Bolivia is a beautiful, geographically diverse, multiethnic, and democratic country in the heart of South America. It is surrounded by Brazil to the northeast, Peru to the northwest, Chile to the southwest, Argentina and Paraguay to the south. It shares with Peru control of Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca), the world's highest navigable lake (elevation 3,805 m).
Sometimes referred to as the Tibet of the Americas, Bolivia is one of the most "remote" countries in the western hemisphere; except for the navigable Paraguay River stretching to the distant Atlantic, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked nations in the Americas. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of its population being of pure Native American ancestry.
Bolivia, named after independence fighter Simon Bolivar, broke away from Spanish rule in 1825; much of its subsequent history has consisted of a series of nearly 200 coups and counter-coups. Comparatively democratic civilian rule was established in the 1980s, but leaders have faced difficult problems of deep-seated poverty, social unrest, and drug production. Current goals include attracting foreign investment, strengthening the educational system, and waging an anti-corruption campaign.
Bolivia's climate varies drastically with altitude and from one climatic zone to another. It ranges from humid and tropical to cold and semiarid. In most parts of the country winters are dry and summers are somewhat wet. Despite its tropical latitude, the altitude of cities like La Paz keeps things cool, and warm clothing is advised year-round. The summer months in Bolivia are November through March. The weather is typically warmer and wetter during these months. April through October, the winter months, are typically colder and drier.
The following nationalities will not need a visa for short stays of less than 90 days as tourists: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany,Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vatican City, and Venezuela .
Most people who do need tourist visas can obtain them on arrival, except for the following nationalities: Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chad, East Timor, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, United States, Yemen, and those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, under urgent and special circumstances can foreigners in this group obtain visas at the port of entry. US citizens will normally receive a triple-entry visa valid for 3 entries per year over a 5-year period.
Note that all business travellers and persons wishing to stay longer than 90 days in a year must obtain a visa in advance.
Unless you are under the age of 1, you will need a yellow fever vaccination certificate to apply for a visa.
Air travel is the obvious way to get to Bolivia, the main airports are located in La Paz to the western side of the country and in Santa Cruz to the east. The arrival plan must be based mostly in the purpose of your visit to the country; you have to remember that La Paz receives most of their visitors due to the immense culture and heritage from the Incas and other indigenous cultures from the Andean region, and therefore from La Paz it is easier to move to the Tiwanaku ruins, Oruro’s carnival, Potosí’s mines, Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, Los Yungas valley and the Andes Mountains; since La Paz is the seat of government all the embassies and foreign organizations have their headquarters in the city, which is useful in case of an emergency. On the other side, Santa Cruz with a warmer weather could become a good location for doing business visit other alternatives in tourism like the Misiones, the Noel Kempff Mercado national park or visit the eastern cities. There are also some foreign consulates in Santa Cruz. But don’t forget that the cities in the south and central Bolivia, like Cochabamba, Tarija and Sucre also offer a very rich experience; there are several ways to get to these cities from La Paz or Santa Cruz.
Regular flights are booked from Madrid (Barajas) to the International Airport in El Alto, La Paz and Viru Viru in Santa Cruz service provided by companies like Aerolineas Argentinas and Aerosur; the last one only offering the route Madrid-Santa Cruz-La Paz, while the others stop directly in La Paz; the cost could go from 1000-1200€ to other higher prices depending on the class and duration. There are also less frequent flights to La Paz from other major European cities like London, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin but they may have scales in other European cities before crossing the Atlantic.
Other airlines that fly into Bolivia from other Latin American countries include LAN from Santiago via Iquique and from Lima. TAM Mercosur flies from São Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires via Asunción. Copa Airlines has begun to fly to Santa Cruz from Panama City. Gol Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas also fly directly to Santa Cruz.
There are departures from Miami to La Paz and Santa Cruz on American Airlines, and the Bolivian airline Aerosur offers flights to Santa Cruz and Cochabamba with connections to other Bolivian cities. Once you have your international flight booked - it's far easier and cheaper to organize your internal flights from the point of departure.
There are many train lines in Bolivia, each with varying degrees of quality and efficiency. However, adequate transportation via train can be found.
The FCA timetable can be found at their website .
Watch your belongings.
It is common for tourists to travel through a land border at the north-east of Chile/ South-West of Bolivia.
Keep in mind that only about 5% of all the roads in Bolivia are paved. However, most major routes between cities are paved (Aka big cities, Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, Sucre) . 4x4 is particularly required when off the flatter altiplano. Be aware that in mountainous regions traffic sometimes switches sides of the road. This is to ensure the driver has a better view of the dangerous drops.
An international drivers license is required but * most* times EU or US drivers licenses will be accepted. There are frequent police controls on the road and tolls to be paid for road use.
There are many options for traveling from Argentina to Bolivia by bus. Check out the Bolivian Embassy's website in Argentina for specific options. There is also a bus that runs from Juliaca and Puno in Peru to Copacabana.
It is common for tourists to arrive in Bolivia by boat, by navigating from the port city of Puno, Peru, over Lake Titicaca.
Transportation strikes (bloqueos) are a common occurrence in Bolivia, so try to keep tuned to local news. Strikes often affect local taxis as well as long-distance buses; airlines are generally unaffected. Do not try to go around or through blockades (usually of stones, burning tires, or lumber). Strikers may throw rocks at your vehicle if you try to pass the blockade. Violence has sometimes been reported. Many strikes only last a day or two. There is a government website with a live map showing which roads are closed or affected by landslides .
Bus transportation in Bolivia is a nice cheap way to get to see the beautiful scenery while traveling to your destination. Unfortunately the buses often travel solely at night. Keep in mind that roads are occasionally blocked due to protests, often for several days. So ask several companies at the terminal if you hear about blockades, unless you are willing to spend a few days sleeping on the bus. Bus travel is usually pretty cheap. Estimate that it will cost you about 1 USD for every hour of travel (it's easier to find travel times online than actual price quotes). Prices do change based on supply and demand. Sometimes you can get a deal by waiting until the last minute to buy. Hawkers are constantly crying out destinations in the bigger bus stations cajoling potential riders to take their bus line.
Flying within Bolivia is quick and fairly economical. AeroSur connects most major cities.
On some routes, the roads are in such a dire condition that the train becomes the alternative of choice. Trains are more comfortable than one would expect, having for example reclinable seats. The trip from Oruro to Uyuni is especialy beautiful, with the train going literally through an Andean lake on the way. The train is especially good for trips to the Salar de Uyuni and the Pantanal.
Coming from La Paz, you need to take a three hour bus ride to Oruro to catch the train. You best book your tickets a few days before your trip. In La Paz booking office is at Fernando Guachalla No. 494, at the corner with Sánchez Lima (between the Plaza del Estudiante and Plaza Abaroa). Main stops are Uyuni, Tupiza and Villazon, on the Argentine border. Travel times here. .
Between Santa Cruz and the Pantanal it is more straightfoward to organize a trip. Just go to the Terminal Bimodal in Santa Cruz (see the Santa Cruz page for details), or the train station on the border in Puerto Quijarro. The train is also convenient for trips to the Jesuit Missions. Check the website for timetables.
For longer trips between towns and cities that aren't served by bus, shared taxis are common. Shared taxi is not safe for tourist, especially if you are solo female traveller.
Bolivia has 37 official languages - more than any other country in the world, of which Spanish (often called Castellano), Quechua, and Aymara are the main ones. The others are In rural areas, many people do not speak Spanish. Nevertheless, you should be able to get by with some basic Castellano. Bolivia is one of the best places in which to learn or practice your Spanish because of their very clean, deliberate accent. There are many options for studying Spanish in Bolivia, and they are usually very good (often, the program includes a very good homestay component).
It can be difficult to change money other than euros and US dollars, even currency from neighboring countries! You might find more flexible exchange offices at airports, but be prepared for service fees and poor exchange rates.
The national currency is the boliviano. As of January 2010, the exchange rate is generally Bs6.97/$USD. Bills come in denominations of 200, 100, 50, 20, and 10; coins are in 5, 2, and 1 bolivianos, and 50, 20, and you will find sometimes 10 centavos (1/100 of a boliviano). Bills larger than Bs20 can be hard to break, but a quick phone call or internet session at a Punto Entel (see Contact, below) will usually get you change.
Currency can be exchanged for US dollars and most South American currencies at casa de cambio agencies or street vendors. Expect to negotiate for a favorable exchange rate, as most vendors will try to make money off a tourist.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted in hotels, tourist shops, and for large purchases.
Coca has been part of Andean culture for centuries, and chewing is still very common (and perfectly legal) in Bolivia. You should be able to buy a big bag of dried leaves at the local market. Coca is a stimulant, and it also suppresses hunger. Chewing a wad of leaves for a few minutes should bring slight numbness to your lips and throat. Remember the slogan (printed on souvenir T-shirts): Coca no es Cocaina ("The coca leaf is not cocaine"). But cocaine most definitely is an illegal drug. Remember this, only chew the leaf; if you eat the coca leaf you will get a very sick stomach.
The cuisine of Bolivia might be called the original "meat and potatoes" -- the latter (locally called papas from the Quechua) were first cultivated by the Inca before spreading throughout the world. The most common meat is beef, though chicken and llama are also easily found. Pork is relatively common. Deep frying (chicharron) is a common method of cooking all sorts of meat, and fried chicken is a very popular quick dish; at times the smell permeates the streets of Bolivian cities. Guinea pigs (cuy) and rabbits (conejo) are eaten in rural areas, though you can sometimes find them in urban restaurants as well. A common condiment served with Bolivian meals is llajhua, a spicy sauce similar to Mexican salsa.
Some notable Bolivian dishes:
Street food and snacks:
Breakfast (desayuno) typically consists of any of several of meat-filled buns:
Many people also start off the day with some concoction involving fruit:
Juice bars appear at most markets. Shakes (either with water or milk) are 2-3Bs. Locals can be seen to drink Vitaminico an egg, beer and sugar concoction or "Vitima" which includes coca leaves.
Bolivia's traditional alcoholic drink is chicha, a whitish, sour brew made from fermented corn and drunk from a hemispherical bowl fashioned from a hollowed gourd (round-bottomed so you can't put it down). It's customary to spill a bit of chicha on the ground before and after drinking it as an offering to Pachamama, the Inca earth godess.
Offering a favorable exchange for Western tourists, lodging can be found at very reasonable prices throughout the country, from hostels to luxury hotels. During a 3 week trip in 2003 I stayed in hostals and the going rate per night was never more than the equivalent of US $ 3.50.
WARNING: In August 2010 in north east Bolivia suspicious plague incidents were recorded, resulting in a young man's death. Before going to Bolivia, check carefully the status of the disease and consult your experts to avoid possible exposure.
Apply common sense and take precautions that apply elsewhere. All tourists should be careful when selecting a travel guide and never accept medication from unverifiable sources. Women tourists should be cautious when traveling alone. If possible try to take "radio taxis" private cabs by calling them since there have been some incidents at night of fake cabs taken from the streets that are used to steal their occupants and raping women tourists. Women tourist never take a unregistered taxi or fake cab even if they offer you cheaper price. It is a good idea to register with the consulate of your country of residence upon entry into the country.
Some parts of Bolivia like La Paz (3650), Potosí (4010), Oruro (3950) and the Lake Titicaca region are high altitude, so adequate precautions against "soroche" altitude sickness should be taken.
At local pharmacies they sell soroche pills, that are supposed to help with altitude problems. In many parts of the Altiplano you can purchase coca leaves, which are reputed to be useful against soroche. Coca tea ("mate de coca") is available in tea bags in many markets.
However, severe cases of high altitude disease can be treated at the High Altitude Pathology Institute at Clinica IPPA . This Clinic has the most advanced technology including a hyperoxic/hypoxic adaptation chamber. In addition, the sun's ultraviolet rays are much stronger -- up to 20 times -- than at sea level. A sun hat, sunglasses, and skin protection (sunblock or long sleeves) are advised.
Do not use the word "indio" in Bolivia to describe indigenous people. It is considered offensive. The term they use is "campesino" which translates to peasant or "indígena". "Cholo" is a campesino who moved to the city, and though originally derogatory, has become more of a symbol of indigenous power. Nevertheless, some locals still use the word cholo as a derogative term.
Bolivia's national phone company Entel has outlets on practically every block in major cities. Most Punto Entel shops also have internet-connected PCs, typically Bs4/hr.
While traditional payphones still exist, you can also make local calls for Bs1 from cellular phones at kiosks or "walking phone booths" - look for a guy in a green vest with a cellphone on a chain.
If you are staying for a while, consider buying SIM cards for your cellphones. They are quite cheap and you get good network coverage in all main cities and towns.