CROSSING BORDERS- BRAZIL TO BOLIVIA
The death train, Santa Cruz and corrupt cops
Crossing borders whilst travelling can be particularly tricky. There are a lot of unknowns and not a massive amount of helpful information online. Most of the stories and rumours which filter down the backpacker grapevine usually feature a less than legit border official charging an impromptu "exit fee" or an overly-invasive search. Here we will tell you about the border crossing between Corumba, Brazil and Puerto Quijarro, Bolivia, the "Death Train" and our encounter with the police in Santa Cruz.
Like most border towns in South America, Corumba offers little in the way of entertainment. We arrived in Corumba late in the evening and, with the border only open between 08:30 - 17:00, we spent the night at Road Riders hostel. The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn in expectation of big queues at the crossing.
We took the number 102 bus (3.25 BRL) from the town centre and arrived at the border 20 mins later at 07:00. On the Brazilian side there is a building on the left which is for motorists and there are 2 buildings on the right. The first building, which has a few rows of blue plastic chairs in front, is for people exiting Brazil and the one furthest away is for those entering from Bolivia.
After waiting over 2 hours the office opened promptly at 09:20 (you soon get used to Latin American timing) and we took our place behind 20 or so others in the queue. We thought given our position in the line that we'd be through in no time. Brazilian bureaucracy had other plans. It took the solo border official almost 2 hours to process those in front of us. The majority of the hold-up seemed to stem from those trying to pass with small children. When it was finally our turn a quick stamp in the passport and we were waved away. No problems. (Note - it is very important that you have your immigration card, which is just a slip of paper given to you upon entry to Brazil, if you don't you may have some issues trying to leave
Once you have your exit stamp you then have to cross over the bridge and into Bolivia for your entry stamp. The building on the left side of the road is where you'll find the tiny processing office. As UK passport holders we are entitled to an initial 30 days which can be extended up to 90 days at the immigration office in La Paz. Again, this process went smoothly for us. Either we were extremely lucky or all the stories we heard were greatly over-exaggerated. Nice and easy, off to Santa Cruz we go.
Having spent a lot of time on buses and coaches in Brazil, the option of a train journey sounded like a nice change of pace in spite of it's name, The Death Train! That and the fact that Bolivia's road network is notoriously bad, there are no highways in the entire country. Given that most of the country's North and North-East are covered by jungle and rainforest, most places of interest are quite a distance from the Bolivia's border with Brazil.
The train station is about 1.5 km from the border and a taxi cost 10 BOB (just over £1).
Our journey from Puerto Quijarro to Santa Cruz is 630 km but, as with all things in Bolivia, would move at a snail's pace, taking a total of 18 hours to complete. Mind you, can you really complain when it only costs 70 BOB (£7.80)?!
Bolivians are partial to a tad of morbidity when it comes to naming trains, roads and other attractions. We didn't die on the death train, although we came close. First off, the air conditioning on our carriage decided to break, making the temperature inside significantly higher than the 30 degrees outside. Secondly, and this is not an exaggeration, for about 6 hours straight they played multiple variations of Justin Bieber's Despacito. 6. Bloody. Hours. When that finally ended we were treated to a couple of movies deep into the small hours of the morning. It wasn't all bad though - the seat were pretty comfy and spacious and there's a restaurant in one of the carriages serving hot food and drinks.
We were told by a lot of people, and read on a lot of blogs, that Santa Cruz is not for the faint-hearted. But seeing as were on the back end of an excursion into the Pantanal and an 18 hour train ride, it was the best option for a few days rest and recovery at Jodanga hostel. Santa Cruz is big, busy and very fast paced and, in our opinion, should be used as nothing more than a stop-over.
Trying to put our time in Santa Cruz to good use, we set out to try and trade one of our GoPros for a professional camera so we could up our IG game (@lagoonwithaview ;)). Whilst making our way back to centre from an electronics shopping mall just on the outskirts, we were set upon by 3 of Bolivia's finest. The police car came to a stop as we were crossing the road and the 2 thieves, oops i mean police officers in the front got out and demanded to see our documents. Not wanting to carry our passports around at all times, we had copies of them which wasn't to their liking and they demanded we get into their car.
There are a lot of warnings circulating online about fake police in this part of the world, something we were very aware of during this encounter. We demanded to see their ID which at first it seemed they were refusing to do and with us still refusing to go with them the situation was getting quite tense. Eventually they understood what we wanted and presented us with their documents validating them as legitimate, government appointed thieves, oops I did it again. With little choice we got into the battered police car where 2 sweaty drug addicts were already huddled in the back seats and we were taken to the police station.
Once we arrived at the 'station' (which was more of a shack) the 2 addicts were carted off out back to the cells and we were left in the tiny holding room pondering our fate.
One of the fine law enforcement officers came in with 2 packets of white powder which he claimed we had left in the backseat of the car and it became very clear very quickly what was happening. After an hour of back and forward with our limited Spanish we were presented with the option of paying a 'fine' or face a spell in the cells. Conveniently the 'fine' totalled the exact 290 BOB (£32) they had seen in my wallet when they searched us. So as quickly as it all began, it was over. The money taken straight from my wallet and placed into their pockets and we were kicked out of the station with no money and 10km from our hostel.
It's a sad state of affairs that these are the people who you are supposed to be able to turn to for assistance and protection. The reality of it is that the police in countries such as Bolivia are the ones you should be most cautious of. Corruption is so well institutionalised in the system and the police are so poorly paid that we almost feel sorry for them.
Backpacking is about experiencing different cultures and seeing the world. It's a matter of fact that a large percentage of this beautiful planet live below the poverty line. We will never understand what its like to have been born and raised in an environment that breads this type of behaviour. As much as this experience has left a bitter taste in our mouths, it in no way will break our spirits or stop our journey.
Next stop, La Paz.