Border crossings by land can be a little tricky, especially when it comes to developing countries. The path between Southern Peru and Bolivia, however, is well-worn with backpackers from across the globe. As such, it is relatively safe and hassle-free. The two main routes in the Lake Titicaca region are either via Desaguadero or Kasani.
Desaguadero is the larger of the two, and most people who want the fastest and most direct passage to La Paz will choose this course. Kasani is smaller, less chaotic, and more picturesque. It is also the only way to reach Copacabana from Puno. To get from Copacabana to La Paz, you will have to get off the bus at one point and take a ferry across a narrow strait on Lake Titicaca (the bus is ferried across separately by barge). Once you reach the other side, get back onto the same bus and continue on your journey.
Since we were headed to Copacabana, our only option was the Kasani route, which I actually preferred. We had booked the bus ticket through our hotel in Puno, and the cost was 18 soles per person, including a taxi ride from the hotel to the bus station. I believe there were three daily buses (6:00 am, 7:30 am, and 2:30 pm) leaving Puno for Copacabana, all operated by Titicaca Bolivia. We chose the 7:30 am departure, and made sure to arrive at the station by 7:10 am.
Taxi to Puno bus station
After locating the Titicaca Bolivia stand and confirming our tickets, we headed over to the Tasa de Embarque booth to pay the mandatory departure tax. Finally, we exited the building via the gate number listed on the tickets and found our double-decker bus waiting at its designated spot. I was surprised at how clean and modern the vehicle was. After reading so many horror stories online regarding buses in South America, I had been expecting the worst. Large backpacks were stored in the bottom compartment, and we then climbed aboard.
Bus station shops
Titicaca Bolivia stand
Paying the departure tax
Our bus to Copacabana
The first class section (usually sold as "cama" or "semi-cama") was located on the lower level, and featured large leather seats. They looked comfortable, but the cabin also felt very claustrophobic due to the low ceiling. The coach section upstairs, on the other hand, was open and airy. Pitch was rather generous, at least more so than any economy seat on a plane! We located our spots and settled in for the roughly four-hour ride to Copacabana. In the end, the bus was only about 70% full.
First class cabin
A large portion of the drive hugs the coast of Lake Titicaca, and provides some beautiful views along the way. Once we arrived in Kasani, everybody was required to exit the bus for border processing. However, the company uses a slight trick by dropping people off right outside a money-changing storefront about 100 feet before the immigration offices, and telling passengers they should exchange for some Bolivianos before crossing. There is absolutely no need for Bolivianos before Copacabana, and exchanges rates in town are much better.
Views of Lake Titicaca
Arrival at the Kasani border crossing
If there are a lot of buses arriving at the same time, lines for exit processing can become quite long. First, you have to line up outside the border police office. Inside, they check your passport and take the arrival form you received when entering Peru. After that, you must head over to the immigration control office next door (and wait in line there), where they actually stamp your passport for exiting the country.
Lines for border police office
Immigration control office
With all the Peruvian paperwork out of the way, you are then free to physically walk from one country to the other by following the main road. Once you cross the stone archway, you are officially in Bolivia. However, you are not done yet, as there is still the entry processing for Bolivia to complete.
Walking into Bolivia
Looking back into Peru from the border
Follow the signs to the Bolivian immigration office and wait in line if there is one. Here is where being an American really puts you at a disadvantage. Bolivia, much like a number of other South American countries, requires the payment of a reciprocity fee for visitors from the United States in retaliation for visa fees that we charge their citizens. Hence, the Canadian backpackers ahead of us paid nothing to enter the country, while each of us had to shell out $135 USD in cash. Be sure to have the money ready before crossing the border, or you will definitely be in trouble.
In addition to the reciprocity fee, authorities will also ask for a 4x4 centimeter color photograph and a photocopy of your passport. I can't say if the latter is a legitimate request, or simply another excuse to make money. Either way, if you don't have one, you can easily go to the little shop next door where they just so happen to have a copy machine. Of course, they'll charge you a pretty penny in either currency for the hassle!
Follow the signs
Bolivian immigration office
Finally, once you've been stamped into the country, look for your original bus, get back on, and wait for all the other passengers to finish before continuing on the journey. From Kasani, it is only about a 15-minute drive to Copacabana. We arrived just before noon, and the bus let us off right outside the Titicaca Bolivia office, located in the center of town. We decided to walk to our hotel first, but being slightly disoriented, we made a wrong turn and wound up along the lakeside beach before finding our way to Hostal Las Olas.
Arrival in Copacabana