This is the story of how we got stuck in Puno, Peru for a very long time. The first bit was written while we were still in the middle of everything. It was rough on us.
We’ve been in Puno for longer than three weeks now. Three weeks ago today we had our motorcycles taken from us. When we tried to leave Peru, we were excited and wanted to take the ferry across Lake Titicaca to get to Copacabana. We got to the small border town where we were ready to board the ferry and I was stopped at the customs office.
There were two men inside the office and, after I’d presented our papers, I couldn’t believe how serious their faces got and how uncompromising they were when they pointed out that our vehicle immigration paperwork had expired.
It didn’t matter why this had happened. The fact that the motorcycles were in pieces and most definitely were not vehicles for the vast majority of the time in question didn’t matter. Neither did the time spent in Peru volunteering. All that mattered was that one paper had the year 2015 on it and the current date was 2017. This has been explained to us about 100 times since then – this is not an exaggeration.
I left the office and tagged Aaron in to see what he could make of it. I watched as the customs agents walked in and out and occasionally made phone calls. When Aaron came out of the office, he told me that he was pretty sure that they were going to take our motorcycles from us.
I went back in and told them about how we had bought insurance and spoken with police and that other people in authority were aware of our situation and that they didn’t confiscate our bikes or report us to anyone. They spoke to each other a bit and then told me that even if this is the case, they were not able to let us pass at that border crossing and that we would probably have better luck at Desaguadero, the next crossing.
It was dark at this point and while Aaron and I weren’t exactly sure where to go or what to do, we knew we had to get away from that place. We were thankful to still have the bikes.
Leaving the border took a few extra minutes, though, because the immigration office had stamped us out of Peru and now we weren’t actually able to leave. This happened to us once in Mexico and the immigration officer actually made us go to Guatemala before he would stamp us back in. That process required river crossings and truck rides and was both expensive and time consuming. This time, however, the man was kind enough to stamp us back in without all the nonsense.
As we rode away, we stopped occasionally on the road to talk. While riding, we were both alternating between praying for better luck at the next border and running through every possible option we had. Eventually, we decided that we would ride to the next border and find a place to stay that had internet. We figured the internet always has all the answers.
To make things more ominous, the dark sky was becoming even darker as storm clouds rose on the horizon. We could see lightning flashing up ahead and we prepared ourselves for the rain.
After about an hour of riding through cold rain we arrived at the other border. A funny thing had happened earlier in the day. We actually had already been to Desaguadero, but we realized we wanted the other border. So, on this day, it was the second time we’d rolled up to this border town.
Anyways, we stopped at each hotel we saw until we eventually found one with internet that was within sight of the chain that divides Peru from Bolivia.
Another funny thing about this day is that we didn’t have much Peruvian money. We exchanged it at the other border. By the time we realized we couldn’t leave Peru there, the currency exchange girl had packed up and left.
The woman running the hotel was kind enough to accept Bolivian money along with the last scraps of our Peruvian Soles and we paid for a meal across the street with five US dollars.
We were able to learn a little bit about our situation from the internet. Later we learned a lot more. But, with the encouragement of literally every Peruvian we spoke to that night, we decided that we would try to pass the border without any tricks or deceptions. We thought they’d probably be reasonable.
The one little thing we decided to do was for us to enter one at a time. We figured this would avoid having all our eggs in one basket. So the next morning, bright and early, I walked over to the office and offered my papers. The border was busy and the man barely even looked at me. He stamped, signed, and ripped my vehicle immigration paper and I walked out less than two minutes later.
Aaron had a walkie-talkie and was waiting back near the hotel with our bikes and I excitedly told him that what everyone was saying about this border was true while walking back. We would likely be able to make it to La Paz by a little after noon.
Now was Aaron’s turn to go through the process, at least according to our plan. Instead of following the plan, though, Aaron figured that since I was allowed to pass so freely, it would help the process if I went with him to the office. They might see me and then think, “Oh yes, let’s pass this other man through just like the other guy.”
This is not what happened. They looked at Aaron, took his papers, then looked at me and asked me for my papers, too. I should not have given my papers to him. The men in the office looked at the papers, then spoke to each other, then asked to see our motorcycles, which we had left in the hotel.
It’s actually, in general, a good idea to leave the bikes in a secure place at a border like that, because there is so much activity that things can very easily go missing.
So, this began the death march where we walked the block or so from the office to the hotel. Aaron says he knew then that they were going to confiscate the bikes. I was still hoping that there was some hope.
So, twenty minutes later, we were back at the office with our bikes now parked behind a gate in their lot. In total, we probably spent about two hours trying to convince them not to take the bikes. At one point, the boss of the customs office didn’t like Aaron’s tone and called for the police to come.
In general, though, we’ve found the police to be very pleasant. This case was no different than the usual. We spoke to the police and, in the end, they basically said that they were very sorry that this happened to us and that they were sorry they couldn’t help.
Before we got to that point, there was a lot of talking to the guy I assume was second in command. He mentioned that if he let us go that we could never bring the bikes back to Peru. I tried my best to convey that after all this he didn’t have to worry. It was never in our plan to bring the bikes back and all we wanted to do was leave.
While cautiously looking over his shoulder, he mentioned that we could pay a little something to get out of this. When Aaron said we could only offer him a $40 bribe, he said this was too small. Aaron wasn’t willing to budge on that, though, because it costs $160 for USA passport carrier to enter Bolivia. To give more than $40 would make it so that we wouldn’t have enough to enter Bolivia. This option expired incredibly quickly and left us wishing we’d just offered all the money we had, because it was the last moment we probably had in keeping custody of the motorcycles.
Then they started trying to make us sign forms that showed that we understood and agreed with the confiscation of our bikes. Aaron demanded to have all the forms translated to English so that we would have a chance of fully understanding what exactly this process meant. They said ‘Okay,’ eventually, but we never did get those forms.
In fact, they never even gave back our original vehicle immigration forms. I think this is because they stamped and signed me out and that would probably look bad.
They got us to leave by telling us that there was absolutely nothing we could do at that location. We had to go back to Puno, three hours away and where we’d started the day before, and talk to the customs people there.
It was Friday. All things like this always happen on Friday, which is awful because government offices close shop early and it’s impossible to get anything done during the weekend. If we hurried and got on a bus, though, we thought we might be able to get to the immigration office before it closed at 4.
We left some of our heavier stuff in storage at the hotel at the border, believing that we would be back soon with whatever was needed to get our bikes back and continue the journey.
As soon as we got to Puno, we got off the bus and took a taxi to the customs office. Sure enough, they were closing up. We sat outside looking sad and one of the people still working inside that heard us took pity and let us in.
He told us stories of people having their vehicles confiscated by Peru and the general theme was that people don’t get their vehicles back. One guy had his semi truck taken and he never got it back. We later learned that another guy once had a heart attack and he was in the hospital for a while. When he got out, his car was past 90 days and they took it.
He said we might have a chance because laws were becoming a little less severe in recent days and he told us to put our case together and submit it. He said the added difficulty for this was that the office we were in at Puno has no say in the matter. The decision lies with Tumbes, the border we crossed from Ecuador into Peru from.
Fast forward three weeks and we are still here in Puno. We’ve worked with lawyers to put the best case forward. We’ve been in contact with our embassy on a daily basis. We’ve tried contacting any group, person, or agency we can think of to help us. At this point, we’ve been told that we should have an answer from Tumbes by now, but we don’t.
We’ve come up with contingency plans: What we will do if they don’t give our bikes back and what we will do if they do. We’ve been shopping for other vehicles, but the possibility of buying a new vehicle and then hearing from the government that we can have our bikes makes it too risky.
–And that’s what was written during the confiscation. The rest of this post is in hindsight.
So we lived in Puno, Peru for over a month. The whole time we weren’t sure if we’d ever get our motorcycles back. In the end, now, we have an idea of what happened with the documents we sent and the reasoning for why things turned out the way they did, but honestly, I doubt we’ll ever know all the details.
After one full month, we had the depressing realization that after all the waiting, appealing, and emailing, we really didn’t have any more information than when they first took the motorcycles from us at the border crossing of Desaguadero.
Then, one day, after calling the US embassy in Lima nearly every day and visiting the customs office in Puno regularly, this is what we’ve pieced together.
-Desaguadero took our motorcycles and at some point, they were transported to Juliaca
-Desaguadero says there’s nothing we can do there to get our motorcycles back and that we have to go to Puno, three hours back the way we came.
-Puno tells us that our situation is very nearly helpless, but we need to compile our entire experience in Peru, as there was a possibility that the mechanical and medical complications could have an impact on the judgement. Also, having spent a month and a half volunteering in Iquitos could also have an influence on the situation.
-We hire lawyers to get this paperwork on in place.
-Puno says they don’t have control over this. Instead, so they say, the decision lies with Tumbes, the border city up north that we originally entered Peru at two years prior.
-Puno also says that we will want to send the papers, old school mail style, and then follow so that we can be with them when Tumbes makes the decision as “It’s harder to say ‘no’ to someone’s face.” We, of course, said this was ridiculous, as Tumbes was hundreds of dollars and something like 100 hours on the bus away from us. Also, this was during the mudslides that were making areas of Peru completely impassable.
-As we entered the customs office later in the first week, a man excitedly told us that there was a new law that could possibly help our situation. Then, the guy that first spoke to us at that office walked in looking like he was going to give us bad news. Then, the other guy pulled him into his office and he came back out with a legal newsletter for the week that was vague enough to give us a chance.
–Now, here is where we only have what people said to us in the final days and this is the best understanding we have.
-There was a time when our appeal was in Puno on the desk of a woman who claimed that our infraction occurred before the new law was in place and, thus, we were not included. The old law basically states that after 90 days, a vehicle becomes the property of Peru. Tough luck. It was pointed out to the woman whose desk our papers were on that the purpose of the new law was to be less draconian and that to deny us would contradict the spirit of the law.
-So on to Tumbes our appeal went. At Tumbes, they looked out our papers and said, “Why has Puno sent us this? They should decide on their own.” Then they sent to papers back to Puno.
-Puno, still not wanting to make the decision, partially, supposedly, in fear of making a misstep with this new law, sent the papers to Lima.
-Lima, more or less, replied by saying, “Look, Puno, what do you think you should do?”
We’d been visiting the office in Puno regularly and, in the end, we realized that certain innocuous conversations and questions probably had an impact on our fates. For instance, the question, “If you had to pay $800 per bike to get the motorcycles back, is this a lot of money?”
-Puno made a decision and sent it to Lima who, I assume, said “Yeah, cool. Good for you. You could have done that a month and a half ago, but you know, you got there eventually… so kudos.”
-We’re then told one day that they don’t have an answer for us, but to come back the next day for the final decision.
Again, we did not know just about any of the above when we walked into the office the next day. We were met fairly early on in the waiting area by the man that had been helping us. We asked him if it was good or bad news. He did not answer us, but instead made a pained face and asked us to follow him to his desk. As this had never happened before in our visits, we felt that the information would be bad.
Google Translate became the medium for the conversation from here on. Our Spanish was usually good enough for the interactions we had. Also, his English might have been better than our Spanish. He made it clear that he didn’t want any confusion in what he was saying, though.
So Aaron and I sat behind his desk with him in a large, busy office building watching the translator box fill with words and then get quickly deleted several times.
It went something like: There has been a decision and…
The ellipsis was ever present in everything he wrote, making the tension almost comical.
… you can get your motorcycles back…
…but you will have to pay…
At this point, we’d had quite a few conversations about the price that we were willing to pay. We had contingency plans to buy a different vehicle to continue the trip. If reclaiming our motorcycles was more than buying the new vehicle, we were going to have some serious reservations.
He would write a few words in Spanish that wouldn’t properly translate to a coherent English though, then he would delete it, leading to another ellipsis and then another.
Eventually, we got “…it will be around $400 per motorcycle…”
…but we won’t know the exact price until later…
…it might be more…
Why couldn’t we know the price? I honestly don’t know. You would think these sorts of things might be on some kind of easily read chart, but it was a new law, so they were just feeling it out I guess.
It turns out getting a signature can sometimes take a very long time. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday went by without a signature. The boss just hadn’t come in to the office any of those days. We went to the office every day, though, because we believed that we might actually be able to put this whole mess behind us.
On Thursday, when we arrived in hopes of having the signed papers all ready for us, we were told again that the boss wasn’t going to be there. We told them that this was unacceptable. We were paying to live in a hotel in Puno, a city we didn’t want to be in, just waiting for a signature. In addition to this, he was not telling us we would have the signature by Friday afternoon. This would mean that we would not have enough time to get to the lot in Juliaca before it closed. All government stuff that we were aware of closed at some time in the afternoon on Friday and didn’t open until Monday, so he was dooming us to Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and possibly Monday in Puno.
When we explained this, he came up with an overly convoluted plan that was almost certainly going to fail. But, we didn’t have anything else planned for that day, so we didn’t argue. I was giving the likelihood of the plans success a solid 65%.
His plan was this: Aaron and I would separate so that I’d sit at the office in Puno and Aaron would go to the lot in Juliaca. I would be given the bill for the motorcycles and would need to go to a specific bank to pay the bill. I’d have to do this with cash. The frequency with which we needed to pay with cash was infuriating and often made us feel like we were constantly conducting some kind of under the table transaction. I would then come back to the office for the signature. As soon as the paper was signed, he would scan and send the electronic copies to Juliaca so that they could start processing the motorcycles. I would then take the papers and deliver them to the lot in Juliaca, because the actual hard copies were still important. And then, just like magic, the bikes are liberated and we ride them wherever we want.
In practice, this plan became a ridiculously stressful mess, wherein Aaron was calling me every 15 minutes after 3pm saying that they were trying to pack up and leave while I paced back and forth in the Puno office eyeing every person that walked through the door trying to assess if they looked like, perhaps, they might be ‘The Boss’.
I was constantly assured that The Boss would arrive. We got our man at Puno to talk to the guys in Juliaca to tell them that they couldn’t kick Aaron out and had to work with us on this.
I was given the actual price for the motorcycles so that I could go to the bank. I was told that it was $800 per motorcycle, but, if I paid today, it would only be $400 per bike. I can only speculate as to why we received this ‘limited time only’ offer. My best guess is that people after us will be subject to the higher price, but because they gave us the run around for over a month, they had mercy. This could be way off.
The Boss arrived at about 5pm. He signed the forms and I got to a bus as fast as I could to join Aaron in Juliaca. This is about an hour ride.
When I got there, I was allowed in. Paperwork was filed. Pictures were taken of us posing while signing those papers. It seemed official, so my guess is that it was for official reasons. They may have just taken those pictures because we were the first people to get their vehicle back via the new law. Whatever the case, we were allowed to get to the motorcycles and try to start them. Someone had turned my heated hand grips on and it stayed on, I assume, for the better part of that month, so my battery wasn’t doing me much good just then.
We spent some time trying to push start it and then we got the cables out. We were a spectacle to the workers at that lot for a little over an hour, I think. Eventually, we did get the motorcycles running. By the time we did, however, it was dark and cold and neither of us had packed more than a light jacket. The ride back to Puno was a very cold one, but neither of us minded so much because we were just happy to have the motorcycles back.
In the morning we brought the motorcycles to the mechanic that had done some work on our motorcycles before they were confiscated and checked all the normal stuff. We met back up with the lawyers we hired earlier and paid for their help. We went back to the hotel where the owner had been kind enough to give us a reduced price for the month to thank him and pick up the laundry.
After that, we were free to leave Peru… kind of. One of the last things I was told when I left the customs office the last time was that it was very important that we leave the country within 48 hours. It hurt a little. It was almost like an afterthought on their part to stop us from thinking that we’d actually won. After paying and everything else, to be told ‘Go away right now,’ but then again, we were just happy to have custody of the bikes and the freedom to leave.
When we arrive at the Copacabana border, the one we’d always wanted to take, the guy told us that we couldn’t cross there, because our papers were abnormal and he couldn’t process them. This is exactly the same thing he told us last time. He then told us we needed to go to Desaguadero to have the help we needed. This, again, is exactly what he told us the last time we were there.
I, having all the proper paperwork in hand, was inclined to just not deal with this guy anymore and ride the hour further to the other border. This would have stopped us from visiting Copacabana, which made me sad, but I just really wanted to get out of Peru that day and the man made it clear we couldn’t leave from his border crossing.
Aaron was inclined to not budge. This is a trait in Aaron that has frequently led to things working in our favor in this trip. This same trait occasionally, however, leads to a lot of frustration and wasting of time. I wasn’t sure which way this one was going to go, but I was feeling apathetic and Aaron was feeling furious, so I was trumped.
I was the first person to go in. I provided paperwork and he told me it was impossible. Then Aaron went in and had a long talk with the man. We never left the bikes unattended, as we don’t trust border, like I mentioned earlier. Because of this, we just went back and forth trying to get a different answer until Aaron completely took over.
Aaron pointed out that the papers we offered him just so happened to have the signature of The Boss all over them. The Boss was also his boss. He agreed. Aaron pointed out that this would make it the law and would supersede his ‘normal’ format and work. The man agreed. At multiple points, I’m told, the man pointed out that Aaron’s logic is very good.
Aaron reached a slightly different answer from the man after the realization was made that we were not going to leave him alone. He agreed to call The Boss to see what was going on.
While Aaron was making progress inside, I was talking to the other border area workers. In general, it was agreed that the man inside was lazy, did not care to help if it took any effort, and enjoyed his position in office as it afforded him power that he could lord of people. The man was not well-liked by his coworkers. This is what I am led to believe when it takes very little time for them to come see what’s going on and offer this information.
After he said he’d call The Boss, we saw the man playing volleyball nearby with some children. This confused us, but we were getting to a point where it was all just par for the course.
It was getting dark when the man called us in to the office. He said we had five minutes before the border closed. He needed our paperwork so that we could pass. He was not happy.
We ran across the street to get our passports stamped and then I went back to the other side of the street to get the papers back. He didn’t want to give the papers back. He said he needed them to send to Desaguadero on Monday so that they could be properly filed. I told him that The Boss told me to keep the originals and that he could have copies.
This made him angry. We talked some more and he agreed to give me copies, but insisted on keeping the originals. He then ordered a man nearby to make those copies. Before this, I picked the papers off the desk to make the copies myself, but this made him very angry. So now he was being a jerk to someone I can only guess is his subordinate as a show of power and I’m just hoping to leave Peru before the border closed. I mean, I’d have considered it a victory to just get out of Peru. I didn’t even feel like we necessarily needed to make it into Bolivia. I’d have been more or less happy to sleep in no man’s land between the two.
I got the papers and left. While we pushed the bikes past the gate Aaron and I agreed that, in the end, we probably didn’t need the papers at all, as neither of us ever planned on bringing the motorcycles back to Peru.
We were treated very nicely by the people manning the Bolivian side of the border. They watched the bikes for us while we went into the offices and, while it’s hard to know for sure, we believe they let Aaron enter at a reduced rate after saying he couldn’t pay with his $100 bill. As an American, it’s $160 to enter Bolivia. The visa they give you for that is a multiple entrance for five years one, but we would have been happier with a short single entrance for less, but that’s not a choice.
We rode a little past the border buildings, pulled over, and did a celebration dance. Peru had been rough.