Hola folks, and today I thought it was time to take you over to the continent of South America, a continent which I only discovered around four years ago. It’s a continent full of so much history and nature, it’s one I hope to return to sometime in the next ten years – I just have a bunch of ideas for trips to do first. In short, it’s a fascinating and rewarding destination full of colour and life.
Bolivia itself is also full of rewarding places to visit. I strolled through in a little less than two weeks and probably should have stayed longer. Like quite a bit of the continent, it’s at altitude, from Lake Titicaca in the north of the country, to the salt plains in the south.
Being a landlocked country, and as such is wedged between no less than six countries, sharing borders with Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile. It’s a dry country and quite sandy and desert like in a lot of place, despite being mountainous.
It’s a country that evokes a few automatic responses as to what it’s like, and what it’s people are like. Primarily I think people look at Bolivia as a dangerous place to visit. I certainly had no issues whilst I was there, but it is fair to say that when you’re in any South American country, especially in the bigger cities, you want to exercise a degree of caution, perhaps one slightly higher than say if you were in a city in Asia or Europe.
I don’t want to be alarmist either, I don’t think that going to Bolivia is like going into a hornet’s nest of danger by any means. Just use common sense, because muggings occur in pretty much every city in the world from Melbourne to Timbuktu. I did not hear any horror stories that occurred in Bolivia when I was travelling, whereas I did hear stories about people getting robbed in Peru, Argentina and Colombia. On the same token, don’t take this to mean it won’t or can’t happen. Know where you are, know where the less safe parts of town are and avoid them. Don’t flash expensive gear about and keep your wits about you.
Altitude & Weather
More likely an issue for you may be altitude sickness. La Paz is at 3,650 metres, and Sucre is at 2,810 metres. Potosi is at over 4000 metres. People often require a day or two to get used to high altitude, and there is medicine you can buy to prevent or help you cope with the effects of being so high. Personally I didn’t get sick, but I did find myself out of breath quite a bit. Having said that, I’m not fit which undoubtedly contributed to this! If you’ve travelled to the higher parts of the world you will have an idea about how your body reacts and copes. Be aware though that the reaction is not always the same. If you’re planning on hiking at altitude perhaps give yourself a little longer to acclimatise.
The weather I found to be sunny but cool, mostly because of the altitude. There are other parts in the east which are not nearly as high where the terrain turns into the Amazon Jungle – tours are available to this part of Bolivia – and there would be a lot more rainfall, it would be more humid (so very dry everywhere I went) and obviously a lot warmer/hotter.
Visas? & Flying in
I was surprised initially that I didn’t need a visa to get into Bolivia. Australians, British, Canadians and most of Europe (check on that last one) don’t require a visa to enter Bolivia. However, if you are from the United States you do. I crossed at the Puno – Copacabana road crossing near Lake Titicaca in the north and the process was very easy, with no hassles at all. Just a couple of buildings with people behind a desk stamping you out of Peru and into Bolivia. Having said that, I did hear that sometimes people do get held up at crossings depending on their citizenship, and I think Americans, from time to time, may get held up for a while.
I can see that many airlines do fly to La Paz by doing a little search on the interweb. Personally I arrived and left by land travelling north to south, but if you’re thinking of making a quick fly in/fly out trip to Bolivia you certainly have choices from Qatar Airways to Aeromexico. It seems a lot of flights also stop in the biggest city in Bolivia, which is Santa Cruz (de la Sierra) about 500 km east of La Paz. Of course there are South American airlines like Latam, who are excellent and based in Chile. Getting directly to La Paz without another South American stop may be problematic, depending on who you are flying. There are a number of other international airports in Bolivia, but most probably only connect to other South American cities.
Entering and Leaving by Land
As I said before, I entered from the north from Peru and left from the south into Argentina. Both crossing personally I found really easy, especially into Argentina which was done in a matter of ten minutes or less. It was a little confusing as there was a line of people waiting to go into an office on the Bolivian side with customs forms. I went to a window to ask for one expecting to join the end of the line, instead I was stamped out and walked across to Argentina, which was equally as fast – although there is a fee for Australians entering Argentina in lieu of a visa. It was $100US but I read now that that fee has been waived. It was called a ‘reciprocity fee’ due to a fee needed to be paid for Argentinians to get and Australian visa.
I didn’t take a bus across the border to Argentina, there is a town on both sides of that border, so I took a shared taxi after an incredible bus journey through sand to get south from the Salar de Uyuni. The taxi took me to Villazon on the Bolivian side, another taxi to the border, changed some money in a little shop there and crossed to the Argentine town of La Quaica where I stayed that night. It was a full on day of travel, let me tell you!
It was simpler in the north, it was the same bus all the way to Copacabana from Puno, which is around six hours by bus from Cusco (Peru). There are plenty of other crossings from the five countries bordering Bolivia, and some buses do cross the international border there.
Bussing about Bolivia
Sadly, there aren’t a lot of transport options in Bolivia. It’s bus or bust, basically. Unless you want to fly, and frankly a lot of people do because, well, the roads are slow and arduous in this very mountainous country. If you want to head to the east of the country from La Paz, you may well prefer flying to a full day or two in a bus going around those bends. I’m always keen to avoid flying if I can, I love road journeys so within reason I’m usually up for some time on the road, but when I say road I really mean ‘rails’.
Rail is an option in parts of the country, there is a train that will take you southwards from La Paz to Oruro down all the way to Uyuni and Villazon. However, it’s very slow indeed and personally I couldn’t work it into my itinerary. I went to Sucre and then had to get to Uyuni from there, so the train just didn’t work for me.
The buses were of variable quality, but generally they were comfortable enough whilst never approaching the incredible standard of the overnight buses I took in Peru which were three across and almost fully reclined. The journey from Copacabana at Lake Titicaca down to La Paz was a really interesting one, with a ferry needed to get over the river at one point, and a lot of driving through the suburbs of La Paz to get to the bus station.
I made the somewhat dubious decision as I entered La Paz to push on further all the way to Potosi in a single day – I didn’t really see any of La Paz except from the bus. I couldn’t find a direct bus to Potosi, I had to take a bus to Oruro and then change there. Oruro is a bit of a transport hub.
I took a shared taxi from Potosi to Sucre, which was a much quicker (as you’d expect) way to travel, but then on to Uyuni I took the direct bus from Sucre. This one was full of travellers, and was an all day affair arriving at dusk after leaving before 10am. My final day involved a wild bus ride which was like something from a weird dream from Uyuni to Tupiza in the south. It was over sandy mountains and I would look out the window and couldn’t see the road at times, at others we appeared to be driving on dried river banks. This also involved a change of buses at Atocha, not too long into the journey which hadn’t been explained and wasn’t expected. The bus driver was quite… it was a scary ride. He had to refill the radiator a few times on route. It was a mini-bus from Tupiza to Villazon, sealed road and we moved like lightning.
All in all ground transport is a serious adventure in Bolivia, and one I felt lucky to survive!
The Boliviano is the currency in Bolivia, although you can from time to time use the USD. Presently one USD is equivalent to around 6.9 Bolivianos. As far as costs are concerned, Bolivia is not an expensive country to visit. $40US a day will allow you to travel like I did, staying at basic guesthouses but not the bottom of the barrel stuff, taking buses and shared taxis and the like. If you’re looking for a tour to Salar de Uyuni, undoubtedly one of the highlights of Bolivia, you’ll need $120 or more for that depending on the quality of your tour obviously.
Where to Stay
I stayed in a range of places with varying degrees of comfort and service. The most I spent was for the hotel Jerusalem in Potosi, and strangely it was probably the poorest place I stayed, with a bit of a dark and dingy room. Both the Hotel de la Cupula (Copacabana) and the Hotel de la Dolce Vita (Sucre) had kitchens for self-catering, which I most definitely used.
I also stayed out in the Salar de Uyuni for a couple of nights at different places on my tour. One place was actually a hotel made out of salt, which I have to admit was pretty cool.
Here are my reviews for the places I stayed around Bolivia (in towns) –
What to Do, What to See?
Bolivia will not leave you short on things to see and do. I was probably surprised by just how much there was to see and do! Firstly I’ll start with what I did not do for a change.
I didn’t explore La Paz, and if I had my time over again I would have devoted a couple of days to the capital because it is a really interesting place, surround by mountains which as full of suburbs. You can take a wobbly-looking cable car/gondola up to these places for some great views. Also, I didn’t get to the Amazon in Bolivia and I think if time allows it will show you a different side to the country. I didn’t really get out east at all, and it’s a different kind of Bolivia I feel out there, not being at the same high altitude. Santa Cruz is supposedly an attractive and interesting place to visit.
What did I do? Well, I started in the north where the town of Copacabana sits on the picturesque Lake Titicaca. A brilliant place to relax and wile away a few days. The Isla del Sol is in the middle of the lake and it has a hiking route down the centre and is a great place for photos. There are even some ancient ruins on the island too. Relevant posts I’ve done include – Little Places – Copacabana and ‘A Hike on the Isla del Sol’.
From there I went to Potosi, the highest city I think I’ve ever visited at just over 4000 metres. It’s actually an attractive and bustling places with a few things to see. The reason that most people come to Potosi is to do a tour to a silver mine. It’s a little contentious whether it’s ethical to go there, I took a tour with a tour group who employs ex-miners to take you in. It’s challenging to walk through the mine, but a real insight into life too. My goodness, the miners have it tough.
Sucre is a chilled little town with a beautiful square and beautiful views, and some great buildings too. I would have liked to have spent longer there. Check out – Sweet Sucre.
Finally Uyuni is a town which is the jumping off point for the amazing tour of Salar de Uyuni, which took three days. It’s really amazing, you take a four wheel drive out to the salt flats and discover a train grave yard, and island, flamingos and so much more over the three days. It’s probably the highlight of travel to Bolivia. Check out – Salar de Uyuni – Through My Lens and Salar de Uyuni.
Well, thanks all again for popping by and reading the old blog! Bolivia is a fascinating country and probably not the first South American country you think of in terms of travel, but I feel it has so much that you could cram into a few weeks. In the next week or two I will try and do a detailed review of the tour I took there – I thought that was something I had already done but apparently not! Take care – and May the Journey Never End!