Bolivia is a beautiful, geographically diverse, multiethnic, and democratic country in the heart of South America. It is surrounded by Brazil to the northeast, Peru to the northwest, Chile to the southwest, Argentina and Paraguay to the south. It shares with Peru control of Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca), the world's highest navigable lake (elevation 3,805m).
Sometimes referred to as the Tibet of the Americas, Bolivia is one of the most "remote" countries in the western hemisphere; except for the navigable Paraguay River stretching to the distant Atlantic, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked nations in the Americas. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of its population being of pure Native American ancestry.
Bolivia's climate varies drastically with altitude and from one climatic zone to another. It ranges from humid and tropical to cold and semiarid. In most parts of the country winters are dry and summers are somewhat wet. Despite its tropical latitude, the altitude of cities like La Paz keeps things cool, and warm clothing is advised year-round. The summer months in Bolivia are November through March. The weather is typically warmer and wetter during these months. April through October, the winter months, are typically colder and drier.
The following nationalities will not need a visa for short stays of less than 90 days as tourists: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany,Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vatican City and Venezuela.
Canadians do not need a visa to visit Bolivia but can only stay a maximum of 30 days without a tourist visa and 90 with a tourist visa.
Visitors from countries from Group 2 can obtain a visa on arrival for a fee of around USD100. This fee is estimated in UFV (UNIDAD DE FOMENTO DE VIVIENDA) and it costs 300 UFVs (according to INSTRUCTIVO ITA/ESFP/DGFM No. 0097/2015). Banco Central de Bolivia calcultates UFVs to Bs rate every day.
Alternatively, obtained at a Bolivian consulate in advance, the visa is free (photo, yellow fever vaccination, photocopies of some passport pages, etc.). It takes between five minutes and 24 hours to obtain the visa at the consulate. The visa is for 30 days. Extensions are possible at immigration offices in Bolivian cities, but not at immigration offices at border crossings. An extension for 30 more days costs BOB210. The immigration office in La Paz is pretty busy and bureaucracy and photocopies rule the day. You will need a photo of yourself and photocopies of a few things, depending on who you talk to. Then you need to come back 24 hours later to pick up your passport. Extensions in smaller cities might be less hassle. Depending on how many days more you need to stay in Bolivia, you might be better off overstaying your visa and paying a fine at the border (BOB20 per day). This way you also save a page in your passport. All prices are as of June 2013.
The following nationalities normally cannot obtain a visa on arrival: Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chad, East Timor, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, under urgent and special circumstances, foreigners in this group can obtain visas at the port of entry. US citizens will normally receive a triple-entry visa valid for 3 entries per year over a 5-year period.
Holders of Indian passports can obtain a visa on arrival or advanced at any Bolivian Embassy or Consulate - the visa will not take more than 24h to be issued and most times are issued on the spot, as long as the applicant presents the following documents: passport, photos, itinerary of travels in Bolivia, photocopy of credit cards and hotel reservations. And Indians also walk away with no visa fees (gratis visa).
Note that all business travellers and persons wishing to stay longer than 90 days in a year must obtain a visa in advance.
Unless you are under the age of 1, you will need a yellow fever vaccination certificate to apply for a visa.
Arriving overland from Peru, US citizen tourist visas can be obtained at the border. Officially, they require a visa application form, a copy of the passport, a copy of yellow fever vaccination (no longer needed in spring 2016), a copy of an itinerary showing departure from Bolivia, evidence of economic solvency (usually credit card suffices, or a printed statement, but they rarely ask for this), a hotel reservation or written invitation, and a 4cm X 4cm or "passport sized" photo (they sometimes take photos there so the photos may not be required). A USD160 fee (as of August 2015) is also required, payable in freshly minted cash. Any old or marked bills will not be accepted. There are photocopy machines at border crossings. They also may ask for a second copy of the passport in order to get the entrance stamp. Allow at least 30-45 minutes to get through from exiting plane to getting baggage. Another 20-30 after getting baggage to leave the airport.
Arriving overland from Chile on 4WD tours from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni in Bolivia, US citizens can obtain a visa at the Hito Cajon border crossing. As of April 2017, a tourist visa can be obtained at Hito Cajon with a valid passport, one copy of passport, yellow fever vaccination proof, two passport sized color photographs of the applicant, and $160 in good-condition US dollars. The copy of the passport and the photographs will be taken by Bolivian immigration control.
Air travel is the obvious way to get to Bolivia, the main airports are located in La Paz to the western side of the country and in Santa Cruz to the east. The arrival plan must be based mostly in the purpose of your visit to the country; you have to remember that La Paz receives most of their visitors due to the immense culture and heritage from the Incas and other indigenous cultures from the Andean region, and therefore from La Paz it is easier to move to the Tiwanaku ruins, Oruro’s carnival, Potosí’s mines, Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, Los Yungas valley and the Andes Mountains; since La Paz is the seat of government all the embassies and foreign organizations have their headquarters in the city, which is useful in case of an emergency. On the other side, Santa Cruz with a warmer weather could become a good location for doing business visit other alternatives in tourism like the Misiones, the Noel Kempff Mercado national park or visit the eastern cities. There are also some foreign consulates in Santa Cruz. But don’t forget that the cities in the south and central Bolivia, like Cochabamba, Tarija and Sucre also offer a very rich experience; there are several ways to get to these cities from La Paz or Santa Cruz.
Following on from Aerosur's demise in September 2012, the best options from Europe to Bolivia are now with Air Europa or Boliviana de Aviacion from Madrid to Santa Cruz. Other connections can be made in neighbouring countries such as Brazil or Peru, or in the US. The cost could go from €1000-1200 to other higher prices depending on the class and duration.
From Latin America
Airlines that fly into Bolivia from other Latin American countries include LAN from Santiago via Iquique and from Lima, and TACA Perú from Lima to La Paz. Amaszonas flies from Cuzco to La Paz. Avianca flies from Bogotá to La Paz. TAM Mercosur flies from São Paulo and Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz via Asunción. Copa Airlines has begun to fly to Santa Cruz from Panama City. Gol Airlines (from São Paulo and Campo Grande, Brazil) and Aerolineas Argentinas (from Buenos Aires) also fly directly to Santa Cruz. Boliviana de Aviación flies from Buenos Aires and São Paulo to Santa Cruz.
There are departures from Miami to La Paz and Santa Cruz on American Airlines. Connections are also possible on Latin American airlines such as LAN, Copa, Avianca, and TACA.
Once you have your international flight booked, it's far easier and cheaper to organize your internal flights from the point of departure.
There are many train lines in Bolivia, each with varying degrees of quality and efficiency. However, adequate transportation via train can be found.
Empresa Ferroviaria Andina runs the Oruro-Uyuni-Tupiza-Villazón (on the Argentine border) as well as routes near El Alto, Potosí, Sucre and Cochabamba. Ferroviaria Oriental operates the Santa Cruz-Quijarro (on the Brazilian border) and the Santa Cruz-Villazón (on the Argentine border) service.
Watch your belongings.
It is common for tourists to travel through a land border at the north-east of Chile/ South-West of Bolivia.
Keep in mind that only about 5% of all the roads in Bolivia are paved. However, most major routes between big cities such as Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba and Sucre are paved. A 4x4 is particularly required when off the flatter altiplano. Be aware that in mountainous regions traffic sometimes switches sides of the road. This is to ensure the driver has a better view of the dangerous drops.
An international Driving Permit (IDP) is required but *most* times EU or US driving licences will be accepted. There are frequent police controls on the road and tolls to be paid for road use.
There are many options for travelling from Argentina to Bolivia by bus. Check out the Bolivian Embassy's website in Argentina for specific options. There is also a bus that runs from Juliaca and Puno in Peru to Copacabana, and also shuttles.
From Brazil there is a painful 30+ hours bus from La Paz to Guayaramerín. Be aware that the border controls are only during the day, and that if the Bolivian side is fixed schedules, the Policia federal has scarce hours on the weekend and also during schedule times they might tell you they are busy etc so plan in abundance.
It is common for tourists to arrive in Bolivia by boat, by navigating from the port city of Puno, Peru, over Lake Titicaca.
Transportation strikes (bloqueos) are a common occurrence in Bolivia, so try to keep tuned to local news. Strikes often affect local taxis as well as long-distance buses; airlines are generally unaffected. Do not try to go around or through blockades (usually of stones, burning tires, or lumber). Strikers may throw rocks at your vehicle if you try to pass the blockade. Violence has sometimes been reported. Many strikes only last a day or two.
There is a government website with a live map showing which roads are closed or affected by landslides.
Buses in Bolivia are a nice cheap way to get to see the beautiful scenery while travelling to your destination. Unfortunately the buses often travel solely at night. There are different types of buses: "bed bus" with fully reclining seats and leg platform (bus cama), "semi-bed bus" (semi cama), normal. Keep in mind that roads are occasionally blocked due to protests, often for several days. So ask several companies at the terminal if you hear about blockades, unless you are willing to spend a few days sleeping on the bus.
Bus travel is usually pretty cheap. Estimate that it will cost you about USD1 for every hour of travel (it's easier to find travel times online than actual price quotes). Prices do change based on supply and demand. Sometimes you can get a deal by waiting until the last minute to buy. Hawkers are constantly crying out destinations in the bigger bus stations cajoling potential riders to take their bus line. You can find up-to-date information at Bolivia Schedules. There is a negligible tax for using bus terminals, you pay it as you leave.
Usually you have to "check-in" your big bags for the travel - they get a tag and get to the baggage compartment and you get a copy of tag. Overhead reading lamps and air conditioners on buses rarely work (if at all). There usually technically is a WC on board, but it's never open. Rather the bus stops in some predefined "stations" for WC (baño) and eating. On longer journeys they'll start some movie on TV in the bus - most are brutal ones. Sometimes (usually when leaving) people gather around or enter the bus to sell food (cuñape, salteña empanadas, pollo) to the travellers. At times "brainwashers" enter the bus to sell some books (i.e. health-related) - they tell (using their "plastic" voice) people different things to persuade them to buy their stuff.
On average, bus companies are not-that-great to decent, but some are just really bad. It is recommended not to travel with Urus, as they drive less safely than others, and include many many stops which unnecessarily prolong the ride.
Flying within Bolivia is quick and fairly economical.
On some routes, the roads are in such a dire condition that the train becomes the alternative of choice. Trains are more comfortable than one would expect, having for example reclinable seats. The trip from Oruro to Uyuni is especially beautiful, with the train going literally through an Andean lake on the way. This train is especially good for trips to the Salar de Uyuni. Likewise, the train eastward from Santa Cruz is great for accessing the Pantanal. Trains go to both the Argentina border (from Oruro and from Santa Cruz)and the Brazilian border (from Santa Cruz).
Coming from La Paz, you need to take a three hour bus ride to Oruro to catch the train. You best book your tickets a few days before your trip. In La Paz booking office is at Fernando Guachalla No. 494, at the corner with Sánchez Lima (between the Plaza del Estudiante and Plaza Abaroa). Main stops are Uyuni, Tupiza and Villazon, on the Argentine border. Travel times may be found here.
Between Santa Cruz and the Pantanal it is more straightforward to organize a trip. Just go to the Terminal Bimodal in Santa Cruz (see the Santa Cruz page for details), or the train station on the Brazilian border in Puerto Quijarro. The train is also convenient for trips to the Jesuit Missions. Trains also run south from Santa Cruz to Yacuiba on the Argentine border. Check the website for timetables for both these trains.
Shared taxis are common for longer trips between towns and cities that aren't served by bus.
Bolivia has 37 official languages -of which Spanish (often called Castellano), Quechua, and Aymara are the main ones. In rural areas, many people do not speak Spanish. Nevertheless, you should be able to get by with some basic Castellano. Bolivia is one of the best places in which to learn or practice your Spanish because of their very clean, deliberate accent. There are many options for studying Spanish in Bolivia, and they are usually very good (often, the program includes a very good homestay component).
Sustainable Bolivia is an organization that co-ordinates volunteers and grassroots organizations in Riberalta, and also offers Spanish, and indigenous languages classes. You can live in a house offered by Sustainable Bolivia, stay with a family, or live in a hostel while volunteering or taking classes.
CAUTION: As of May 2015, it is almost impossible to change US dollars that have the slightest tear or marking, even at the airport. Banks supposedly have to accept them, but locals advise that some banks take 20% discount for such bills. Make sure your dollar bills are crisp and new. USDs are NOT widely accepted in hotels, tourist shops, and for large purchases, anymore.
The national currency is the boliviano (BOB). As of January 2010, the exchange rate is generally USD1 = BOB6.97 or €1 = BOB10. Banknotes come in denominations of BOB200, BOB100, BOB50, BOB20, and BOB10; coins are in BOB5, BOB2, and BOB1 and BOB0.50, BOB0.20, and you will find sometimes BOB0.10 (ten centavos or one-tenth of a boliviano). Bills larger than BOB50 can be hard to split, but a quick phone call or internet session at an Internet Café (see #Contact, below) will usually get you change.
If you take a bank card with you, make sure your bank card can be used abroad (ask your bank if you are not sure). You don't need a credit card - debit cards work too. If you find your card doesn't work and you are running out of cash, think of your relatives wiring you some money via, eg, Western Union. You also can remit to Bolivia using online services such as WorldRemit (USD) or Azimo (BOB).
Currency can be exchanged for US dollars and most South American currencies at Casa De Cambio agencies or street vendors. Expect to negotiate for a favourable exchange rate, as most vendors will try to make money off a tourist.
Banco de Credito (BCP) is a good bank to take cash from. Banco Union should be avoided if possible as it charges a 5% surcharge (as of May 2012), although they do not make any mention of this. Banco Fie doesn't charge any extra fee on atm withdrawals but it lets you take only up to BOB2000 at time (March 2014), it has branches in all bigger cities.
Some notable Bolivian dishes:
Street food and snacks:
Mid-Morning snacks typically consists of any of several of meat-filled buns:
Many people also start off the day with some concoction involving fruit:
Vegetarians will find decent to very good options in Gringo-places around the country. But also at market places, there are good vegeratian options on offer (usually potatoes, rice, fried egg and salad for about 7Bs.) In bigger cities, there are some (decent to good) fully vegetarian restaurants.
Juice bars appear at most markets. Shakes (either with water or milk) are 2-3Bs. Locals can be seen drinking Vitaminico, an egg, beer, and sugar concoction or "Vitima" which includes coca leaves.
The legal drinking/purchasing age is 18, however enforcement is lax. But in bars and clubs, expect harsh treatment if you're not the legal age, as the age limit is a lot more enforced in those places; bar and club owners can get fined.
Tarija is located at 1924 meters above sea level, and is known for its wine-making, vast vineyards, and award-winning wines. Hence you can visit and taste wine at its beautiful wineries, such as: Campos De Solana, Kohlberg, Casa Vieja, Valle De Concepción, and Casa Real, where the famous Singani is made.
Offering a favorable exchange for Western tourists, lodging can be found at very reasonable prices throughout the country, from hostels to luxury hotels. One traveller to Bolivia reports that during a 4 week trip in 2012 they stayed mainly in hostels with the average rate per night c. USD6.50. The most basic accomodation facilities are Alojamientos (at BOB20/25 per night).
While Bolivia is one of the poorest nations in all of South America, this country is rich in culture, natural beauty and wild animal diversity. One possibility to work in here is as a volunteer. Whether you want to express your love for animals or support the local community, you will get plenty of opportunities to do good in this country. To get an overview over all the volunteering possibilities in Bolivia, it's best to visit a comparison platform.
Apply common sense and take precautions that apply elsewhere. All tourists should be careful when selecting a travel guide and never accept medication from unverifiable sources. At night try to use "radio taxis" as fake cabs are common and robbings and even rapes do occur. It is a good idea to register with the consulate of your country of residence upon entry into the country. And it is also helpful learn at least basic Spanish to keep yourself a little safe.
Beware of a scam involving 'non-uniformed' policemen asking for your passport and permit; official policemen will always be satisfied with a copy of your passport and a copy of your Bolivian visa on your passport. In the event that the con-artists requesting this get aggressive do not hesitate to scream, yell, or do something to attract the attention of passers by. This will usually be enough to scare them away.
The 'improvements' made to Yungas Road (the famous highway to death) have made the experience of traversing it go from emotionally harrowing to finger-biting, and Bolivian bus drivers seem all too confident when crossing it. Make sure to look for a reputable driver/bus line from other travelers if you do decide to make this trip.
Be careful of cars when crossing the streets (particularly at roundabouts). Cars go quite "chaotic". There are usually no lane marking and minimal signage.
It may be not safe to carry a big amount of cash with you. Instead, consider carrying just enough cash for a couple of next stops and a bank card to "fill up the tank" (be careful: smaller and not-so-touristy towns have no ATMs). Take some "international" (i.e. $US or €) currency for a safe start. As a safety measure you can take "secondary" bank card with you (leaving "primary" at home) pre-filling it with amount of money according to your travel estimate (and adding some more - for unexpected cases). If you are running out you may contact your relatives at home to log in into your e-bank account and move some more money to your "secondary" card. It may be wise to attach some sticky stripes of paper to your card with some fake PIN written in unclear manner (i.e. only segments of digits visible - other segments are to "guess") - if you lose your card and somebody enters a wrong PIN 3 times, your bank will probably block the card.
Beware that many vendors will try to overcharge you. This is not specific to Bolivia, so just deal with it, of course. However, it's more perfidious here. Don't read on if it's not important to you. Coming from the North (Peru, etc.) Luckily price tags are more common in Bolivia. However, many times they quote inflated prices. So, they are only there to give tourists a false sense of control. Thus you not only need to check for price tags, but also if the quoted prices seem sensible. Of course, when there are no price tags it gets worse. Markups of 100% or more are not uncommon.
Some parts of Bolivia like La Paz (3650), Potosí (4010), Oruro (3950) and the Lake Titicaca region are high altitude, so adequate precautions against "sorojchi" altitude sickness should be taken.
At local pharmacies they sell sorojchi pills, that are supposed to help with altitude problems. It has painkillers as well as natural herbs to help cope with the symptoms of "sorojchi". In many parts of the Altiplano you can purchase coca leaves, which are reputed to be useful against soroche. Coca tea ("mate de coca") is available in tea bags in many markets.
However, severe cases of high altitude disease can be treated at the High Altitude Pathology Institute at Clinica IPPA . This Clinic has the most advanced technology including a hyperoxic/hypoxic adaptation chamber. In addition, the sun's ultraviolet rays are much stronger -- up to 20 times -- than at sea level. A sun hat, sunglasses, and skin protection (sunblock or long sleeves) are advised.
You can't usually drink tap water in Bolivia. There's plenty of bottled water being sold in the stores. One note though: if you're not a Coca-Cola company (very strong in Bolivia) fan, in some towns you may have trouble getting water from other manufacturer.
Do not use the word "indio" in Bolivia to describe indigenous people. It is considered offensive. The term they use is "campesino" which translates to peasant or "indígena". "Cholo" is a campesino who moved to the city, and though originally derogatory, has become more of a symbol of indigenous power. Nevertheless, some locals still use the word "cholo" as a derogative term.
Also, keep in mind the stark cultural and racial differences between the "cambas" of the Llanos in the east, and the "collas" of the Andes in the west who are Native American. They may not always tend to be on good terms and have been even more fiercely divided in recent years since the election of Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president. The two peoples tend to be very defensive about their side of Bolivia, so discussing your travel to the other cultural region of the country may be seen as insulting. In Santa Cruz, a city more industrialized, associating with indigenous culture is frowned upon, whereas in La Paz and elsewhere, it is quite the contrary.
It is also good to keep in mind that the Bolivian culture is very warm and friendly. That being said, it is very rude not to say Buen día or Buenos días to passerbys in the streets. It also customary give up your seat on a city bus for someone older than you, or a woman. Which people will do for you if you look a little bit older.
Bolivia has three cellphone companies, Entel, Tigo, and Viva. All three have outlets on practically every block in major cities. There are internet cafés practically everywhere, they typically cost about BOB3/hour, or about USD0.50/hour.
If you have a smartphone (unlocked if you bring it from home) it can be quite affordable to buy a local SIM card and use the internet from the cellular network (pretty good quality 3G most of the time, don't expect any coverage in the most remote areas). You can always use your phone to make a Wi-Fi hotspot and share the connection to your computer (watch carefully how much you use if you don't want to bust your budget!). If you don't have a smartphone, you can still buy packages for minutes to call. Please note that SMS messages sent from Bolivia to other countries don't always get delivered. Buy your SIM card (called chip in Spanish) at an official outlet of the company. Entel seems to be the most popular one. SIM cards can be bought elsewhere but cost more. At the outlet they will also help you set up your phone. Be advised that you will need a "2G chip" for a normal phone and a "4G chip" for a smartphone if you want to use the internet.
While traditional payphones still exist, you can also make local calls for BOB1 (USD0.15) from cellular phones at kiosks.
If you are staying for a while, consider buying SIM cards for your cellphones. They are quite cheap and you get good network coverage in all main cities and towns. Bolivia uses GSM 1900 frequency, so check, if your cell phone supports this one (older European phones don't). You can buy a cell phone in Bolivia for as cheap as BOB200.
To call from Entel use:
Entel offers something similar to "packages" - these may be cost savers, ie if you mainly want to use cell phone to call international mobiles. A "package" entails you a fixed number of minutes of a smaller rate to call some area. To buy such a "package" you have to have required amount of cash in your phone card. You call a special number (some automatic service) and make a sequence of choices (by reading instructions on the screen and pressing numbers). After buying you have to use your minutes the same day. Call gets automatically disconnected when minutes expire.
Using Skype from Internet cafes (there are a lot of these) may be an option, but microphones are screwed-up in most places thus making this option difficult. In Uyuni, for example, most internet cafés will not allow using Skype or, in case it is a Wi-Fi network, they will switch it off if they see you using Skype. They want you to use their phone service instead.