If Bolivia is on your bucket list, you definitely have an adventurous soul. Bolivia is one of the two land locked countries in South America. It has the Andes and the Amazon and an isolated, otherworldly landscape that will take your breath away. And although it offers big cities, this might be the ideal attraction for many off-the beaten-path travelers. It’s a unique and exciting destination, combining adventure, culture, nature, and geology. So read on for the latest blog post in our ongoing series of Know Before You Go: Bolivia Edition.
Bolivia’s main airports are in La Paz city, which has an impressive altitude of 3,650 meters. From there you can travel by land to Oruro and then to Uyuni (there are many trains and buses, and they recently announced the launch of new flight routes – ask your travel advisor!). One of the country’s most amazing natural wonders are the Uyuni Salt Flats. You can also enter into the Salt Flats from the Chilean Border from San Pedro de Atacama. La Paz city is 68 km southeast of the Lake Titcaca and is perfect for visiting the island of the Sun & the Island of the Moon for a cultural experience and Tiahuanaco site with its ancient pre-Inca architecture in the middle of the high Andean plateau.
In La Paz, don’t miss the “Witches market” for getting into the traditional Aymara world of rituals and spells, and the Valley of the Moon with its geological natural formations.
Planning: Travel & Health Insurance
Having a travel agent will save you time and will be there to you support you for any inconveniences along the way, should they pop up unexpectedly. A good travel & health insurance plan is also strongly recommended. You must check for visas and vaccines needed to get into the country.
Altitude & Weather
Bolivia’s weather is extreme in the Andes and in the high Andean plateau. Very sunny days can see dramatic temperature drops once the sun goes down. During winter time (June and July) temperatures typically dip be below freezing!
In Bolivia you can’t avoid the high altitudes, it’s over 3,400 – 4,200 meters (and even more if you go to Uyuni Salt Flats). Altitude sickness might cause breathing troubles, cause headaches, dehydration, nausea and/or dizziness, it might be difficult to sleep, or you might find yourself feeling very tired. These symptoms might go for the first couple of days, so we strongly recommend paying attention to your body and taking it easy: walk slowly, eat light: digestion is much slower, drink water: its more efficient if you take constant sips, protect yourself from the sun (good sunglasses, sunblock and hat), etc. Coca tea helps with headaches and is a very good digestive. You can also eat and drink sugary foods as glucose helps with altitude sickness. Some people might travel with high altitude medication: you can visit your doctor at home to get advice and a prescription if necessary.
Clothing & Packing
Pack smart and light! Definitely bring comfortable walking shoes, layered clothing, a waterproof jacket (specially if go in the wet season from December to February), a warm fleece, and inner layers. Uyuni Salt Flats excursion temperature at night might see below freezing temperatures, so if you don’t travel with a sleeping bag, make sure you rent one, as accommodation tends to be very basic in this region. Don’t forget gloves, a hat, scarf, moisturizer and a towel, as some of the basic accommodation might not provide one. Bring small flashlight and a basic medical kit & personal medication. Always have a padlock for securing your bags, and use a money belt (for cash, credit cards & passport).
Public transportation in Bolivia is pretty basic and can present an adventure in and of itself. Timetables are not always accurate and seat numbers are sometimes double booked. Some public buses will stop along the way and pick up all the passengers they can, all of them, so it can get very crowded. In the Salt Flats tour get ready for serious off road traversing!
Roadblocks and protests sometimes happen and this is part of the experience as well. This is good reason to go for organized trip, as your agent/operator will be of great help in case the itinerary is affected. If you are in La Paz, order a cab from the Hotel.
Security & Safety
In general, Bolivia is a safe country to travel, but its always good to be careful; when hanging out in big cities have the usual precautions: watch out for pickpocketing in crowded places like markets and buses. Leave your expensive jewelry and watches at home – it’s of no use when you’re in the mountains! You do not need to carry your passport around but do carry a photocopy just in case.
Beware of people spilling anything on you and then try to clean it, this is a popular way to distract you and then go through your stuff while you have your attention somewhere else. This happens not only in Bolivia but in other South American destinations.
About alternative tours in La Paz don’t go to the Prison Tour: it’s illegal and dangerous and has no safety warranties at all. Just don’t do it!
If you want to do the Death Road bike tour from La Paz to Coroico, use a well-known company and be careful, be sensible and drive smart. The accidents along this infamous road are more from cars; buses and trucks, as for the bikers the accidents have been from irresponsible reckless maneuvers.
Food & Water
Agriculture in Bolivia is traditional in the Andes were “super foods” such as Quinoa and Kiwicha (amaranto) have been cultivated for several generations. Bolivian Jungle valleys have naturally ripened sweet and organic fruits. But you must always peel it and eat only cooked vegetables. And if you want to explore some of the local specialties, guinea pig and llama meat must be on the menu!
Coca (Erythroxlylum Coca) leaves are chewed and are part of the tradition. Bolivia is a big producer and even though cocaine is one its 14 alkaloids (which is totally illegal) the leave and tea consumption is legal, popular and common. It grows in the inter Andean Valleys at altitudes between 700-2000 meters). We recommend to try he popular local Coca Tea that which is an excellent digestive and as mentioned above, helps combat altitude sickness. But avoid drinking tap water or using ice. If you want to be very safe brush your teeth with bottled water as well.
Toilets & Bathrooms
As you get further out of cities, bathrooms will be less frequent, or maybe in pretty bad condition that you might prefer the popular “natural toilet”. Always be prepared and carry toilet paper or moist wipes and hand sanitizer. Better safe than sorry!
In Bolivia you will encounter Spanish, Quechua and Aymara. These last two are native pre-conquest languages. In the cities, a majority of people you will meet are bilingual (bilingual meaning Spanish and Quechua or Aymara speakers). Along the tourist routes, you will most likely encounter some people who can speak English, or at least understand for basic communication. However, bringing a Spanish pocket travel phrasebook will be very handy. In the Uyuni Salt Flats tour, drivers do not speak English. So the better prepared you are with some key phrases, the better off you’ll be.