Bolivia will surprise you with its mind-blowing scenery; snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes and moon-like valley. It’s got the world’s most dangerous road, a bright green lake and enough potions in the Witches Market to turn you into a frog.
This country isn’t the destination to come to for a suntan, it’s generally cold and rainy especially being at a high altitude so wrap up warm. The best way to explore this country is by 4×4 so team up with others or join a tour and cruise through the dirt roads of this diverse landscape.
It may surprise you to know that Bolivia actually has two capitals; La Paz the administrative capital and Sucre for judicial. La Paz is the highest capital in the world (3632 metres) and its honking traffic will either enthrall you or leave you running for the Coca Museum, (be careful when crossing the roads). Poverty is rife here and unemployed painters and craftsmen regularly sit in the main square with homemade signs waiting for someone to give them a few hours work. Bullet holes in the walls of the main square are a reminder of the 33 protesters who were shot dead during the 2003 demonstrations over tax increases which left another 200 injured.
The biggest attraction is the capital has got to be the Witches Market – a spooky little place with potions, skulls and dead frogs but if you want even spookier, there’s an old colonial cobbled street where locals won’t venture out at dark in fear of seeing the resident ghosts.
Only ten miles outside the city in Mallasa is the spectacular Valle de la Luna, meaning Valley of the Moon with unusual eroded rock pinnacles. If you’re lucky, you may hear the sounds of a flute echoing through the valley adding to the magic of this lunar landscape.
The colonial city of Sucre has a more relaxed feel and the ‘White City’ has the largest collection of dinosaur prints in the world. You can take a tour from here to the famous Death Road where you can cycle the sheer cliffs that have taken many lives. If the most deadly road in the world doesn’t appeal you can cycle your own mini version of these treacherous dirt roads to nearby waterfalls, (hire a bike from your guest house). Sucre is very much a locals place so you may prefer company here and bear in mind that they have siesta so restaurants close for the afternoon.
Close to Sucre is the mining town of Potosi which differs to the other towns and feels very remote. Here you can take a tour into the silver mines after a pit stop to the miners market to buy coca leaves (the plant of the Incas), biscuits and dynamite for the miners! The conditions here are very poor and the average age of a miner is only fifty years old. The locals here speak Quechua, a language that has been used since the Inca times. Over two thirds of the population are indigenous and work in agriculture but spirituality is important part of the culture and they still worship Pachamama (Mother Earth) as they did back in the times of the Incas.
The highlight of Bolivia are the Uyuni Salt Flats. These blinding white surfaces are the world’s largest salt flats and are literally are a sight for sore eyes (you’ll definitely need your sunglasses here). They are off the beaten track and can only be explored on a 4×4 but are well worth the 14 hour journey from La Paz (shorter from Potosi). It’s a spectacular sight of salt lakes and lagoons and there’s even a nearby salt house made entirely out of – salt! Uyuni also has a large train cemetery which is worth a look if you’re into your history.
The Bolivian Altiplano is a photographers dream. Taking a 4×4 is the best way to see the pink flamingos, bubbling geysers, red lakes and volcanic rocks as well as the famous Condor Rock all with a breath-taking backdrop of volcanoes and snow-capped mountains. The scenery even appears to change colour from orange to green at Laguna Verde (the green lake). You even get to drive through the ash of an erupted volcano as you cruise to the hot springs before descending back to normal altitude.
Bolivia also shares the ‘Sacred Lake of the Incas’ with Peru. Lake Titicaca is more of an ocean than a lake and is home to the colourful Uros people who live on floating islands made out of reeds. They accept visitors onto their islands and you can help sustain their way of living by buying handmade tapestries. Visit the beautiful Sun Island for the labyrinth of the Chinkana Ruins, Moon Island for the mystical ruins of the Sun Virgin’s Temple or the stone necropolis on Kalauta Island. Copacabana, the main island on this magnificent lake is the most religious shrine in the country but there’s not really much to see here. If you only visit one island make it the islands of the Uros people.
Being part of South America we can’t forget the Amazon jungle, and the East of Bolivia is teaming with wildlife and some areas of the rainforest are virtually unexplored. Beni is in the lowlands of the country and covered in dense rainforest with numerous lakes and savannahs. Pando was once the rubber capital of Bolivia and is completely covered in jungle. Taking a boat trip to Chalalan is a must do and is reachable from the River Beni (ride takes 5.5 hours). Here you can see the Madidi rainforest and monkeys and bats.
Other places to see are the garden city of Cochabamba and Tarija for its laid-back vibe and nearby wineries.
Bolivia is the perfect country for the intrepid explorer with Inca heritage, Amazon rainforest and scenery amongst the best in the world and because is so cheap, you can afford to stay longer than you thought…
Visit Uyuni between April to October when the salt flats aren’t flooded.
Be careful of altitude sickness. Coca tea can help alleviate the dizziness.
The roads in Bolivia aren’t the best and getting around can be an experience. Fly between towns and cities for ease with a TAM South America Airpass. There is a Bolivia bus-train that will take you from Sucre to Potosi. It’s a converted bus that runs along the railway which is quicker (the actual bus will take 4 hours) and cheaper. When choosing your transport use established companies and when travelling from Copacabana to La Paz try to use direct buses.
If you are looking for a recommended guide, interpreter, or private driver for La Paz try Servantrip. They connect travellers with local professionals which is ideal if you are travelling alone. They also offer guides and drivers and interpreters in Santa Cruz.
If you are feeling apprehensive about travelling solo, sometimes taking a tour for part or all of your trip can give you the confidence you need before going it alone. G Adventures are a sustainable company who offer overland tours in Bolivia. You can also combine their adventures with Peru to see more of South America. I have personally used G Adventures and recommend them as a solo female friendly company.
From the Airport
* Resorthoppa operates a cheap airport shuttle that will take you to the city centre or your hotel.
La Paz – It’s 8 miles to the city centre and takes 20 minutes in a taxi for £5. The bus is cheaper at only £1 and takes 45 minutes into the city stopping at Prado.
Cochabamba – It’s only 2 miles to the city and will cost £2 by taxi or less by bus.
How long do I need?
Two weeks to see La Paz, Moon Valley, Sucre and Potosi and Uyuni.
Travelling onwards (check visas before you travel)
To Chile – Overland is definitely the best way. San Pedro de Atacama is the closest Chilean town in the Atacama Desert and you can get to this border by train from Uyuni or bus with Green Toad Bus or through your tour company. (Be prepared to have your bags checked here).
To Peru – Copacabana is 5 miles from the Yunguyo border town and is a relaxed crossing. Or Desaguadero to Puno in Peru (will take two hours).
To Paraguay – The easiest way to cross here is to fly with TAM Mercosur or Argentinian Airlines. The land border is from Santa Cruz to Asuncion in Paraguay. You can take a bus from the bus terminal to the border but it is a lengthy journey and can be known to take from 7 hours not including road closures or bus breakdowns.
To Brazil – Corumba is the most popular crossing or use San Matias, accessible by bus from Caceres (a 2 hour journey). Take the boat from Guayaramerin to Rio Mamore in Brazil (from La Paz and other towns by bus) or reach Rio Branco through Cobija, also by bus from La Paz.
To Argentina – The main border crossing is from Villazon to La Quican in Argentina. Buses run from various Bolivian towns to Villazon and there’s an express train from La Paz. Or try the lesser known crossing from Aguas Blancas to Salta in Argentina (in 5 hours).
- Can I drink the water? No.
- Is tipping expected? Yes 10-15% in restaurants, not for taxis.
- Fixed price or barter? Barter only at open markets or with taxis.
- Any ATMs? Only in the bigger cities. Take US$ to change.
- Which side of the road do they drive? Right.
- Good for vegetarians? Not great.
- Any seven wonders of the world? No.
*This is accurate at time of writing but we appreciate things can change. Please let us know if you experience anything otherwise. Thanks.