Bolivia's wild border town

Trip Start Jul 28, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, August 16, 2012

After yesterday's fits and starts, we are anxious to be on our way to Bolivia. The weather report is favorable. Given our aborted departure the day before, we are prepared for take-off with the exception of paying the fee for parking the plane overnight.  We have been assured that the fee is small and the transaction takes moments.  The flight plan stipulates an 8 am departure.  We arrive at 7:30.  Security and a final bathroom stop take less than 10 minutes Greg and Cathryn have the plane loaded and ready for departure by 7:45.  Patrick has gone to pay the tax.  At 8:15 he returns to say the computer system is not working.  The person who knows how to troubleshoot problems is not there.  The people in the office are reading the manual.  The fee is 23 reals, approximately $10, but we can’t leave until the receipt number is recorded with the flight plan.  Will we ever get to Bolivia?!

At 9:05 we are finally ready for take-off.  Patrick asks for permission and the tower replies that our flight plan has expired. @#$%^$#%!!  There is no copy and paste function.  Patrick has to re-enter the flight plan from scratch and then it takes 20-30 minutes for the plan to be approved.  After 30 minutes, Patrick checks with the tower.  They say it will be 20 more minutes.  In 20 minutes Patrick checks again.  Again, it is not ready.  Finally at 10:16 we are approved for take-off. 

Once airborne, we are across the border and into Bolivia in five minutes.  The air is smoky creating a grey haze over the fields below.  There is a 30-knot head wind.  It is quiet in the plane.  It has been a frustrating morning and we still have 4.5 hours of flying in front of us.  If the head wind doesn’t subside we will have to go to our alternate airport.

The landscape below is grey, perhaps deciduous trees that have lost their leaves, with the occasional field.  There are very few houses or towns.  As we head further west it becomes even bleaker.  After 170 miles we see a small town an a little mountain rising straight up from the floor and chopped off on the top.  After another 100 miles we are into the foothills.  The head winds have been relentless.  Our primary airport is in the mountains at 1830m (6,000 ft.)  Patrick decides the most prudent course is to go to our alternate airport, Yacuiba,  which is closer and at 610m (2,000 ft) much more fuel-friendly

As we approach Yacuiba, the landscape is a patchwork of fields and winding riverbeds with barely a trickle of water.  Patrick calls for permission to land and is denied.  They insist we go to our primary airport.  He insists that is not prudent after a few tense exchanges we land in Yacuiba.

Our surprise arrival creates a stir at the normally quiet airport.  They explain we need to go to town to complete immigration. They also tell us that, contrary to what we had been told, they have no AvGas. We are hopeful that we will be able to complete the immigration process, return to the airport, refuel from the canisters and fly to Tarija yet today, to minimize the fallout with the Bolivian Aviation Authorities.

First stop is an ATM for Bolivian currency.  Patrick hits pay dirt, Greg is rejected.  Next, we go to the immigration office.  The closer we get the more chaotic things become.  People are everywhere.  Vendors are two deep in the streets.  Driving is impossible.  Our taxi driver pulls over and tells us how to walk the rest of the way.  

We enter the small immigration building to find an empty room with ancient wooden office furniture.  There is warren of small rooms.  Curiously, one has an old metal bed in it.  We wind our way back until we find an official surrounded by high stacks of paper in a crowded little office.  Patrick explains why we are there and hands him his passport – The immigration official makes a hand gesture, Suisse, no problem.  Next Greg and Cathryn hand over their passports.  A look of bureaucratic disdain crosses his face – Americanos, big problemo.  Cathryn pulls out the photocopies of the required documentation – passports, bank statements and current drivers license.   His face relaxes a bit.  Do they have the necessary International Certificate of Vaccination showing their yellow fever vaccine is current?  Yes, but not a copy.  He sends then 1.5 blocks away to photocopy the documents. 

Meanwhile, Patrick is frantically trying to make amends with Patricia in the Bolivian Aviation Authority.  She wants a hand written explanation for our landing at the alternate airport faxed ASAP.   Back in the immigration office the man leads the three down a narrow dark corridor to his supervisor.  Greg, Cathryn and the officer need to fill out more paperwork.  

While this going on, Patrick hand writes the letter to Patricia at the Bolivian Air Authority.  Time is running out to reach her before the close of business.  When it appears the immigration paper work for Greg and Cathryn is completed, Patrick asks the immigration official if she has a fax machine that he can use.   The not surprising answer was no.  The office was very bare bones. 

Additionally, we are not done, yet.  The immigration office is a half block from the Argentina border.  The man with whom we had completed the paperwork escorts us to the boarder and disappears into an office signaling us to wait.  The formerly opened window is closed and we have no idea what is going on. Eventually it opens.  Our passports are returned.  The three of us have permission to enter Bolivia. 

We rush down the street to the telecel office where the requested fax can be sent to Patricia. As soon as it is sent we head back to the airport.  We are too late.   We will be in Yacuiba for the night. 
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