It’s less scenic than the alternative crossing at Copacabana, but if you’re in a hurry you can get from Puno to La Paz in just over five hours.
Here’s my account.
Flying into Juliaca
I flew from Lima to Juliaca to save cash. International flights tend to work out about double for La Paz.
LAN or Avianca airlines fly in total about six times daily.
On getting into Juliaca’s Inca Manco Capac airport, I pre-organized a shuttle bus to Puno which waits outside the tiny arrivals hall. It cost S/.15 and I did it through Rossy Tours travel agency (tel.: 051/366-709). Puno is 45 miles (28 kilometres away) and takes 40 mins to arrive. You can take combis for less, though these will go via the centre of Juliaca and will take longer.
Don’t spend the night in Juliaca. It’s a god foresaken place, dirty, potholed, seedy.
Spend the night in Puno, safer, friendlier, and much more of a tourist destination.
Puno – Desaguadero
The next morning, take a taxi (no more than 5 soles) to the Terminal Zonal. Be careful not to go to the Terminal Terrestre, which does longer domestic journeys to Arequipa, Cusco, Tacna.
Outside of the smaller terminal, which sits just off of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake (at 3,800 metres altitude), you have two options.
1. Go by minibus. They carry about 15 people will cost about 10 soles. But they leave less often (waiting until all seats are occupied), are slower and far less comfortable.
2. Take a taxi with three other passengers. This works out at 20 soles, and takes on average two-and-a-half hours.
You won’t get stopped for customs or passport checks on the Peruvian side of the border. On the Bolivian side, it’s more likely.
After taking this route round Lake Titicaca, you arrive to the border town of Desaguadero. It’s like all border towns, shabby, full of merchandise, and a bit dodgy.
Still, there are border police on hand and nothing will happen to you.
First, go to Peruvian immigration, a small hall with four officials behind counters. Present your Andean Migration card, which you will have filled when you entered Peruvian territory. If you’re within your allotted time (typically 183 days on a tourist visa; given on entry at the immigration official’s discretion) your passport will be stamped once more, you cede the card, and you leave.
Exchanging soles for bolivianos
Next, change your Peruvian soles to Bolivia’s bolivianos.
The rates are good (exchanging soles for bolivianos
in mid-October 2015, 1 sol = 2.4 bolivianos; on return you get 1 sol for 2.5 bolivianos)
Spot rate was 1 sol = 2.35 bob, 15 October 2014.
It’s legit and do it on the Peruvian side. Don’t haggle; they won’t budge. There are more police and ultimately more cambiastas – women sat on stools with wooden boxes for their change.
Now walk over the bridge connecting the two sides of Desaguadero, adding an extra hour for time difference.
They’ll be various walking salespeople selling all manner of things, from food to key rings to coca leaves.
Walk into Bolivia, take selfie with “Bienvenidos a Bolivia” sign, then walk to the left side of a big building in the middle of the street. That’s the immigration hall.
They’ll usually be a queue and it will be slower on the Bolivian side. At busy times it could take an hour, on faster days 20 mins.
Before getting in line, walk to a first booth inside the building to the left to get your immigration card for Bolivia to fill in. You don’t need to queue to get this part and will just waste time.
With the card join the back of the queue, and fill it in as you’re snailing along. For Brits (I’m a brit) and most nationalities it’s free and you get 3 months max on a tourist visa. Americans will have to pay and Israelis now need a visa, as of July 2014.
After that you’re done.
On to La Paz
Walk 50 yards to where you’ll have the same choice – taxi vs. minibus. Take the taxi – it’ll be even cheaper – 30 bolivianos versus about 8-15 on the minibus.
Again taxers are faster, safer and more nimble if you hit frequent, crippling traffic jams. You’ll know because your driver will curse and mumble about ‘atrancado’ (being stuck).
From Desaguadero the taxi takes less time than the one to Puno. As little as an hour and ten if you’re lucky, up to 2 and a half if you’re not.
Delays will occur once you hit El Alto, the world’s highest city (containing more than people 100,000) at 4,050 metres above sea level.
You’ll realise that’s a good pub quiz fact.
If you arrive on Thursday and Sunday it will take longer as these are market days. There are loads of vehicles and blocked of streets and diversions.
It’s not the end of the world, it will just take longer.
In my case, despite promises to be taken to La Paz’s general cementery (cementerio general) my taxi driver gave up and I had to walk away from the jam to take a taxi to downtown La Paz.
In that case walk away from the blockage and ask for the Plaza San Francisco, La Paz’s centre. Many backpackers hostels are 5-10 mins walk away.
Reverse trip: La Paz to Puno
Take a taxi to the ‘cementerio general’ and ask for the ‘paradero Desaguadero”. Practically all taxi drivers should know where this is. From the Plaza San Francisco, don’t pay more than 15 bolivianos.
In my case when I arrived there were only the white 15-person minibuses, so I told my driver to take me to the taxis. He wasn’t sure but knew where to go in El Alto.
We climbed up from La Paz, which sits in a bit of an egg cup at 3,600 metres to El Alto at about 4,050 metres. Taxi drivers are master improvisers, knowing a diversion if you hit more inexplicable traffic.
After arriving in the ‘desaguadero paradero’ in El Alto, I don’t know the address, but confide in your driver, he or she [almost never] I had to pay 70 bolivianos, so I got a bit stung. My driver wasn’t out to con me, I just hadn’t realized the trip would rise to 70 bolivianos.
From there I found the taxi cabs, agreed 30 bolivianos, and took a seat waiting for the cab to fill. They will never go until full, and some drivers insist someone sit in the boot (trunk), facing the rear. These cars are station wagons. Don’t sit in the boot.
Then there’s another 90 minute drive. You may get stopped close to the border. Showing your passport should be enough and registering your name. They rarely search you.
I can’t see how Bolivians officials could find a pretext so that you have to pay a commission (bribe). Obviously judge it as it is, but I’d vehemently refuse unless it was clear for the sake of a few dollars, you don’t want the hassle. I don’t know anyone that this happened to.
Go straight to Bolivian immigration with the immigration slip of paper you had stamped and filled out on the way in.
There is no exit tax (at least not for Brits), cross the bridge, and go to Peru’s immigration hall. Get a card, fill it out, and put yourself in line. Wind your clock an hour back. The whole process took 5 mins at 10am on a Tuesday morning.
Desaguadero to Puno
Bear right and you should encounter various taxi drivers chatting. If you’re gringo they’ll seek you out and be shouting Puno. You won’t have to look far. It costs 20 soles again and you have to wait until full. I had a great ceviche from one of the stalls by the way for 6 soles.
Then it’s about two-and-a-half hours to Puno.
Finally to Juliaca
To get to the airport in Juliaca, I organized a minibus through the same Rossy tour company for 15 soles. That’s not a direct endorsement. They were just a number I was given. That journey takes 45 mins to an hour.
Don’t fret if you arrive even an hour before schedule take-off. It’s a domestic airport, and it took me all of 10 mins to get through.
And there you have. Relatively stress free and having made some big savings.