Updated on October 12th, 2020
Bolivia is a breathtaking country & well worth adding to your South American itinerary. Here I detail everything you need to know as a first time visitor. It includes an understanding of the traditions, what to expect on your visit & recommendations for La Paz, Sucre & Potosi. However, no visit to Bolivia will be complete without exporing the spectacular Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni).”
Bolivia is a fascinating country with some of the most breathtaking & otherworldly landscapes to rival any of it’s South America neighbours. La Paz is the highest city in the world, Potosi has an interesting history around mining & Sucre some beautiful architecture & the largest collection of dinosaur footprints worldwide. The jewel in Bolivia’s crown, however, is the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) & it’s stunning surrounding volcanic landscapes & mind-blowing lakes. I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia which included 12 days on the Bolivia Highlights tour with Intrepid Travel.
What do you need to know as a first-timer?
Cash is King & here its the Bolivian Boliviano (BOB). Last check (June 2020) there were 8.6BOB to the UK£, 7BOB to the US$. Bolivia is a cheap country to travel, although this, of course, depends on what you are comparing to! Peru, for example, is more pricey.
I arrived in La Paz & had found it difficult to get Bolivian currency outside the country. There is a Cambio available to change money at the airport while you are waiting for your luggage (I didn’t use it, so can’t vouch for the rates). If, like me, you need an ATM there are loads located towards departures, under a set of escalators (near some toilets) & around the corner. Not the easiest to find but when you do you feel like there’s too much choice!
Once out of the airport, there are ATM’s across the city – I was recommended by 2 locals that the best rates are at BNB or Mercantile Santa Cruz (both green).
Whenever you can, try & change your big notes into smaller ones as these will be a lot more useful & often smaller vendors won’t have the right change. If you are planning to change money, be aware that the best rates will be in the city so La Paz is your best option before your travels to take advantage of this.”
In terms of eating out – my meals always seemed to come to about 100BOB – for the main course & a couple of beers. Main courses were around 50 – 80BOB, beer 20 – 25BOB & wine 25BOB for the cheapest glass.
If you’re flying into La Paz be aware that flights seem to arrive & leave at all hours of the night (I arrived at 3.30am & left at 4.55am). You will need to be at the airport 3 hours before for international departures & 2 hours for domestic as it’s not quick.
To & from La Paz airport the most direct route (especially appreciated bearing in mind the timings) is taxi & costs 70BOB in each direction (no tipping required).
On internal flights, you may need to pay a small departure tax at the airport after check-in (they will stamp your boarding card to acknowledge payment) so check with the airline on check-in & make sure you have enough money before you get to the airport just in case.
For international flights, this should be included in the cost of your ticket.
On local buses, you will also have to pay a departure tax for using the facilities at the terminal. This is only around 2BOB but make sure you check & pay beforehand as they come on board as the bus leaves the terminal to collect the receipts.
When you book a ticket ahead of time you will get a seat. If you don’t & the bus is busy you will need to stand, so I would advise purchasing ahead to assure your seat.”
The locals have this option too, of course. Be aware that if you see an old lady get on & sit in the aisle, this is acceptable as she had the choice to buy her ticket in advance (this is how it is viewed by the locals). If you choose to give up your seat for her, you could be standing for a very long time. Nobody expects you to do this.
Don’t expect toilets on the buses & some journeys can be long (4 hours). See Toilets below.
These are great options to get up & down the mountains in La Paz & form the main basis for the locals to get between home & the city. There are currently 3 lines operating with more under construction. They are also very cheap to travel – 3BOB per journey.
I recommended taking at least one ride for the view. The Red Line is the one closest to the city & so easiest to access but if you can, get to the Yellow Line, this has a better view (especially on a clear day).
When crossing the road – never, ever, expect as a pedestrian you have the right of way, even when you have a (very cute) green man walking on the lights, keep checking. The drivers have no interest in keeping you safe! In La Paz look out for the zebras who help you cross the street – they are fantastic & if you don’t believe me watch this video.
In La Paz, the traffic is a nightmare & always seems congested. Also, be warned that the fumes aren’t helpful when you are trying to climb the hills & get used to the altitude.
As a woman travelling alone I felt safe during the day but as always please have your wits about you. I heeded the advice to not go out at night on my own & made sure I ate early to avoid this but when I had company & we were in busy areas after dark it did not feel threatening.
La Paz airport is the highest in the world at 4050m, La Paz itself is at 3600m & most of Bolivia is at altitude. Be prepared to take your time to acclimatise to this & factor it in before you plan any strenuous activities. They say you never know how the altitude will affect you, no matter how fit you are on arrival. I had breathlessness (had to stop twice on the stairs to my 3rd-floor room), minor headaches (others suffered a lot worse) & a general tired feeling for the first few days (although this could also have been down to missing a night’s sleep because of the flight times!). La Paz is also very steep to walk around so don’t be over ambitious in your first few days.
How to combat the effects of altitude
Top tip is to drink lots of water to help with the headaches. Also, the effects will alleviate with time (although getting up in the morning always made me slightly breathless & you can feel the effects again if you increase altitude). Alcohol is also not recommended as you need your body to be alert & as a seasoned drinker I struggled to finish my 2nd beer.
Chewing coca leaves is a national pastime for Bolivians & they are also good to help alleviate the effects of altitude. You can buy them in most places but the most fun is the Witches Market in La Paz. They are an acquired taste so if you don’t fancy chewing the leaves (they can numb your mouth for a good 30 minutes after 10 mins of chewing), they also sell sweets & tea.”
Altitude also means it is colder than you might expect so bring plenty of layers & expect temperatures to drop dramatically at night. The altitude also means that the sun is a lot stronger so make sure you apply sunscreen during the day & reapply more often than you might usually.
This is available in most hotels & restaurants, mainly in big cities. Expect it to be slow & unreliable & you won’t be disappointed! It may work quicker when fewer people are using it (peak times first thing in the morning & in the evenings). In some hotels, it may only work in certain public areas. Messaging will also be a lot easier than trying to speak on the phone, not impossible but very frustrating at times.
Toilets & Showers
Don’t expect the pristine public toilets you might be used to. Carry your own toilet paper & hand sanitizer just in case. If you’re using public toilets, expect to pay for them – anything from 1–5BOB. However, don’t necessarily expect anything special for your money if you do. If you have paper, a seat, a lock & soap at the same time then you are very lucky!”
On long journeys, also be prepared for the possibility that you may need to use the Inca toilet (behind a bush!), this can be particularly difficult when on a long bus journey (none I travelled on had toilets) or a highly-populated tourist area (I was caught twice with my trousers down by a guy wandering around taking photos!). My top advise when using Inca toilets as a woman is to go with a friend if possible.
Warm showers in hotels can also be unpredictable at times. The more you use them at peak times, the more you can expect them to be cold.
For souvenirs, a must is the Witches Market in La Paz. My advice is to stock up here while you can as other parts of Bolivia are more expensive. If you are also visiting Peru, stock up here as well for better bargains.
Be warned, the number of dead baby llamas hanging around can be quite confronting in the Witches Market. I have it on good authority that these all die of natural causes.”
The Witches Market is also where you can buy traditional talisman statues for good luck & have them blessed. I found it all a bit confusing – which to buy for what, so as a very basic guide:
Pacha Mama – Mother Earth represents good luck across the board
Condor – Travel
Frog – Wealth
Turtle – Health
Puma – Power
Sun – Energy
A couple – Love / Partner
In La Paz, where you go shopping will depend on what you need & this can be quite specific as all the shops selling the same things are in the same street, e.g. sports clothes, party accessories, outdoor hiking gear, mobile phone accessories. Ask a local (hotel or tour guide) for the exact location of the shops you need & they will point you in the right direction. Also, be aware that there are very few supermarkets as locals buy from the smaller stalls around the city & the markets. All cities will have a market & they are always fascinating to explore.
For locals who need medication for any ailment, the first port of call is to visit a witch for a powder or potion to help. If you’re feeling adventurous you might want to do the same (some have been analysed & proven to have similar properties to our more traditional treatments, but I’m not recommending anything!). If you’re not keen on this option, the next port of call is a pharmacy. They may not speak English but you can buy a lot of medicines over the counter that you would not be able to at home (antibiotics being the most common). Last resort for a local would be to visit a hospital (the only place you will find a Doctor).
Any hotel that offers to take your laundry will be expensive. Instead, take your washing to a laundry service. Most laundry places will charge per kg & deliver to your hotel the next day (if you leave it early enough, later that same day). I paid 100BOB to get it done by the hotel, my fellow travellers waited & got theirs for 10BOB with delivery. I only made that mistake once!
La Paz has a traditionally dressed lady ‘Cholita’ on every corner – looking amazing in their outfits & Bowler hat. How the ladies dress is a way to show their wealth (as is gold in their teeth).
The way the bowler hat is worn is also important. Single ladies have their hat at an angle, if they are married it will be straight on the top.”
The very best hats are saved up for & imported from Italy at a cost of 500 US$ or more. Beautiful though they are, be very careful taking photos – see below.
In La Paz, you will also see many men dressed in dark clothes with their faces covered. They look quite sinister. They are there to earn money shining your shoes. Don’t be alarmed by their appearance, apparently working with people’s feet is considered a degrading way to earn a living & as such they do not want to be seen doing the job, hence why they cover their faces.
Beware when taking photos of people. There is a strong belief across Bolivia that if you take a photo of someone you take their soul.”
Always ask before taking (I would not like to be on the wrong side of a Cholita scorned). Expect that they will refuse & respect this, if they allow you, expect them to ask for money for the privilege (1–2BOB).
The same principle will also apply to llamas (?!). They are all owned by farmers & if the farmer sees you taking a photo then they can get very angry. Only photograph llamas when you can’t see the farmer!
When you are in Bolivia the highlights are not in the city & I would recommend that everyone takes a trip to the salt flats (Salar de Uyuni).”
As part of my tour, we spent 3 days travelling around the area & seeing some of the most spectacular landscapes. If you leave without this experience you will seriously be missing out on Bolivia at its best.
Where I Slept, Ate & Drank…
I stayed at the Hotel Osira which is central, in Plaza de San Pedro. I only realised it was next to the notorious San Pedro prison when I was on the walking tour! It’s a fascinating location but again don’t take any photos of the prison or any of its property. Also do not go on a tour inside the prison, especially if you fancy coming back out! If you would like to go for the easy option & eat in the hotel restaurant be prepared that speedy service isn’t their strength!
Dinner recommended at Angelo Colonial – especially to try the Llama Chorellana (llama steak with couscous & a spicy pepper sauce).
To find a hotel then check out the search box & map below:
I stayed at the Hostal Cerro Rico – a bit old fashioned but a pleasant short walk from the main town.
Dinner recommended at Café 4060 – if you have someone to share with or a HUGE appetite, try the Silpancho (a giant beef escalope with rice, vegetables & a fried egg on top – I have it on good authority that this is the best in Bolivia), if not go for Pique Macho (mixed beef & vegetables), both traditional Bolivian dishes.
To find a hotel then check out the search box & map below:
Hostal Sucre is a good option for a room with a pretty courtyard & a central location.
For food & drink I would recommend the following:
Florin – Dutch bar/restaurant which is central & serves good food
El Patio – Great for Saltenas (mid-morning snack, like a pasty)
Joy Ride – Nice food & salsa lessons (Tues & Thurs)
For other accommodation options search using the box below:
As stated before I was on & would thoroughly recommend the 12 days Bolivia Highlights tour with Intrepid Travel.
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