Bolivia travel guide

Bolivia travel guide


2 minute summary

Bolivia encompasses two of the South America’s biggest draws: the Andes and the Amazon. The highlands are the brutal crown, capped with blinding salt, dusty desert, exhausted volcanoes and high-altitude lakes. These harsh landscapes are softened by colourful Aymara attire, long-lashed llamas and the bustle of a market in a city plaza.
Descending into the valleys, the climate becomes springlike, water erupts from the rocks and brown scenes turn deep green – giving way to true jungle, wrapping travellers in a restorative blanket of heat and humidity after the chill, arid Altiplano. The oxygen rich Amazon replenishes lungs leaden from the thin air of the Andes.
This extreme land is a raw, rugged response to Latin America’s shiny metropolises and well-trekked tourist trails, rewarding those who venture here with glimpses of another world, a bygone era, the magic that once enticed explorers and chiefs of ancient empires. Our Bolivia travel guide lifts the lid on this bursting treasure chest.
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What we rate & what we don't


Our best & worst of Bolivia holidays

Underrated

The Pampas Sucre Lake Titicaca Torotoro National Park

The Pampas

The Amazon rainforest is as phenomenal as you’d imagine – for the experience of being in a rainforest. If you want to see wildlife, you need to move all those pesky trees – and that’s where the Pampas comes in. Out in the grasslands, anacondas, capybaras and caimans are abundant – while pink dolphins and piranhas splash around your boat. Magic.

Sucre

Bolivia’s constitutional capital is overshadowed by the chaos that is La Paz, yet it couldn’t be more different. Whitewashed, leafy and peaceful, it’s reminiscent of Andalucia, and at 2,800m altitude it has the perfect springlike climate, between jungle heat and the Andean freeze. Markets and indigenous culture still abound – but so do cute cafes and pretty plazas.

Lake Titicaca

South America’s largest lake sits at over 3,800m altitude, straddling the Peru-Bolivia border. The islands of Sol (sun) and Luna (moon) are a jumble of Inca ruins; take a boat to the islands and their Aymara residents. Stay overnight to witness one of the most breathtaking sunrises you’ll ever see – and you’ll understand why the Inca believed this to be the birthplace of the Sun God.

Torotoro National Park

One of Bolivia’s smallest parks, Torotoro has remained off the tourist trail so far – which makes discovering it all the more wonderful. Its treasures are geological, archaeological and historical, with over 2,500 dinosaur footprints etched into its karst landscape; a cave huge enough to house waterfalls and blind fish; a lush, tropical canyon and flocks of macaws and parakeets.

Rated

The Amazon Salt flats La Paz Combining countries

The Amazon

There’s something about being immersed in the lungs of the world that never ceases to enchant. And you are truly immersed – ancient trees in the virgin rainforest stand 60 or more metres high. Squeals and hoots fill the chokingly humid air, and indigenous communities along the riverbank will show you how to harvest – sustainably – from this natural larder.

Salt flats

Bolivia’s most recognisable landscape is a salt crust stretching over 10,000km2, distorting all perspective. At 3,656m above sea level it’s also bitterly cold, with blisteringly fierce sun and blindingly white. But this brutality makes it all the more fascinating – and you’ll marvel at the Aymara communities eking out a living in the surrounding villages and the cacti-filled “island” of Incahuasi.

La Paz

La Paz, at a lung-busting 3,800m altitude, makes you rethink your idea of “capital city”. Forget malls and offices, this indigenous stronghold is a colourful chaos of bowler-hatted ladies and witches’ markets selling all manner of ancient potions, all against a vertiginous backdrop of buildings scaling the seemingly vertical Andean slopes.

Combining countries

Bordering four of South America’s best-loved countries, plus the more off the beaten track Paraguay, Bolivia is well placed for an overland adventure. These are some epic border crossings – the Altiplano past volcanoes into Chile and Argentina, through the Amazon into Brazil and across Lake Titicaca into Peru. Leaving Bolivia til last lets you acclimatise at a sensible pace.

Overrated

Drug tourism Hunting Super budget travel The Golden Arches

Drug tourism

The coca leaf may be a legal and longstanding symbol of Bolivia’s indigenous culture, but its potent derivative, cocaine, is most definitely not. However, from the notorious drug bars of La Paz, to covert cocaine tours in the jungle, it’s easily accessible. But if the thought of Bolivian jail isn’t enough to put you off, then the human trafficking and violence resulting from it definitely should.

Hunting

There’s only one way we like our wildlife – and it’s not skewered, skinned or roasted. Some tourists would disagree, however, and hunting – of leopards, peccaries, monkeys and more – is becoming big business in the Amazon. However, it’s also illegal. Tours are not publicly advertised, but if you notice anything that hints at a hunt – report it.

Super budget travel

Bolivia is by far the cheapest destination in South America, with rooms available for a couple of quid. But rather than going ultra shoestring, why not use this as an opportunity to treat yourself to what you might not be able to afford elsewhere? Bolivia has a largely impoverished population, and travellers scrimping on the Bolivianos won’t do much to help.

The Golden Arches

After more than a decade of trying – and failing – to turn a profit, McDonalds left Bolivia in 2013. It turns out that Bolivians – who have plenty of their own tasty, freshly prepared street food – weren’t keen on this imported, tasteless, artery-clogging alternative. Poncho-wearing president Evo Morales was also rather delighted to see the back of this symbol of capitalism and colonialism.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local on your Bolivia holiday

Eating & drinking in Bolivia


Salteñas and empanadas are filling street food – a kind of Bolivian Cornish pasty.
Lowland areas in particular enjoy free range beef from the ranches, cheap, abundant tropical fruit and freshwater fish.
Wholefood fans may go crazy over quinoa – but it’s a humble, staple food for Andean folk.
Traditionally, to make chicha maize beer, corn was chewed and spat out to speed up the fermentation process. Nowadays, the chewing is left out – but it still tastes rancid.


Beer to be drunk in the lowlands is bottled at a higher pressure and labelled tropicalizada. Be sure not to open one in the Andes – you’ll get drenched!.

People & language


South America’s heartland; around two thirds of Bolivia’s population is indigenous – as the long black braids, huge, colourful skirts and ubiquitous panpipes prove. Quechua and Aymara are the two main groups, mainly inhabiting the highlands; the Amazon is home to the Guaraní, Tacana, Ayoreo and Chimán, amongst others. Spanish is spoken by most Bolivians, though not all, and English is rarely understood outside of tourist establishments – a great chance to practicar tu español!
Ask a Quechua their name: ¿Imataq sutiyki?
“Cheers!” in Quechua: “¡Ukyaykusun!”
The Aymara language unusually describes the future as being behind us – and the past ahead.

Gifts & shopping


Ayni Bolivia, in La Paz, sells certified Fair Trade items such as alpaca scarves, traditional textiles and woodcarvings. They support native craftspeople and promote indigenous skills.

Tin is one of Bolivia’s main exports, along with silver. The markets around Potosí in particular sell items of jewellery made of these metals, along with other trinkets and household items.

Mate de coca is a coca leaf infusion, widely believed to alleviate altitude sickness. Quaff all you want, but don’t try and take it home; it’s illegal in most countries.

Fast facts




Bolivia is named after the “Great Liberator”, Simón Bolívar, who founded Bolivia after helping it gain independence from Spain in 1825.

How much does it cost?


Potosi Silver Mine tour: £9.60

Death road mountain biking: £69

Salteña on the street: 46p

Entry to the Coca Museum, La Paz: 90p

Local beer: £1 for a half litre bottle

A brief history of Bolivia


Long before the Inca Empire crept south from Peru, the Tiwanaku civilisation ruled the Bolivian Andes. The city of Tiwanaku, located between Lake Titicaca and modern day La Paz, was the spiritual centre of the empire between 400 and 900 AD; impressive ruins are today a legacy of the astonishing architectural and engineering skills. The empire broke up in 1,000 AD but it was another four centuries before the Inca conquered the region, holding power for just a few decades before being defeated by the Spanish in the 1530s. Bolivia’s extensive silver deposits were soon discovered, and the Spanish flooded in to seek their wealth. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Top box: Vicki Brown] [The Pampas: Vicki Brown] [Sucre: Madeleine Deaton] [Lake Titicaca: Vicki Brown] [Torotoro NP: Gaumut] [The Amazon: Vicki Brown] [Salt flats: Vicki Brown>] [La Paz: Senorhorst Jahnsen] [Combining countries: Lisa Weichel] [Drug tourism: Jimmy Harris] [Hunting: Brian Gratwicke] [Super budget travel: Robert Cutts] [The Golden Arches: Mike Mozart] [Eating & drinking: Clyde Robinson] [People & language (if room): Geraint Rowland] [Gifts & shopping: jinyookim] [How much does it cost?: Erik Cleves Kristensen]
Written by Vicki Brown
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