And now for something completely different. The mainly Indigenous population of the poorest country in South America often lacks education and basic infrastructure. On the other hand, informal trade and outdoor markets are taking place everywhere. That should make your backpacking trip in Bolivia something of an adventure! Even more so if you get away from the usual tourists route and advance deep in the wilderness. Expect thick jungle, head-spinning Altiplano, rural communities and greasy food. We’ve put together this humble Bolivia tourism guide, with our tips and favourite destinations, to help you plan the best backpacking trip in that unique country.
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A few things to know before backpacking in Bolivia
Bolivia is different
A mainly Indigenous, traditional and self-sufficient society, Bolivia either scares or mesmerises. There are decisively less infrastructure for tourism here than in other South American countries; in fact, less infrastructure in general.
Mud roads, cold water and dry toilets are the norms. You’re expected to travel with your own toilet paper, as many WC don’t provide any. Very few people speak English, and a large part rather speaks Quechua or Aymara, the 2 main Indigenous tongues. For sure, some basic knowledge of Spanish would make backpacking Bolivia much easier.
It’s a South American country where the gods of Nature are still widely acknowledged, even prayed to; at the same time, there’s no environmental education and rubbish is dropped anywhere. Indigenous communities rely on medicinal plants, coca chewing, and Christianity laced with pagan beliefs and heavy drinking. You’ll find in markets, but also in some normal-looking shops, peculiar items that are used for witchcraft. If you’ve always been looking for a dried llama fetus, here’s your chance.
Gender roles are also pretty much set in stone: good luck finding a man working at a food cart. And if you ever see a woman driving a taxi in Bolivia, please do drop a word in the comments. Traditional clothing isn’t used merely for festive days and are very gender-defined (and defining).
We told you: Bolivia is different. We reckon it’s one of those countries that you either love or hate.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America
…or was at least, until Venezuela recently collapsed. Don’t expect to see many more beggars on the street though. Bolivia’s low GDP comes from the fact that society is still very rural and very traditional. Despite big incentives to modernise the country and develop the market, many families live in self-sufficiency.
For you as a traveller, it means that things will be exquisitely cheap. So it’s a great place to buy all those pretty, colourful Andean clothes you’ve seen on photos. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to hitchhike and couchsurf in Bolivia than in the rest of the continent; so the money you save on food and transport might well end up in more nights in hostels. Note also that Bolivian restaurants are on average slightly more expensive than in Peru.
Bus prices vary greatly, depending on the company you choose and when you buy the ticket. For example, a bus from Sucre to Potosí can cost either 20, 120 or up to 140 Bolivianos. The later you buy it, the cheaper it gets. It’s always possible to negotiate too, playing with the many companies doing the same routes; they’ll be eager to fill up their buses right before leaving.
The currency in Bolivia is Bolivianos. To help you plan your backpacking trip, here’s a list of average prices in Bolivia as of December 2019:
|Water bottle (33 cl)||4.90 BOB||$0.71 USD||0.64€|
|Cappuccino||16.40 BOB||$2.37 USD||2.14€|
|National beer||15.00 BOB||$2.17 USD||1.96€|
|Menu in cheap restaurant||20.00 BOB||$2.89 USD||2.61€|
|1 way in public transport||2.00 BOB||$0.30 USD||0.26€|
|Bus La Paz-Sucre||85.00 BOB||$12.30 USD||11.10€|
|1 night in a hostel dorm||55.00 BOB||$8.00 USD||7.15€|
Bolivia is the least built-out tourist destination in South America
During our backpacking travel in Bolivia, we felt it was easy to go off the beaten path if you’re adventurous; but also very easy to stick to the “gringo trail” if you aren’t. The gringo trail, in Bolivia, is Uyuni, Potosí, Sucre, La Paz and the Titicaca lake. And that’s it, then off to Peru.
If Bolivia still lacks a lot of infrastructure for its own citizens, imagine that you won’t find much outside of those places. Think fewer foreigners, less transportation from one place to the other, less accommodation options. While that can be very attractive to some of you, we know it might put off some others.
Altitude in Bolivia might be a problem
This is one thing you should really know about backpacking Bolivia. The Andes mountain range crosses the country, creating a vast area of high plateaus called Altiplano. The southwestern half of the country lives in the clouds, at 3,500 m (11,500 ft) and above. It includes the towns of:
- La Paz: 3,650 m (11,975 ft)
- Potosí: 4,090 metres (13,420 ft)
- Oruro: 3,735 m (12,254 ft)
- Uyuni: 3,656 meters (11,995 ft)
I want your attention here: there are risks associated with the altitude for travellers who aren’t used to it. Do not underestimate the altitude’s sickness, the soroche.
The effects are different from person to person, but they’re real. It might give you a headache, belly ache, nausea. It will always leave you short of breath. Some people even vomit or faint. In our experience, the effects usually show up on the 2nd day and last until your body gets used to it.
It’s therefore very important that you give time to your body to acclimatise. It means that in the first 24 hours (at least), you should keep your body activity to the minimum. Just have a nice walk, sit when you want to sit, smile. Even after that, never waste your energy by running or jumping.
To fight off the soroche, locals chew coca leaves. It’s not a bad idea, although the taste is disgustingly bitter. Here’s what to do in Bolivia against altitude sickness: Get yourself a small bag of leaves at any market and learn how to use them. Alternatively, you can make an infusion that you can sip all day long. We much preferred this.
Bolivia is safe
We don’t want to take the responsibility to declare that Bolivia is safe, and then you go and get mugged in a dark back alleyway of La Paz. We know you and your love for dark back alleyways! In any case, it’s always recommended to have a reliable travel insurance.
Truth is, Bolivia is safe. Even in La Paz, we never heard of dangerous muggings like in other big cities on the continent. There are pickpockets though, especially in El Alto, that upper part of La Paz (which is a city in itself) and in Cochabamba. Some bus routes are better taken by daylight, like the one between La Paz and Copacabana.
So in Bolivia like anywhere else, the usual rules apply. Don’t show off your valuables; keep an eye on your belongings; follow your instinct and wander off the crowded parts of towns only as long as you feel confident. Just to make sure and feel more confident, we always ask beforehand where we can wander or not in a city; and we stay aware of our surroundings when we’re walking.
It’s a tad more probable that you end up paying double price for things. In Bolivia and Peru, sellers often see gringos as rich Westerners who won’t mind giving away a few more dollars. That’s why we’re giving you the price table, so you know more or less what to expect. We also advise spending your 1st day checking how much things cost, to get an even better idea.
Prepare well before backpacking Bolivia
We advise you to be careful with what you eat and drink in Bolivia.
The tap water isn’t drinkable. Don’t try it. In order not to buy plastic bottles every day, there are several ways to have clean water for your daily consumption:
- water purification as tablets, liquid or powder: can be expensive over time
- boiling water during 1 to 3 minutes, on the previous day to give it time to cool; the water might take on a slight unpleasant taste
- portable water filter, that’s easy to carry and even easier to use
- filter bottle: that’s a normal travel bottle with a filter inside. Very handy!
Try any of these methods and we swear that, over time, they become a routine. A routine that can save you from many tummy issues!
For similar reasons, don’t rush to the first food stall or market kitchen, unless you’ve got an iron stomach. Have a look first at how clean the person keeps their (read: her) kitchen; that’s a good indication of how clean the produce are.
You might be shocked at how much rubbish there is. For lack of environmental education, people just leave their rubbish anywhere, preferably just outside their village/town; that’s a dreadful sight when you cross by bus. Fact is, people don’t seem to care much about their own direct environment. We found that they often put up daily with dirt and nuisance, eg. unfinished work in their home, with material lying around, etc. …for years.
Bolivia fun fact: remember also to always travel with your own roll of toilet paper. Many places in Bolivia just don’t have any.
On the other hand, if you’re up for street food, check our vegetarian street food guide for Bolivia.
Buses have improved a lot since I was first traveling to Bolivia in 2006. No more broken windows that need to be closed with a shoelace; no disgusting seats where all the world’s germs seem to have gathered; also no more chickens voyaging in the corridor; in fact, no more changing a wheel right in a mountain curve either, which is almost disappointing. (True story. Did I mention it was by night?)
Nowadays, Bolivian buses are fairly comfortable, reasonably clean and decently punctual. All that at once. There are always several companies doing the same routes, and as a general rule, all companies leave for the same destination around the same time.
Just like in Peru, there’s no need to book in advance, just show up at the bus station around 30 minutes before departure time; that’s when you’re most likely to get a good deal. Make sure you ask around the different companies that go your way and discuss the price.
Find more tips in our guide to bus transportation in South America
Bolivia gave us the hardest time with Couchsurfing; and we met other travellers who had a similar experience.
Maybe people there aren’t used to doing things for free; probably the concept isn’t so developed there, or Bolivians don’t have regular access to the internet; we certainly went to many places that are very touristy, and therefore not so CS-friendly.
We found hosts in Sucre and La Paz; but we had to choose a hostel in Uyuni, Potosí, Copacabana and on the Isla del Sol (on Lake Titicaca).
Still, while backpacking in Bolivia, we stayed in an unfinished house that was like a working site in Sucre; and were received like family members in La Paz.
Best time to visit Bolivia
The dry season is also the tourist high season and runs between April and October. It’s a period of clear skies, open roads and pleasant hiking conditions.
But it’s also the colder season, which can be particularly biting in the Altiplano, and especially at night. Keep in mind that most low to middle-range accommodations don’t have any heating, so either bring a thick sleeping bag or come another time.
The rainy season runs from November to March. It’s warmer without being suffocating; but it can also turn everything to mud and cut off roads in the lowlands and the Amazon. For the Uyuni Salt Flats tour, it means you get the pretty mirror effect but the island is closed.
The best time to visit Bolivia is at the end of the rainy season, before the crowds appear.
How much time in Bolivia?
So many travellers don’t see this country as a standalone destination; we know that many will want to see both Peru and Bolivia in 2 weeks. If you have only 14 days, we highly recommend you concentrate on either Bolivia or one half of Peru.
We advise to backpack Bolivia for 10 to 30 days. If you stay the shortest time, stick to the so-called “Gringo trail” and you’re sure to have your fair share of adventure already. If you stay longer, that leaves you more time to go deeper into off-the-beaten path places, like the Amazon jungle for example.
On the other hand, for a 3 weeks in Peru and Bolivia trip, we recommend you spend 1 week here and 2 weeks in Peru.
Start planning: Read our recommended 2-3 week backpacking Bolivia itinerary
Backpacking destinations in Bolivia
Uyuni Salt Flats
It’s difficult to write about the Uyuni salt flats without using the most extreme adjectives. See, I’ve started already.
The world’s largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni counts among the top destinations in South America. It’s like a sea of white that turns into a boundless mirror in the rainy season. It’s not a surprise that it’s among the most famous Bolivia tourist attractions; it should be part of your Bolivia backpacking itinerary.
So the question isn’t whether you should go but rather:
- what time of year to go;
- whether to take the 1, 2 or 3 day tour;
- and whether to do a loop or go to/from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Whatever you decide, we promise you will leave with the head full of beautiful images. The 3-day tour brings you to even more surreal landscapes that will make your head spin (also because of the altitude). The town of Uyuni itself is a mere stopover and offers nothing except muddy streets and cheap street food.
Potosí is a fascinating town with a fascinating history. Think that it was quite simply the richest town in the world in the XVIth century, producing around 60% of the world’s silver.
Nowadays, Potosí has lost its fountain of wealth but is banking on the tourism that flows from it. And yet, we strongly advise against visiting the mines in Potosí. There are still miners there, working in despicable conditions, losing their health and often their lives in the mines. We are convinced that it’s not a healthy attraction.
Instead, we really enjoyed walking up and down the winding cobblestone streets of old Potosí; recreating its past wealth through the facades of palaces and churches; and admiring the Cerro Rico, the sacred mountain of the Incas that became their death chamber when the Conquistadors arrived.
Keep in mind that Potosí is at 4070 m above sea level. You will feel it in your body so take time to acclimatise before running around.
Read more tips on backpacking Potosi
The 1st time I visited Sucre, more than 15 years ago, I fell in love with its clean white buildings and colonial charm. The 2nd time, I had to fall in love again with the peacefulness of its squares and the many viewpoints.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Sucre is the capital of Bolivia as stated in its constitution. It’s also a “white town” full of churches and universities and cosy cafes. Life seems to be so tranquil in Sucre, yet offering views that will leave you speechless.
Don’t miss the view from the roof of the church of la Merced and the one from Recoleta. Learn important facts about Bolivia in the Casa de la Libertad, on the main square. Have a meal at the vegetarian non-profit eatery on Bolívar street.
There are also some unique natural features near town, like Cal Orcko dinosaurs parks, or the otherworldly Maragua crater.
Read more tips on backpacking Sucre Bolivia
Like a pit of red lava made of bricks in a palpitating volcano. So is the view upon La Paz, the Bolivian metropolis, the city that is a constant outdoor market.
If you like the crowds, if you like life outside, traffic and people and eating on the sidewalk, you’ll love La Paz!
Make your way through the cobblestone streets around the Witches’ market; enjoy the parks and the residential life of Sopocachi; visit the various museums of fine arts, coca history and past civilisations; and then, quite suddenly, climb up to the Killi Killi viewpoint or take the cable car and enjoy the heavenly silent view from above.
From La Paz, there are also several day trips to Cotopata National Park, the Valle de la Luna or the Tiwanaku archaeological site. A day at the Valle de la Luna is also among the best things to do in Bolivia!
Read more tips on backpacking La Paz
We said it in our guide to backpacking Peru, the Titicaca Lake is simply magnificent. The highest navigable lake, it’s so large and so high in altitude, it looks like a sea trying to touch the clouds. That’s probably how many ancient civilisations felt too because it was revered as a sacred place.
The lake is divided between Bolivia and Peru. While the latter charms many tourists with the floating islands of Puno, Bolivia offers the small fishing town of Copacabana and the islands of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.
We strongly advise not only to visit the islands on a day trip, but also to spend a night there. Unless you’re visiting in the highest of seasons (which is always a bad idea), you don’t need to book accommodation in advance. There’s a lot of them on the Isla del Sol, for all kinds of budgets; down to the very lousy room with no heating and outdoor toilet. We live to testify.
You also don’t need to book a tour to visit the islands, unless you absolutely want to see Isla de la Luna too. There are direct boats Copacabana-Isla del Sol that cost a third of the tours.
Read more tips on backpacking the Titicaca Lake in Bolivia
Backpacking Bolivia off the beaten path
There are several options if you want to experience the Amazon in Bolivia; 400 km north of La Paz, the Parque Nacional Madidi is probably the most accessible. Having said that, the roads can close down during the rainy season (November to March).
The main town to access the park is Rurrenabaque, a small indigenous town on the Beni River. You’ll find there accommodation and jungle tours, or tips on nearby hikes if you want to explore on your own.
If you’re up for a more adventurous way to see the Bolivian Amazon, consider visiting Noel Kempff National Park, north of Santa Cruz. It’s even wilder; there are much less infrastructure but probably more chances to see jaguars, tapirs, river dolphins, mosquitoes, etc.
Make sure you plan enough time, as only the way there, often by motorised canoes, take considerable time.
Huayna Potosí Mountain
We read and heard everywhere that climbing the Huayna Potosí mountain was accessible also to beginners. Sometimes dubbed “the easiest 6000er in the world”, don’t get fooled though. It’s mainly because of its popularity: so close to La Paz and with many tours organising the ascent.
Fact is, the route includes 2 very steep sections, ice climbing and an exposed ridge. I didn’t know before what an ‘exposed ridge’ was: it’s basically walking on a foot-wide ridge with the void expecting you on both sides. If you’re afraid of heights, you shouldn’t even be reading this.
If you’ve never climbed before, it’s important that you prepare well. It’s also essential that you acclimatise well to the altitude before attempting the summit.
As with any tour, choose your company well. Visit several of them in La Paz to get a feeling, check their reviews online, don’t go for the cheapest.
Sajama National Park
Like an extension of the Lauca National Park in Chile is Sajama, high up on the Bolivian highlands. The landscapes of mountainous plateaus and alpacas prairies remind of the national parks between Uyuni and the Atacama in Chile. Except that here, you certainly won’t suffocate in the crowds; here is peace.
All you need is to get to the village of Sajama. From there, there are many trails that are regularly used by locals that offer beautiful hikes. You can see lakes, geysers, soak in hot springs and admire Bolivia’s highest mountain, Nevado Sajama (6,542m / 21,463 ft).
It’s a high altitude region, between 4,200m and 6,500m so it’s important to acclimatise well before any demanding hike.
WikiVoyage has everything you need to know about Sajama National Park
More than 1000 years before the Incas, the Tiwanaku inhabited the Bolivian Altiplano from Lake Titicaca to the Argentine border. This site, only 1,5-2h South-West of La Paz, was their capital city; the population around AD 800 is estimated at 10,000 to 20,000 people.
Nowadays, the site looks rather bare, also because it’s extensively built and there’s still an awful lot of excavation work to do. But some of the features –like the Gate of the Sun and that of the Puma– are fascinating and bring far back in time!
It’s easy to hop on a bus from opposite the cemetery in La Paz; just check the times beforehand. You can also take a tour that includes transport and a 2-hour guided visit of the site.
The laid-back city of Tarija is the perfect place to relax a few days after your jungle or Altiplano adventure. The region is home to the best Bolivian cuisine and is the largest wine producer in the country. Need I say more?
There are many very pretty churches in town and colourful baroque palaces; the most famous being Casa Dorada and Castillo Azul. Outside of town, the Coimata waterfalls, Lake San Jacinto and especially the Sama Biological Reserve are worthy of a day-trip. Don’t miss a visit to the vineyards if that’s something you’re interested in.
You’ll find enough hostels in the centre. Considering that it’s not a touristic destination, we really advise against booking in advance and paying an online fee. The cheapest hostels don’t have an online presence but they’ll be very happy to welcome you anyway.
Eco backpacking travels in Bolivia
We don’t want to bore you again with the same usual recommendations. We know you are a responsible traveller – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading Green Mochila.
Of course, you are respectful of the people you meet, although their culture is different from yours; even when they stare at you because you look different. We’re sure you don’t take photos of people without asking them first.
Of course, you discuss prices but you don’t haggle forcefully. Each object has its fair price; and that takes into account both what you can afford and what the seller needs to make a living.
You also avoid attractions that are ethically wrong. We’re thinking about the Potosí mines and the Death Road; in both places, people have died and are still dying.
The plague that is plastic
We really want to focus on that one. In Western countries, a sh*tload of plastic is used in supermarkets. In Bolivia where there aren’t many supermarkets, it’s much easier to avoid when you shop.
You just need to be ready with your own foldaway bags, your own reusable cup for takeaway drinks, your own cutlery for the food.
We recommend this full lightweight (and beautiful) responsible travellers’ kit from (RE)collective, an eco conscious startup from Austria. It includes all the items that we have on our eco travels: cutlery set, a bottle (that is a thermos actually!), cup, shopping bag. Use GREEN as a coupon code at the checkout for an exclusive 5% discount for Green Mochila readers!
And If you don’t have a travel bottle yet, you should really get one. One that isn’t in plastic because, once again, plastic is not good for you.
Please check again our eco travels tips for responsible tourism
Are you planning a backpacking trip to Bolivia? Do you have any questions about traveling Bolivia we’re not answering here?
Feel free to tell us in the comments!
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