A favorite destination among backpackers and adventure enthusiasts, Bolivia is as rich in culture as it is complex in geography.
Along with having more indigenous peoples than any other country in South America (Evo Morales, elected in 2006, became the country’s first indigenous president), Bolivia is a country of great cultural and historical significance, with ancient Inca ruins, Andean peaks of bewildering heights and multi-day treks into the heart of the Amazon.
Whether you want to explore the mists of high-altitude cloud forests, spend days traveling across the seemingly endless salt flats of Salar de Uyuni or try your luck bicycling along the world’s most dangerous road, Bolivia is where travelers go to seek adventure and where the daring go to find new footing.
5 things to avoid:
- Bolivia is a yellow-fever zone; so take precaution against mosquito bites.
- Drugs are illegal and possession can carry steep penalties or even jail time.
- Some locals may be sensitive to having their photo taken, so it’s best to ask permission first or avoid it altogether.
- Avoid using public toilets and, if you must use one, bring your own toilet paper (don’t flush toilet paper down the toilet bowl, use the wastebasket).
- Avoid hiking alone at night.
- May-Sep: Rainfall: 0-2 in. Temp: 25-55 °F. The best time for visiting with high season in full swing. Sunny skies and temperate weather makes it a great time for biking, hiking, and climbing.
- Oct-Jan: Rainfall: 2-6 in. Temp: 30-60 °F. The rainy season can make travel difficult, especially through the lowlands; a great time to mingle with locals in the city.
- Feb-Apr: Rainfall: 5-5 in. Temp: 30-55 °F. With festivals across the country, there’s plenty to do during the country’s rainy season.
Local time is GMT minus four hours.
US citizens will need a visa to enter Bolivia, which can be purchased for $160 at any Bolivian consulate or purchased in person for $135 (cash, bank deposit in Bolivian consulate’s bank or by money order) when arriving by air or at any land crossing. Any visas purchased at land crossings must be made in cash and paid to immigration authorities. Allow plenty of time for processing visas at a consulate (2-15 business days) or make sure bring all the necessary documentation with you at the land border. Visas are valid for five years, with permission to enter the country three times in one year for no more than 90 total days.
According to the US State Department:
“In addition to the visa fee, you must present a visa application form with a 4cm x 4cm color photograph, a passport valid for at least six months, evidence of a hotel reservation or a letter of invitation in Spanish, round trip ticket or copy of itinerary, proof of economic solvency (credit card, cash, or a current bank statement), and an International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever.”
A few other tips:
- Make sure to get entry/exit stamps from immigration officers. If you’re left without an entry stamp upon entering the country, you may be forced to go back to your original point of entry to acquire one before being allowed to move on.
- Bolivia charges an exit tax if departing by air. Some smaller border crossing may ask for ‘exit fee’ but that is strictly prohibited, as the fee only applies to air departure. Be wary but respectful of border officials who demand an exit fee.
- When paying a visa in cash, bring exact change and be sure bills are in good condition.
Here are a few phrases you should know:
- Hello = Hola (o-la)
- Goodbye = Adiós (a-dyos)
- How are you? = ¿Qué tal? (ke tal)
- Fine, thanks = Bien, gracias (byen gra-syas)
- Excuse me = Perdón (per-don)
- Sorry = Lo Siento (lo syen-to)
- Please = Por favor (por fa-vor)
- Thank you = Gracias (gra-syas)
- You are welcome = De nada (de na-da)
- Yes = Sí (see)
- No = No (no)
- My Name is… = Me llamo… (me ya-mo…)
- What’s your name? = ¿Cómo se llama usted? (ko-mo se ya-ma oo-ste) / ¿Cómo te llamas?(ko-mo te ya-mas)
- Do you speak English? = ¿Habla ingles? (a-bla een-gles) / ¿Hablas ingles? (a-blas een-gles)
- I don’t understand = Yo no entiendo (yo no en-tyen-do)
Bolivians are very friendly and hospitable, with handshakes and hugs customary when greeting someone. Also, make sure to maintain eye contact when in conversation, or else you may be viewed as untrustworthy. Women should expect a strong display of machismo. In much of Latin America women are typically expected to dress modestly.
Big cities like La Paz have received a recent spike in crime in the past few years, especially against tourists. Be especially cautious when traveling at night or if you’re traveling alone. Avoid hiking or walking alone at night.
Women traveling alone should be particularly cautious; especially since solo female travelers in Bolivia are few and far between. Always call for radio taxi when it’s late at night, rather than flag one down on the street. A restaurant, hotel, or business can help call one for you.
Bolivia uses the Boliviano (B$). Banknotes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200. Coins (centavos) come in values of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50.
Look for casas de cambio (exchange offices) to change money, or if it’s after business hours, look for cambistas (street money changers) who often offer similar rates as the casas de cambios. Other places to exchange money include hotels, travel agencies and stores that sell tourist-geared items. Exchanging Bolivianos outside of the country can prove extremely difficult, so unless you want to keep them as souvenirs try to unload them before you exit the country. Whenever you exchange money for Bolivianos, always ask for small bills as finding change for a bill larger than B$10 will prove exceptionally cumbersome. US dollars are always in demand in Bolivia so, as a safeguard, keep some US currency in your bag for emergency purposes (and always in denominations of $20 bills or less).
ATM’s may prove difficult to find, though in larger towns you’ll be in luck. Visa, MasterCard, Plus and Cirrus are the most commonly accepted at ATMs, while Banco Nacional de Bolivia, Banco Bisa, Banco Mercantil Santa Cruz and Banco Unión are the most commonly used banks. As a general rule, always carry cash as the reliability of some ATMs cannot be guaranteed.
Visa and MasterCard are often accepted in large cities, hotels, restaurants and tour agencies. American Express, not so much, so it’s best to leave it at home.
Skype, Google+ Hangouts and FaceTime are still the best options when calling international, though there are call centers in La Paz in Calle Sagárnaga, for instance, where you can call for as little as B$2 per minute. International calls can range from B$1.50 to B$8 per minute. The country code is 591, but first you’ll need to dial 00 for international calling.
Mobile phones are readily available and easy to purchase from any kiosk or newsstand.
Pre-paid phone cards and SIM cards are readily available at any kiosk or newsstand.
There are many cafes, restaurants and hotels that come equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi. Rates tend to run between B$2-B$5 per hour. Smaller towns may charge more for their Wi-Fi use, and expect a much slower Internet connection.
Bolivia uses the two-prong, rounded outlets, operating on 220V at 50Hz.
Tap water is not considered safe to drink, so always drink from bottled water when possible. If you need to drink outdoor water, use iodine tablets or a water purifier.
Most locals will tip no more than 10% for good service. Tipping is usually not expected, unless you’re dining at a particularly nice restaurant. Taxi drivers are usually not given tips.
Though taxis are relatively cheap to use, some cities will have a set fare for each person no matter how short the ride may be. Radio taxis will charge a standard rate up to four people. Taxi drivers may try to convince you that they have no change, in hopes of keeping the extra cash, so be sure to carry enough small bills to cover the fare.
If you’re looking for a free walking tour, pub-crawl with fun locals and backpackers, a taste of Bolivia’s finest eats, or a historical pass around La Paz with a knowledgeable guide, then look no further than Red Cap Walking Tours!