It was 2012 and after 3 years as a software developer, straight out of college, I was a little burnt out and needed a long vacation. Up until that point I had only taking a day here and there off. So I applied for a passport, as I was determined to travel abroad for the first time. Eventually I settled on Bolivia as my first experience outside of the US, of all places. An unusal place to choose to go for your first time outside the country, to say the least. But it was cheap, exotic, and I spoke decent Spanish so I wanted to try my Spanish in a native setting. Since it was my first time out of the country I decided to try a group travel company. GAdventures to be exact (Did a tour with the same company a few years later link.
It was a 14 day tour of Bolivia during the October/November time of 2012, right during the presidential election actually. The group including some guys from London, plus some gals from all over (Canada/Australia/UK). All transportation and living accomodations were taken care of by the travel agency so unlike some of my other travels I didn’t have to plan too much, which was perfect for an international travel newb.
Below are are the cities we went through:
- La Paz
Things you must do:
- Death Road in La Paz
- Hiking and Dirt biking/4 wheeling in Sucre
- Salar de Uyuni
US dollars not accepted here. Must use Bolivianos for all transactions. A lot of ATMs which will give you the native currency though. Only a handful of places take credit (at least back in 2012) so you will always need cash.
Like many countries in South America, your US dollars will go very far here, so traveling in Bolivia is certainly good value.
Taxis come in all different colors in Bolivia. Most common is white though. There are no meters in Bolivian taxis so you will need to negotiate before you take off. Tell them where you want to go and then bargain for the fare. Once you arrive at your desitination, just pay the negociated fare, no need to tip.
You will want to take buses from city to city or fly from city to city. Like many some other American countries it’s about the same price to fly than to take a bus and saves you a lot of time. We flew from La Paz to Sucre but took buses to the other cities.
Very, very, few people will speak English. You will need some Spanish to get by. They also speak some of the languages of their ancestors, such as Quechua and Aymara, which is one thing that makes Bolivia so unique.
Most of Bolivia is way above sea level, especially La Paz and Potosi. So it’s relatively cold compared to other countries in South America. The salt flats can get quite chilly. Sucre was pretty warm and I would imagine cities closer to sea level like Cochabamba and Santa Cruz are much warmer.
Bolivia is one of the only countries in the world where they actually eat their national animal, the llama. Tucumanas and salteñas are other popular Bolivian foods and are both quite good. If you look hard enough, you might find some American food chains like Burger King, but it’s not common.
Like I said, the agency took care of the accomadations. In La Paz we stayed in a nice hotel called Hotel Las Brisas, a couple blocks from the beautiful Iglesia de San Francisco. I don’t remember the names of the other hotels we stayed at but we stayed at a hostel made of salt while in Uyuni which was quite interesting. Fyi, they don’t take too kindly to travelers licking the walls.
Before heading to Bolivia, travelers tend to be warned about dangerous locals who were out to get tourists. This, as usual, was advice given by people who had never actually visited the country. But from my experience most of the locals are extremely friendly and helpful.
Something you will notice right away in Bolivia are the unique outfits of some of the women. I’m talking about the Cholitas. Once a derogatory term for indigenous/mixed girls and women, the word “Cholita” has now become of a badge of honour. Google the term Cholita and you will see their elaborate outfits, starting with the bowler hat down to their ballet style shoes. You may think at first that these outfits are only worn by the poor, but they can be quite expensive and the women will occasionally hire body gaurds for security. I remember one time a travel guide pointed out one Cholita in particular and told us that she, to my surprise, must be extremely wealthy based on her outfit.
Now as for meeting people in Bolivia, obviously hostels are the best places to meet fellow travelers and foreigners. If you want to meet some locals, best thing is to just go to the bars/clubs. When I was there the infastructure for data on phones was primitive compared to what I was used to at home so I wouldn’t bet on meeting people through apps.
Other than seeing an impromptu street fight break out in the crowded streets late night of La Paz, I never once didn’t feel safe despite walking by myself quite often. It can look dangerous at night, because so many of the buildings look worse than what you’d see in the bad parts of Baltimore, but in reality it’s a safe country.
If you are interested in visiting an incredibly unique country, give Bolivia a look. Where else can you bike the World’s most dangerous road, visit UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Sucre (the white city) and Potosi, explore the largest salt flats on Earth, and trek into the Amazon jungle while all on a tight budget? Honestly, no where else.