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Border Crossing: Bolivia

There are two viable routes from Puno to Bolivia. The north-shore route is very much off the beaten track and rarely used. There are two ways to go via the south shore: through either Yunguyo or Desaguadero. The only reason to go via Desaguadero is if you’re pressed for time. The Yunguyo route is safer, prettier and far more popular; it passes through the chilled-out Bolivian lakeshore town of Copacabana, from where Isla del Sol – arguably the most significant site in Andean mythology – can be visited.

US citizens have to pay US$160 cash in US dollars for a tourist visa to enter Bolivia. This can be done at the border; shops there can help with the two necessary photos and photocopies. Also, there’s a Bolivian Consulate in Puno. Citizens of the EU, Canada and Australia don't need to pay a fee or provide photos. Everybody needs a return bus/plane ticket and a passport with six months' validity.

Bolivian border agents often try to charge an unofficial B$30 (collaboration fee) to use the border. Politely refuse. Always keep your backpack with you when crossing the border.

Note that Peruvian time is one hour behind Bolivian time.

Via Yunguyo toward Copacabana

There are two ways to do this.

The quickest and easiest way is with a cross-border bus company such as Tour Perú or Ormeño. Purchase tickets at the Terminal Terrestre, or the more convenient Tour Perú ticket office in central Puno, at least one day in advance. The services stop at a casa de cambio (exchange bureau) at the border and waits for passengers to check through before continuing to Copacabana (S20 to S28, three to four hours). Here, another bus that’s waiting can take you straight to La Paz (B$35, 3½ hours), with a changeover of 1½ hours.

The alternative is catching local transportation – micros (small buses) – from the Terminal Zonal. This much slower method of transportation is only recommended if you want to stop at some or all of the south-shore towns. Leave as early as 8am to allow enough time. Between towns, micros are regular, especially on Sunday, which is the market day in both Juli and Yunguyo. It’s a great way to get off the beaten track and rub shoulders with locals.

Yunguyo is the end of the line. Catch a triciclo (three-wheeled cycle) to Kasani or cross on foot – it’s a pleasant 2km along Av Ejército. The casas de cambio here offer a better exchange rate than their Bolivian counterparts.

First visit the Peruvian police, followed by the Control Migratorio (Immigration Office) on the left. Walk to the arch and the ‘Welcome to Bolivia’ sign for Bolivian immigration services.

A combi (minibus) to Copacabana is B$3. Combis leave more frequently on Sunday; on weekdays you may have to wait up to an hour. If you are inclined to walk the 8km, it’s a straightforward stroll around the lake.

The border is open from 7:30am until 6pm, Peruvian time.

Via Desaguadero toward La Paz

If you’re going straight from Puno to La Paz, unsavory Desaguadero is faster, slightly cheaper and more direct than Yunguyo. It’s also less scenic and less safe, though perfectly fine if you are traveling via tourist bus, which is only there briefly. Avoid spending the night in Desaguadero.

Combis (minibuses) leave Puno’s Terminal Zonal for Desaguadero (S9, 2½ hours) throughout the day.

In Desaguadero, visit the Peruvian Dirección General de Migraciones y Naturalización to get stamped out of Peru. Then head to the building that says ‘Migraciones Desaguadero,’ to the left of the bridge, to complete Bolivian formalities.

Catch a triciclo (three-wheeled cycle) to the Bolivian-side transportation terminal, from where you can get to La Paz in 3½ hours either by combi (minibus; B$30/S16) or colectivo (shared transportation; B$30/S16).

The border is open from 8:30am to 8:30pm Bolivian time, or one hour earlier by Peruvian time.

Note: the Peruvian police have a bad reputation here, sometimes demanding a nonexistent ‘exit tax.' You are not required to visit the Peruvian police station before leaving the country, so if anyone asks you to accompany them there, politely but firmly refuse. There are no ATMs in Desaguadero, so bring cash from Puno if your nationality requires a tourist visa.

Air

The nearest airport is in Juliaca, about an hour away. Hotels can book you a comfortable, safe shuttle bus for S15 or you can book directly with Rossy Tours. The earliest bus is timed to give you just enough time to check in for the earliest flight, so there is no need to stay in Juliaca. There is a LAN office in Puno.

Boat

There are no passenger ferries across the lake from Puno to Bolivia, but you can get to La Paz via the lake in one or two days on high-class tours that visit Isla del Sol and other sites along the way. Transturin has a bus/catamaran/bus combination, departing at 6:30am from Puno and arriving in La Paz at 7:30pm, or the following day at noon, with an overnight onboard. Leon Tours also visits Isla del Sol on the way to La Paz using hydrofoil boats. In total it’s a 13-hour trip, though two- and three-day sightseeing tours are available. Crillon Tours is its Bolivian operator.

Bus

The Terminal Terrestre, three blocks down Ricardo Palma from Av El Sol, houses Puno’s long-distance bus companies. The terminal has an ATM, and there is a departure tax of S1.50, which you must pay in a separate booth before departure.

Buses leave for Cuzco every two to three hours from 4am to 10pm, and for Arequipa every three to four hours from 2am to 10pm. Cruz del Sur has the best services to both. Turismo Mer buses to Cuzco are also comfortable. Civa goes to Lima and Arequipa. Tour Perú goes to Cuzco at 10pm and also has a daily 7am service crossing to La Paz, Bolivia, via Copacabana.

The most enjoyable way to get to Cuzco is via Inka Express, whose luxury buses with panoramic windows depart every morning at 6.50am. Buffet lunch is included, along with an English-speaking tour guide and oxygen. The sites briefly visited en route include Andahuaylillas, Raqchi, Abra la Raya and Pucará. The trip takes about eight hours and costs US$60.

Local combis (minibuses) to Chucuito, Juli, Pomata and the Bolivian border leave from the new, organized Terminal Zonal, five blocks south of the Terminal Terrestre. Many combis (minibuses; S1) from the center run nearby along Av El Sol or Av Simón Bolívar; ask to 'bajar en Branden' ('get out at Branden') and head towards the lake to find the Terminal.

To get to Capachica (S5, one hour), catch a combi from Talara, just off El Sol opposite the Mercado Bellavista. They leave once an hour from about 6am to 2pm.

Puno Buses

Arequipa

Cost* (soles)

25/75

Duration (hr)

5

Cuzco

Cost* (soles)

30/80

Duration (hr)

7-8

Juliaca

Cost* (soles)

3.50

Duration (hr)

1

Lima

Cost* (soles)

150/170

Duration (hr)

18-21

Copacabana, Bolivia

Cost* (soles)

20

Duration (hr)

3

La Paz, Bolivia

Cost* (soles)

50

Duration (hr)

5-6

* Prices are general estimates for normal/luxury buses

Train

The train ride from Puno to Cuzco retains a certain renown from the days – now long gone – when the road wasn’t paved and the bus journey was a nightmare. Train fares have skyrocketed in recent years and most travelers now take the bus. There are two train services. The sumptuous Belmond Andean Explorer train is an overnight sleeper service with three meals and cocktails included, coming at a hefty cost for five-star-hotel-like pampering. The cheaper PeruRail Titicaca service is a day trip. Both are for train buffs and well-to-do travellers, since the tracks run next to the road for much of the way, so the scenery, while wonderful through the glass-walled observation car, is comparable to a much cheaper bus ride.

Reservations can be made online at www.perurail.com.

Andean Explorer trains depart from Puno’s train station at noon on Wednesdays, arriving at Cuzco around 7:40am the next day. Tickets cost from US$480 per person; prices rise steeply depending on sleeper cabin type now that the train has been relaunched by luxury hotel brand Belmond.

PeruRail Titicaca trains do not include sleeping and depart Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30am, and arrive in Cuzco at 5:50pm the same day. Tickets are US$260.