Bolivia Travel Guide

A landlocked hidden treasure in the heart of South America

From something known as the world’s most dangerous road, to salt flats where you could get lost for days, there are number of adrenaline inducing activities that can be enjoyed in Bolivia.

Having said that, don’t let that put you off, as the country is also home to spectacular natural beauty, complex and intriguing historical sites, and some of the friendliest locals you can ask for – as long as you can pick up a few Spanish phrases, that is.

Expect to see a parade or two while you’re there as Bolivians are lovers of all things culture and celebration, and hardly a month will pass without possession of brightly costumed people wandering through a city to honour any number of important dates. You’ll hear them before you see them, and use it as an opportunity to learn about the culture and indulge in the fun side of the community.

Whether you’re looking to explore the Amazon rainforest, visit remote islands in the middle of lakes, or hike up mountainous glaciers, there’s something for everyone in this land-locked little treasure in the heart of South America. And we have all the tips and insider knowledge to make your trip great.

Where to Go

Located in the heart of South America, Bolivia is part of one of the most diverse and complex landscapes in the world. The natural diversity here has given the space and opportunity for various incredible cultures to develop over thousands of years.

Bolivia is lucky enough to be home to both a wealth of animal species and natural wonders, but also people and cultures that stretch back through the ages. With so many exceptional locations, it can be daunting to know where to go.

To make it a bit easier, we scoured and hunted for the absolute best places to go to experience all the best the country has to offer.

La Paz

The unofficial capital of Bolivia, La Paz is a crazy amalgamation of street marches, street food vendors, jostling pedestrians, boutique hotels, suited business men and camouflaged shoeshine boys.

It’s very much one of those cities that visitors either love or hate, much of which is down to how well you can handle altitude; set 3,640 meters above sea level, there’s a very real chance of getting altitude sickness while visiting.

It’s well worth the sickness to visit the strange and wonderful attractions here, such as the Witches Market that sells alpaca foetuses, colourful powders and more, where locals will explain the history behind it and give you a glimpse into Bolivian culture.

Copacabana

Just off the shore from Lake Titicaca, according to legend it was on this Island that the first Inca was born thousands of years ago. As such, there are daily boats taking travellers across the lake, with accommodation provided in the number of hotels on the island, or there is also the option to go back to Copacabana during the afternoon.

Known for its aesthetically beautiful white cathedral and amazing sunsets, it’s also here but there are a lot of sacred Inca ruins. However, it’s worth noting that during 2018 the northern part of the island was blocked off to tourists, so check that it has been reopened before visiting if you are particularly interested in the history that lies here.

Sucre

The official capital of Bolivia, Sucre is known for its amazing colonial architecture which has earned its reputation as one of the most beautiful and stunning cities in the country. Often referred to as the White City, the buildings and streets are lined with glistening white architecture, meaning it always looks picture perfect.

Plus, it’s here that travellers can invest in Spanish language classes, with some of the best schools across the country found in the city. If your Spanish is a little rusty, or you’re an absolute beginner, it’s worth checking out the schools here before you backpack the rest of the country, where It’s unlikely everyone you meet will be able to speak English.

Potosi

Once known as the Silver City, Potosi was once one of the largest and wealthiest cities in America – both the north and south. However, the city was mined until it had no more to give, and once the silver dried up the city it went into decline, with citizens quickly slipping into poverty. The mines here are still working, although now the city makes do with other metals rather than silver.

Plus, the mines have proven to be a big tourist attraction with travellers. Enjoy a day tour with a company called Big Deal Tours who use the money raised as a way of giving back to the community – for instance, some of it will go towards buying food for the families of deceased miners.

Tarija

If you’re a lover of wine and steak, then Tarija is for you. Belonging to one of the least visited cities in the country, Tarija is a popular vacation spot for the locals – which means that you know it’s got the seal of approval.

There is nowhere better to sit back, relax, enjoy good wine, good food and sunny weather. Take part in a number of the wine tours, or take a trip to the Cordillera of Sama Biological reserve where you can see beautiful nature, Inca ruins, and even spot flamingos and flying condors if you’re really lucky.

What to Do

From cultural hot spots, to hiking opportunities, museums, sites of historical significance and more, everything about Bolivia combines to make it one of the most unique and interesting places you’ll ever visit.

Salar de Uyuni

The world’s largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni is just a sheer white expanse of mirror-like surfaces, rock formation, and cacti dotted along the horizon. Best to visit during the dry season between April and October, it’s here where hexagon-shaped salt deposits reveal themselves, forming as a natural result of evaporation following the dry period. Overall, there are over 10 billion tonnes of salt across the plains of Salar de Uyuni.

Visit Lake Titicaca

One of the most revered places in Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is rich in ancient settlements and Incan ruins. The lake is home to over 530 different aquatic species, including the rare giant frog and trout, which locals will typically smoke before their meal, following it with ripe papaya juice.

Travellers often visit Lake Titicaca change of the remote, quiet island life, watching the sunrise in the same spot whereabouts of thousands of years ago very first time– If one is to believe local legends. Once here, there are a number of different trails to explore and learn the history of Isla del Sol.

Explore the Amazon Rainforest

One of the most famous jungles in the world, the Amazon rainforest covers a number of different countries – but a lot of it resides in Bolivia. Here, travellers can see anything from sloths to squirrel monkeys, as well as the enigmatic and mysterious pink dolphin based in the Amazon River.

Found along the northern region of Bolivia, the Amazon basin is accessible via public transport from a lot of the major cities across the country, although the main town for accommodation purposes is Rurrenabaque.

Hop on one of the boats to visit the stilt houses along the river, before heading upstream to test out piranha fishing, anaconda hunting, and swimming with the various aquatic animals.

Go trekking across the Andes

One of the most mysterious mountain ranges in the world, the Andean mountains are home to some of the most spectacular peaks you can find in Bolivia, and in South America. It’s here that avid hikers and treckers will find Mount Aconcagua, which is actually the highest point in the southern hemisphere.

Some of these peaks are over 5000 metres high but whether you’re a beginner or experienced, there is a trail for you. Try the Huayna Potosí; although it’s 6000 metres high, the Internet is easy to access which means it’s the favourite among backpackers.

Walk the Che Guevara trail

Che Guevara is one of the most famous people in Bolivian history; known as a revolutionist, socialist, and activist, he was also an avid traveller. The Che Guevara Trail gives explorers the chance to get to know the history of one of the most important and iconic figures for Bolivian locals.

The trail leads to the dusty village of La Higuera, the unsuspecting hamlet where Che Guevara’s life was ended following his execution in a local school. Today, more than 50 years after his death, people from all over the world continue to visit the village in order to pay their respects and remember the amazing work that he did for Bolivia.

Read More About Bolivia

Best Time to Visit Bolivia

Tucked away in South America, Bolivia only has two seasons rather than the more traditional four. The wet and dry seasons split the year almost in half and although the timings for the seasons vary slightly as your travel around the country, typically the dry period is between May and November.

Between January and March the country is prone to torrential rain, making this pretty much the worst time you can visit if you like being out and about a lot. May through to August is the best time in terms of being able to enjoy outdoor activities as there is very little chance of rain, but this is also the country’s winter period which means it can get bitterly cold in the highlands.

In terms of festivals and events, Carnaval is a must-see, happening over four days in either February or March every year. The festival sees Catholic and indigenous deities dancing side by side to the music of over 150 different marching bands.

There’s also the Nuestro Señor del Gran Poder in May or June, celebrating and honouring the legacy of Jesus Christ, and Alasitas in January, which sees indigenous Bolivians coming to La Paz from all the surrounding areas in order to purchase miniature versions of things they want to buy/receive during the upcoming year.

How Much Does it Cost

Bolivia is easily one of the cheapest places in South America to travel, which makes it a great destination for a backpacking trip.

A daily budget here could be $25-30 if you really wanted it to, and domestic flights across country cost as little as $40 – so you don’t even have to spend hours travelling to keep your spending down.

Typical costs while backpacking across Bolivia:

Hostel

$8

Day tour

$0-175

Budget hotel

$20-40

Pint of beer

$3

Street food

$1

Attraction entry

$2-14

Public transport

$0.30

Restaurant meal

$2-8

Budget Tips

Already a cheap country to visit, there are ways to reduce the cost of backpacking through Bolivia even more. The obvious tips include staying in local hostels and accommodation rather than specific tourist-aimed ones, known as alojamientos.

Similarly, if you eat like a local you can save up to $7 per meal, which is $21 a day back in your pocket. Keep your eye out for something called almuerzo, which is a set lunch including soup, a main course, and dessert for less than $1.50.

Go prepared with a basic understanding of Spanish, as you’re more likely to negotiate a better price with vendors if you can speak the lingo. In line with this, avoid taking the tourist-trap tours, and instead make your own way to the attraction using local transport.

What to Pack

Depending on when you want to visit will determine what essentials you need to pack; the wet season will need cooler clothing but definitely a rain coat or two, for instance, while the dry period will tend to be a lot cooler.

Going hiking will probably require proper gear and warm clothing, although if you don’t want to pack it there will be places to rent it if you need – just remember to budget accordingly.

The general items to make sure you have include: jeans, layer tops, leggings, t-shirts, dresses, comfortable shoes, rain jacket, jumper, toiletries, and a first aid kit.

Backpacker Accommodation

Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in South America to travel around, and that’s largely a result of the incredibly cheap and great value for money accommodation on offer here.

Across the tourist areas there is a wealth of budget hotels and backpacker hostels to choose from, and Airbnb also has some fantastic choices around the country. In fact, there are entire condos and houses available in some of the major cities that cost less than $250 for a week.

There are also alojamientos, which are a family run, Bolivian bed and breakfast style accommodation and offer a private double room in a homely environment.

Food and Drink

Bolivia isn’t known for its world-class cuisine, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some fantastic local dishes you have to try while you’re there. One of these includes salteñas, which are a traditional Bolivian breakfast dish consisting of an oven-baked pastry filled with peas, carrots, potatoes, and meat, all covered in a sweet and spicy gravy.

There’s also a sajta which is a seasoned boiled chicken served on top of rice, tomato, onion, and freeze-dried Andean potatoes, as well as anticucho, a popular late-night snack that is made up of flame-grilled cow heart.

In terms of drinks, the traditional mixed drink that often takes the place of cocktails is a chuflay; made from ginger ale and singani, a native spirit distilled form white Muscat grapes, all poured over ice.

There’s also a mocochinchi, which isn’t a mocha – like the name suggests. Instead, it’s made with the pits of peaches which are dehydrated, cooked in water and boiled with cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon, then cooled down and served on the street.

Cultural Tips

Bolivia is and always has been a relatively formal, and old-fashion country. Politeness and courtesy are very much appreciated wherever you go, as is greeting people with a formal “good morning/afternoon/evening”. Like anywhere, it can come as a bit of a culture shock to some travellers unaccustomed to Bolivian norms, so it’s good to do a bit of research before you go to avoid the dreaded faux pas.

A few things to bear in mind when backpacking through Bolivia:

  • Bolivians in positions of authority always expect to be treated with utmost respect
  • Bolivians are generous, and are likely to take offence if you don’t take what you’re being offered – especially if it’s food or drink
  • While Bolivians are used to foreigners wearing shorts, in the highlands it’s a good idea to avoid showing too much skin
  • Homosexuality is legal, but most Bolivians would frown upon it
  • Don’t take any pictures of children without permission from adults first. Child trafficking is a serious concern in Bolivia, and you may well be mistaken for a trafficker

Handy Phrases

Bolivia has 36 official languages and although some of these are no longer used, a lot of them definitely are. Luckily though, most people will be able to speak at least a little bit of Spanish, with that being the dominant language of 69% of the population.

With that in mind, here are some handy Spanish phrases to help you get around Bolivia:

  • Phrase
  • Holá
  • Buenos dias / tardes / noches
  • Como estás
  • Por favor
  • Sin bolsa de plastic
  • Perdon
  • No entiendo
  • Discúlpe
  • Me puedes ayudar, por favour?
  • Translation
  • Hello
  • Good day / evening / night
  • How are you
  • Please
  • No plastic bag
  • Excuse me
  • I don’t understand
  • Sorry
  • Can you help me, please?

Getting Around

Most backpackers use a combination of planes and buses to get around Bolivia. That’s because the country is massive, so if you’re on a tight time limit then it makes sense to hop on a few planes to get to some of the major sites.

Bolivia’s road system isn’t the best which means buses can be fairly slow, but they’re cheap and relatively comfortable – and it’s even possible to book tickets online, in English, which saves the risk of buying a ticket to the wrong destination.

Hitch hiking is only really used by poor locals looking to make their way to the nearest city, and if Bolivian locals spot you trying to get a ride then they’ll likely just point you in the direction of the nearest bus stop.

Visa Requirements

Luckily for backpackers, the only visa requirement for most countries is a passport with at least 6 months validity left on it, and an immigration card to present at the border. These countries include the UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, and the USA, amongst many others.

The Bolivian government helpfully listed different countries into 3 groups, and those from group 2 – including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cape Verde, India, Iran, and Malaysia – need to apply for a visa at either the Bolivian embassy, or directly at the border. It’s free from the embassy, or $95 at the border.

Those countries in Group 3 – including Cambodia, Indonesia, Israel, Libya, North Korea, and Rwanda – have to apply for a visa in advance of travelling, and can only get one from a Bolivian embassy which will cost $30.

Is It Safe?

Overall, Bolivia is a safe country to visit, but there are a few things to be wary of – some of which have come about thanks to the increase in tourism to the destination. For example, there are now a number of tour operators who aren’t safe or trustworthy, so make sure to thoroughly check somewhere before you book with them. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Before you head out ot the Salt Flats or the scary but appropriately named “Death Road” verify the track record of the company that’s taking you, and make sure the company has been properly vetted. These are dangerous places, and you need to ensure you’re safe before you head out.

Any interaction with drugs could get you into serious trouble, and land you in jail very quickly. Plus, cocaine can have really bad side effects when you’re combining it with high altitudes – which is a lot of the Bolivian landscape.

One important thing to note is that it is illegal to tour the San Pedro prison. While it’s incredibly interesting, under no circumstances should you go with anyone offering you a tour of the place.

A Brief History

Humans have inhabited Bolivia since at least 2000 B.C., when the ancient Tiwanakan culture was present. Founded around the south of Lake Titicaca, which provided a constant source of fresh water, it was here that the city of Tiwanaku was founded.

Bolivia remained largely of the radar for surrounding countries for thousands of years, until the 1400s when the Inca Empire invaded and dominated the weaker Tiwanakan society. That is, until the Spanish arrived in 1525, following which the Bolivians lived under Spanish rule for 300 years.

In 1809, Bolivia declared its independence, which was followed by a 9-year war with the Spanish in order to gain control of the country. The Republic of Bolivia as it’s known now was founded on 6th August 1825, named after Simon Bolivar, a liberator and general.

Following its independence, what followed for Bolivia was large periods of time where the country was controlled by a weak government. As a result, In the late 19th century Bolivia fought Chile in the war of the pacific, which led to them losing their coastland.

The 20th century was one of revolution and turmoil, with a number of changes in government and leadership, different forms of power and democracy in control, and military coups.

Interesting Facts

  • People dressed as zebras will wander the streets of La Paz helping children cross the road safely
  • The Camnino de las Yungas road in Bolivia is known as the most dangerous road in the world, with between 200 and 300 fatalities every year
  • Dead animals – including dried llama foetuses – are sold on the streets, so people can buy them and offer them up to Pachamama in return for blessings
  • Cochabamba has a bigger Jesus statue than Rio
  • Bolivia is home to the highest lake in the world: Lake Titicaca is 12,500 above sea level
  • Bolivians will punch their friends in order to get a good harvest

Extra Resources

If you really want to make the most of your time in Bolivia, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.

  • Links incoming

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