Bolivia seems to be the unvisited relative of Chile, Argentina and Peru, but there are plenty of reasons to visit the altiplano and Bolivia’s share of the Amazon. Then there’s the stunningly beautiful southern deserts …
Bolivia sits near the middle of South America, bordered by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile. There are border crossings between all of these countries, making Bolivia a very popular crossing point for backpackers and independent travellers on the continent.
With the desert and salt flats in the south, high plains around La Paz, and lush jungle in the north and east, Bolivia is extremely varied for such a small country, and allows the traveller one outdoors adventure after another. Bolivia is also home to the world’s “most dangerous road”, a narrow, twisting route from the altiplano to the jungle, attempted by thousands of mountain-biking tourists each year, only a few of which actually die.
If a death-defying bike ride isn’t your game (and it certainly wasn’t ours), you can explore the jungles or salt flats by 4×4, or raft down rushing rivers, camping along the way. La Paz is a fascinating city in itself, with the witches’ market managing to hold some semblance of itself despite becoming a tourist attraction.
Copacabana is a tiny little tourist town perched on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Its lack of ATMs made it difficult to get cash – always make sure you have a stash of emergency money for this kind of situation. US dollars are definitely the currency of choice to carry around in South America, and we found the exchange rates at the border and in Copacabana to be very reasonable.
Copacabana is a good jumping-off point for tours to the Isla del Sol. You can camp or stay in a hostel on the island, but we chose to do a one-day trip. It was very well-priced: it would have cost us about the same to do the same thing independently. We were dropped off at one end of the island, and the boat met us on the other side. We’ve noticed that the Bolivians are much more concerned about time than the Peruvians – both boat trips left very nearly on time, and anyone who wasn’t there to get on the boat was left behind.
Getting to and from Bolivia
Flights to Bolivia depart from other American countries, including the United States and neighbouring Chile and Peru. There are currently no direct flights into Bolivia from Africa, Asia or Oceania; and there are very limited flights from European cities like Madrid and London.
If you’re flying in, your best bet is to use another country as a stopping point, or to fly to a neighbouring airport and continue in by land.
Coach is the most popular way to travel into Bolivia, with the crossing near Copacabana one of the more popular points. Expect to disembark from the coach, and walk across the border on foot. Border officials are likely to only issue you a 30-day entry, which you may have to have extended in La Paz. We didn’t see anyone be successful in their attempts to have their full 90-day allowance issued at the border.
Another popular option is to cross from Chile, as part of a multi-day salt flats tour. This is an easy border crossing staffed by officials who are used to backpackers and other tourists. Although it’s straightforward, waiting inside or outside the tiny tin shed which serves as a border control isn’t pleasant in any kind of weather.
The train from Arica, Chile to La Paz crosses daily. The “death train” (on which you probably won’t die) runs to and from Brazil.
Getting around Bolivia
Coach travel in Bolivia is more hectic (and potentially more dangerous) than in neighbouring countries. Keep valuables on you and lock your bag — both the one you have on you and the one you might store under the bus. Roads are generally in poor condition, so don’t expect much sleep on overnight journeys. That said, the network of buses runs pretty much everywhere making for a convenient, if not salubrious, way to get around.
Be careful of scams and petty theft in and around La Paz coach station.
There is a limited train network in Bolivia which connects some cities and reaches out of the country. The quality of each train and each line depends on the company managing it.
Many of the old lines are now in disrepair and are no longer used; the train graveyard, just out of Uyuni, is quite poignant, and an image of what shipping power the country used to have.
There are regular flights between the two major cities: La Paz and Santa Cruz.
Other flights and charters can be found or arranged, but don’t expect low prices for any service — flying certainly isn’t a budget option in Bolivia, although it might save you a lot of time over travelling by road.
Car and camper rental
Car rental is available from La Paz and Santa Cruz, but you will normally be unable to take vehicles across the border from any neighbouring country. The reason for this is the high number of car thefts in Bolivia — take note of this if considering self-driving, and take reasonable precautions.
One of Bolivia’s main attractions is the Uyuni Salt Flats in the south-west. Without a local guide and your own vehicle, the best way to explore is by joining a 4×4 tour from Uyuni itself.
Guided cycle tours are common in Bolivia, but doing it independently is also possible. As with car hire, it’s important to beware of theft when stopping or overnighting. Have a secure lock for your bike.
Roads between cities can be rough, so make sure you have a spare tire and good repair kit. Be especially wary of traffic on mountain roads.
Top 10 things to do in Bolivia
Also see: Things to do in Bolivia
Do the Uyuni salt flats tour. This is the gem of the Bolivian tourist circuit. The seemingly never-ending stretches of salt are amazing, and you’ll also see great rock formations, flamingoes, and islands covered in cacti.
Relax in Copacabana. This tiny town is a good place to ease into Bolivian life.
Visit the Isla del Sol. Take a day trip from Copacabana and visit this island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. You can walk from one end to the other, which will take most of the day but is worth the effort – just make sure you’re back in time for your boat’s departure.
Eat street food in La Paz. Everywhere you turn in La Paz, there’s a street vendor selling interesting-looking food at the cheapest price you can imagine. Sausages, sweets, fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice – it’s a haven for the sense of taste.
Shop at one of La Paz’s many markets. Check out the stock at the witches’ market, or buy everything you can imagine at the weekend one.
Visit the Valley of the Moon and the zoo nearby. The bizarre rock formations at the Valley of the Moon are best seen with a travel companion, so that you can puzzle out why certain rocks are named as they are. And the zoo is a large green park, where on the whole animals have plenty of space to move around (with some exceptions).
Go wine-tasting. Bolivia’s small wine industry is growing in stature and reputation. Gain your South American wine geek points by visiting some wineries and downing a bottle or two.
Explore with a Jungle tour. We’ve heard of amazing hiking and rafting trips through the Amazon in the east of Bolivia, but never made it there ourselves. Explore (and let us know what it was like).
Ride the road of death. This road starts high in the altiplano and drops down into the tropical forest zone. And when we say “drops down” we’re talking about single-lane-600-meters-down-without-a-rail-and-oh-my-god-there’s-a-truck kind of drops. There are several tourist fatalities every year: caution (and not skimping on bike hire) is advised.
Drink local beer. There’s a strong set of local breweries based in Bolivia, with a wide selection of beer styles represented. You might struggle to find some in the pubs, but most supermarkets stock a surprisingly large collection.
Bolivia travel resources
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Check out our Peru and Bolivia podcast or browse the articles below.