The Bolivian Visa Extension Nightmare Ends

This is a follow up to a post I made earlier about my bad experience getting a visa extension in Bolivia. You can read about that on my website.

The week started badly, with a four and a half hour wait at migrations in Santa Cruz, but with what seemed like a happy ending. There was one oddity, though I didn’t think too much about it at the time – they took away my passport to get the visa extension. I’m from South Africa so we qualify for visa-on-arrival. Visas, extensions, it’s all supposed to happen over-the-counter. Still, I was given an official document stating I need to return on Thursday to collect my passport. It wasn’t ideal, but not a huge problem in the slightest.

Fast forward to Thursday. I showed up a little earlier at migrations than Monday to avoid the excessive wait times and it worked! After roughly and hour my name was called. I approached the counter, handed over my official pick-up slip and … no passport. The extension hadn’t been processed yet. After some asking around an official, Juan (not his real name), told us the best would be to show up early the next day. 8:30am was the preferred time. This was downright inconvenient, but hey, I showed up early on Thursday, and perhaps it was a little too early. Maybe my visa extension would be processed later in the day.

Fast forward to Friday morning. We were at migrations bright and early and … no passport. It was getting harder to remain calm especially since, in less than 24 hours, we were planning on leaving the city and we had no place to stay in Santa Cruz. Our next accommodation was in Cochabamba which I’d booked shortly after I got the pickup slip saying my passport would be ready on Thursday. Naturally, we were less than excited when the official statement from Juan was to wait and see.

So we waited. There was nothing to see. After asking a few more times, it turned out the guy who processes visas wasn’t at the office yet. And my visa processing hadn’t even started. An hour later, he still didn’t show up and Ana told Juan, for maybe the fifth time, that if we do not get the passport today we will have no place to stay. The implication was their incompetence would end up being very expensive for us. Finally, thankfully, it clicked. It’s like a switch was flipped in the man’s brain and he suddenly seemed to understand that we weren’t just impatient and petty, we had a real problem. He told us to return after 1pm and he would try getting our visa in the meantime. We were cutting this really close.

Fast forward to 1:10pm. We show up and Juan tells us my passport is being processed now. The signs were good. Someone even came out of a back room and asked a few questions like when we would be leaving the country – signs that things were heading in the right direction. By 2:10pm, with no other word from anyone, our enthusiasm waned significantly. We were joined by perhaps 7 other people, all with the same problem. We were just fortunate enough to be the first ones to arrive, so we were at the front of the queue. An older lady from the US, and old couple from the US, a German lady and what sounded like her French friend, and several other people waited hopelessly, with the older American lady clearly exasperated. “It’s unbelievable”, she kept saying. She couldn’t understand how, despite her having all the required documents, and having jumped through every arbitrary bureaucratic hoop, he was still waiting in line after 2 hours. I don’t think she found comfort when I told her I was there for the 4th time that week, spread out over three days, and I was on maybe hour 8 or 9 at the time. Some people just gave up and left but that was not an option for us.

Finally, Juan told us that my application was being “analysed” (scrutinized) for some unspecified reason, but to wait a little longer because we would definitely get the passport back today. Perhaps 30 minutes later Juan returned with the passport, handed it to another official who made me sign a few forms and my “visa extension” was ready.

It wasn’t a visa extension, it was a completely different visa. Juan said the original visa I obtained in Salta, Argentina, from the Bolivian consulate was in a different format (or something) from the visas they issue within the country, so they needed to issue me a whole new visa, even though it was processed and charged as a visa extension. But whatever, I had what I needed, and that rounded off a miserable week.

The level of inefficiency is simply astounding. Bolivia is a beautiful country but quite honestly, once my current visa expires, I will try not to return any time soon. The stress, uncertainty, bad information, delays, and just time wasted makes a return not worth the effort. Perhaps my mind will change in the next month, but for now I am a very disgruntled tourist.

A small silver lining

Along with getting a visa extension, I needed an extension for my motorbike. I rode to aduanas (customs) on Thursday, and explained I needed the extension despite not having my passport, which was at migrations. I took the collection slip issued by migrations as proof.

The process was refreshingly simple and efficient. We waited for perhaps 5 minutes before being processed. At the counter we supplied the relevant documentation, and my South African national ID card, along with the document from migrations that contained my passport number, were sufficient. About 10 minutes later a lady came outside to inspect my bike, a process that took less than 5 minutes. A few minutes later and I was issued a 60 day bike extension.

Quick, simple, efficient. The way it should be.