Things to know before you go backpacking in Bolivia
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Bolivia is our Marmite. We honestly can’t decide whether we loved it or hated it. Backpacking in Bolivia gave us some of our best highs of the trip (Uyuni Salt Flats, caving in Torotoro, clubbing with locals in Cochabamba), but we also had some of our biggest lows (having £120 stolen from our locked, private room; a bus driver refusing to stop at our destination; protests making us climb mountains with all our backpacks; emergency room-worthy illness).
Now that we’ve survived, we can surely say that we’re glad we went, as Bolivia is such an amazingly interesting country, but if asked if we’d go again, we might need a few brave years of contemplation to agree. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, and coming from Chile, which has the highest GDP per capita in South America, this really shows. What is incredible to see though is the traditionalism of the locals in dressing true to their roots and expressing their vibrant culture at every turn.
Once you’ve read these tips for backpacking in Bolivia, have a more detailed gander at some of these posts:
If you can afford the flight, goddamnit take the flight. Buses and roads in Bolivia are infamously horrendous (with it even being home to the world’s most dangerous road); we spent many a sleepless night bus watching the dusty precipice disappear under the back tyre and wondering if we would survive the journey.
On top of this, many bus drivers are reckless or even drunk, they deliberately keep toilets locked so that they don’t have to clean them, and the quality of buses/legroom is oftentimes appalling.
Though we do love to exaggerate for comic effect, we assure you that there is absolutely zero exaggeration going on here. Sucre to Santa Cruz was easily the scariest night of our lives.
Also, it’s not unheard of to be sharing your bus with several coffins, secured with cellotape. Nice.
One thing to remember when going through bus terminals in Bolivia (and most in Peru as well) is that you have to pay for use of the terminal, or your ‘Uso’. You normally have to pay a few Bolivianos at a counter – usually with a very large queue – to get a ticket which you give to the person at the door to Departures, so plan ahead if you’re one of those people who ends up in a rush. Make sure you have coins; they often have a hissy fit if you don’t have change from large notes, even with thousands of coins sat in front of them.
You do not have to pay anything when your bus arrives at a new terminal.
From small companies, you may be able to barter down on prices – if they don’t have a printed price board, expect that you’re paying a gringo tax. Suggest a new price and watch how quickly their original number comes down. You’ll also be able to get cheaper tickets if you turn up as the bus is pulling away with empty seats (really, not advisable). Generally, buses in Bolivia should cost £1 (10 Bolivianos) per hour of travel.
Always aim to get the top quality night bus when backpacking in Bolivia. You can try to gauge this by looking at the agency’s pictures and asking about their facilities; the price difference for us is peanuts and we can’t stress enough how bad it is when the windows are stuck open at high altitude and the seats are so uncomfortable that people start sleeping down the dirty aisle.
Most of our bad experiences during backpacking in Bolivia have, in fact, been related to night buses – some so terrible that we considered cutting our Bolivia trip 3 weeks short and flying straight to Peru – so save yourself the pain and pick the executive option every time. If you’re worried about taking a bus, check out our guide to staying safe and comfortable on night buses in South America.
Companies we actually enjoyed riding with were El Dorado and Trans Copacabana. We don’t normally like touristy coach companies, but BoliviaHop is a great option for backpacking in Bolivia if you can’t afford flights but want reassurance on quality and safety on Bolivian bus travel (they can’t help with the terrible infrastructure, though).
And if it makes you feel any better, instead of improving the country’s infrastructure, Bolivia’s Next Top Dictator is currently building himself a metropolitan Trump-tower-style palace because his colonial one didn’t feel big enough. Which leads nicely to our next point…
2. Protests in Bolivia are commonplace
The politics in Bolivia is pretty rife with corruption and disappointment. The current president whilst we were backpacking in Bolivia, Evo Morales, was their first ever indigenous leader, and when he first got to power he made incredible changes, like giving the indigenous people (i.e. a whopping 75% of the population) rights, such as being able to vote and enter all areas of cities. People loved him, the economy improved, and he got voted in for a second 5 year term.
Now, the fun starts. He then prepared his campaign for his 4th term, which in Bolivian politics is absolutely illegal (much like his 3rd term), but he tried to use every loophole he could find to scrape his way around the democratic system. New laws were being passed which had strongly mixed reviews, such as one where doctors can go to prison for their patient dying, or that when you die your whole estate goes to the government who allocates it to a poor family instead of your children, however poor they may be.
2020/2021 update – Evo Morales has now essentially been ousted, but this by no means equals a politically sound Bolivia. In fact, it’s probably landed them in even more political turmoil. Be really conscious of this from a safety aspect when backpacking in Bolivia.
Despite this, some (mostly rural) people remain staunchly in support of old Evo, and you will see his name and campaign slogan painted on the sides of people’s houses and shops across the country. However, many people have found the legal and political changes of the past few years ludicrous, so protests and blockades are really common, and they mainly affect inter-city travel.
We got stuck in both Potosí and Sucre, when blockades meant our buses couldn’t get into the city. Luckily, in Sucre, we could just walk across the blockade and pick up a Micro (minibus) for mere pennies to take us into the city, but in impoverished Potosí we had to walk up a 200m near-sheer hill just to be able to see across to the next mountain upon which the city sits. At high altitude and with the midday summer sun burning down, I almost died (I’m sure of it).
We were incredibly lucky that an opportunistic man with a large car had driven to the outskirts of the city in the absence of any taxis, but even he could only take us so far as the centre had been blockaded too. We had to walk the last mile or so up one of the steepest hills we’d ever seen in a city (think San Fran steep) with all our rucksacks to try and find a hostel with space.
3. Bolivian street food isn’t always on-the-go
Be careful when ordering certain street foods, not because they’re unsafe to eat, but because some cholitas (traditionally-dressed ladies who usually run the stalls) may expect you to sit and eat/drink them there and then. Most street stall owners can’t afford to give everyone a disposable plate/cup/cutlery, so they dish up their food on real crockery for you. Feels a little fancy!
For this reason, you can’t just walk away if you’re in a rush, so check first whether it is an option to buy it ‘para llevar’ (“pah-rah yay-bar”, as a takeaway). If it’s a beverage, expect to be given it in a plastic freezer bag with a straw!
4. Yapa is the best thing ever invented
This is a really interesting concept that only seems to exist in Bolivia. If you buy something like a fresh juice or some veg from a stall, some cholitas will entitle you to a yapa, or free refill/extra items of the same thing. It can be embarrassing asking, but cholitas are normally very forthcoming with offering it if they like the look of you. Always be nice to your casera!
5. You will get sick whilst backpacking in Bolivia
In all our time in South America, we’ve only met one person who didn’t get ill backpacking in Bolivia. We revere her like a goddess. Most of the sickness happens in La Paz, so be careful with the food and water (brush your teeth with bottled water and watch out for ice/salads at restaurants), and stock up on anti-flu and anti-diarrhoea tablets in your first big city.
We ended up so bad that we had to go to A&E our first night in Peru (more on that experience in the Peru guide!), and to be honest our stomachs were still acting dodgy 6 weeks post-treatment in Ecuador.
– Altitude sickness is common for those backpacking in Bolivia
On top of the stomach bugs, there is the altitude, which affects people in different ways. Andy only got bad headaches, and I had those plus stomach churns and the odd random nosebleed, but for some people it can leave them unable to get out of bed.
This kind of reaction is rare though, and there are plenty of things you can try to help altitude sickness pass – it will pass eventually, once you acclimatise. Locals swear by coca leaves (yes, the same ones they make cocaine with, so please don’t try and take these through airport security…), and if you don’t fancy chewing the raw leaves themselves, you can find anything from coca toffees to coca facial oil. Putting the raw leaves into hot water to make a tea is actually pretty nice and worked a treat for us to make sure our backpacking in Bolivia wasn’t ruined by sickness.
If you would prefer something slightly more peer-reviewed, most chemists will offer an anti-altitude sickness tablet.
Mostly, you’ll probably just feel out of breath the whole time you’re backpacking in Bolivia’s Western or Northern regions, so remember this when you plan your next big hike.
6. Stay aware to keep safe when backpacking in Bolivia
We’ve had some sketchy moments backpacking in Bolivia. There are a few things you have to be aware of to keep yourself safe. For one, this is the first country we’ve been to on our trip so far where illegal drugs flow freely amongst travellers, and people are extremely open about their motivation for coming to South America being to get as twatted as possible on cocaine.
Bolivia holds the majority of the world’s coca farms, so as well as being much stronger than the stuff you’ll be used to at home, it’s also incredibly easy to come by (though perhaps not as blatant as in Peru where you’ll be asked if you want coke in broad daylight by strangers at least 6 times a day).
Although the police in Bolivia are said by Bolivians to be mostly useless and definitely corrupt, one thing they do seem to enjoy is to chase down gringos with cocaine. Be smart.
Almost every traveller backpacking in Bolivia has some tale to tell of being robbed, and we are no exception. Unfortunately, you can never be too careful. Buses and bus terminals seem to be prime feeding grounds for opportunists – Andy’s cousin was distracted by an old lady babbling away while a man ran off with her bag in a terminal, and we’ve heard stories of bus passengers losing everything from their shoes to 35L rucksacks from underneath their bus seats.
If you have to sleep on a bus, make sure your bag is tied to something next to your feet and your phone and wallet are somewhere… impenetrable.
As always, only book hostels that provide lockers, and even when in a private room keep valuables locked away out of view. Our UE Boom speakers (perhaps our favourite possession) were taken by another guest in a dorm in La Paz, and we had £120 worth of cash stolen from within our rucksack in our private, double room in Torotoro. Salt to the wound was that the staff – the only other people with access to the room – vehemently denied any fault.
In groups, you should be fine on the streets, but avoid walking around at night if you can. As this is South America’s poorest country, even the most bedraggled of us travellers seem smugly wealthy to the people who live in breeze block houses without windows. You don’t need to carry much cash in Bolivia as things are so cheap, so keep your wallet skinny in case you end up on the wrong side of town.