One of the two land-locked countries in South America (Paraguay is the other), Bolivia is a must-see! The country is absolutely spectacular, has a really interesting history and culture, and is really affordable to travel around. For me, the landscapes of Bolivian Andes and the Uyuni Salt Desert were just as exciting as Iceland, which says a lot. But Bolivia exists in sort of a different world to what we are used to and it can be hard to adjust to its realities if you are not a seasoned traveller to the more remote parts of the world. So how do you prepare yourself for a trip to Bolivia? Here is my Bolivia Travel Guide and my 8 tips to keep in mind:
1. Don't Over-plan Your Itinerary
I have a tendency to book everything on my itinerary as far ahead as possible. Transportation, accommodation, and even things to do. While for some travellers this can be tempting, I really recommend holding off when it comes to Bolivia. There is a couple of reasons for this. First of all, things can change pretty quickly in terms of weather and transportation. You don't want to get stuck somewhere in bad weather, but even more so, you don't want to take a bus around the Andes during landslides.
Additionally, workers in Bolivia tend to strike a lot by creating roadblocks, which means you could get delayed. Finally, you just don't know how long you are going to want to spend in a particular place – give yourself the freedom to do Bolivia at your own pace. Accommodation and transport are nearly always available upon arrival!
2. Forget Your Expectations
I spent 4 months in Bolivia, and at first, it was a little bit challenging, thanks to my Canadian mentality that everything works at all times. This isn't necessarily true when you travel, but particularly here. The best way to have a smooth and enjoyable trip is to lower your expectations when it comes to things working out exactly how you expect. For example, if you order a Caesar salad and a chopped salad arrives – just enjoy it anyway! This is not to say that you should have low expectations for the country itself. Because Bolivia will definitely knock your socks off!
3. Visit The Really Touristic Destinations
Often, I recommend travelling off the beaten path, but Bolivia is not yet so overrun by tourists. This means that even the most touristic places are great options to visit, and they are popular for a reason. One of the absolute top destinations here is the salt desert or the Salar de Uyuni. It's an easy overnight bus ride from La Paz or Sucre – the country's administrative and constitutional capitals – or a short but expensive flight.
From the town of Uyuni, you have to get a tour, and I do recommend investing a minimum of 2 nights 3 days for this part of your journey. The salt desert itself can be done in 1 day, but what's truly fascinating are the landscapes beyond it.
4. Adjust To The Altitude
La Paz is one of the highest large cities in the world, sitting at 3,600 meters above sea level. The airport here is at an impressive 4,000 meters, while some of the top hiking and sight-seeing spots take you to altitudes higher than 5,000 meters. While this guarantees stunning views, it also means altitude sickness for most. I actually only got real altitude sickness in Peru, but still felt a little tired and slow when I first arrived in La Paz.
For those doing well with it, altitude sickness means you can only walk or talk at a given time and have some trouble sleeping; but if it really affects you, then vertigo, vomiting and shortness of breath are not uncommon. How to deal with altitude sickness? Make sure you take the sorochi pills the first few days in Bolivia or when going to spots that are particularly high up – they are available in all local pharmacies. You can also chew coca leaves or drink coca tea – it's not the tastiest, but it really helps. If you feel very sick, go to the hospital or try to get to a lower part of the city!
5. Catch A Local Festival
One unforgettable experience in Bolivia are the local carnivals. I didn't get to see the main one in Oruro but was lucky to be there for the Entrada de Guadalupe in Sucre. There are plenty of these in different cities, usually called entradas (entrance), just research if any add up with your dates. The events are completely breathtaking. Hours and hours of traditional costumes, dances and festivities, where groups of dancers parade on city streets. While you can see the parades for free, I was able to get tickets for the paid area for around $10 each, and it was a great experience since you get assigned seats.
6. Enjoy Delicious Fare With Care
I cannot stress this enough. For a pleasant trip around Bolivia, be very careful with what you eat. While some of the dishes are absolutely delicious, the hygiene can be very questionable. Not one to usually have any tummy trouble while travelling, Bolivia really got me on 3 different occasions. Sometimes it's the water that doesn't boil at the same degree as we are used to because of the altitude, other times it's the way the food is handled, or who knows what else.
But the best way is to make sure that you are eating at recommended places and everything you eat is well-cooked. Do not eat raw vegetables unless you can wash them with vinegar and opt for simpler meal options if in doubt. That said, do try the local empanadas called salteñas (they are only available in the morning), the silpancho (giant schnitzel-styled meat), and charque (dried meat served mainly in Santa Cruz).
7. Set Aside a Budget for Handicrafts
For someone who has stopped bringing home souvenirs at about country 20, this may be a strange tip. But the handicrafts in Bolivia are so stunning and diverse, that they will be hard to resist anyway. There is a multitude of indigenous groups living in Bolivia, who make up the majority of the country's population.
They have carried through their traditions to this day, which makes for a very diverse market of handcrafted goods. One of the main items include fabrics, which have beautiful hand-weaved designs from really great fabrics, including wool and alpaca. You can also find carved wooden sculptures, leather goods, and home decorations.
8. Stay Safe
While violent crime is not a big concern in Bolivia, there are some other things that you should consider when travelling here. The number one safety issue is transportation. Make sure you take both taxis and buses from reputable companies. For taxis, it's an issue of running into a scam. When it comes to buses, there are many windy and treacherous roads, so you want to go with a company that provides safe drivers and buses. Another tip for staying safe is to make sure you have health insurance for your travels.
Because you are likely going to hike in Bolivia, it's a good idea to have that back-up, plus you may experience altitude sickness or have an adverse reaction to some of the food. Finally, advise your embassy that you are in Bolivia, to make sure they are aware of your whereabouts in case of any emergency!
If you are preparing for a trip to Bolivia, then be prepared to be amazed! Do take the precautions and use the tips in this article, but don't overthink it either. It's the type of place that makes a lasting impression for the rest of your life. The landscapes, nature, the people, the many diverse cultures and languages, the different cosmo-vision of the country are all stunning. So take the leap, and head on over to beautiful Bolivia.