Getting from Peru to Bolivia at the small Desaguadero border crossing was a surprisingly hassle-free option and makes for a nice comparison to the regular backpacker border crossings in South East Asia.
There are two main points for crossing the Peru-Bolivian border by land. Most travellers opt to take a bus from Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, to Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. If you are planning on visiting the Island of the Sun, Copacabana, and La Paz, this method places you securely on that route. Others cross at the sad border town of Desaguadero. This is the border through which most goods, legal and smuggled, pass. From Puno, you can take a large bus, such as Ormeño, which leave the bus terminal at 05.45hrs each morning, or opt for the shared minivans called colectivos, which leave throughout the day from the corner of Bolivar (just two blocks from the city bus terminal). Ormeño can get you all the way to La Paz in 5 hours, but colectivos require boarding one after another, which run on no set schedule and only leave when full.
The colectivo option via Desaguadero is the cheapest way to get from Puno in Peru to La Paz in Bolivia, but it can be uncomfortable if you are carrying large luggage, as you must keep it with you despite overcrowding, and stay attentive in the likelihood of pickpockets. You will arrive at Desaguadero within 4 hours (US$2), and then at La Paz 4 hours and US$3 later. If you reach Desaguadero at 5pm, you’ll have arrived too late, as after this time no more colectivos depart for La Paz.
The colectivos stop at Desaguadero’s town centre, in view of the two border stations which are placed along the bridge over the river of the same name. On the left of the bridge is the Peruvian exit station, where officials collect your TAM (your Andean Migration Card, the Peruvian tourist visa you receive upon entering the country), and stamp your passport, at which point you can walk across the bridge into Bolivia. The visa is just a slip of paper presented upon entry, which advises the maximum number of days you have been allotted for your stay in Peru. If you have overstayed your visa, you will be charged US$1 for each day you stayed without permission, but otherwise no real legal issues.
Walking into Bolivia, the entry station will be on your right. The Peru-Bolivia border is open from 8am–midday and from 2pm–7.30pm, and crossing is relatively quick and stress-free, if you are prepared. You are responsible for knowing the entry requirements that apply to your nationality. Most tourists only require a passport and the entry/exit card, the new TAM, which is provided at that moment. Some will be required to fill out a form and make a payment whose amount can also vary by nationality. Travellers from most Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Eastern European countries should make arrangements ahead of time.
If you are from the UK or the US, you don’t need to make prior arrangements through an embassy, as a visa and TAM (another entry/exit card, like the one you left in Peru) will be provided to you at the border. However, you are subject to a list of requirements: 2 passport-sized photos, a copy of your reservation for lodging in Bolivia, a completed application form, your passport with more than 6 month’s validity, and money.
You can get a copy of the visa application form online through the official Bolivia embassy website and it is wise to fill this out in advance. You can also receive a copy to fill out at the border, but you’ll waste time in doing so. Most of the buses crossing the border are filled with Latin American tourists who have either applied for a visa ahead of time or who are not subject to the same requirements as a citizen of European countries or the US and you’ll find they’ll breeze through the border whereas you will have to wait ages. If your form, photos, and passport are all in order, you will pass through quickly, too, and not have to worry about being left behind by a bus that you’ve already paid for!
The entry / exit card that you receive upon entering Bolivia is the TAM (Tarjeta Andina de Migración), which you will be required to produce it in order to leave the country, and it also specifies how long you are allowed to stay in the country. If your card is lost during your visit, you will need to visit the local immigration office for assistance in procuring a new one (if, on the other hand, you lose your passport, you should contact your embassy).
So many backpackers cross from Peru to Bolivia at Desaguadero, and it seems like some rite of passage for travellers in the region to make this bus journey. It may be a shame to leave a country as pleasant and interesting as Peru, but once in Bolivia, you are well on your way to the majestic and lofty capital city of La Paz – yet before you get there you still have the wonders of Lake Titicaca and Tiwanaku to explore!