BOLIVIA TRAVEL GUIDE
Bolivia is truly a Pandora’s box full of picturesque landscapes, treasures from the colonial days, vibrant indigenous cultures, and the legacy of ancient civilizations. The most isolated and the highest of Latin American Republics, Bolivia is a landlocked country. It is also the most Indian country in Latin America with 50% of its people holding on fiercely to their traditional cultural values. From the magnificent snow-capped Andes to the teeming banks of the Amazon, this country is sure to excite the adventurous best in you.
BOLIVIA QUICK FACTS
Capital: La Paz (administrative & governmental); Sucre (legal capital & judicial seat)
Currency: Boliviano (BOB)
Area: 1,098,580 km²
Population: 8,989,046 (July 2006 estimate)
Language: Spanish (official), Quechua (official), Aymara (official)
Religion: Roman Catholic 95%, Protestant (Evangelical Methodist)
Electricity: 220V, 50HZ (but 115V in La Paz & Viacha (A & C type plugs)
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BOLIVIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 22 January, Pluri-national State Foundation Day
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 6 August, Independence Day
- 1 November, All Saints Day
Also, Carnival (the week before Ash Wednesday), Good Friday, and Corpus Christi.
FESTIVALS IN BOLIVIA
- Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria - (February) Celebrated across the highlands in Bolivia and Peru, this festival features music, drinking, eating, dancing, processions, water balloons (in Bolivia) and fireworks. The biggest celebrations take place in Copacabana (Bolivia) and Puno (Peru). The big day is February 2.
- Pujillay - Celebrated in Tarabuco on the second Sunday in March, hordes of indigenous folks gather to celebrate the 1816 victory of local armies over Spanish troops with ritual dancing, song, music and chicha (corn beer) drinking.
- Carnaval - (early March) - During the spectacular 10-day Carnaval, which starts from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the city of Oruro explodes with parades, folk dances and parties. Revellers pitch water at each other (and anyone who comes in their way) – it’s best to just embrace it. Several parades, including Entrada and La Diablada, feature dancers in intricately garish masks and costumes.
- La Festividad de Nuestro Señor Jesús del Gran - (late May/early June) El Gran Poder has developed into a unique La Paz festival, and an elaborate display of economic power; embroiderers prepare lavish costumes and upwards of 25 000 performers practice for weeks in advance. A number of dances are featured, such as the suri sikuris (in which the dancers are bedecked in ostrich feathers), the lively kullawada, morenada, caporales and the inkas, which duplicates Inca ceremonial dances.
- Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos - Running from July 22 to the end of the month, this spirited festival transforms Bolivia’s sleepy San Ignacio de Moxos into a hard-partying town. Expect processions, outrageous costumes (including locals dressed as Amazon warriors), fireworks and plenty of drinking.
BEST TIME TO VISIT BOLIVIA
The period between November and March is summer and it also rains through most of the country at this time. La Paz and Oruro could get some snow at the end of the rainy season. In the highlands, temperatures touch sub-zero points. The Amazon Basin is forever wet though with the hot months between May and October comparatively dry. The dry season is best for travel for better road conditions and sunny skies. Travel to most regions of Bolivia is certainly possible all year round, but you must be prepared to deal with the severe seasonal changes and the subsequent effects on road conditions.
- February - Carnaval dance troupes take over the streets of Oruro, Santa Cruz, Sucre and Tarija.
- March - Pujllay celebrations in Tarabuco include ritual dancing, song and chicha (fermented corn) drinking.
- July - Outrageous costumes and hard partying mark the Fiesta de Moxos in Beni.
BOLIVIA WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Topography in Bolivia ranges from 5,000 meters above sea level in the rugged highlands of the Andes Mountains, to Inter-Andean Valleys to the plains of the Amazonian and Chacoan lowlands, less than 500 meters above sea level. Thus, the country is split into three topographical/climatological regions: the Andean area and arid highlands of the west; the sub-Andean and semi-tropical valleys in the middle third of the country; and the tropical lowlands of the east. In most places, rainfall is heaviest in summer and yearly amounts tend to decrease from north to south. Temperatures in Bolivia depend on elevation and show little seasonal variation. Bolivia is also impacted by the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). La Nina events, for example, typically lead to cold fronts and heavy rainfall during the summer.
BOLIVIA TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN BOLIVIA
HIKING & CYCLING IN BOLIVIA
You can enjoy outdoor activities in Bolivia from April to November, with the peak season from June to September. May and October should be your best months in terms of best weather and cheaper prices.
Sorata is a convenient base for hikers and climbers pursuing some of Bolivia’s finest high-mountain landscapes. Ambitious adventurers can do the seven-day El Camino del Oro trek, an ancient trading route between the altiplano and the Río Tipuani goldfields. Otherwise there’s the challenging seven-day Illampu circuit. While it’s possible to hike independently, it is best to hook up with a guide, mainly because of the need to be aware of local sensibilities and the difficulty of finding passable routes. The most economical, authorized option is to hire an independent Spanishspeaking guide from the Asociación de Guías de Sorata.
CLIMBING IN THE CORDILLERA REAL
Bolivia’s Cordillera Real has more than 600 peaks over 5000m, most of which are relatively accessible and many of which are just a few hours’ drive from La Paz. You should be fully acclimatized to the altitude before attempting any of the ascents. By far the easiest way of tackling these mountains is to go on a guided climb. Several La Paz agencies offer trips that include transportation, refugio (mountain hut) accommodations, equipment hire and a guide.
BEACH OPTIONS IN BOLIVIA
If you're desperate for a beach while in Bolivia, head over to Lake Titicaca, it's the closest to a beach as you will get!
SURFING IN BOLIVIA
KITESURF IN BOLIVIA
Kitesurfing spot details and weather
HEALTH RISKS IN BOLIVIA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
BOLIVIA TRAVEL COSTS
Bolivia is one of the least expensive countries in South America, and considerably cheaper than neighbouring Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Imported goods are expensive, but food, accommodation, and transport are all relatively cheap, and travellers on a tight budget should be able to get around on $20 USD per day, staying in basic hotels and eating set meals in local restaurants. For about $40 USD per day, you can enjoy more comfortable hotels and good food, take taxis when necessary, and go on the occasional guided tour. Spend more than $70 USD per day and you can have a very comfortable trip.
BOLIVIA TRAVEL TIPS
There are many great DIY adventures to be had in this enchanting country. For a fun, cheap experience in La Paz, the Botanical Garden is an oasis of quiet, while the teleférico (aerial cable car) provides fabulous views. People-watching in Plaza Murillo or Plaza Avaroa is of course free. You can also talk to a shoe-shine kid and arrange a cheap tour around the community.
How To Stick to a Tight Budget:
- Slow down - stick around and enjoy a place rather than rushing off to the next destination. The further and faster you go, the more you’ll have to pay.
- Eat like a local at street stalls or markets.
- Opt for dorm rooms or share a room with a buddy.
- Stay in fan (non-air-con) rooms with shared bathroom.
- Travel overland instead of flying.
- Book flights online (and bus tickets where possible) rather than paying an agent commission.
Transportation to most places in Bolivia is covered by small bus, boat, train and airline companies. Over the past years Bolivia’s roads have somewhat improved as the government has invested in paving major roads. However road closures caused by protests, construction or landslides are common, as are flooded roads and rivers with too little water to traverse.
Air travel within Bolivia is inexpensive and the quickest and most reliable way to reach out-of-the-way places. It’s also the only means of transportation that isn’t washed out during the wet season. When weather-related disruptions occur, planes eventually get through, even during summer flooding in northern Bolivia. Schedules often tend to change and cancellations are frequent though.
Bus travel is cheap and relatively safe in Bolivia, but can also be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking at times. Buses are the country’s most popular type of transport, and come in various forms. Long-distance bus services are called flotas, large buses are known as buses, three-quarter (usually older) ones are called micros, and minibuses are just that. The only choices you’ll have to make are on major, long-haul routes, where the better companies offer coche (or ‘bus’), semicama (half-sleeper, with seats that recline a long way and footrests) and cama (sleeper) services. The cost can be double for sleeper service, but is often worth it for the comfort. Tourist buses to major destinations such as Copacabana and Uyuni are twice the price of standard buses, but are safer and more comfortable. If looking for a bus terminal, ask for la terminal terrestre or la terminal de buses. Each terminal charges a small fee, which you pay to an agent upon boarding or when purchasing a ticket at the counter. Check the vehicles of several companies before you buy your ticket as some buses might be in a dreadful state - it's better to pay a bit more than risk your life. Also, keep a close eye on your luggage and keep your valuables on your person as theft is often reported - even from the storage hold.
The advantages of a getting around in a private vehicle include flexibility, access to remote areas and the chance to seize photo opportunities. Most major roads have now been paved but some (especially in the Amazon) are in varying stages of decay, making high-speed travel impossible and inadvisable. Aware yourself of fuel availability and prepare your vehicle carefully as tools and spare parts are rare outside of cities.
Micros (half-size buses) are used in larger cities and are Bolivia’s least expensive form of public transportation. They follow set routes, with the route numbers or letters usually marked on a placard behind the windshield. Minibuses and trufis (which may be cars, vans or minibuses), also known as rapiditos or colectivos, are prevalent in larger towns and cities, and follow set routes that are numbered and described on placards. They are always cheaper than taxis and nearly as convenient if you can get the hang of them. As with micros, you can board or alight anywhere along their route.
In cities and towns, taxis are relatively inexpensive. Few are equipped with meters, but in most places there are standard per-person fares for short hauls. In some places, taxis are collective and behave more like trufis, charging a set rate per person. You will also find Uber operating in both La Paz and in Santa Cruz as an alternative.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF BOLIVIA
- Potosí - Explore the silver mine city of contrasts.
- Parque Nacional & Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró - Make your way through this extraordinary park for spectacular biodiversity and landscapes.
- Sucre - Dive into history with a walking tour of the town, where architecture and culture come to light.
- Jesuit Mission Circuit - Discover the living history of Chiquitania.
- Samaipata - Kickback in the village and explore the nearby El Fuerte ruins.
- Parque Nacional Madidi - Trek through the jungle for ecotourism, howlers, birds and bugs at their best.
- Cordillera Real - Enjoy trekking, biking, climbing and rafting.
- Lake Titicaca - Enjoy the sun and sand with visits to the ruins and lost coves and mini-treks around the lake.
- Salar de Uyuni - Explore the vast crystalline perfection of this surreal salt flat.
- Coroico - Challenge yourself to some extreme hammocking.
Bolivia is a country of extremes from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to the vast and dazzling salt flats and the remote Altiplano with its volcanoes and lagoons. Given the distances involved between destinations, you may not be able to see everything in one go. But even doing a partial itinerary – or mixing and matching elements from different ones – will give you a wonderful insight into Bolivia's stunning diversity.
You will need some altitude acclimatization in La Paz so start wit a slow day by visiting the markets. History buffs can take a side trip to Tiwanaku. From La Paz, head to Lake Titicaca where you should allow up to three days to take in the sites of Copacabana and Isla del Sol and to continue acclimatization. From there, head down the altiplano (via La Paz) to the Salar de Uyuni for a bone-clatteringly three-day jeep tour. Extend your trip to the former territory of Butch Cassidy in the pleasant cowboy town of Tupiza. From there head up to Potosí, a starkly beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city, situated at 4070m, where you can visit the mint and the mines. After a couple of days, make your way to the white city of Sucre to hang out with students in its grand plazas. Return to La Paz via Cochabamba, taking in the stunning views along the way. On your last day in La Paz, spend some time museum-hopping or take a mountain-bike ride down the World’s Most Dangerous Road to Coroico.
The world's highest de facto capital city is also one of its most compelling, a riot of indigenous colour, vertiginous markets, jostling pedestrians, honking, diesel-spewing minivans, street marches, and cavalcades of vendors. You may love it. You may hate it. But La Paz is hard to ignore. The city seems to reinvent itself at every turn – a jaw-dropping subway in the sky brings you from the heights of El Alto to the depths of Zona Sur in the blink of an eye. Hotels are remodelled at a manic pace, and new boutique hotels are springing up like rows of altiplano corn. The gritty reality of a city will be a blow to your face if you come from the Bolivian countryside. A maze of contradictions, where cobblestones hit concrete, and Gothic spires vie with glassine hotels, La Paz amazes and appals all who enter.
La Paz has a decent collection of museums and notable buildings, but the main attraction here is getting lost in its bustling markets, frenetic commercial streets and stunning hilltop lookouts. Most official sights, including museums, are closed during the Christmas holiday period (December 25 to January 6). The areas west of El Prado include the fascinating markets around Rosario, Belén and San Pedro, the cemetery and the sophisticated Sopocachi neighbourhood, with some of La Paz’s best restaurants and nightspots. You can spend a few hours people-watching on Plaza Eduardo Avaroa, before hoofing up to the wonderful views from Montículo Park.
A vast, striking blue expanse standing at 3810m, the lake is dotted with sacred islands and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is not hard to see how Inca legends came to credit Lake Titicaca with the birth of their civilization. Set between Peru and Bolivia at the 8400 sq km lake offers enough activities to keep you busy for at least a week. There are trips to the many islands that speckle the shoreline, hikes to lost coves and floating islands, parties in the tourist hub of Copacabana and encounters with locals that will provide insight into the traditions of one of Bolivia’s top attractions.
THE CORDILLERAS & YUNGAS
Stick between the Andes and the Amazon, this rugged region has got just about everything you could ask for from your Bolivian adventure. For those not scared of heights, there are glacier-capped peaks towering to 6000m and adrenaline-charged mountain-bike descents. Nature lovers can explore the cloud forests and hillside semitropical Yungas towns of Chulumani, Coroico and Sorata, where you can hike to nearby waterfalls, start your river trip into the Amazon, go mountain biking or simply enjoy the breeze from a mountain hideaway. Far off the tourist trail, the areas around the Quimsa Cruz and Cordillera Apolobamba offer large swaths of wilderness, a few lost ruins and some great opportunities for adventure. Everywhere in between you’ll find treks along preserved Inca trails, plenty of good wildlife-watching opportunities, warm weather, cool breezes and a pervading air of hard-won tranquillity. The truly adventurous can reach the Yungas region bicycle on El Camino de Muerte, the World's Most Dangerous Road, leading through dramatic high altitude cliff-side jungle terrain or by walking on El Choro Trek through the climate zones from La Paz to Coroico.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
The harsh and sometimes almost primeval geography of the Southern Altiplano will tug at the heartstrings of visitors with a deep love of bleak and solitary places. Stretching southwards from La Paz, this high-plains wilderness is framed by majestic volcanic peaks, endless expanses of treeless stubble and the white emptiness of the eerie salares (salt deserts), which are almost devoid of life. At night the stargazing is spectacular, but it’s as cold as you could ever imagine.
The area around Parque Nacional Sajama offers some breath-taking scenery and climbing, while revellers may wish to hit up Carnaval celebrations in the gritty, straight-talking mining city of Oruro. Further south Salar de Uyuni is the star attraction, and a three-day jeep tour of the region is at the top of most travellers’ itineraries. From here, you can head to the warmer cactus-studded valleys around Tupiza for horseback riding and mountain biking.
Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa are best visited together - both the world's largest salt lake and the stunning high-altitude reserve have a desolate, otherworldly beauty. While the three- to four-day jeep tour through the world’s largest salt flat will leave your bones chattering, it quite possibly could be the singular experience that defines your South American adventure. The Bolivian salt flat in its vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection will inspire you, while your early morning exploration of rock gardens, geyser fields and piping hot springs along with the camaraderie of three days on the road with your fellow ‘Salterians’ will create a kinship not likely to fade anytime soon.
Geographically – and some would say metaphorically – the heart and soul of Bolivia, the Central Highlands are a mix of lively urban centers, vast pastoral and mountainous regions dotted with remote villages. Gorgeous Sucre, where independence was declared in 1825, is the gateway to trekking the Cordillera de los Frailes. Sucre is arguably Bolivia's most appealing city and has a welcoming atmosphere with whitewashed buildings, leafy plazas, and a year-round spring-like climate. Potosí, the highest city on earth, has a tragic history, stunningly preserved colonial architecture, and a legendary silver mine at nearby Cerro Rico. Much-lower-altitude Cochabamba is one of Bolivia’s most pleasant cities, with a perfect climate and modern vibe. Throughout, there are lovely, little-known colonial towns; it’s well worth eschewing the city-to-city mode of travel to explore them. A more distant past is evoked by the Inca ruins in the Cochabamba Valley, but Parque Nacional Torotoro has the last laugh on the age front: it’s bristling with dinosaur footprints and fossils, some of which date back 300 million years.
SANTA CRUZ & GRAN CHIQUITANIA
The Bolivian Oriente, a tropical region and Bolivia's' most prosperous, has a palpable desire to differentiate itself from Bolivia’s traditional highland image. The region’s agriculture boom has brought about a rise in income and a standard of living unequalled by any other Bolivian province. As result, Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s most populous city, with a cosmopolitan population, yet it somehow retains a small-town atmosphere. From Santa Cruz you can visit some charming Jesuit mission towns with the country’s loveliest examples of Jesuit architecture, tour pre-Inca ruins near the village of Samaipata or embark on a revolutionary pilgrimage to where Che Guevara met his maker around Vallegrande. If you prefer nature, there are miles of hikes and tons of wildlife at Parque Nacional & Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró, the so-called ‘elbow of the Andes’ where the ecosystems of the Chaco, the Amazon Basin and the Andes meet.
The Amazon Basin is one of Bolivia’s largest and most mesmerizing regions. The rainforest is raucous with wildlife, and spending a few days roaming the sweaty jungle is an experience you’re unlikely to forget. But it’s not only the forests that are enchanting: it’s also the richness of the indigenous cultures, traditions and languages that exist throughout the region.
Mossy hills peak around the town of Rurrenabaque, most traveller’s first point of entry into the Amazon Basin and the main base camp for visits to the fascinating Parque Nacional Madidi. This is home to a growing ethno-ecotourism industry established to help local communities. The village of San Ignacio de Moxos is famous for its wild fiesta held in late July; Trinidad, the region’s cosmopolitan hub, is encased by buzzing wetlands and is the transit point toward Santa Cruz. North of here the frontier towns of Riberalta and Guayaramerín are in remote regions few travellers dare to tread.
WHAT TO EAT IN BOLIVIA
Meat invariably dominates Bolivian cuisine and it is usually accompanied by rice, a starchy tuber (usually potato) and shredded lettuce. Often, the whole affair is drowned by llajhua (a fiery tomato-based salsa).
Desayuno (breakfast) consists of little more than coffee and a bread roll, and is often followed by a mid-morning street snack such as a salteña (meat and vegetable pasty), tucumana (an empanada-like pastry) or empanada.
Almuerzo (lunch) is the main meal of the day. The best-value meals are found in and around markets (often under B$10) and at no-frills restaurants offering set lunches (usually between B$15 and B$40). Cena, the evening meal, is mostly served à la carte.
Mamá qonqachi - Frisbee-like cheese bread.
Salteñas - Pastry shells stuffed with chicken or mince.
Sonso - Comfort in the form of grilled yucca and cheese.
Chicha - Parties start with this fermented-corn drink.
Pique a lo macho - The ultimate hangover cure: beef, sausage, eggs, peppers and onions piled over potato fries.
LGBTQ IN BOLIVIA
Bolivia’s 2009 constitution is one of the first in the world to expressly ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, homosexuality is still not widely accepted by the populace and gay marriage and same-sex unions are illegal. LGBTQ bars and venues are limited to larger cities, especially Santa Cruz and La Paz but these are still somewhat clandestine affairs. Sharing a room is no problem – but you should be discreet.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOLIVIA
Bolivian accommodations are among South America’s cheapest, though price and value are hardly uniform.
The Bolivian hotel-rating system divides accommodations into posadas (inns), alojamientos, residenciales, casas de huéspedes, hostales (hostels) and hoteles (hotels). Rock-bottom places are usually found around the bus and train stations, though this area is often the least desirable area in town. Room availability is only a problem at popular weekend getaways like Coroico and during fiestas (especially Carnaval in Oruro and festivals in Copacabana), when prices can double. In the altiplano, heat and hot water often make the difference in price, while in lowland areas, air-con and fans are common delimiters.
Bolivia offers excellent camping, especially along trekking routes and in remote mountain areas. Gear (of varying quality) is easily rented in La Paz and at popular trekking base camps like Sorata.
LA PAZ - Most backpackers head for central La Paz to find a bed. The area around the Mercado de las Brujas is a true travellers’ ghetto. To be closer to a wider array of restaurants and a bar or two, consider Sopocachi. For more upmarket luxury, look along the lower Prado and further south in the Zona Sur.
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