Bolivia is one of the most colorful and diverse countries in the world. It maintains local traditions and cultures more than any other country I have ever visited. It has some of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen. Also, Bolivian people happen to be some of the friendliest and genuine people I have encountered on my travels. Many will go out of their way to make you feel welcome and safe in their country.
However, Bolivia is not Disneyland. You need to be extra vigilant there but don’t be preoccupied with it. You’ll be fine with some street smarts. When I crossed the Bolivian border, I found nothing but chaos and disorder. Of course, things got a little better once I got into major cities, but it was still one of the most dysfunctional countries I have been to so far.
According to some Bolivians I met, there are two Bolivias – Andean Bolivia, high in the Andes Mountains with lots of poverty and harsh living conditions, and the other Bolivia to the east, with nicer weather and a wealthier population. I only got to visit Andean Bolivia. I didn’t have a chance to visit the rest of the country yet, so the tips in this entry will focus solely on Andean Bolivia:
- Bring your own roll of toilet paper and soap. Pay toilets usually give you some toilet paper, but for some people it may not be enough. They will probably not have soap, either. This made things a bit difficult at first when I was unprepared. I don’t need to go into detail. Just trust me on this. Also, some hotels and hostels I stayed in did not provide any toilet paper or soap at all.
- Hygiene is not a priority in Bolivia. You will probably get food poisoning. This picture I took was in a small corner market in La Paz. There are many more like it. The chicken is sitting on a small table next to all the products out in the open. A small bag next to the table was full of chicken feet. It’s best to eat packaged foods or safe foods like pizza or pasta or vegetables. I did just fine with them. However, I did get food poisoning that lasted 24 hours. Guess what I ate? Yeah. Chicken. The only time I ate it on the whole trip.
- Don’t bring clothes you care about. Andean Bolivia is the driest, dustiest, dirtiest place I have ever been. It was worse than the Sahara Desert in a sandstorm. At least the sand is easy to wipe off.
- Speaking of dust, bring something to cover your mouth and nose. A surgical mask, a scarf, anything. You’ll want it at times, trust me. Especially on long off-road journeys in Uyuni or bus rides. It’s that bad.
- Be careful with the high altitude. If you feel dizzy or are having headaches, go to a lower altitude. Don’t risk it. Don’t exert yourself, either. It’s easy to get winded walking up just one flight of stairs. There is a reason why the locals walk very slowly at times. Follow their lead.
- Layer. It can get VERY cold at night in the high altitude areas and some hotels and hostels have no heat.
- This is a warning: The infrastructure is in an absolutely abysmal state. Roads were constantly under construction. There were detours everywhere. Sometimes, roads didn’t even exist! This will make a lot of trips very bumpy and uncomfortable, and yes, even dusty. You will also encounter drivers speeding and passing on blind curves and cutting it very close at times.
- Expect road blocks and protests. Bolivia is a country with terrible social problems. The people sometimes affect unassuming tourists by blocking roads and access to cities popular with tourists. It happened to me and ruined three days of my trip. Luckily, I was only out about US$70 for an internal flight. Also, be smart and don’t try to cross a roadblock. I did and it wasn’t a good idea at all.
- Watch your bags at all times! I met a few people who had run-ins with pickpockets and bag snatchers in very crowded places like plazas and bus stations.
- Getting around Bolivia may seem difficult at first, but it’s not so bad. Buses are pretty reliable and cheap. You can get a normal seat for a very low price but for an overnight trip, it’s definitely worth paying for a “cama”, or reclining seat. The price is usually not that much more.
- Buses are obviously slower than cars, so if you are in a hurry, some cities offer shared taxis to nearby cities called “colectivos”. They are similar to the dolmuş system in Turkey. You pay a lot more than the bus but it’s still very cheap by western standards, and you may save an hour or two of time. You can usually find colectivos right outside any bus station. I used them twice – from Oruro to La Paz (3 hours rather than 4/12 on the bus) and Potosí to Uyuni.
Once again, prepare yourself and expect the unexpected. You’ll be fine.