Bolivia is a beautiful, geographically rich in diversity, and multiethnic country in the heart of South America. It is surrounded by Brazil to the northeast, Peru to the northwest, Paraguay to the southeast, Argentina and Chile to the south. It shares with Peru control of Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca), the world's highest navigable lake (elevation 3,821 m).
Bolivia is structured into the following regions and their departments.
|Altiplano (La Paz, Oruro, Potosí)|
|Sub-Andean Bolivia (Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Tarija)|
|Tropical Lowlands (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando)|
- 1 La Paz — The administrative capital and seat of the government. Gateway to the highest climbable mountains in Bolivia, Lake Titicaca and the Death Road.
- 2 Cochabamba — The country's third-largest city, with a pleasant, moderate climate.
- 3 Oruro — Famous for its carnival and a good jumping-off if you intend to head towards Sajama National Park.
- 4 Potosí — A high-altitude mining town, once one of the wealthiest cities in the world due to its silver mines. Popular for its mining tours.
- 5 Quime — Raunchy and friendly but sleepy mountain village surrounded by high mountains of the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz, with mines, waterfalls, native cloud forest and 31 Aimara indigenous communities.
- 6 Santa Cruz — The second-largest and most affluent city of Bolivia.
- 7 Sorata — Go there for some of the best climbs (Illampu, Ancohuma) and mountain hikes. Similar to Quime but more vibrant and alive with vast hiking opportunities, ranging from 1-day Laguna to 12-day villages hikes.
- 8 Sucre — The constitutional capital and seat of judiciary. Also, a popular tourist magnet with lots to see and do including hiking, partying and seeing dinosaur footprints.
- 9 Tarija — Famous for its wine production and pleasant climate. The Festival of Wine is held annually in Tarija.
- 1 Chacaltaya & Huayna Potosi — the world's highest ski resort and Bolivia's most popular mountain climb
- 2 Isla del Sol — In the south part of Lake Titicaca. A remote island in the middle of the lake. Astonishing landscapes and very old ruins from Inca period make this location a good place to find peace.
- 3 Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos — six remote towns of the Gran Chaco founded by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries. The region the towns are in is called Chiquitania and is well worth a visit not just for the Missions, but for the beautiful nature as well.
- 4 Madidi National Park — Located a few miles North of Apolo, is one of the world's most extensive biodiversity reserves. Its humid tropical climate has spawned one of Bolivia’s richest woodlands.
- 5 Noel Kempff Mercado National Park — impossibly remote and even more impossibly beautiful Amazonian park, home to the stunning Cataratas Arcoiris waterfall
- 6 Sajama National Park — beautiful Andean landscapes and Bolivia's highest mountain, Nevada Sajama
- 7 Salar de Uyuni — the spectacular landscapes along the largest salt flats in the world
- 8 Tiwanaku — Ancient ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Yungas region to be reached via bicycle on El Camino de Muerte, the World's Most Dangerous Road, leading through dramatic high altitude cliffside jungle terrain or by walking on El Choro Trek through the climate zones from La Paz to Coroico
|Population||11 million (2017)|
|Electricity||115 volt / 50 hertz and 230 volt / 50 hertz (NEMA 1-15, Europlug)|
|Emergencies||911, 110 (police), 119 (fire department), 160 (emergency medical services)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Sometimes referred to as the Tibet of South America, Bolivia is one of the most "remote" countries in the Western Hemisphere; except for the navigable Paraguay River stretching to the distant Atlantic, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked nations in the Americas. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of its population being of pure Native American ancestry.
Bolivia's geographical composition can be easily divided in three major terrains or regions: Lowlands; valleys; and high plateau or altiplano. Because of this country´s history, from the times when the first humans arrived up until today, population distribution and land surface is inversely proportional in these three regions. The altiplano is the smallest and has the biggest portion of the population, the lowlands occupy more than 1/2 of the country and have about 1/3 of its population. Original natives in all three areas are also of different ethnic origins. All this is explained simply because since colonial times, Bolivia was a mining country in which the economy was based in the mines that were high in the mountains and the valleys fed them. The rest was the frontier.
Bolivia, named after independence fighter Simón Bolívar, broke away from Spanish rule in 1825; much of its subsequent history has consisted of a series of nearly 200 coups and counter-coups. Comparatively democratic civilian rule was established in the 2000s, but leaders have faced difficult problems of deep-seated poverty, social unrest, and drug use. Current goals include attracting foreign investment, strengthening the hygiene system, and waging an anti-corruption campaign on poor citizens.
The current president is Evo Morales, who won majority in a 2005 election and was inaugurated at the historical Tiwanaku archeological sites. Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism, were re-elected in 2009, with another majority. President Morales is the first Native leader of Bolivia since before the Spanish conquest, and he has concentrated on promoting the welfare of long-neglected Native people, so he is very popular with the Native majority, but those of European descent, who are concentrated in parts of the Tropical Lowlands, are in many instances strongly opposed to him and his policies. The protesters often shut down streets in La Paz, specifically the area surrounding the Plaza Murillo, and install blockades along major inter-city travel routes. If you are traveling between cities by bus, it can be common for the trip to be stalled by several hours due to these protests. Sometimes pickets of miners last several days between bigger cities and there are just no buses leaving in some directions.
Bolivia has a greater percentage of Native people than any other country in the Americas. They are mostly Quechua and Aymara people (the Spaniards wiped out the Incan aristocracy when they conquered the Andes). You may have seen Quechua people in your city selling colorful shawls and sweaters or heard a Quechua ensemble playing traditional music. But while many Andeans have to go abroad to seek a better life, more of them are still here, and their culture continues to live.
Bolivia's climate remains relatively similar from one climatic zone to another. It ranges from humid and tropical to slightly humid and tropical. In most parts of the country winters are dry and summers are somewhat wet. Despite its tropical latitude, the altitude of cities like La Paz keeps things cool, and warm clothing is advised during the months of April and May. The summer months in Bolivia are November through March. The weather is typically warmer and wetter during these months. April through October, the winter months, are typically colder and drier.
- January 1 - New Year's Day
- January 22 - Founding of the Plurinational State Day
- May 1 - Labor Day
- June 21 - Willkakuti (official holiday)
- August 6 - Independence Day
- November 2 - All Soul's Day
- December 25 - Christmas
When the holiday falls on a Sunday, sometimes the holiday is moved to the following Monday. There are also departmental holidays.
Beyond these holidays, election days in Bolivia are a big deal. Most places will be closed on election day, and there are very few cars on the road, but you can find lively street festivals selling food and drinks. Especially relevant for some travellers, alcohol cannot be sold on election day or the day before.
The following nationalities will not need a visa for short stays of less than 90 days as tourists: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vatican City, and Venezuela.
Most people who do need tourist visas can obtain them on arrival, except for the following nationalities:
- Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chad, East Timor, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, United States, Yemen, and those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- However, under urgent and special circumstances foreigners in this group can obtain visas at the port of entry. US citizens will normally receive a triple-entry visa valid for 3 entries per year over a 5-year period.
All business travellers and persons wishing to stay longer than 90 days in a year must obtain a visa in advance.
Unless you are under the age of 1, you will need a yellow fever vaccination certificate to apply for a visa.
US citizens sometimes have success getting a tourist visa on arrival, but if you attempt this, make sure you have all the necessary documents, especially if arriving by land: a visa application form, a color copy of your passport, a copy of yellow fever vaccination (apparently only necessary if you are planning to visit yellow fever endemic zones), a copy of an itinerary leaving Bolivia, evidence of economic solvency, a hotel reservation or written invitation, and a 4 cm x 4 cm or "passport sized" photo. A US$160 fee is also required, payable in crisp, undamaged US dollars. Any old, marked, or damaged bills will not be accepted. If you're a dual citizen, don't count on being able to change passports at the border to avoid the visa fee.
In case you accidentally overstay, at the Villazón border crossing there is no exit control on the Bolivian side.
The famous tarjeta de migracion (a small card with your personal info given to you at entry and taken from you at exit) is getting replaced by an electronic version (tarjeta electronica). Since 2017, you don't receive a physical tarjeta de migracion anymore if entering by plane at the main airports LPB, CBB or VVI. Even if later exiting by land, there should be no problem leaving the country without the tarjeta. There are some reports of briberies when exiting at the land borders (for overstays, travelling without tarjeta etc.), but the situation is much better nowadays.
It is common for tourists to travel through a land border at the north-east of Chile and South-West of Bolivia. Bolivia has many land border with its surrounding countries, checkout the border crossings in the following:
- Guayaramerín from Guajará-Mirim, Brazil
- Puerto Quijarro from Corumbá, Brazil
- Puerto Suárez (Paraguay#By boat) from Concepción, Paraguay
- Villazón and La Quiaca from Argentina
- Bermejo from Argentina
- Villamontes and Santa Cruz from Asunción, Paraguay
- La Paz from Arica, Chile
- Desaguadero from Peru
The arrival plan must be based mostly in the purpose of your visit to the country; you have to remember that La Paz receives most of their visitors due to the immense culture and heritage from the Incas and other indigenous cultures from the Andean region, and therefore from La Paz it is easier to move to the Tiwanaku ruins, Oruro’s carnival, Potosí’s mines, Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, Los Yungas valley and the Andes Mountains; since La Paz is the seat of government all the embassies and foreign organizations have their headquarters in the city, which is useful in case of an emergency.
On the other side, Santa Cruz with a warmer weather could become a good location for doing business visit other alternatives in tourism like the Misiones, the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park or visit the eastern cities. There are also some foreign consulates in Santa Cruz.
Regular flights are booked from Madrid (Barajas) to Viru Viru in Santa Cruz service provided by companies like Boliviana de Aviación and Air Europa; the cost could go from €800-1200 to other higher prices depending on the class and duration.
From Latin America
Other airlines that fly into Bolivia from other Latin American countries include LATAM from Santiago via Iquique and from Lima. It is also now possible to fly between Cusco and La Paz with Amaszonas and Peruvian Airlines, making circular itineraries possible where you enter Bolivia from Peru across Lake Titicaca and then fly back into Peru. LATAM flies to Lima and Santiago, often via Iquique. Copa Airlines has begun to fly to Santa Cruz from Panama City. Avianca also flies to Lima and Bogotá. Gol Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas also fly directly to Santa Cruz.
From the USA
There are departures from Miami to Santa Cruz on American Airlines. Once you have your international flight booked - it's far easier and cheaper to organize your internal flights from the point of departure.
In 2014, portions of the Bolivian rail network were acquired by a Chilean company called La Empresa Ferroviaria Andina S.A. (FCA). Many discontinued passenger services appear to have been restarted. Check the FCA website for details.
- From Brazil, a train connects the Bolivian border town of Puerto Quijarro with Santa Cruz. The fast and slow train takes 13 hr and 17 hr respectively.
- From Argentina, a train connects the Bolivian border town of Villazón (across from La Quiaca) to Uyuni (9-12 hr). Tupiza is at the midpoint 4 hr from Villazón. The train passes beautiful mountain scenery on the way. As of Feb 2018, the route between Uyuni and Villazon is closed due to flooding. It was expected to reopen in October 2018.
Only about 5% of all the roads in Bolivia are paved. However, most major routes between major cities (e.g., Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, Sucre) are paved. A 4x4 is strongly encouraged when traveling off the flatter altiplano. Be aware that in mountainous regions traffic sometimes switches sides of the road. This is to ensure the driver has a better view of the dangerous drops.
An international driver's license is required but most times EU or US driver's licenses will be accepted. There are frequent police controls on the road and tolls to be paid for road use.
There are many options for traveling from Argentina to Bolivia by bus. There are sites to check times online but as always in Bolivia, it pays to check on the ground in advance as well.
There is a bus that runs from Juliaca and Puno in Peru to Copacabana. Also, more commercial touristy Peruvian bus services connect from Peru to La Paz.
Bus transportation in Bolivia is a nice cheap way to get to see the beautiful scenery while traveling to your destination. Unfortunately the buses often travel solely at night. Keep in mind that roads are occasionally blocked due to protests, often for several days. So ask several companies at the terminal if you hear about blockades, unless you are willing to spend a few days sleeping on the bus.
Bus travel is usually pretty cheap. Estimate that it will cost you about US$1 for every hour of travel (it's easier to find travel times online than actual price quotes). Prices do change based on supply and demand. Buses generally do not need to be booked ahead, especially for common distances served by many companies. There are great bargains in it for you the shorter you book ahead. Just arriving at the station one hour before the buses leave can often give you a 30-40% discount over bookings several days before. However, as always, shop around and do not go with the first vendor that intercepts you when you arrive at the bus terminal. Hawkers are constantly crying out destinations in the bigger bus stations cajoling potential riders to take their bus line.
If you need to buy a ticket in advance, a good website is: Tickets Bolivia.
Note, that by bus travel anything of the following is meant, which falls into the same category but obviously differs in price and duration: bus (national), minibus (regional), servis (regional van), micro (city bus), trufi (city micro bus with fixed route), and colectivo (city taxis with fixed route and price). Servis' are often 50-100% more expensive than minibuses or buses, but go more often than buses. Buses should be a little cheaper than minibuses, but buses usually cover larger distances.
Contrary to Asia where buses go when full and schedules are unreliable, buses in Bolivia are forced by law to go at the times they publish, even if not full. So, whenever times are posted or available somewhere, even if just by word of mouth, you can be pretty sure that the buses really leaves within 5 min of that time. The good thing though is that even if the bus has just 5 passengers, you still pay the same price as if the bus where completely filled.
Flying within Bolivia is quick and fairly economical. BoA connects most major cities.
- Amaszonas, Av. Saavedra Nº 1649, Miraflores, La Paz, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Most famous for their La Paz to Rurrenabaque route but also fly to Uyuni, Trinidad, Guayaramerin, Riberalta, Cobija, San Borja, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Fares are listed under "tarifas" on their website, listed below. Their office in Santa Cruz is in El Trompillo airport.
- Boliviana de Aviación - BoA - the national airline of Bolivia. Provides economical travel between the main cities of Bolivia. You can book your tickets online or at BoA-offices in Santa Cruz, La Paz or Cochabamba. Main office in Cochabamba, Calle Jordán #202 esq. Nataniel Aguirre. email: email@example.com phone: +591 901 10 50 10 fax: +591 4 4116477
- Ecojet flies the usual major city routes, but it also has flights to Riberalta and Guayaramerin in Bení. Call Center can be reached at phone: +591 901 10 50 55 (not a toll-free call)
On some routes, the roads are in such a dire condition that the train becomes the alternative of choice. Trains are more comfortable than one would expect, having for example reclinable seats. The trip from Oruro to Uyuni is especially beautiful, with the train going literally through an Andean lake on the way. The train is especially good for trips to the Salar de Uyuni and the Pantanal.
Coming from La Paz, you need to take a three-hour bus ride to Oruro to catch the train. It's best to book your tickets a few days before your trip. In La Paz booking office is at Fernando Guachalla No. 494, at the corner with Sánchez Lima (between the Plaza del Estudiante and Plaza Abaroa). Main stops are Uyuni, Tupiza and Villazon, on the Argentine border. Information here: . As of 2018-02-18, the route between Uyuni and Villazon is closed due to flooding. It is expected to reopen in October 2018.
Tickets Bolivia also sells advance train tickets.
Between Santa Cruz and the Pantanal it is more straightfoward to organize a trip. Just go to the Terminal Bimodal in Santa Cruz (see the Santa Cruz page for details), or the train station on the border in Puerto Quijarro. The train is also convenient for trips to the Jesuit Missions. Check the website  for timetables.
For longer trips between towns and cities that aren't served by bus, shared taxis are common. Shared taxis are not safe for tourists, especially if you are solo female traveller. For taxi travel in cities it is good to have an idea of the expected price, but most (not all) taxi drivers are surprisingly fair and don't overcharge tourists.
Bolivia is an excellent place for hiking and trekking, both in the mountains, altiplanicas and the lush jungles, providing many interesting trails. However, due to the often remote nature of these trails, it is important that you are well prepared and have a proper and reliable map with you. In addition, using GPS adds an extra layer of safety, both in cities as well as the countryside. For reliable (offline) maps and comprehensive trails and map information, consult OpenStreetMap, which is also used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (easy but limited).
Bolivia has 37 official languages, of which Spanish (often called Castellano), Quechua, and Aymara are the main ones. In rural areas, many people do not speak Spanish. Nevertheless, you should be able to get by with some basic Castellano. Bolivia is one of the best places in which to learn or practice your Spanish because of their very clean, deliberate accent. There are many options for studying Spanish in Bolivia, and they are usually very good (often, the program includes a very good homestay component).
Bolivia has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the eastern department of Santa Cruz there are the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, the Inca site El Fuerte in Samaipata and the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos. Near the capital there is Tiwanaku, an archeological site with the remains of an pre-Incan city. Finally there are Sucre and Potosí, two cities founded by the Spanish in the 16th century.
- Yungas Road aka Death Road – From La Cumbre to Coroico. A mountain bike tour of 64 km where you'll be able to see the diversity of Bolivia. Leave from La Cumbre at 5,000 m, in a cold and windy environment, and get to Coroico, in a wet and tropical environment. Parts of the trail can also be hiked, or try the parallel and picturesque 3 day El Choro Trek to Coroico.
- Explore the Provinces – Bolivia is a place to explore, it is mostly still untouched. The people are friendly in the countryside. There are hundreds of places off the map, mostly out-of-the-guide places to go in Bolivia, and far more exciting than what the tour agencies and guide books offer. In the La Paz department for example you can easily catch transport to places like Pelechuco, Charazani, the east side of Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol, or Quime, not to mention scores of other villages and small towns. The free government tour agencies at the Plaza Estudiantes or Prado can help you find transport anywhere and tell you about it.
Off the beaten track
Many travellers head to Bolivia ticking off the main and popular todos and sights (like the Salar de Uyuni, chilling in Sucre, the mining tours in Potosí, the Death Road by bicycle, rain forest trekking near Rurrenabaque, and Lake Titicaca) and often leave after only two weeks. However, Bolivia offers much more, often remote and beautiful authentic places with friendly people, and you can easily spend one month or more here between the high altitude mountains and the lowland rainforests. Especially the fact that Bolivia is a great trekking and hiking destination is often neglegted when pointing out the attractions of this country, but indeed there are numerous 1-12 day trails all over the country, many do not require a guide, while others are challenging mountain climbs. In the following, the most important destination off the beaten track that you should not miss, or even simply swap for the over-commercialised places mentioned before—except for maybe the Salar de Uyuni tour:
- Sajama National Park – If you ever just wanted to hike into the Altiplano planes while you where on the Salar de Uyuni tour, this is the place to go. It features the highest Bolivian mountain, mountain climbing, high altitude trekking, geysers and hot-pools, soundless plains, as well as numerous animal species, like viscachas, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, (few) flamingos, horned coots.
- Sorata – While often Quime is emphasised for authentic and laid-back village life, it might be a little too sleepy too be interesting to the sophisticated traveller. While the mine in Quime is definitely worth a visit while being there, Sorata provides a much more interesting experience with numerous 1-12 day treks (between villages, lagoons or high into the snowy mountains), many able to be done without a guide. The town is much more alive, offers more accommodation options (including real hostels), has a lively Sunday market, and can easily be reached from La Paz Cemetario.
- Tropical Lowlands – Beyond Rurrenabaque, the Beni department and Santa Cruz department offer many remote, uncrowded and beautiful national parks for relaxing rainforest walks, animal safaris or just huge dunes in the middle of the rainforest. Some parks are private and more expensive, but there are government run and inexpensive alternatives, like Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, Reserva del Biosfera del Beni, Lomas de Arena, and Amboró National Park.
- Cargo Ferry on Río Mamoré – If you really want to hit the dust and feel the authentic but sometimes burdensome life of the local people, spend some days in a hammock (or cabin) on a busy cargo ferry towards the Brazilian border or just between Santa Cruz and Trinidad.
- Torotoro National Park – Even though not that untouristy as claimed above, many people do not know about this destination. It is a remote mountain village with a large cave nearby that can be climbed into and many dinosaur footprints in the surrounding rock formations. The latter two attractions can only be done by village organised tour, but the region itself might just provide some interesting and remote trekking opportunities if you are keen exploring them.
- Maragua (crater and village) – While many travellers take there time hanging around in Sucre not doing much and enjoying the atmosphere, they often forget about the interesting and beautiful surround mountains that offer many trekking opportunities, as the 2-3 day Maragua Trail.
- Yungas Road – To most people the Death Road is an overpriced one day mountain bike tour. But actually the region offers much more: laid-back Coroico and Chulumani, high waterfalls (like La Jalancha), zip-lining, an interesting Afro-Bolivian community, the historic El Choro Trek, true chocolate, canyoning and many remote accommodation options.
- Villa Tunari – A hotspot among well informed travellers due to its popular nearby national parks, like Parque Machía and Carrasco National Park, many of which are popular for being supported by international volunteers. Besides that, the region is famous for its pleasant tropical weather.
Exchange rates for Bolivian Bolivianos
As of January 2019:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
What does it cost?
The national currency is the Boliviano (ISO code: BOB), denoted Bs. (with dot). Wikivoyage uses the notation Bs. 100 (with a space).
Bills come in denominations of Bs. 200, 100, 50, 20, and 10; coins are in Bs. 5, 2, and 1, and 50, 20, and sometimes 10 centavos (1/10 of a Boliviano). Bills larger than Bs. 50 can be hard to break with smaller stores or vendors, other electronic stores or such dealing with larger amounts will be able to change it for you.
Bolivianos can be exchanged for US dollars, euros and most South American currencies at Casa De Cambio agencies or street vendors. However, it can be difficult to change money other than euros and US dollars for a good rate. Expect to negotiate for a favorable exchange rate, as most vendors will try to make money off tourists.
Nevertheless, street agencies (at least in La Paz) have very competitive US dollar (and even euro) exchanges rates with often less then 1% fee included in the rate. Sometimes US dollar rates are actually better than interbank rates, either due to the need of dollars or because the rate lags behind. Either way, check the rates before exchanging money.
Banks are a little less favorable, but of course more secure. Otherwise US dollars are accepted in hotels, tourist shops, and for large purchases, but the rates are generally less favorable then.
Using ATMs is the most convenient and effective way to get cash in Bolivia. High fees like in Argentina do not exist.
Banco de Credito (BCP) or "Banco Nacional de Boliva" (BNP) are good banks to get cash from without fees. Mercantil Santa Cruz and Banco Fie do not charge any fee either. Banco Union charged an unmentioned 5% surcharge in 2012, but does not do so anymore. Banco Sol charges Bs. 17. BNP ATMs at the main branch in Av. Camacho (La Paz) dispenses US dollar (up to 1000). Many other ATMs claim to dispense US dollars, but most of the time they are out of them.
Service charges are included with the bill. Still, a small tip, around 5% or so, is sometimes given, and is considered polite. No tipping necessary for taxi drivers.
Bargaining is not very common when it comes to day to day things. Generally, even as a tourist you will get the fair price. A few might add Bs. 1 here or there, especially in touristy hotspots, but the rip-off that is common in countries like Egypt or Vietnam does not happen in Bolivia. People are generally very fair to each other here. And 90% of the time asking for a lower price at the market or ho(s)tel, you will be out of luck or cause confused faces. However, you are never forced to buy anything, and after a while you will know the common prices and be able to spot the odd outliers. This bargaining situation obviously does not apply to packaged tours—bargain as hard as you can with these.
Bolivia is popular for its food and produces, like Quinoa, Manioc, Avocado, etc. But it also produces considerably high quality and natural Stevia. If you want to buy some to take home with you, head for a local drug store or pharmacy. They are selling proper quality for around Bs. 40 per 80 g. The Stevia sold on touristy markets like the Witch Market in La Paz is crystalline and of poor quality, do not waste your money on it. The latter is only half price (if you are good at bargaining) compared to the one sold in drug stores, but you need more of it to get the same sweetness.
Bolivia is a great place to get stuff repaired, because there are many handymen around, they do a very good job, and it is dirt cheap. So, if you have a pair of your favourite (hiking) boots, broken headphones or just cloths you love that you always wanted to have repaired, renewed (e.g. shoe sole) or resized (pants) for a fraction of Western costs, Bolivia is the place for it. Especially when travelling for longer, things that need repair can add up. At home it is often cheaper to buy new things instead of repairing, here it is not—take your the chance!
The cuisine of Bolivia might be called the original "meat and potatoes" -- the latter (locally called papas from the Quechua) were first cultivated by the Inca before spreading throughout the world. The most common meat is beef, though chicken and llama are also easily found. Pork is relatively common. Deep frying (chicharron) is a common method of cooking all sorts of meat, and fried chicken is a very popular quick dish; at times the smell permeates the streets of Bolivian cities. Guinea pigs (cuy) and rabbits (conejo) are eaten in rural areas, though you can sometimes find them in urban restaurants as well. A common condiment served with Bolivian meals is ll'ajwa, a spicy sauce similar to Mexican salsa.
Almuerzo is very popular during the mid-day meal and usually consists of an appetizer (entrada), soup, main dish (segundo), and dessert. Walk around many streets around Bolivian cities and you'll see the day's menu for that restaurant. Most have at least 2 main dish options to choose from. Almuerzos run anywhere between Bs. 15-25 depending on the restaurant or 'pension'.
Some notable Bolivian dishes:
- Pique a lo macho - grilled chunks of meat in a slightly spicy sauce with tomatoes and onion, on potatoes
- Silpancho - beef pounded to a thin, plate-sized patty, served on a bed of rice and potatoes, with a fried egg on top (Similar to wiener schnitzel).
- Picante de Pollo - the degree of spiciness depends on the cook/chef
- Fritanga (Bolivian style fried pork)
Street food and snacks:
- Anticucho - Beef hearts grilled on a skewer, served with potatoes and a spicy peanut sauce
- Salchipapa - Thinly sliced sausage fried with potatoes
- Choripan - Chorizo (spicy sausage) sandwich, served with grilled onions and lots of sauce
Mid-Morning snacks typically consists of any of several of meat-filled buns:
- Salteña - A baked bun filled with meat and potatoes in a slightly sweet or spicy sauce. Be careful when you take a bite, as the sauce will drip all over!
- Tucumana - Like a salteña but fried
- Empanada - Similar to a saltena, often filled with cheese as well as meat
- Cuñape - A small roll filled with cheese, similar to Brazilian pão de queijo. The bread is made from cassava flour.
Many people also start off the day with some concoction involving fruit:
- Ensalada de frutas - Many different fruits chopped in a bowl of yogurt. Very filling. Some stalls may have honey, nuts or gelatin on top, if you like.
Vegetarians will find decent to very good options in Gringo-places around the country. But also at market places, there are good vegetarian options on offer (usually potatoes, rice, fried egg and salad for about 7Bs.) In bigger cities, there are some (decent to good) fully vegetarian restaurants.
Coca has been part of Andean culture for centuries, and chewing is still very common (and perfectly legal) in Bolivia. You should be able to buy a big bag of dried leaves at the local market. Coca is a stimulant, and it also suppresses hunger. Chewing a wad of leaves for a few minutes should bring slight numbness to your lips and throat. Remember the slogan (printed on souvenir T-shirts): Coca no es Cocaina ("The coca leaf is not cocaine"). But cocaine most definitely is an illegal drug. Remember this, only chew the leaf; if you eat the coca leaf you will get a very sick stomach.
Juice bars appear at most markets. Shakes (either with water or milk) are 2 Bs. 2-3. Locals can be seen to drink Vitaminico an egg, beer and sugar concoction or "Vitima" which includes coca leaves.
- Licuado - Water or milk blended with your favorite fruit combination. A big spoonful of sugar will be added unless you specifically ask them not to. Try the milk and papaya licuado. You should probably ask whether the water added is from botella (bottle) or from the tap (not recommended).
- Vitaminico - Don't ask what's in here. Many fruits, milk, sugar, a shot of beer, and, if you wish, a whole egg (with shell).
- Mocochinchi - A drink made by brewing peaches and spices together in water. Very good but some people are turned off by the shriveled peach which is typically served with each glass.
- Api - A traditional corn-based drink usually found in the open-air markets. If you didn't know it was corn you'd never guess it though because this stuff is good.
Bolivia's traditional alcoholic drink is chicha, a whitish, sour brew made from fermented corn and drunk from a hemispherical bowl fashioned from a hollowed gourd (round-bottomed so you can't put it down). It's customary to spill a bit of chicha on the ground before and after drinking it as an offering to Pachamama, the Inca earth goddess.
- Singani is a grape liquor that's mixed with Sprite or ginger ale with lime garnish to make a cocktail called chuflay.
- There are a number of local beers, the largest being Paceña and its high-end brand Huari. El Inca is a very sweet low-alcohol beer. Orange Cocktails are a popular drink too!
Tarija is located at 1924 meters above sea level, and is known for it's wine-making, vast vineyards, and award-winning wines. Hence you can visit and taste wine at its beautiful wineries, such as: Campos De Solana, Kohlberg, Casa Vieja, Valle De Concepción, and Casa Real, where the famous Singani is made.
Offering a favorable exchange for Western tourists, lodging can be found at very reasonable prices throughout the country, from hostals to luxury hotels. In simple accommodations WiFi is not common, only if they cater for tourists.
There are not many hostels in the common sense around, except for the typical tourist spots. But even in normal and basic places (often called hostal, hospedaje or alojamientos) you only pay per person (Bs. 30-60) and not per room. So, you might end up paying Bs. 40 for a room with 4 beds, one taken by you.
Outside of large cities, hostel prices are considerably cheaper when walking-in than online. In large cities however, you will find it hard to find a bargain and it is better to reserve online.
It seems that Bolivia is very short on toilet paper. Thus, always have a spare supply of it and do not forget to take a little with you when you leave your ho(s)tel. Or it might even just be the tissues from the restaurant visit. Note, often the food in Bolivia is not very clean, requiring more visits to the toilet than in Western countries.
You will find many other travellers in South America, often doing the same route as you. It is fun and useful to travel together with others; rent a car together to save money, hike together for a more secure experience, or just share your knowledge on the way about dangers, volunteering, secret gems, or any other valuable information. Relying on this information and help is useful and important, as can be seen with this travel guide.
Facebook, for instance, has many local country groups available, like the Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay Backpacker / Traveler group where you can find other travellers and up-to-date information on the country. Also, hostels often have black boards available where you can sell and find stuff, or contact local travellers. Otherwise, just talk to the people that look like they need help or if you are trying to find help yourself.
Buses and tours
Never book ahead in Bolivia. Many tourists plan they travel far (too) ahead, even organising trips across country borders with one and the same company, so called flexible bus and tour tickets. However, this flexibility is actually just a marketing point of these companies and comes at a hefty price. Travel companies mostly never operate across borders or even across tourism fields. Instead, they leverage other companies to organise and offer their spectrum to tourists and act as the man in the middle. But this adds to your costs and does not give you any bargaining ground whatsoever. Hence, turning up on site and booking short notice does always give you better prices for tours and buses. Also, it gives you more freedom and flexibility of travel time and planning. There are always more than enough tour and bus companies around, since everyone is trying to make money with tourists. A single tourist a week can provide enough income for them to last due to the often large margin they have. Hence, there are always more than enough available to choose from. This will give you the opportunity to fill remaining spaces at a very low price, and companies are happy to book as many people as possible at once, giving you the best bargaining ground ever with discounts of up to 50%. And even if they are fully booked, they will know other companies that have availability and try to book you on these ones, trying to make an additional cut for themselves. Remember, you are the rarity in sea of oversupply, at least along the beaten track.
- Knowing when most (night) buses go from the bus terminal, be there 1 hr before and check out one company after another. Demand the cheapest seat instead of the most comfortable one, they mostly have one kind only anyhow. This way you might get a cama by paying for a semi-cama, which is better than paying a cama while they actually just have semi-camas. (They will boldly lie to you about their seat standards.)
- Salar de Uyuni tours from Uyuni or San Pedro; you can easily turn up one day (even in the evening) and without issues book a tour for the next day. Even if one does not go, there are 30 more companies down the road. They will be happy about any last minute dollar they can make.
- Cycling the Death Road; check out the locations of the tour providers (near San Francisco in La Paz) and go from one office to another asking for the best price. Rates easily drop to half (Bs. 300) of what they will tell you when you call them or contact them via email. Demand the best bicycle either way. The have more than enough bicycles and spaces.
- Apply common sense and take precautions that apply elsewhere. All tourists should be careful when selecting a travel guide and never accept medication from unverifiable sources.
- Women tourists should be cautious when travelling alone.
- At night try to use radio taxis, as fake cabs are common and robbings and even rapes do occur.
- It is a good idea to register with the consulate of your country of residence upon entry into the country. And it is also helpful learn at least basic Spanish to keep yourself a little safe.
- When taking an interdepartmental bus (say from La Paz to Cochabamba), do not accept snacks or drinks from nearby passengers. Even though most likely they may just want to be nice, there have been instances that passengers being drugged and robbed during nighttime trips. Say "no, gracias".
- Always remain cautious and suspicious when approached by someone or get befriended by a stranger in the street. Bolivians are very closed towards foreigners. Even when you do business with them, e.g. buying something, they will rather prefer not to do so. Ask yourself, why would anyone even start a conversation with a tourist when their general mood is often far from friendly and open. There must be something wrong if it is not the owner of your hostel or another Westerner. You are better off to immediately walk away from such a situtation, saying Lo siento. There are certainly better ways to find friends in Bolivia.
- In general, if you travel less touristy routes, you will mostly be save, apart from general dangers like traffic. Criminals targeting tourist will mostly always be where they can expect a high supply. Waiting in the middle of nowhere for one tourist a month is not what they are looking for. Hence, if you enjoy authentic travel and experience, you will be safe at the same time.
- There are a lot of dogs in Bolivia on the streets, especially in smaller towns and villages. The dogs are generally friendly, they walk around, "sunbathe" near houses.
The plain-clothed police officer scam
This seems to be rampant (but seldom) in this region and especially in cities like La Paz, Cochabamba and Sucre, basically everywhere where to expect larger amounts of tourists, but especially near plazas and in the center. In remote regions of Bolivia you should be safe from it, because the frequency of tourists to target is too low and travellers to such remote regions are generally more aware and firm with a country and travelling in general.
The scam: Generally, travelers — alone or in pairs — are being targeted for robberies in the centre of town or on a bus. Typically, a young man (an accomplice) will try to start up a conversation about hotels or hostels, and claim to be staying at the same one as the target. Alternatively, he might ask you for directions (to simple destinations), or start any conversation to befriend you. Then an "undercover police officer" (aka plain-clothed police officer) will arrive on the scene because of "passport difficulties" or "drug searches". Then the accomplice will often claim that the same thing happened to them and that it is best to just cooperate with them. If you hand out your passport, the "officer" will use it as ransom to get you into a car/taxi (part of the setup) to do a search at the "police station". At the fake station your luggage will be search and money will mysteriously disappear from it, which you will only notice after the incident when being back on the street. Some people have had all of there possessions stolen this way—including rings off of fingers. Even worse, if it turns out that no money or valuable are in your luggage, the situation might turn even uglier—an Austrian couple was found murdered in 2006 after following false police into a taxi.
- Never show any valuables or give your passport, or anything for that matter that can be used as ransom (e.g. for you to get into a car), to anyone. Always carry a copy and hand the copy out if necessary, even with ho(s)tels. If anyone objects, make a stand and explain that the region is too dangerous to give out your passport and people have been killed doing it. Alternatively, think of a stupid story, you lost it and now have to get a new one.
- Never get into a taxi with them or someone you do not know for that matter, even if that someone has your passport. This is South America, where taxis are not to be trusted and gun violence exists! If you get into a taxi the guy will not just hold your passport but your life in his hands. Note, a passport can always be replaced at the next embassy, a life cannot.
- Never bring large amounts of foreign money to countries like Bolivia (Peru, Ecuador or Colombia). Bolivia is very easy with a credit card and ATMs, and there is always Western Union, just in case.
- Never keep all your money in your backpack. Spread it, also hide it in you pants. However, have a small amount ready to give away just in case, to keep up the façade. By the way, backpacks often have space between layers of textile where usually no one would expect anything to be, e.g. inside where the back bars are. You can leverage these places for money and credit cards.
- Undercover police (aka plain-clothed police officer) are strictly ordered not to hassle tourists. Thus, any such case should immediately ring you bells. And even if it were real undercover police, you would not want to get with them into a car either, because if you have to, there is something terribly wrong and it is not going to end up well either way. Express this fear clearly and make a stand as much as you can.
- If you can, call 110, which is the Bolivian number for emergencies.
- If necessary, insist on being taken by foot to the next police station before giving them access to your things. Or even walk to nearby crowded places, e.g. a central plaza, and seek the help of uniformed police there. Stay on the main and crowded roads!
- If you feel secure enough doing so, scream "Policía!" as loud as you can. Most local people will be more than happy to help a stranger.
- Alternatively, seek help of restaurants, pharmacies, or larger shops if you feel insecure.
- Or, if confident enough, simply walk away if you feel like you are caught in a dodgy situation.
Note, the way of using an accomplice to befriend you is a recent twist in the scam. Be aware that the future might show other alteration of it, always ending up with you giving your passport to the "officer", entering the car and getting mugged afterwards.
This scam is seldom but still exists. If you suspicious and aware, or the kind of guy/gal not to be messed with, or even just clearly above 30, you are probably safe and do not have to fear these criminals. They usually target traveller they can handle with ease, i.e. youngsters in their 20s, naive and alone in the world for the first time—as sad as it sounds.
Some parts of Bolivia like La Paz (3,650 m), Potosí (4,010 m), Oruro (3,950 m) and the Lake Titicaca region (3,400 m) are high altitude, so adequate precautions against "sorojchi" altitude sickness should be taken.
At local pharmacies they sell sorojchi pills, that are supposed to help with altitude problems. It has painkillers as well as natural herbs to help cope with the symptoms of "sorojchi". In many parts of the Altiplano you can purchase coca leaves, which are reputed to be useful against soroche. Coca tea ("mate de coca") is available in tea bags in many markets.
However, severe cases of high altitude disease can be treated at the High Altitude Pathology Institute at Clinica IPPA. This clinic has the most advanced technology including a hyperoxic/hypoxic adaptation chamber. In addition, the sun's ultraviolet rays are much stronger -- up to 20 times -- than at sea level. A sun hat, sunglasses, and skin protection (sunblock or long sleeves) are advised.
Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for those who plan on spending time in the Bolivian Amazon. It must be taken 10 days prior to the your arrival in the country if you plan to visit rural areas.
Malaria prophylaxis is recommended if the visitor plans to visit tropical-rural areas.
As a preventive measure, taking the following vaccines is recommended: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Tetanus, Diphtheria and Measles Booster-Vaccines.
One should not drink tap water. Buy bottled water or boil tap water first.
Stomach problems are possible (dirty food etc.).
Petrol may contain lead. The sort that contains lead (it also stinks on the streets) is called "standard". If you plan a long term visit in Bolivia, you may want to investigate.
Do not use the word "indio" in Bolivia to describe indigenous people. It is considered offensive. The term they use is "campesino" which translates to peasant or "indígena". A "cholo" is a campesino who moved to the city, and though originally derogatory, has become more of a symbol of indigenous power. Nevertheless, some locals still use the word cholo as a derogatory term.
Bolivian culture is very warm and friendly; it is rude not to say buen día or buenos días to passersby in the streets. It also customary to give up your seat on a city bus for someone older than you and for men to give their seats up for women. In turn, others will give their seats up for you if you look a little bit older than they are.
- Bolivia has three cellphone companies, Entel, Tigo, and Viva. All three have outlets on practically every block in major cities.
- If you are staying for a while, consider buying SIM cards for your cellphones. They are quite cheap and you get good network coverage in all main cities and towns. Entel sells good-priced international call possibilities for their SIMs, i.e. you can buy 10 mins for Bs. 20 (to be used in one day, disconnects automatically after expiration). You will need to register the SIM card at a local office of the telecom. You will need a photocopy of your passport and the mobile phone that you will use.
- While traditional payphones still exist, you can also make local calls for Bs. 1 from cellular phones at kiosks.
- Internet cafés are becoming less prevalent with the spread of smart phones making internet access more accessible. However, most larger cities are dotted with Internet/Cyber Cafés, weirdly enough in 2018. General rates are around Bs. 1.50-2.50 per hour.
- Many cafés have free WiFi for customers, although the speed can vary depending on the number of users connected.