WARNING: This post contains graphic content involving border crossing failures. If reading about illegal aliens makes you squeamish, please read no further.
When Jorge and I arrived to Salta, Argentina last week, the very first thing we did was buy our ticket to Bolivia for May 30th at 10:30pm. Bus timetables can be limited (sometimes only one crossing per week for some companies!), so we wanted to be sure to have this important step taken care of since our itinerary is quite full and short on time.
We purchased our ticket successfully. Before we left the office, I asked the ticket guy, “And the reciprocity fee I have to pay?”
“Oh… right….” Realization dawned slowly across his face. “You’re American.”
For those that aren’t aware, several countries in South America have begun what is known as a “reciprocity fee” specifically for citizens of the USA. The visa procedure for visiting the US is notoriously strict and expensive — so some countries have implemented this fee, AKA “You did this to us so we’re doing it to you” fee. I’ve paid it in Chile, in Argentina, and I knew it was waiting for me in Bolivia.
The employee suggested I pay this fee in advance, since our bus would be crossing into Bolivia around 3:30am. He mentioned the Bolivian consulate was just down the block if we wanted to try to pay there. Fair enough. We left the terminal, went to our hostel, and I began investigating how to take care of this tiny detail.
Try searching “Reciprocity fee Bolivia” in google (or, if you’re so inclined, “Tasa de reciprocidad Bolivia”). The results? All about the Argentinian reciprocity fee. Not helpful. Furthermore, no website where I could pay the fee in advance, like what I did when I visited Argentina.
I began searching for personal accounts of how to take care of this fee. No dice.
I looked around my hostel for other Americans. Zero.
This is where the first hints of bronca crept in. Bronca is an Argentinian word meaning ‘anger’. If you’re pissed off, you say “Me da una bronca tremenda”. And my bronca level was about 2 of 10 at this point.
We decided to go to the consulate. We walked ten blocks to get there, a pleasant late morning stroll through Salta. We showed up, crammed into a tiny hot room full of Bolivians, Jorge and I easily a full head taller than everyone else in the room. We waited for about 40 minutes there until we were attended.
The Consulate employee helping us didn’t, at first, understand what we wanted. He had to call a different consulate for information. We were eventually turned away without a solution, since their office lacked a specific stamp necessary for the payment process. He did, however, mention we go to the consulate in Jujuy — a city over 2 hours away. But he assured me that if we crossed into Bolivia, I could probably handle the paperwork aspect at the crossing there.
Bronca level: 4.
We left with more questions than answers, and I began to feel deeply concerned that crossing the border might not be so easy.
Two days later, Jorge and I went to Jujuy. Our bus left that same night, so we figured we’d spend the day in Jujuy, take care of the fee, and then come back to Salta to catch our bus to Bolivia. Such a great idea! To be even more prepared, we called the consulate in advance, just to make sure they could help us. We didn’t want to love 4 hours of travel only to find out they couldn’t receive the payment like the first consulate. They told us to show up with my passport, the payment in dollars, and my yellow fever vaccination.
Wait, what?! Yellow fever vaccination? I had seen mention of this as a requisite for entry to Bolivia, but hadn’t thought much of it. A friend of mine had traveled to Bolivia within the past year and she didn’t have the vaccination, though it had been a requirement then, too. They said if we went to the hospital we could get the shot and then get the visa. Great, sounds easy.
After almost 2 and a half hours in a bus, we arrived to Jujuy and headed straight for the hospital. Sorry, they said. We stopped giving those shots years ago. Oh really? Because we were told to come here. They suggested the Ministerio de Salud. We walked several more blocks there, to be told that they only gave shots until 2pm each day. I looked at the time. 2:30pm.
WELL, FINE. Around this time, I started to get really angry. If I had known that the yellow fever vaccination was an actual necessity, I would have gotten it during the ample amount of free time I’d had in Salta. Now it was down to the wire and my bus left in 5 hours and I had no vaccination and no way to get it.
We walked about 13 blocks to get to the Consulate, and as we rounded the corner, we noticed a surprisingly dense crowd of Bolivians waiting at the front door. Oh crap. Turns out it was election time in Bolivia, and all these people wanted to vote. The employee sent me to the end of the line, about 30 people deep. Funny, considering we had only 2 hours before our bus returned to Salta, and then onward to Bolivia.
We managed to explain my unique situation — we’re traveling to Bolivia today, the other consulate told us to come here, I want to pay you, please help me — and they told us to wait until the appropriate person showed up. Apparently, she was negotiating a hunger strike in a different part of the city and was detained.
In her absence, we communicated with another employee about the payment. “Can I pay in pesos?” I asked. “Or should I go change the money?”
“Pesos is fine,” she reassured me. Score! We walked about 6 blocks to find an ATM so I could take out the remainder of the necessary money. In Argentina, finding dollars is hard — exchanging for dollars is even harder, because the rate is so crappy when you want to buy them.
Upon our return to the consulate, the appropriate employee had returned and was ready to help us. We walked up to her desk, all smiles. I showed her my passport and explained what I wanted to do.
“And your passport photos?” she asked.
“Your passport photos.” She showed me a form, titled APPLICATION FOR VISA FOR U.S. CITIZENS, where it called for a passport photo at the top. “When you called earlier you were told to bring these.”
“Nobody told me that,” I said. Because nobody had told us that.
She sighed. “Well, your proof of economic solvency?”
Again, record screeching. “I’m sorry?”
“Your proof of economic solvency. Do you have copies of that, along with your passport, and your hotel reservations?”
I couldn’t stop my jaw from hanging to the ground. “I’m sorry, I was just told to show up and pay the fee, I had no idea I would need–”
“It’s 135 dollars.”
“I have that! Here.” I showed here the pesos.
“It can only be in dollars.”
Again, jaw to the ground. Bronca level: 9. “But, the other lady just told me a half hour ago that….”
“Sorry.” She shrugged. “They’re the prerequisites. You can go take dollars out and make the copies of all this information and come back and then we can process it.”
“I can’t, though. Our bus leaves in an hour. We won’t have time.”
Another shrug. Jorge and I looked at each other in disbelief. I fought the urge to crumple the form in my fist and throw it in her face.
“And how was I supposed to know all of this beforehand? We were told at the other consulate to just try crossing. Furthermore, why isn’t this information publicly available? If all of this information is needed to get into Bolivia, it should be dispersed.”
And truly, by this point, the “reciprocity fee” situation had fully snowballed into a “get your visa before you go” situation, and at no point in my research had I seen any inkling that showing up at the border wasn’t an acceptable way to travel.
I was really angry — it felt like secret information. Most every country has “technical rules and regulations” but most aren’t regularly enforced. For example, it’s a technical rule to prove economic solvency for any visa to any country, but never in my travels have I ever been asked for it. The only time in almost 10 years of travel was when I applied for a student visa in Mexico and they wanted to know how I’d support myself while studying abroad. (AHEM, parents!)
What added to the bronca was the fact that this bullcrap only applies to citizens of my country, and I had exactly one friend who had recently traveled to Bolivia, and she didn’t have to do ANY of this rigamarole.
We left Jujuy feeling discouraged and confused. We talked over our options — cancel the bus ticket? Go back to Chile? Fly to Lima direct? — and once we had discussed our situation with the bus company employee, he came up with a specialized solution.
“Here’s what we can do,” he explained to us around 9:30PM that night, only an hour before our bus was set to depart. “You guys get on the bus and travel to Bolivia. You’ll hit the Bolivian border at around 3 AM. Depending on what official is there, he might not make any trouble and you’ll go through fine. But if, god help you, you don’t get through, you can hitch a taxi to Tarija (the city the bus was traveling to), and then do your migration paperwork there in the city on Monday. Plus you can go to our office in Tarija and ask for a refund for the part of the trip you didn’t make with the bus.”
We boarded the bus that night at 10:30 PM. I was 99% certain that everything would work out fine. After all, tons of Americans travel to Bolivia, and with how hard this information is to find out in advance, I felt it was certain that a lot of Americans were showing up to the border without all the paperwork and vaccinations. I’d be fine.