A First Timer’s Travel Guide to Bolivia
Everything you need to know before planning a trip to Bolivia.
Bolivia was a country I had paid almost no attention to during the planning of my South American trip. For me, it was the exotic culture of Colombia, the mountains of Argentina, the beaches and rainforests of Brazil, and the man-made wonders of Peru that enticed me.
By the end of my trip, Bolivia had captured my heart. Although small and bit rough around the edges, it was one of the most diverse, exciting and naturally beautiful countries I had visited.
In the Bolivia Travel Guide we are going to cover:
- Food and Drink
- Best Places to Visit
- Top things to keep in mind
Transportation in Bolivia
Bus rides in Bolivia are cheap but they’re not as glamorous as in other parts of South America. Add to that scary-as-hell roads, fearless drivers, occasional strikes, and questionable departure and/or arrival times, bus transportation can be something more to endure than enjoy. That said, the amazing view that Bolivia has to offer usually make up for that! Adding to that like the long-haul buses, both the trufis and taxis are very inexpensive to travel the city. Buses usually work out to about a dollar per hour of travel.
If you want to go from La Paz to other cities and areas in the country, you need to go to the central station (located in the center of downtown) and grab one of the long haul buses.
Common in Bolivian cities like La Paz and Cochabamba. They are organized by numbers or letters depending on the route. Pay when you board and shout “me quedo,” when you want it to stop
Similar to Mirco buses, these are smaller and common in La Paz and El Alto. But instead of paying the driver and yelling to stop. There is a collector that takes the money and yells the next stops.
Kind of like a bus a trufi (taxi ruta fija or fixed route taxi) is a type of taxi that has a set route. Even though it says they have a set route, the trufi drivers often make up their own routes, depending on traffic and road conditions, while the ticket seller announces where they’re going. You’ll need to be on guard so that you don’t end up in the wrong neighbourhood.
The radio taxis are cars that are in contact with a central operator by radio and provide the service of responding to your telephone call. Hotels normally have their own radio taxi company. This is safer but more expensive.
Are actually regular cars that cruise downtown. So be careful when getting in.
Other Types of Transportation
For added thrills, you can take “The Great Blue Leap,” part of the gondola transit system between La Paz and the mountaintop community of El Alto. Ya, it’s worth it!
Pro Tip: If you’re lost in a trufi you better shout: “Esquina por favor!” and get out at the nearest corner to check your map again.
For more information about the transportation system, check out this guide.
Accommodations in Bolivia: Hotels, Hostels and Homestays
Believe or not, Bolivia is remodelling hotels at a frantic pace. Especially La Paz, the city is fast becoming known for its modern and artistic architecture. Hostels and economy-stay options abound. We suggest you do a homestay.
Hotels in Bolivia
In keeping with the theme of travel to Bolivia in general although there is good value to had in any price bracket the standards do vary, a lot! In La Paz you can find a beautiful top end hotel for well over $100 a night but as soon as you venture into the smaller towns options become much less. Although accommodation names include hotel, hostel, residential and alojamiento most will just call themselves hotels. While we’re on the topic of motels, in Bolivia is a place where those who have yet to tie the go to have sex – not exactly the same thing as you associate the name with back home but maybe not far off either!
If you’re travels take you here during the High Season (July-August) expect at least double the cost for a roof over your head. Always ask to check out a few different and “Tiene un Cuarto mas Barato? Means Do you have a cheaper room….just in case!
Hostels in Bolivia
As we often found low price hotels a little more comfortable and just as affordable as Hostels, there is no denying that a chance to meet fellow comrades from all over the world is well worth the downside of sleeping three feet away from a snorer. That said, our research suggests many of the hostels in Bolivia actually have inexpensive private rooms and bathroom to boot.
Bolivian Life provides a solid list: https://www.bolivianlife.com/where-to-sleep-on-a-budget-in-bolivia/
Homestays in Bolivia
These homestays are opportunities to immerse yourself in the local communities with a friendly family and experience Bolivian culture, customs, and cuisine. You’d benefit from taking some Spanish lessons while you’re there so you can better communicate with your homestay family.
Bolivian Life Homestays typically include:
- Two meals a day (breakfast & lunch)
- Free use of the kitchen at night
- Access to shared facilities (which can mean bathrooms as well)
- Private room
- Laundry service
- Internet access
Family homes are located in safe neighbourhoods and no more than a 20 to 30-minute walk or short bus ride from the city/town centre.
Prices tend to range from USD $100 – $150 per week which is on par with, or slightly cheaper than, staying in a hostel.
What is the Weather like in Bolivia
Bolivian Andean cities are located at staggering heights and, despite your best intentions, you can’t avoid the altitude. For reference—El Alto: 13,615 ft.; Potosi: 13,420 ft.; Oruro: 12,159 ft.; La Paz: 11,913 ft.
Due to the high elevation, Bolivia can be cold. Even though it’s close to the equator, you need to pack a jacket and thermal clothing.
In many places throughout Bolivia, including La Paz, as soon as night fell, I’d put on everything I owned just to stay warm. For specific packing details, check out our South American Packing Guide.
Food and Drinks in Bolivia
Otherwise known as “Buen Provecho”
Types of Food in Bolivia
I vividly remember having a fried egg garnish my stacked-high plate of hearty starches and delicious spices at a cafe in Uyuni. Any place that puts a fried egg on my meal has my heart.
In the cold, high altitude Andean climate, comfort food is the name of the game. Meat, rice, corn, eggs, a thousand varieties of potatoes, and even quinoa, are some of the staples. Other local dishes include:
- Llama tenderloin
- Mama qonqachi (cheese bread from Cochabamba)
- Santa Cruz’s cuñapes (cheese bread balls)
- Fondue or Sonos (cheese of course)
- Yucca-and-cheese pancake (from Camba)
Just note that food can sometimes take a little longer to arrive in most of Bolivia, but it’s well worth the wait.
For a great list of Bolivian Food check out Bolivian Life.
Types of Drinks in Bolivia
Here are few appropriate choices to wash down the amazing local foods with:
- Singani is Bolivia’s national drink
- It’s considered a cultural patrimony. The complex, aromatic beverage is distilled from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes produced only in the Bolivian high valleys. Most Bolivians drink it on the rocks with ginger ale and/or lime.
- The Rujero vineyard in Bolivia. Singani has been produced in that country for hundreds of years. (Ramon Escobar/From Rujero)
- Local beer options include Cordillera, Pecena, and Huari.
- PS there is also quinoa-based beer floating around too.
- For wine try a glass of something from the soon-to-be-famous Tarja wine region.
- It will go great with that llama tenderloin.
- Tropical fruit juices like passion fruit and custard apple
- For caffeine try Yugas coffee
- Then there is good old-fashioned Coca-Cola (very popular).
- For Water, remember, tap water isn’t safe to drink so buy bottled water or bring purification tablets, a filter or a lifestraw.
- Also, If you’re boiling it, remember that due to the high elevation, water boils at 72 degrees Celsius, not 100 degrees Celsius. This also applies if you happen to be cooking with tap water. Although you should be fine, you may also have a bit of the Bolivian Belly…so to speak! I recommend talking with your travel doctor about prescribing “just in case” antibiotics that you can bring with you.
Pro Tip: If locals aren’t chewing coca leaves, they’re putting them in tea to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. These leaves are part of Bolivian heritage and culture. Although cocaine is created from coca, the leaves have no harmful effects when chewed or steeped and drank as a tea. However, due to the association, President Evo Morales once had to passionately defend the continued use of coca to the United Nations.
Cost of travel in Bolivia
If budget travel is your game, then Bolivia is one of your best bets. Here are some rough estimates:
- Ten-hour bus rides are about $11,
- a multi-course meal with wine would set you back around $6,
- a decent ensuite room in a hotel is around $8.
This means you can meander through this Andean nation for months on a shoe-string.
Like any place, merchants can make up prices on the spot. This can be frustrating but, before you haggle, ask yourself if it’s worth it. Do you really need to save that extra dollar?
Pro Tip: Enjoy a quick, filling local meal at the central mercados for as little as $1.
Best Places to Visit While in Bolivia
Nature and adventure go hand in hand in Bolivia.
Best Adventures in Bolivia
From the majestic Cordillera Real mountains to the Altiplano sunsets, the magnificent Lake Titicaca, the inhospitable Atacama Desert, to dense Amazonian jungles, nature is your theatre. It’s so damn beautiful that sometimes you don’t need to do anything but look and be amazed.
But if you’re craving something more: from ripping down the world’s most dangerous road on a bike to using crampons and an ice-axe to scale a 20,000 ft Andean peak, to fishing in the Amazon, to cruising above the national’s sky-high city on a glider—you’ll never be bored here.
Pro Tip: the Salar de Uyuni are the world’s largest salt flats and at the top of everyone’s list. It involves a day-long trip to Uyuni where you have the option of a 3-day / 4-night excursion to the border of Chile. This includes the Atacama Desert and a pretty incredible sunrise hot springs experience. That trip was one of the most jaw-droppingly picturesque (and picture worthy) places I’ve ever visited. However, if the salt flats are what you’re after, and saving dough is on your mind, then just do the 10-hour day trip from Uyuni through the flats and back.
Must See Cities in Bolivia
Although there are many different cities within Bolivia. Our must-see is La Paz.
No matter where you plan to go to in Bolivia, all paths lead through La Paz.
Even if you’re not a city lover, all trips in Bolivia generally flow through the nation’s hub, so you’ll have at least a short visit. La Paz is a gritty city, but would you expect anything else from one of the world’s highest metropolitan centres?
La Paz seems to constantly operate at a manic pace. While the Altiplano sun penetrates down on the colourful barrios, street vendors are hard at work; machine-gun-carrying guards stand outside the banks, and buses whiz through the maze-like city streets. The only time the pace seems to truly slow down is when you try to walk up one of its air-suckingly-steep streets and have to stop repeatedly to catch your breath.
All in all, it’s hard not to be inspired by such a unique city. But be aware that you may get overwhelmed or underwhelmed by all the things that Laz Paz has to offer depending on how you look at it. We found that it lacks a long list of specific sights, but that is actually part of its alluring charm. Still, as acclimatizing to the altitude is a must on any Bolivian adventure, why not spend a little time getting to know La Paz?
Backpacking Routes in Bolivia
Although most routes generally take you through the western part of the country, which includes:
- the Salt Flats,
- La Paz, the Death Road
- the Carnival in Oruro
- the Amazon
- Lake Titicaca,
But don’t forget the eastern part the country. Although I’ve personally never travelled there, many travellers rave about it. Explorations include incredible national parks, the Che Guevara Trail, the irresistible pueblo of Samaipata and Santa Cruz.
If you need a bit more of a push check out breathtaking and inspiring photos of the region by Andy Mumford. or if you are looking for the perfect backpacking backpack, our travel system should be just want you need.
What is the Culture like in Bolivia
Indigenous men and women dressed in their traditional costumes are a common sight in all towns, villages and most big cities. Local Bolivians do love a good parade; so, every month, important historical dates or deities are celebrated by processions that include colourful costumes, dancers and musicians. If looking for a fun-filled festival for your next trip, check these out.
Pro Tip: Despite being one of South America’s smallest countries, Bolivia has the continent’s largest percentage of indigenous peoples. Festivals are a great way to experience local culture but, as we mentioned above, also check out the homestays or look to hire local guides.
3 Things to Keep in Mind Before Traveling to Bolivia
Shoe shiners wearing camouflage—balaclavas so you can’t see their faces. Or zebra crossing guards.
- Be patient with poor internet. For bloggers, vloggers or people who just want to spend a day reconnecting with friends on Facebook, Bolivia can be a challenge. Most places have WiFi—it’s just painfully slow. So, if you do find accommodations, or a great cafe, with WiFi, make it your base until you’ve accomplished all your online goals.
- Last but not least, you’d be surprised by how few places actually have toilet paper available. Although you can usually purchase it…forgetting to do so ahead of time doesn’ make for a great experience. On a few occasions, I had to MacGyver a solution when there was none supplied and I’d forgotten to bring my own. Be prepared.
- One of the best parts about travel is to get off the beaten path and be genuinely surprised by what you find. These often create the most memorable experiences and truly connect us to a place. I’m still sharing stories from my time in this country.
After everything that has been said, we think if you let it, Bolivia will become one of the most important countries that were ever stamped in your passport.