Bus: Puno > Copacabana > La Paz
Total travel time: 6-8 hours
Time zone: 1 hour ahead of Peru
Exchange rate: About 6 BOLIVIANOS for every 1 USD
The nitty gritty:
Getting from Puno to La Paz was a little bit of a mission. After we got back from Amantani Island we went straight to the bus station. There aren't any tourist buses going to and/or from Bolivia so you're at the graces of the local system. After waiting several hours we just barely made it onto a bus for 25 soles. I mean, we were literary running through the bus station and tossing our bags in the compartment before getting to our seats. So I suggest NOT doing what we did and going to the bus station a day or two ahead. Pick a bus company and book a reservation. You'll avoid a lot of extra running, sweating, and confusing conversations with bus peeps.
The border is another interesting situation. You have to get off the bus and walk across the Peru/Bolivia border. And if you are a United States citizen you'll have to pay a visa fee to enter Bolivia. Crossing the border looks a little like this:
Get off the bus, exchange money, go through Peru immigration, walk across border, go through Bolivia immigration, get told you don't have the right paperwork, get out of line, make photocopies of paperwork, get back in line [well, cut in line and have all the other countries give you stink eye], pay 250 Bolivianos, find the bus, get back on the bus.
It just so happened to be carnival when we were passing the border town. There were people dressed up in all kinds of interesting outfits dancing to a live band. I wouldn't have considered any of their outfits traditional. The men wore colorful, metallic jumpsuits that resembled clown uniforms. Maybe there was some kind of tradition I wasn't aware of. Interesting nonetheless.
If that wasn't enough for you, we had to switch to a slightly more ghetto bus in Copacabana. I mean, it wasn't that bad but it was pretty old and dirty. I tried not to put my head on my seat for most of the ride. Even the breaks sounded like they were going to give way on the winding downhill roads. After about an hour of winding roads we have to cross the lake. So, everyone files out of the bus, takes a 5-minute ferry ride for 2 bolivianos, crosses the lake, then gets back on the bus. I felt like a refugee fleeing to across the lake. We even got stopped by the government police for a random check. In the dark of night with blinding flash lights.. it was a bit frightening!
Now I know this all sounds a bit awful, but it was actually quite an adventure! No ever tries to tell a good story about their easy, stress free, 1-hour plane ride [and if they do.. they're boring.] And the ride was so beautiful it was worth taking the bus. As we crossed Lake Titicaca there was a massive lightning storm in the distance that lit up the mountains and sky. It's those sorts of moments that make all of the hardships of traveling worth it.
La Paz itself was a very interesting place. It is huge and jam packed with people and buildings and dogs and things. But there was an interesting blend of old and new. There are older, traditionally dressed people walking the streets and young, hipster people opening cool coffee shops. There are antique Bolivian handicrafts and modern designers selling products at a high price. There are traditional street food vendors and high-end, gastronomic restaurants. It's one of those cities that you could get lost in for days. And we did. Several other highlights of our time spent in La Paz include biking Yungas Road [the most dangerous road in the world!], trying different ethnic foods including Llama sausage, and going on a major shopping spree!
A lot of people get sketched out by Bolivia and try to stay away from traveling there. Fortunately, we never had a problem while we were on our trip. I mean, if you don't count the bus driver smuggling cocaine or the guy relieving himself next to me on the bus. But we never felt threatened and/or a target for crime. I know getting robbed or having another bad experience is all situational and could happen to anyone. And I'm super glad we never had to deal with anything that tramatic. In retrospect, you just can't worry about those sort of things and just live out the experience.
Bolivia was never really somewhere I wanted to travel to but now I consider it the highlight of our trip, La Paz included.
Puno to La Paz. The experience was worth it.