Update on Bolivian visas for U.S. Citizens

Since this topic has generated the most discussion on this blog, I thought I’d update everyone based on our experience.

For the past two years, Miguel and I have run a social science field school in La Paz. That meant coordinating visas for our students. In sum, it seems that the requirements are somewhat looser than they have been in the past.

You still do need a visa, however it has become more routine to obtain one upon landing in La Paz. Our students obtained a visa upon entry without difficulty, and we observed other visitors were able to do so, as well.

However, we do require our students to travel with the following:
1. A letter of invitation in Spanish from a Bolivian citizen stating the purpose of the trip (in our case, the letter was from Miguel). A copy of a hotel reservation should suffice, as well
2. A copy of their round-trip flight itinerary
3. 2 passport photos (they have not been asking for these, but technically are still required)
4. The Bolivian visa application form (they have had them in the airport, but better to arrive prepared. It can be downloaded from: http://www.boliviawdc.com/visas-en/tourism)
5. $135 in cash in neat bills
6. A printout of the visa requirements from the link above.
Please note that a certificate of yellow fever vaccination is NOT REQUIRED.

Hope this helps.

Experience acquiring a Bolivian tourist visa as US citizen

Since many of our readers want to know about visa requirement to go to Bolivia, I thought I should share my recent experience entering the La Paz airport.

You can review the requirements for a US citizen requesting a tourist visa here.  You’ll need a passport, application form (available on the website above; print one to bring with you), 2 passport-sized photos, US$135, evidence of a yellow fever vaccine within the last 10 years, a reservation/letter to stay somewhere (although this doesn’t have to be for your full stay), a reservation to return home, and proof of economic solvency (such as a credit card).

The tourist visa is good for five years, and you can stay for 90 days per year.  If you overstay your visa there is a per-day charge; I don’t have the details on that.

If you are flying, keep in mind that your airline will also review your documents.  They don’t want to be responsible for taking you back if Bolivia won’t let you in.

In Bolivia people are very cautious about U.S. money; there is a serious problem with counterfeits.  If your payment for the tourist visa (or anything else) is in bills that are torn, worn, or of an older vintage, they may be rejected.  The $10 I tried to use — although perfected valid in the U.S. — was not accepted for the tourist visa.  So make sure you bring crisp, clean new bills.

Overall, however, the process was very transparent and straightforward.  The Bolivian officials were very efficient and professional.  In general, unless you live near a Bolivian consulate, I would recommend acquiring the visa at the Bolivian airport.

Back from Bolivia

We arrived back in Chicago from Bolivia yesterday. We had no problems leaving the country. Javi and I had overstayed our 30 day period by a few days, but we were not asked to pay a multa. We explained we were visiting family and the official nodded and stamped us out. I have heard stories that some people are getting 90-day entries right off the bat when they arrive as well. It seems that the 30 days at a time for no more than 90 days in a year is being loosely enforced, with 90 days remaining more of the standard. Of course, much of this depends on the official you get, their mood, etc etc. In addition, we met with a colleague in La Paz who told us this trip (his second on his visa) he had no hassles from officials in Miami, in Bolivia, etc, so the visa is a one-time (well one-time per five year) pain and after that you aren’t asked for additional documentation or anything upon check in/arrival.

American Airlines treated us fine on the way back. They do have a fairly permanent embargo on overweight or extra checked bags to/from Bolivia, though. Luckily ours squeaked in just at or underweight, but we would *not* have been able to pay extra to check an overweight bag (now 22 kilos/50 lbs, I believe). This is difficult if, like many of us, you have lots of heavy research-related material (books, newspaper clippings, etc).

More updates later – including an interesting visit to a coffee plantation – but for now we’ve got some unpacking, laundry, etc to do!

Oh, and happy belated July 16th!

Masks, Public Health Tents, and Sweeping Closures

That is what swine flu in Bolivia looks like (here called Influenza A). About 100 cases have been reported here, mainly in Santa Cruz. There is a full-blown panic here that to a certain extent overlaps what occurred in the U.S. yet with local particularities and concerns. Overall, it appears that the impact here is and will be greater than in the U.S.

When we arrived two weeks ago, we were met by a team of 4 or 5 young officials (medical students? nurses? young doctors? It was hard to tell, they were all in their mid-20s and there were a few guys and a few women). They each wore two face masks and a white lab coat. They met each passenger with a clipboard and asked us while we stood in line waiting to clear immigration a series of questions – name, city of origin, if we had any flu symptoms, address in Bolivia, etc.

Later that week while talking to one of Miguel’s cousins, we found out his classes (he’s a lecturer at Rene Moreno’s campus in Montero) had been cancelled for 2 weeks due to swine flu, since there were a few confirmed cases in the vicinity.

Then upon our arrival to La Paz, I found out that *all* schools are closed (public, private, etc) for two weeks due to swine flu. This “vacation” overlaps with some schools’ winter vacation, but in many cases simply extends it for an extra week or two (particularly in the private schools that have mandated closures), and it is discussed as a closure for public health reasons, not as a scheduled break.

This includes all offices and facilities at UMSA: administration offices, laboratories, libraries, etc. Usually during a break classes are not held, but other activities continue. I had hoped to visit the laboratories and make several appointments with university officials and due to the closure this may not be possible (this is frustrating but at least I can still get together and catch up with friends in other venues).

According to a friend of mine, unlike previous “vacations” where classes are cancelled but facilities are open, they are being very strict, even denying users of the campus in Cota-Cota access unless they have a special permission de urgencia (obtained through a tramite, of course), which she and other laboratory personnel spent this week trying to obtain so that they don’t leave their experiments, samples, etc unattended for two weeks. She also told me that they have armed police at the gates to the U for control purposes.

It is common to see people walking around wearing a mask. Newspapers are getting some flack from doctors for telling people to go to the hospital for an “immediate” swine flu/influenza A test if they are exhibiting *any* cold-like symptoms (there’s not the capacity in terms of personnel, reagents, or need to do this, though apparently people have been showing up in huge numbers). Today La Razón reports that a cold front is expected, which will increase the risk and prevalence of this flu. Evo is sending 900 doctors to the campo to deal with the flu. Yesterday there was a tent staffed by medical students in the Plaza Avaroa to educate passers-by about the flu. And it goes on and on.

I am confused: I thought that this flu turns out to be a relatively mild strain (there have been no deaths in Bolivia). So why such a strong (and heavy handed) response? I’ve heard various answers. The one I am most convinced by is that many people in Bolivia, particularly La Paz, have serious underlying respiratory issues including TB, asthma, allergies, etc. The combination could be difficult to treat, especially at altitude. That may very well be the case, but I can’t help wonder what could be accomplished if all this effort went towards some other project or campaign at this point.

Bolivian officials = helpful, polite, efficient. AA reps = FAIL

That’s right. The title is not a typo. Getting through customs in Bolivia was (relatively speaking) a breeze. Dealing with American Airlines was awful.

Our itinerary had us flying out of Chicago at 7 PM, landing in Miami at 11, overnighting in Miami, and taking the afternoon direct flight to Santa Cruz. At ORD, we were able to check in at the international counter, the agent checked our tickets and passports, and promptly informed us that we had to collect our bags in Miami and check in AGAIN there. Because it has to be within 12 hours for international flights (though their website says 24 hours in advance). Well, there was nothing much we could do about it. We arrived in Miami late (midnight) with a tired and cranky baby, collected our bags, and checked into the hotel. After a good night’s sleep, we assumed we’d be able to just check in our bags no problem.

WRONG.

We get to the ticket counter and meet Maritza. The least helpful customer service representative in the history of the universe (only a slight exaggeration). She asks to see our documents. We pass them over. She looks at me and Javi and says “where are you photos? We will not check you in until you have 4 X 4 photos of you and the baby. Oh and where’s your yellow fever certificate? Hotel reservation? Actual visa form? Your husband, he needs none of this.” Us: “Well actually, because we’re married we are supposed to be able to go through with this notarized letter of introduction and invitation from Miguel’s parents.” She then proceeds to stare at this letter for awhile and sighs, deciding it is ok. She asks about yellow fever certificates. We did not have them, but had written up a brief letter in English and Spanish swearing we wouldn’t sue Bolivia if we contracted it, signed it, and had a witness sign it. After much consultation and us showing her the form from Migración with the section highlighted saying that we could travel with such an affidavit, she then marched off to talk to a supervisor. She came back and agreed this was sufficient.

But we still didn’t have photos. She told us that we had to go get them before she would issue us boarding passes. Or let us check in our bags. But wait! There were no places in the airport to get it done. We asked if there was an office center or a place with a printer, since all we needed to do was take our picture, upload it to our computers, crop it, and print. Should take 15 minutes. Her response? No, there’s no way we can help you and I won’t accept anything if it isn’t exact. We asked why we weren’t informed of this in Miami. She just shrugged and basically told us to get lost, that we needed to take a taxi to get *proper* pictures taken, us doing it ourselves was not ok with her and she wasn’t going to help us find a place to do it.

At this point, we’d been waiting and/or arguing for about 45 minutes. It was 11 AM. Our flight was at 2:55. We asked her if we had to wait in line after we got the pictures, or if we’d be able to come back to her and finish our booking. She said that was fine but that she was off at 12:30. I asked her explicitly that the ONLY thing we needed were these pictures, that she had checked EVERYTHING else and that she could assure us that something else wouldn’t come up if we left to do this and rushed back (I had visions of her saying “oh, whoops, let’s see the lock of hair from your firstborn” or something). She said no, everything else was in order and we just needed the photos and that she’d entered this into the computer. (Here I should add that the information she was telling us conflicted with the official from we had from Migración, she said that Javi didn’t need yellow fever until 6 years old and so on – for whatever reason the information in their system is incorrect compared to the information given out in Bolivia and on the Bolivian website).

Miguel said he’d stay with the baggage, and I took Javi out, grabbed a cab ($18 fare) to the closest CVS, where I waited till the photo technician came off of break, took our passport pictures ($8 each) and then had to call for a taxi back to the airport ($18). I arrived back at the line at 11:50 (and I must say I was hugely relieved that the taxi driver let me take Javi in the Ergo carrier, and didn’t make a big deal out of not having a car seat. Yes, I know car seats are safest. But had they insisted we would have been stuck in MIA). She and her supervisor saw us. I waved the photo envelopes. She nodded and so we walked back in line while she finished helping other folks. Maritza looked at us at one point and told us to go to another CS rep, since it was going to take awhile. I decided that we should wait since she knew us and knew the situation.

And now it gets worse.

After she was done with the people in front of us, she looked at us, took her bag, and walked away. It was 12:05.

We asked the woman next to her what just happened.

Well, she said, she’s off. And so am I. You can get back in the back of the line.

At which point we got REALLY upset. The other woman just shrugged and walked away from us.

Then we get called down to the end of the row. We explained what had happened to the new CS rep, and he looked up our itinerary. Did Maritza make ANY notes or save ANY of her work in our itinerary?

HAHAHAHAHAHA of course not.

Back to square one. So we had to go through the whole rigamarole of him scrutinizing our documents, deciding what we had was sufficient, and so forth. Did he even ask to see the d@mn pictures? No. He did ask if we had the visa forms, which we had presented to Maritza but somehow they were not returned to us.

This is when I burst into tears. Miguel intervened and said that because he was Bolivian he could walk out, get the visa forms from his parents, and return. The new CS rep must have taken pity on us or something so he printed our boarding passes and checked us in.

Why didn’t this come up in Chicago? Well, how about because it is *completely* unnecessary and none of these documents were requested upon entry into Bolivia. As we walked to our gate, we knew none of this would be required upon entry. And we were right. (The photos they request if you get your visa ahead of time at a consulate, from what I understand, they are *not* required if you pay when you enter since they scanned our passports).

In Bolivia, Javi and I *did* have to get the visa. Note to other families of Bolivian nationals: with notarized Consular copies of his birth certificate and our marriage certificate we would not have had to do so because that would register our marriage to a Bolivian and therefore certify us as a Bolivian family in the eyes of Migración, but we only had U.S. issued certificates.

That process was rather quick and painless. The officials understood where we were coming from, they were apologetic that they could not approve a family visit entry because our certificates hadn’t been inspected by a Bolivian official, but they assured us that our visas are valid for 5 years for multiple entries, and if we registered Javi’s birth + our marriage we would have more flexibility in terms of time of stay and so forth (because we have the same last name this was easier. Had we been traveling with different last names but as a family, a customs/migration form per person as opposed to per family is required). The visa itself clearly states the five-year period as well. They had all the forms ready, answered our questions, and genuinely wanted the process to be as quick as possible for us.

In addition, there was a big poster in the customs line advertising exactly where in Bolivia yellow fever is endemic and spelling out how far in advance you need to receive the vaccine if you visit *only those* areas. Our pictures, affidavit (or yellow card), etc were not requested (as we suspected and this makes our anger at AA even greater). The letter of invitation and the copies of Miguel’s parents’ carnets we did use, but only to fill out the visa form because they ask if you are visiting family and if so who they are.

In sum: the Bolivian officials were friendly, efficient, and helpful. Avoid American Airlines (which, of course, is near impossible).

More to come on the dynamics of a long flight with a 17 month old and the patience of passengers to Bolivia vs. to MIA, the Korean-Bolivian cattle ranchers on both of our flights, and Bolivian precautions against swine flu.

Visa update (in progress)

Many visitors to this site wonder about the visa requirements for entering and exiting Bolivia these days. My brother-in-law recently visited Bolivia with a non-Bolivian friend. He told us that no one batted an eye at his American passport and he was not expected to pay the visa fee (though his passport clearly states he was born in Bolivia) and no one asked him for his yellow fever vaccination certificate. His friend did pay the visa fee but also was not asked for his yellow fever certificate. They told us that clearing customs was relatively quick and less of a hassle than they had been expecting.

Next week we’ll be traveling to Bolivia. We have letters of invitation that we hope will do…something. I’ll be posting about what exactly is expected at customs once we arrive, if letters from family members or sponsors make a difference, and so forth. Take this all with a grain of salt – I do wonder if there are different enforcement strategies depending on entry to Bolivia via Santa Cruz versus La Paz.

Dia de los inocentes gringos (Happy April Fools!)

Jim Shultz at the Democracy Center has treated us to another April Fool’s gag, claiming to have uncovered a U.S. government conspiracy to impose daylight savings time on Bolivia.  Among the invented protests against gringo temporal imperialism was this gem:

Labor leader Ronaldo Quispe declared that the move by the U.S. was an outrageous intrusion against Bolivian rights. “La hora Boliviana is very important in our culture. We talk about it all the time. ‘Oh I am late, I am on la hora Boliviana.” He announced an immediate blockade of the highway between Cochabamba and La Paz to protest the plan.

The joke was also picked up at The Latin Americanist, where they reported that in Venezuela, Chavez set the clocks forward 37 minutes in solidarity.

Those of us who read the Democracy Center blog regularly know that Shultz is famous for his April Fools gags, which  included the announcement of a World Bank initiative to export Bolivian rocks (2005), Evo Morales’ marriage to a gringa complete with bridesmaid dresses made of wiphalas (2006),  and new regulations requiring that all US tourists must be photographed in an Evo sweater when entering Bolivia on the eve of the anticipated real announcement from the Bolivian government about new visa requirements (2007). [Note: in all cases, scroll to the end of the page to see the April 1 joke.]

More interestingly, this year the Huffington Post took him seriously (including announcing it on Twitter, also see Shultz’s response here). Today a google search brought up over 2000 hits for the search “evo morales” and “daylight savings,” almost all of them copies of Huffington Post or Democracy Center and not appearing to be in on the joke.

That, I think, is a testiment to Shultz’s understanding of Bolivian politics (which is why Bolivianists circulate these posts like mad via email and Facebook every April 1, LOL!), the power of the US media, and also offers some insights into the assumptions of a wider US audience who may actually fall for it.

Note: The Huffington Post added “April Fool’s” to the title of their post on April 3, 2009.  It was not there when it was first posted.