Planning a trip to a new destination, while exciting, can also be a bit stressful! You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can lead to making avoidable mistakes. But learning a few things to know before traveling Bolivia can help avoid potential misfortune.
TOP THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING BOLIVIA
English is not widely spoken
You would think this goes without saying, but I’m always surprised by how many English speakers (especially Americans) think everyone just speaks English also. So right off the bat it’s important to know this is not the case for Bolivia.
The majority of people we interacted with knew little to no English. We even took our Uyuni salt flats excursion with a solely Spanish-speaking crew. This worked fine for us because we had just finished taking four weeks of Spanish classes in Peru.
But if you don’t currently know any Spanish, it will be important to learn some basics before you visit Bolivia.
You may need a visa to visit
This, of course, depends on the nationality of your passport. Up until January 2020, U.S. citizens had quite the process (and fee) for obtaining a tourist visa. Thankfully the requirements have now been relaxed significantly.
Of all the things to know before traveling Bolivia, this may be the most important. It would be a pretty awful trip if you couldn’t make it past border control! Be sure and check the requirements for your nationality as part of your trip planning process.
The altitude can be a problem
Bolivia’s highest elevation point is over 21,000 feet (6,500 meters), which puts it easily in the top 15 among all countries. And if you’ve never spent time at extremely high altitudes, you may be in for a surprise. Many people experience the symptoms of altitude sickness when visiting Bolivia.
Symptoms can include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, etc. Basically a laundry list of things that aren’t welcome during your vacation!
However, there are some things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms. Such as avoiding strenuous exercise (okay, twist my arm), ascending hills or stairs slowly, drinking LOTS of water, limiting alcohol (yeah right) or using the local cure…coca.
And if you want to stay on the safe side, you can see your doctor before your trip and get a prescription for altitude sickness pills (we did).
Bring toilet paper everywhere
Remember, Bolivia is a still developing and relatively poor country. Toilet paper is often either not provided at all, or only upon request (and for a fee). Even many accommodations we stayed in did not provide toilet paper, whether remote areas of the country or in the city.
Therefore, I highly recommend picking some up upon your arrival and carrying a roll with you at all times. If you wind up not needing it, great. But you will sure be thankful for that gift in your bag when you do need it!
Cash is king
While credit cards are accepted sporadically (nice hotels, supermarkets, etc.), the vast majority of transactions in Bolivia happen in cash. ATMs, however, are readily available in the cities. But don’t expect to find one in the more remote areas of the country, or smaller pueblos.
Therefore, it is wise to ensure you have enough cash during your trip. Especially if you plan to adventure around the less populated areas of the country (which you should!). Withdraw cash in the city before you leave to ensure you have enough if no ATMs are available.
Don’t drink the water
Like many countries in South America, the tap water is generally not suitable for drinking in Bolivia. In fact, we were advised to use bottled water for brushing our teeth as well. Which means part of your trip will revolve around sourcing clean water.
Unfortunately you won’t find safe public water sources around Bolivia. So purchasing bottled water is the only way. Luckily it’s easy to find and inexpensive.
Ensure the seal is intact when buying bottled water, especially from street vendors. It’s not unheard of for them to refill the bottles with tap water and sell them.
The temperature can vary greatly
Bolivia is a country with a lot of varying terrains. During my time there, I saw mountains, deserts, lakes, volcanoes, and more. The elevation can also vary greatly from one place to another. So it’s important to prepare for the elements, depending on what activities you have planned.
We visited during Bolivia’s winter (in June), and while temperatures during the day were warm (tank top weather even), it was absolutely freezing at night. During our Uyuni jeep tour, we slept in huts with no heat. I slept in clothing layers, in a sleeping bag, with blankets piled on top and I still shivered myself to sleep.
So, depending on your itinerary, be sure to check average temperatures and plan accordingly!
Bolivia is extremely affordable
Whether food, transportation, or accommodations…Bolivia is an incredibly affordable country.
I tracked every trip expense we incurred along the way, and the numbers really show how affordable travel in Bolivia is. My overall food and beverage averaged to just under $16 per day. Total transportation costs were just under $11 per day. And, the real kicker, accommodations averaged just under $10 per day.
With all expenses considered, I averaged $60 per day in Bolivia. You can barely get a hotel room in the U.S. for that, let alone everything else! And I didn’t skimp, either.
Generally a safe country
When it comes down to it, Bolivia is a fairly safe country. However, like all countries, there still exist a few “bad apples” that can ruin your day. While it’s always a good idea to keep your personal safety in mind, the most likely crime to befall a tourist in Bolivia is certainly petty theft.
As with anywhere you visit, there are some important things you can do to keep yourself (and your stuff) safe. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t flash anything like fancy cameras, or cash. And always keep your belongings close to you.
Expect something to go wrong with your plans
In Bolivia, strikes and protests are quite common. The wet weather season can also wreak havoc on roads and bus travel. Buses and trains will run late for no apparent reason. And as we learned from our own experience, your flat may flood in the middle of the night, or important communications regarding a booked tour may just not happen.
It’s incredibly frustrating at the time. However, if you know this in advance and expect for something to go wrong, the better off you’ll be. Have a little humor and enjoy the ride!
Restaurant service is SLOW
Remember this is coming from an American (hi). And while I won’t get into our ridiculous tipping culture, it does mean we become accustomed to very speedy service. That is not the case in a lot of places around the world. And it was especially true in Bolivia.
Basically don’t wait for your server to see you need anything. If you need a menu, get up and ask for one. If you’re ready to order, stand and wave to get their attention. When you’re ready to pay, get their attention again and let them know.
It’s especially hard for Americans, because that behavior would be considered quite rude in our culture. But I assure you it is not rude in Bolivia. Everyone does it. And if you don’t (like we did many times until we learned), you will sit there waiting FOREVER.
Beware of fake policemen
One well-known and commonly used scam in Bolivia is impersonating a police officer to target tourists. And falling for this scam can be quite costly for a traveler.
While there are variations in application, at the core of the scam is that you are approached by someone claiming to be an undercover policeman. They will request you give them your passport (so they can check your visa), or they may even state that you must accompany them to the station.
At the end of the day, the scammer is hoping you will believe them and comply. And that they will be able to take off with your passport, valuables, or more.
Never just hand over your passport. It’s a good idea to carry a photocopy, for situations just like this. If they refuse the copy, ask them to contact your country’s embassy. Or request that a marked police car shows up.
WiFi is not the greatest
As we visited Bolivia during a gap year trip, having wifi along the way was important for us. We frequently needed to check in with family and friends, figure out and book the next leg of our trip, and even occasionally be lazy with Netflix.
But that can be a bit of a problem in Bolivia. Accommodations and tourist hot spots will typically provide wifi, however, it doesn’t always work. Or when it is working, a turtle would outrun it. Another quirk of exploring a lesser developed country.
Be sure to plan ahead for any important travel documents. Take pictures, or save copies to your phone. Then if you find yourself without a reliable connection, you at least have the important stuff covered.
Ground transportation within Bolivia is inexpensive
Whether in cars, buses or trains, Bolivia is pretty inexpensive to get around by ground transportation. Uber is available in major cities, like La Paz, and it was common for us to have rides that cost the equivalent of $1 (some even less!).
We also took a four hour bus from La Paz to Oruro (where we caught a train to Tupiza) that cost $9 for two people. I can’t even take a 30 minute train ride in my city for that.
Given the low cost, it’s quite cost-effective to explore the more remote parts of Bolivia away from the city. And it’s so worth it!
Coca is everywhere
Meaning coca leaves and coca products are everywhere. Cocaine is made from coca (and a variety of other ingredients), and is highly illegal in Bolivia. I wouldn’t even go there. However, using the coca leaves for a variety of ailments is quite common.
Chewing the leaves is said to help with altitude sickness, upset stomach, providing energy, and more. When in Rome, right? Give the straight leaves a shot, and if you don’t like that (I didn’t), there are plenty of other coca products (candy, drops, etc.) to try.
You will need sunscreen
Remember that whole really high elevation thing? Well naturally that means you’re closer to the sun in Bolivia. And trust me, the sun can be quite intense there (and I was even visiting in winter).
Especially if you are not someone who gets regular sun, you’ll want to be sure and protect that skin. Bring sunscreen, a lip balm with SPF, and use them both every day. Your skin (and trip photos) will thank you.
There are many homeless street animals
They aren’t dangerous, at least not in my experience. However, the amount of homeless street animals can be alarming. Especially if you have not experienced it in another country before.
Many will tell you to avoid touching or petting stray animals in other countries. And that’s probably solid advice.
However, that’s not me. I just can’t help myself – street animals need love too. I planned in advance and told my doc I would be petting all the animals, and took some precautionary vaccines. And I’m happy to report that nothing bad came of it. Aside from all the stray dogs in other countries that I now want to adopt!
When using cabs, always agree to a price before departing
We mainly tried to use Uber whenever possible to avoid this, but sometimes taking a cab is unavoidable. However, cabs in Bolivia aren’t metered. Which means the driver can charge as little (or as much) as he pleases.
I like to think most people are good. But we all know there are some who aim to take advantage of tourists who don’t know any better. To protect your wallet from unintended consequences, be sure and agree to a price with the driver before departing to your destination.
And if you aren’t sure what a fair price would be, try using the Uber application to get an estimate.
Bolivianos are not worth much outside of Bolivia
The local currency of Bolivia is called the Boliviano. The exchange rate tends to hover around 7 Bolivianos to $1. Given that and the overall affordability of the country, your money goes far.
However, after using cash constantly during your Bolivian travels, make sure you exchange your Bolivianos before leaving Bolivia. We did not, and had quite a hard time getting rid of what we had left. Exchange centers would either offer a laughable exchange rate, or refuse to take them at all.
You may need proof of vaccinations to enter
It’s always a good idea to stay up-to-date on routine vaccinations (measles, flu shot, etc.) before traveling to any destination. However, in Bolivia, it’s possible you may need additional vaccinations.
It is recommended that most travelers visiting Bolivia get Hepatitis A and Typhoid. This is because you can catch either of these through contaminated food or water in Bolivia.
Additionally, depending on your travel plans while in Bolivia, you may need to take malaria medication, get a rabies shot, or a yellow fever vaccination. Check up on the current recommendations at the CDC website.
If you are traveling in parts of Bolivia where a yellow fever vaccination is required, you will receive a “yellow card” as proof of your vaccination. DO NOT LOSE THIS. Border agents can ask for this proof before allowing you entrance into Bolivia.
Looks can be deceiving
Like many countries in South America, the streets of Bolivia look quite rough and tumble. There’s spray paint tags and graffiti everywhere, minimal cleanliness, a very questionable electrical wiring system, and more that can be a bit off-putting upon arrival.
However, don’t let that rough exterior scare you! As I mentioned above, Bolivia is a very safe country. However, it’s also a relatively poor country. They simply don’t prioritize funding for keeping everything looking nice for the tourists. Look past that, and embrace the local culture.
I hope these insider tips will help better prepare you for your Bolivian adventure. It’s always best to learn from someone else’s mistakes!
However, please don’t let anything that can be perceived as negative cause you alarm. While these items are good to know, they aren’t deal breakers (in my opinion), and you shouldn’t let them get in the way of an amazing trip.
Bolivia surprised me in SO many ways. And it was certainly one of my favorite countries I have visited!
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