Travel

Traveling to Bolivia: What You Need To Know

The funny thing about traveling is that you never know where the inspiration for your next adventure can come from. While in Patagonia (an area in southern South America) I met a kindred spirit. A sole traveler like me, a woman from Germany who loved adventure. We shared pictures of our travels and that’s when I saw it. The rugged landscape, the vivid colors, and the pristine natural beauty of Bolivia. I had to see it!

A little background on Bolivia: Bordering Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay in South America, it’s famously known for the Uyuni Salt Flats, which are the largest salt flats in the world! Formed over thousands of years from dried-up lakes, they span just over 4,000 square miles. The national language of Bolivia is Spanish, but don’t worry if you aren’t fluent, most tourist areas accommodate English speakers.

How to get there:

View from airplane over Bolivian skies
  • Flight: This is probably the easiest way to travel to Bolivia. I recommend flying in to La Paz and spending a few days there before traveling to the Uyuni Salt Flats.
  • Bus: You can take a bus into La Paz from Peru. Bolivia Hop (link?) offers cheap bus tickets to La Paz.
  • Tour guide: If you are visiting Atacama in Chile, then your tour company may offer tours to the Uyuni Salt Flats. This is typically a one-way trip. Once you arrive at Uyuni (the main town of the salt flats), then you can take an overnight bus ride to La Paz.

When to travel:

If your main reason to visit Bolivia is visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats, then you have two choices of when you want to go — the wet season or the dry.

Wet season in Bolivia
Reflective water
  • Wet season — The benefit to visiting in the wet season (November to March) is that the salt flats become a mirror and you’re able to capture amazing reflective photos. However, the downside is that traveling to the salt flats can be treacherous and unpredictable because of the rain. The SUV’s that you’re traveling in can get stuck in the salt, if the water is high enough.
  • Dry season — The benefit to visiting in the dry season (April to October) is that you’re able to capture different perspective photographs.
Dry season picture effects
Pam, Thanh, and I

My recommendation is to travel in April, because you may still get to see parts of the salt flats that were wet and experience the mirror effect. Also, you’ll see a majority of the flats in their purest and most beautiful salt flat form.

The weather is also mild in La Paz and Isla del Sol (if you plan on traveling there) during this time of year. It’s the perfect weather to walk around and enjoy the city, with highs in the 50s F and lows in the 40s F.

How long to travel:

To visit the Uyuni salt flats by itself is at least a three-day trip. Adding La Paz and some surrounding areas, I think 7 to 10 days is ideal.

Also, consider the time to acclimate to the altitude. La Paz and Uyuni are roughly 3600 meters above sea level (just over 11,000 feet!). And when you land in Alta, which is the highest area in La Paz, you’ll be at 5,000 meters above, which is 16,400 feet. To put that in perspective, Denver is about 5,000 feet high, so you’ll be traveling to a city over two miles above sea level! So be ready to feel sluggish and short of breath coming off the plane. But don’t worry, within a 2-3 days, your body should acclimate. I’ve listed some tips and treatments on how to better acclimate below.

Where to stay:

To keep this trip affordable, my friends and I stayed in a highly rated hostel based on reviews on www.booking.com.

3600 Hostel — This hostel was fantastic! We paid a little extra to get our own room and bathroom, which was clean. The hostel itself had a warm and cozy home-style feel to it. It’s also easy to meet other travelers as the center of the home is where the living room, dining area, and kitchen are in an open floor plan. The staff was kind and always accommodating. Breakfast was more like a continental breakfast, but if you bought eggs or food from the market, you were more than welcome to use the kitchen. We paid about $40 each (3 of us) for 4 days. But keep in mind that they only take cash (Bolivian or USD).

Where to eat:

Traveling to underserved countries can be a death sentence, gastronomically speaking. However, eating in La Paz is safe. My friend, Thanh, bought a street pastry, which he enjoyed without harm.

Here are two of my picks and must haves in La Paz.

Veggie empanadas from Pacena La Saltena
Veggie empanadas!
  • Pacena La Saltena — Delicious empanadas! They make vegetarian ones, which was the reason I tried them in the first place!
  • Cafe del Mundo — If you’re craving a little piece of home, then check out Cafe del Mundo. They serve a variety of dishes including sandwiches, soups, salads, and many local favorites.
Street Market in Bolivia
Check out those avocados!

The Street Market — Local women will bring their produce to these streets to sell, and one particular item of interest was the avocados. Two words come to mind when thinking about the street avocados of Bolivia: Massive and cheap! One avocado was less than $1 USD. Not to mention, they were also the most delicious, green, and creamy avocados ever. One avocado lasted several days without spoiling. Talk about fresh! We made, by far, the cheapest and most flavorful avocado toast yet.

If you want to find more deliciousness, TripAdvisor is an awesome reference!

Things to do:

Valley of the Moon, Bolivia
Valley of the Moon

Ahh, where to start! The great thing is that there is so much to do here. First thing’s first — ACCLIMATE to the ALTITUDE! I would take the first day or two to just enjoy walking around La Paz. La Paz is a large and beautiful city, and there’s a lot to see. Some parts of the city are industrialized with high rises and colorful buildings. Below, I’ve listed things to do.

  • El Alto: Highest part of La Paz. Also, the area where the airport is located.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Lake Titicaca
  • Valley of the Moon: Fun and interesting area to see!
  • Uyuni Salt Flats: The highlight of the trip. There’s so much to say about the Uyuni Salt flats, so please check out my separate article highlighting the trip and recommendations.
  • Isla del Sol: Stunnning! Lake Titicaca is the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Tid bits to know:

Should you take cash? — Yes! Bolivia isn’t a credit card friendly country just yet (or at least it wasn’t in 2018). So most places will only accept cash (Luckily there are ATMs around). If you’re at a hostel, the staff members there can give you recommendations on where to get cash exchanged. They are also helpful in spotting counterfeit bilIs, which are plentiful in Bolivia. Banco Mercantil Santa Cruz is a reliable bank and conveniently found all around the country. I am a Chase customer and I could withdraw cash from their ATM.

How to adjust to altitude? — Coming from Houston (at sea level), it was rough even walking off the plane. Thankfully, it took me only three days to adjust, so just be patient.

  • Walk slowly (at first) — Especially if coming from somewhere much lower in altitude. A higher altitude means thinner air and less oxygen. When you exert yourself in these conditions without first conditioning your body to the altitude, you’re likely to experience altitude sickness (With fun symptoms like nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, and/or dizziness). It’s best to rest if you feel any of these symptoms.
Picture of coca tea
Coca Tea
  • Drink lots of water! At these higher elevations, you’re breathing more, which means you are losing water through your breath. So stack up on bottled water as soon as you reach La Paz (local grocery stores should work). I suggest keeping a 1 liter bottle with you as you travel around during the day.
  • Drink coca tea or chew coca leaves — This is actually an ancient remedy practiced today in most of the Andean cultures across Peru, Chile, and Bolivia.
  • If the symptoms mentioned above persist, then stop by any pharmacy and ask for Diamox or medicine for altitude sickness. This along with hydration and rest will get you back on your feet in no time.

Do you need a visa? — Yes! Getting a visa for a US citizen isn’t straightforward at all. In fact, I suggest being on top of this at least a few months prior to your trip. I wasn’t aware that we needed to get a visa in advance, so I had to scramble a few days before to get it taken care of.

  • You must fill out a form online and submit. My suggestion is to print a copy and take it with you to the Bolivian Consulate. Bring paper copies of everything that is required for the visa, including the passport size picture.
  • Visiting the Consulate is the best and most reliable way to expedite getting the visa. If there isn’t a Consulate near you, then you may also mail the documents in.

Shopping:

The Witches Market is a great place for souvenir shopping. I listed a few items to look for below.

  • Silver — Bolivia is known for its silver. I bought a small silver chain for about $10, and it hasn’t tarnished.
  • Bolivian stone — This is a beautiful gem. It’s called Ametrine, which is a mix of amethyst and citrine. The stone is a colorful blend of purple and yellow. You’ll see the local women sell jewelry made of these stones and also just sell the stone on its own. I bought a pair of earrings I wear often. These make for great gifts.

Total Cost of the trip:

Bolivia is not only one of the most beautifully unique countries I’ve visited, but also to my surprise, one of the most budget friendly. Usually a seven to ten-day trip to a foreign country can easily cost over a $1,000, including airfare. For Bolivia, the total trip (airfare, hotel, and attractions) costs less than a grand. If you aren’t used to traveling, believe me this is a deal!

Here’s my cost breakdown:

Lodging: $40 per person

Tours: $200 (Uyuni Salt Flats) + $30 (Bolivia Hop) + $10 (tip for Free Walking Tour)

Transportation: $450 (flights — we booked at least 5 months in advance when we found a deal) $20 (Taxi to/from airport) $10 (Taxi to/from the bus stop)

Food: ~$50 for the week

Shopping: ~$50 (souvenirs and jewelry)

TOTAL: $860.00

Conclusion:

I can’t express how much I loved visiting Bolivia and how underrated the country is. For the affordable amount your paying, you get to see the world’s biggest hidden gem. It’s by far one of my favorite places to travel to, because of the kind people, breathtaking landscapes, and genuine culture. I hope this article gave you some insight, helpful tips in planning your amazing vacation, or maybe even gave you the inspiration to go! You won’t be disappointed!


Sample itinerary

Day 1: Arrive into La Paz, Bolivia, and explore the area you’re staying in.

Day 2: Explore more of the city. Try to get more acclimated to the altitude. Stay hydrated!

Day 3: If everyone is feeling well rested, then book a day trip to see Isla Del Sol.

Day 4: Last-minute things to see in the city. Pack and rest up and take the overnight bus to Uyuni to get ready for the Uyuni 3 day tour.

Day 5-7: Uyuni 3 day tour, returning Day 7 morning. If you book a flight back that morning, then the tour bus will make a stop to the airport before it reaches the bus stop.

Day 8: Depart from La Paz.

Safe travels!

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