Travel in Bolivia
Bolivia is actually the country that I have spent the most time in. We took a bus from Cuzco to Copacabana and proceeded to visit pretty much every part of the country. We exited Boivia via Uyuni by train into Argentina. Bolivia was the third stop on our 2014 South America trip and we spent a little over a month there. The government has adopted a socialist model and had recently elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales. There is a good deal of political unrest and protests are common everywhere. Part of the reason we spent so much time there was due to road blocks and demonstrations that caused major delays in transportation. There is a great mix of culture in Bolivia, with multiple indigenous groups dominating the population in some regions. The country is home to highest elevation capital city in the world, as well as a large portion of the Amazon Basin. Bolivia drunkenly lost their ocean access to Chile back in the day, and they are still pissed about it.
The Cost of Travel in Bolivia
- Currency: Bolivian boliviao
- Exchange Rate: $1 US Dollar = $11 BOB
- Visa: $160 USD for US citizens to enter
- Hostel Private Room: 50-100 BOB
- Food & Drink
- Meals: 25 BOB
- Beer: 10 BOB
Tips for Traveling in Bolivia
- Patience is the name of the game when travelling in Bolivia. The pace of life is slower and people like it that way. Transportation and almost everything else is unpredictable. A bus driver might randomly pull the bus over to talk to someone on the road or get himself something to eat for 45 minutes. A restaurant may take 2.5 hrs from the time you ordered until you are eating your meal. It is best just to embrace it.
- Bring plenty of food and water on bus rides. Transportation is often unpredictable and an overnight bus ride could easily turn into a 2 day bus ride.
- Buy coca leaves in the market in giant bag. They should be dirt cheap. Ask for bica (sodium bicarbonate.) It is just baking soda. When you chew the coca with baking soda, it makes your entire mouth go numb. Do as the locals do.
- Eat trucha frita wherever you see it. It is always amazing.
Things to do in Bolivia
- The original town of Copacabana is named after the lake it is located next to. From here you can visit the famous floating reed islands, the two Aymara inhabited islands in the middle of the lake, and many other attractions. Eating trout fresh from lake Copacabana remains one of my favorite culinary experiences.
- Salar Uyuni (The Salt Flats). Another big ticket item for a Bolivia trip, the salt flats are well worth the trek. You can book a 3 day tour from town and see some of the wildest desert scenery on the planet.
- La Paz is the highest capital in the world and has many great budget activities. I would suggest going on a free red cap walking tour when you get there and then decide how to spend your time after you’ve been shown around. Their are plenty of parks and plazas as well underground bars serving up some special Amazonian treats.
- The jungle is best visited from Santa Cruz. There are day trips that you can book into the Bolivian Amazon, but we experienced it by working on a farm in the middle of the jungle.
- Chew the coca leaf and chew it with “bica” (baking soda) it reacts with the plant in your mouth and makes for a much better coca chewing experience (your whole mouth goes numb.) This is the preferred method of chewing the coca by the locals.
Copacabana is a great place to spend a few days or even a week. We took a bus from Cuzco straight here (there were protests and road blocks so it did take 2 days) and were happy to stay for several nights. Eat food in the market stalls instead of at all of the touristy restaurants. Except you should definitely get trout at one of the tents by the lake. There are plenty to choose from. Book a ticket to the isla de la luna and de la sol the day before and enjoy an awesome boat ride over and an afternoon of hiking around and seeng some cool Aymara ruins. You can rent a dirt bike real cheap by the lake and ride it super far along the shoreline for the best ride of your life. The famous floating reed islands are out there, but they are kind of a joke.
*Tip: If you rent a dirt bike, bring some rocks or maybe a big stick with you. There are a lot of street dogs in town that really don’t like white people on dirt bikes and they will attack you while you’re driving.
Isla de la Luna & Isla del Sol
We just did a day trip to the island, but you can stay there and a lot of people do. If you aren’t aware, these are the islands located out in the middle of lake Copacabana. It is inhabited entirely by indigenous people. The Aymara that live on the island depend heavily on the dollars spent by travelers when they are there, so this is a good place to purchase truly unique souvenirs. Gift shops in the city buy bulk shipments of alpaca clothes and some aren’t even made there. However, on this island, every piece of clothing you buy was literally shaved off of the animal, spun, dried, and dyed, before somebody spent 2 weeks with it on a loom to make into a sweater. A sweater that you will buy for the equivalent of just $20-$30 usd.
La Paz is a crazy city with all kinds of stuff going on. One great way to get a feel for it is to go on the free Red Cap Walking Tour. They will show you the big indoor market, the witches market, the prison from the book Marching Powder and more. La Paz is a very safe city to be in. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but we found ourselves staying out super late and wandering the vacant streets at night. If you need some comfort food, I would suggest checking out the establishment called Toby’s, which is a Bolivian fast-food chain with hamburgers and fries. We spent a lot of time just sitting in the plazas around town and waking through markets.
*Tip: There is a speakeasy bar you may have heard of that serves something more than just alcohol. Shoot me a message if you want to know how to find it.
Sucre is Bolivia’s second capital (yes, there
are two. Look at a map.) It is the constitutional capital and it is way way smaller than metropolitan La Paz. It is tucked away in the mountains and you won’t find much to do after spending a day or two here. We enjoyed just walking around and hanging out in the plaza. A little kid was selling candy and said he wanted new shoes, so I went with him to buy him some. We started with a pair of sneakers that were $5 and ended with me buying him some little kid wing tips that were $20. I realized when he refused to put them on though, that after we left he likely just returned them for the money and had to give it to his family. He wasn’t wearing them when we saw him the next day and didn’t come talk to us. I think he knew he couldn’t return home with such a nice pair of shoes without getting in trouble.
Uyuni is where you will start your journey into the famous salt flats. At the time, there was a country-wide strike of miners who wanted better pay and they blocked off all of the major roads and hijacked gas stations in order to put a hault to all public transportation until president Evo Morales would speak with their representatives. That was fine and all, except it meant us spending several days stuck on busses and having to get out and walk about 5 miles into Uyuni from where one road blockade was set up. There are a lot of tour agencies that go on different types of tours to the salt flats. They are all good so it is really about price and time. They are all well worth the money though. Our tour took us out for 3 days. One night we stayed in one of the notorious salt hotels and then got up for the sunrise in the middle of the salt flats. They took us to see geysers and swim in some hot springs as well. We took a train from Uyuni to get to the Argentina border crossing.
Santa Cruz will show you a whole different side of Bolivian culture than the altiplano will. Santa Cruz brings you down in elevation and up in humidity. You stop seeing ingenious people when you get into this part of the country and a lot of things about the culture change with it. This is a great town to hangout in though. There are a few affordable places to stay, the restaurants are decent, you can find wifi in coffee shops and working ATM’s at the banks. People say you can see sloths in the main plaza from time to time, but we were not so lucky. Being so close to the jungle though, you will often see tropical birds in the trees and the occasional monkey. There are some cheap and clean hotels by the big bus station (its like an airport, seriously) but they aren’t close to center of town. You are better off taking a cab to the Plaza de Armas and looking for a room around there. We figured out the city bus system pretty quick, which is worth doing instead of taking taxis around. Everyone loves ice cream in this part of the country. There are several ice cream shops in town.
The Mother F’n Jungle
There are probably better ways to see the Bolivian Amazon than what we did. We found a WWOOF farm that was out in the Amazon, somewhere on the border with Brazil (which I think we crossed into by accident once or twice.) There was no way to contact the farm to tell them we were coming and we had no warning of how long that bus ride might take. It turns out the answer was 4 days. Yes, you read that correctly. Im pretty sure we drove the bus up a river for a good portion of the way. Eventually, it broke down though…so basically, we were fucked. We stayed on the broken down bus for a night and a day until the army drove by in a jeep. We asked them to take us the rest of the way and lied about having gas money. When we got to the farm we were starving and had been drinking river water with purification tablets for several days, which if you don’t know, tastes terrible is not thirst quenching at all. The first week there was fun until they told us there might not be another bus going back for a month or two….The second week went by a little slower with that information. There luckily did end up being a bus that went through, and somehow made the trip in just a day and a half. Again, we didn’t have food or water though, because we were just on someone elses farm for 3 weeks and they didnt exactly pack us a lunch for the ride. There were all kinds of great jungle adventures while we were there though. I road a horse down a river, we ate an armadillo, we caught some piranha, and I watched a lizard eat a snake. It was just all sandwiched between a crazy journey to get there and back.