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.
Bolivia travel resources
Check out our Peru and Bolivia podcast or browse the articles below.