This beautiful landlocked country is often over looked by visitors to South America in favour of its more colourful and better developed neighbours. But for the fascinating culture alone, Bolivia is well worth a visit.
The country has enough idiosyncrasies to drive you mad but I say this not to put you off, rather to forewarn you and encourage you to go. After all the challenge is all part of the experience in this country.
Here’s 10 interesting facts about Bolivia that you need to know before you go.
1. Prepare for altitude sickness
Most of Bolivia’s top places to visit are well over 2500m above sea level. The capital La Paz stands at 3500m, Sucre at 2750m and Uyuni at 3656m.
Flying in will give you the biggest shock to your system as the main airport of El Alto is even higher at 4000m. Travelling overland will be slightly less harsh as the acclimatisation will be more gradual.
Altitude sickness symptoms can be likened to a bad hangover and can make travellers’ first few days of a visit to Bolivia a write off.
Most people’s bodies adapt within a few days though so just don’t plan much during that time. It is also quite cold at altitude so take appropriate clothing with you, or be sure visit the many markets and stock up on some snazzy knitwear.
2. Coca leaves are legal in bolivia – but don’t take them out!
Coca leaves are chewed or drank in tea liberally in Bolivia and are legal everywhere in Western South America.
They are a widely recommended by locals as a remedy to alleviate altitude sickness symptoms amongst a variety of other ailments including digestive symptom diseases and childbirth pain.
You will see most Bolivianos with a ball of coca leaves stuffed in their cheek which they bite down on frequently to release the active ingredients.
The taste is strong but not offensive, similar to a harsh green tea. In this natural form, alkaloid content is very low and does not produce a high.
However, in many countries outside of Bolivia there is no differentiation between the leaf and cocaine so don’t try and board a plane out of South America with any. Coca leaves are also illegal in Brazil and Paraguay.
3. The internet in Bolivia is terrible
The internet infrastructure in Bolivia is extremely underdeveloped. Only 5% of Bolivian homes are online as the commodity is an expensive one costing 17% of the basic minimum wage in the country.
There are internet cafes and increasingly wi-fi in most hostels but if connections are painfully slow. So don’t plan on backing up any photos to your cloud, downloading programmes to watch or uploading any videos to your You Tube channel on your visit to Bolivia.
I’m speaking from experience – you’ll be there forever. It’s only really good enough to use for social media and emails but if you need to do anything more your best bet is to use it in the very early morning when less fellow travellers are desperately trying to connect.
4. Bolivia is cheap as chips
This perhaps one of the most attractive reasons for visiting Bolivia and it applies to everything (except the internet).
Food, transport and accommodation in Bolivia were the cheapest we experienced in the whole of South America by a long way.
You can get a hearty meal down at the market for under £1 and whilst it might not be the most exciting dish you’ve had you definitely won’t be hungry.
A typical ‘menu del dia’ is a two course meal combo of a hearty bowl of meat and quinoa stew followed by a plate of meat, with rice or potato and vegetables, often with a fried egg on top.
Eating in Bolivia is a very social affair with patrons sharing tables and locals walking by often wishing you ‘buen provecho’ as you are eating.
You can expect to pay around £5/6 for a hostel bed in a dorm room and we paid £8 each for a 10 hour semi-cama bus journey. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience mind as it didn’t have a toilet on it!
Don’t forget to barter for goods on the markets too, it’s part of custom in Bolivia and you’ll be looked at quite strangely if you don’t partake.
5. Don’t drink the water
There are varying views on whether the water in some cities in Bolivia is safe to drink or not. My advice would be not to risk it.
There is little point in being holed up in bed suffering from stomach problems when bottled water is so cheap, especially if you’ve just gotten over altitude sickness!
Try the bags of water that you will see everywhere are even cheaper and better in my opinion as you know they have not been tampered with – it is not unknown for bottles to be refilled so always check the seals.
6. Bolivia has some unconventional toilet habits
Toilet paper is not provided in Bolivia so be sure to always have some in your pocket or bag so you don’t get caught short.
The same as in many South American countries, don’t put it in the toilet, the sewage systems can’t handle it and last thing you want is a stinking blocked toilet next to your dorm room.
It’s a developing country and so it’s not uncommon for many places to have manual flushing toilets that require a bowl or water tipping down them and some are squat toilets too.
Also if you are going on any kind of tour outside of the cities, there will likely only be ‘banos natural’ available.
7. Road safety is poor
Bolivia’s road safety record isn’t great. There are two reasons for this; road networks are poorly maintained and drink driving is prevalent.
We met someone who’d had to take over driving of the jeep on a tour he was on because the driver was extremely inebriated and subsequently proceeded to pass out in the passenger seat!
So just be careful when you are booking tours and trips, thoroughly research the reputation of the company you are using and try to travel during the day between places. Visibility is better and drivers are also less tired.
As a general rule the mini-vans are safer than the big buses as they have better traction on the roads. Also don’t be afraid to question the condition of your driver and if in doubt don’t board, your safety is worth more than losing £8.
In La Paz there is a particular road user issue but this is due to gridlocked traffic.
Taxis and trufis (mini-vans with touts leaning out the door working as communal taxis) stand bumper to bumper, horns blaring all day long.
Your best way to get around in La Paz is either walk or use the cable cars.
They have awesome views too.
8. Strikes are disruptive and common
Either through acts of protest or as a directive from the government, strikes and shut downs are common and disruptive in Bolivia, particularly in the capital of La Paz.
Whilst we were there we witnessed a national election and not only was the consumption of alcohol prohibited, so was use of transport. This meant that for two days leading up to the election day and for that day we could neither leave La Paz or purchase a ticket to leave for when the strike was over.
Everything was in complete shutdown, it was like a ghost town with pockets of activity only around polling stations. But hostels with western tourists usually get away with the restrictions and so you can likely still buy a drink where you are staying.
If transport is stopped because of a protest it affects travellers in the form of how long it can take buses to get in and out of the basin city of La Paz, as roadblocks are formed on the perimeter lips of the city.
Be sure to check foreign travel advice but if it happens whilst you are there just accept you have been unlucky and know that it will pass in a few days.
It is very unlikely to affect flights out of Bolivia; however beware you may struggle getting to the airport.
9. Beware of police scams
Here’s the thing, in Bolivia you can openly buy fake police uniforms on the market and tourists are an easy target for fake police scams.
It goes like this – a ‘police officer’ will approach you and ask to see your passport, you dutifully hand it over thinking you are doing the right thing and they leg it. With your passport.
Another scam is a ‘police officer’ will ask you to accompany him to the station only for an ‘unmarked police car’ to pull up – do not get in this, the aim is to isolate and rob you.
We never experienced or heard of anyone being targeted in this way whilst we were in Bolivia but as a precaution we always left our passports in a safe at the hostel and just took photocopies out with us.
If it does happen the advice is to either hand over a photocopy, just walk off and get back to your hostel as quick as you can or demand to speak to your embassy.
Petty theft is not uncommon in Bolivia, it’s a poor country, but as with anywhere unfamiliar to you don’t walk around flashing your camera about or with lots of valuables on you.
10. Bolivia has a peculiar culture
This is one of the reasons that Bolivia is so endearing to visit. Many indigenous women still wear traditional dress in the form of a ‘pollera’ skirt and bowler hat, be wary when trying to capture a snap though as many shy away from camera believing that photographs steal a part of your soul.
Shoe shiners in the street conceal their identities by wearing balaclavas which can appear rather sinister to a first time visitor.
It is also custom to pour the first drop of your drink on the floor as an offering to ‘Pacha Mama’ (Mother Earth).
Further eccentricities can be found in the witches market where dried llama foetuses are sold to be buried under houses for good luck.
The dried llama foetuses.
So if you planning a trip to South America, these 10 interesting facts about Bolivia should help you be prepared for what’s to come.
Be sure not to miss out on this crazy, fascinating country, it was an unexpected highlight of our travels through the continent and we can’t wait to go back one day and explore more of it.
If you have any questions about travelling in Bolivia that I haven’t answered here or you want some help or suggestions for planning a trip please get in touch!