Landlocked, rugged and remote, Bolivia is a country that won’t bathe you in 5-star luxury. But if you are willing to go back to basics a little you will surely love this adventurer’s mecca—home to some of the best sights in South America.
Sure, when I think of Bolivia I think of the bad roads, the basic meat-and-potatoes food, the barren Andes landscapes, and the sometimes freezing temperatures at high altitude (which at night along with a general lack of central heating can really make you wish you brought some thermal underwear). But I also think of the wonderful spring-like weather in Sucre or Cochabamba, the lower hot and humid regions around the Amazon, and the plethora of incredible sights and activities that can literally leave you breathless.
Why you should go
- The cheapest destination in South America. Bolivia is by far the most inexpensive country on the continent (see also: South America cost of travel overview). It’s perfect for the budget traveller.
- A haven for thrillseekers. Climb the highest mountains, abseil down an office building, or mountainbike down the “death road”; Bolivia is full of adrenaline-pumping challenges.
- Culturally and geographically rich. Bolivia encompasses high Andes mountains, thick Amazon jungles, and borders the largest high-altitude lake of Titicaca. Bolivia is also of strong cultural interest. For instance, it is the most indigenous country in the Americas with the majority of Bolivians being of native ancestry. It’s why nowadays the country is known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, having added a rainbow coloured flag to represent all of its different indiginous peoples.
- The Salt Flats of Uyuni. It’s not often that a single attraction should warrant a visit to a particular country, but I’d say this is one of them. The infinite white stretches of the salt flats are an incredible sight, and many backpacker go on a 2, 3 or 4-day tour to see the salt flats as well as the nearby Atacama desert.
Do keep in mind that Bolivia is a poor and undeveloped country. Things are pretty basic and in a certain light some of Bolivia’s cities can feel quite bleak, though you can also see it as a kind of rugged beauty. If you travel for the experience and have a good sense of adventure you will certainly love Bolivia.
Much of the north and east of Bolivia consists of tropical lowlands including jungles that are part of the Amazon rainforest. These areas are very thinly populated and what you’ll find here are mostly some national parks. Santa Cruz is a good base from which to visit some of the jungles.
The south and west of Bolivia are highly mountainous and generally much colder and more rugged. The capital La Paz sits at 4,058 m and is the highest altitude capital city in the world. Near La Paz you’ll find the Huayna Potosi mountain, a popular peak for climbers, as well as the Death Road (more on this further down the page). The town of Coroico near the end of Death Road sits in a valley with a tropical climate and has an almost resort-like feel, and so it’s popular with people trying to escape the harshness of La Paz.
Cochabamba has a pleasant climate but not a whole lot of attractions, though it can be nice to stop here in order to break up a journey to Sucre or La Paz. Sucre is the city’s former capital and is really the jewel of Bolivia’s cities: it’s very pretty and pleasant, and many travellers end up sticking around here for a while. The salt flats and desert landscapes of Atacama can be found in the southwest of the country, near the border with Chile.
Getting in and out of Bolivia overland
From Peru: the easiest way is to take a bus from Puno. This bus stops at Copacabana before heading on to La Paz.
To/From Argentina: head to the border crossing at Villazon / La Quiacha. There’s nothing really to do in these border towns and there didn’t seem to be much accommodation either, so it’s best to head onwards straight away.
To/From Chile: if you are going to take a Salt Flats tour, it’s useful to know that the jeeps can drop you off at the border with Chile and arrange for a transfer bus to take you to Chile. This saves you the effort of backtracking to Uyuni and then going the whole way to Chile again.
To Brazil/Paraguay: go to Santa Cruz and take buses from there.
Hostels in Bolivia
Basic accommodation is easy to find in Bolivia, but it’s a good idea to book ahead if you want to be assured of a bed in any of the top hostels or guesthouses. Below are some of my recommendations for budget accommodation with great atmosphere:
|Adventure Brew Hostel||La Paz||Friendly social hostel. Great top floor bar & restaurant with view of the city. If you don’t want an over-the-top party hostel (like Loki or Wild Rover), go here.|
|3600 Hostel||La Paz||Another quieter hostel with a traveller atmosphere. At 18 beds it’s much smalle/cozier than the 100+ bed La Paz hostels.|
|The Beehive||Sucre||One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. For 3 weeks this was my home away from home. Very friendly and chilled out, with bonfires in the garden and fun activities throughout the week.|
|KulturBerlin||Sucre||My second favorite Sucre hostel. This little maze of courtyards and annexes offers dorms and private rooms. Restaurant and nightly entertainment such as salsa classes.|
|Hostal Eucalyptus||Potosi||A basic hostel providing dorms and rooms with rooftop views of Potosi. Mine tours can be booked here, too.|
|Hotel Utama||Copacabana||There is sadly a dearth of hostels in Copacabana, but this hotel is a good budget option.|
|Loro Loco Hostel||Santa Cruz||Relaxing hostel with a central garden/pool/hammock area.|
Things to do in Bolivia
Tour the salt flats of Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat — a landscape created by the remnants of what used to be huge lakes during prehistoric times. It’s incredible just to see this infinite white-as-snow landscape, though there are a lot of little sights in and around the salt flats that can keep you busy for days. Visiting this place should not be considered optional!
Typically you’ll take an organized tour with jeeps as navigating the salt flats independently would be very difficult. Although whirlwind 1-day tours are offered, I highly recommend going for at least a 2-day tour— if you came this far, you should try to do it right. If you spend 3 or 4 days you can also head into Atacama desert bordering Chile which has numerous interesting sites such as lagoons and volcanic craters. Keep in mind though that you will have to sit in a jeep for hours on end, so these tours do require a bit of patience.
Within the salt flats are several islands home to petrified corals (remnants from prehistoric times when this area was submerged) as well as tall giant cacti that are up to 300 years old. The salt flats themselves lend well to making amusing perspective photos, examples of which you may have seen on social media if you have friends who went to Bolivia.
The Atacama desert is home to several species of pink flamingos which congregate around beautiful coloured lagoons. The microbial and mineral makeup of these lagoons gives each a unique character. One of them even looks bright red during certain times of day. Atacama is a super remote and beautiful area that is sure to leave an impression. Even these strange moss-like plants that I casually took some photos of turned out to have a special story: after my trip I saw a TED talk where I recognized these exact plants and learned they are among the oldest living organisms in the world. There’s some wildlife to see as well: on my trip I also spotted an Andean fox and saw entire herds of wild vicuñas (animals that look a bit like llamas).
I have been to many big sights around the world which not always live up to the hype, but for me at least the salt flats and Atacama more than delivered. Try to be with a good group of people, as you’ll be sharing a lot of your time with the other passengers over the course of several days.
Tour packages are all roughly in the same price range but be sure to shop around and look for reviews as there are differences in quality. I went with a company called Red Planet and was very satisfied. They also claimed to be the only ones to visit the volcanic thermal baths at night rather than during the day, and it was wonderful to soak in the hot water after a long day. It seems like a small difference, but being able to watch the stars while soaking in thermal water in the middle of a desert added just one more highlight to the tour.
Visit the world’s highest navigable lake
Lake Titicaca is located on the border between Bolivia and Peru. It is the largest lake in South America. At an altitude of 3821m, it is also considered the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world. A great base from which to explore the Lake Titicaca area is the lakeside town of Copacabana—and arguably this is a much better place to go than nearby towns in Peru such as Puno and Juliaca, which are much less attractive.
Fun fact: the beach in Rio de Janeiro derived its name from Copacabana in Bolivia, though don’t expect white sand beaches or expensive hotels. This lakeside town is very small and basic, catering primarily to backpacker travellers.
View of Titicaca lake from Copacabana
From Copacabana you can take a boat to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, two rustic and sleepy islands in the lake which were ancient holy sites for the Inca. You can also make a trip to the Uro Islands, which are floating islands made of reed. This is a popular day trip that’s become pretty tacky and touristy, though you might find it worth doing anyway. It’s also possible to sleep in a homestay for a night, which offers better opportunities to get to know the locals.
Explore the world’s highest altitude capital
La Paz is the highest altitude capital in the world and you will certainly feel this, as walking uphill can be a real slog if you haven’t yet adjusted to the thin air. La Paz may leave a barren first impression but dig deeper and you will find a surprising number of things to do here.
I highly recommend going on one of the free (or, more accurately, donation-based) walking tours organized by Red Cap Walking Tours and other groups. Doing so will give you a better appreciation for the history as well as some crazy stories about Bolivia’s raw politics and society. You will also be given some interesting background on the San Pedro prison on the main square, made infamous by the book Marching Powder.
La Paz is also home to some extreme sports. For instance you can abseil down one of the biggest office buildings in the city centre while wearing a spiderman costume… because why not. The company that runs this is called Urban Rush Bolivia.
There are some sights in close vicinity of the city as well, such as the Valley of the Moon, an interesting rugged landscape created by erosion that makes for a decent day-trip. (It’s about 45 minutes from the city centre.)
Another interesting activity is to watch Cholita Wrestling, where Bolivian women wearing traditional bowler hats go at each other in WWE wrestling style. It gets pretty crazy as the audience throws fruit at the wrestlers and the fights will sometimes flow out of the ring and into the audience area. It’s honestly very silly, but also very entertaining.
While Bolivian food is filling and pretty tasty, it’s also heavily meat-and-potatoes based and not always so varied. If you’re looking for any other cuisines you are most likely to find them in La Paz. Many restaurants market themselves based on the altitude (e.g. “enjoy the highest altitude Swiss cheese fondue in the world!”).
The capital is also a bit of a backpacker party hub. Many of the Western-owned hostels in La Paz attract a young and party-hungry crowd. While La Paz itself doesn’t have that much of a nightlife, a lot of partying happens inside and around the most popular hostels. The free shots distributed in some of the bars can turn things a little wild, so if you are looking for reasonable sleeping hours you may wish to steer clear of the bigger brand-name hostels. (Or if you like to party, you know where to go.)
Explore the markets in La Paz
It’s fun to stroll the local markets in La Paz. The witches market is by far the most unusual one. It’s full of little shops and stalls selling all manner of strange objects and substances that tie into various supersticious beliefs. Perhaps most unsettling are the dried llama foetuses (sourced from natural miscarriages, alledgedly) which are traditionally used to bless the grounds before a new building is constructed. Try to go with a local guide as they’ll be able to explain more about the unusual products being sold.
Also of interest is El Alto market which takes place on certain days of the week higher up on the plateau mountains. This is where people come to buy pretty much anything, and it’s also a great place to try some street food. It is essentially a large flea market but its size and its location on the plateau above the city center make it worth a trip. Crime (pickpocketing, etc.) can be an issue here though, so be careful if heading off to the market on your own.
Street food at El Alto market
Dried potatoes at El Alto market
Mountain bike down the world’s most dangerous road
Near La Paz is a narrow dirt road snaking through the high mountains, which has the unfortunate distinction of having been the world’s most dangerous road.
Yungas Road was once the main artery through which all the cars and trucks would come to the capital. Looking at old footage of trucks passing each other at hair’s length along the mightily steep cliffs, it’s not surprising that so many people died in accidents on this road throughout the years.
A new road was constructed some years ago making the Death Road nearly free of traffic now. This has opened the way for a number of tour agencies to offer downhill mountain bike rides here, which take almost a full day. The drop-offs down the cliffs will definitely make your heart beat faster, though don’t be too concerned about safety as the low traffic, addition of some guard rails, and safety briefings make this a thrilling but not too dangerous adventure. You’ll start all the way at the top of the mountain around 4,650 metres altitude where you’ll be very thankful for having gloves and thermal jackets. You’ll end up way at the bottom where the weather is tropical.
Relax or study Spanish in sunny Sucre
Sucre is Bolivia’s former capital and its centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In contrast to the rugged cities elsewhere in Bolivia, Sucre is bright and pretty with lots of white colonial-era buildings. Sucre also enjoys a wonderful spring-like climate at a moderate elevation. It’s such a charming place that it tends to suck in travellers who find it difficult to leave.
Sucre is a popular place to take Spanish classes. The classes are attractively priced, the city is pleasant, and the Bolivian accent is mild, making it easier for foreigners to understand. Some of the Spanish schools also organize extracurricular activities such as cooking classes or trips to the local markets. Many travellers also stay in Sucre to volunteer.
There’s a lot to do in and around Sucre, including motorbike tours, tandem paragliding, many single- and multi-day treks (such as treks to the nearby Maragua Crater) as well as many churches and museums. An excellent resource that I highly recommend is the website Sucre Life, maintained by two expats living in Sucre. It includes information on restaurants, bars, things to do, and upcoming events.
While Sucre is a quaint city and not big on nightlife, you can go out here. Some of the hostels organize weekly parties, and there are a couple of clubs popular with locals. I went to a club called Stigma (which I thought was kind of a hilarious name for a club), and found it fascinating to observe how Bolivian nightlife differs from that in the West. For example, the dance floor had one neat line of girls on one side and one line of boys on the other, and they all took turns dancing opposite each other.
If you’re not sure where to stay, I highly recommend Beehive Hostel, which is easily one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Originally set up as a community project, it has a wonderful cozy and communal feel. You can chat with other travellers and Spanish students over the free breakfast, and there’s a garden where at night you can make marshmallows over a campfire.
Visit the mining town of Potosí
The town of Potosí is famous for its Cerro Rico mountain, where the silver mines are some of the richest in all the world. Cerro Rico nowadays is like a big swiss cheese, with thousands of mine shafts running through it run by local cooperatives of miners. Around 10,000 people still work in the mines despite absolutely awful conditions. Most miners die young because of health issues.
A street in Potosí with Cerro Rico in the background
It is possible to head into the mines on a tour. Typically you’ll be expected to bring some gifts for the miners, like cigarettes or supplies they can use (you’ll be taken to a miner supply shop in advance where you can buy these things). These tours are hot, sweaty, and safety is not guaranteed.
It may feel a bit weird or voyeuristic going on a tour to these mines knowing the miners have such a difficult time. Prior to going to Potosí I saw the 2005 documentary The Devil’s Miner at one of the regular showings in a pub in Sucre, and it made me lose my appetite to tour the mines. I do highly recommend viewing this documentary as it educates you about life in the Potosí mines, though it’s also a lot to take in as the conditions inside the mine are awful and some of the miners are underage.
Still, the mine tours are said to be eye-opening. If you have no qualms about going, then you will surely come back with a different perspective. Koala Tours is said to be among the best of the bunch, employing former miners as tour guides.
With its narrow streets, colonial mansions and many churches, the town of Potosí itself is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Misc. other things to do in Bolivia
- Santa Cruz is at a low altitude close to the Amazon. It’s a great base from where you can explore the jungle forests and national parks. The vibe is a bit different in this city; the people in Santa Cruz consider themselves more ‘sophisticated’ and closer to Brazilians and Paraguayans, though other Bolivians apparently consider them a bit snobby. The nightlife in Santa Cruz attracts a more well-heeled crowd than elsewhere.
- Go into the jungles for a survival course. Unleash your inner Bear Grylls by going into the jungle without supplies or any modern technology, joined only by a guide who teaches you basic jungle survival skills. I haven’t done this personally, though I’ve met people who did and they said it was a unique experience.
- Climb the Huayna Potosi. This mountain is about 30 km north of La Paz and reaches 6088 metres. While climbing up to the peak isn’t a cakewalk, it’s said to be one of the easier peaks of this altitude. If you ever wanted to stand on top of the world far above the clouds, this is a good way to do it.
- Try a refreshing Mocochinchi. This drink is made by brewing peaches and spices together in water. I was initially turned off by the sight of a shrivelled peach in murky water, but turns out this stuff is actually delicious.
Some final tips
- This is not the land of a thousand smiles; Bolivians tend to have a serious expression on their face, though that doesn’t mean they’re not friendly!
- Internet is very very slow in Bolivia. The speed is sufficient for checking your e-mail, but don’t expect to be able to download or upload much at all. Bloggers or digital nomads might want to try their luck with the WiFi at some of the Western-owned restaurants or cafes in Sucre and La Paz; often they use 3G connections which provide some decent speeds at least by Bolivia’s standards.
- Change your bolivianos before leaving the country as they are very difficult to exchange outside of Bolivia.
More info on Bolivia: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.