What Bolivia may lack in wealth, it more than makes up for in the richness of its varied landscapes, culture and history. One of the least developed and poorest of the South American countries, Bolivia still has a growing tourism culture. It’s increasingly growing in popularity as a travel destination, as it should be! This is due to its other-worldly salt flats, stunning landscapes spanning volcanoes, deserts and forests and varied local cultures (with over 37 official languages!). Bolivia has something to offer everyone.
1) Ensure you have enough time to acclimatise to the altitude
Bolivia is a country at very high altitudes. La Paz is the highest unofficial capital in the world* at over 3,600m above sea level, Uyuni – the gateway to the salt flats – lies at 3,656m, Potosi at 4,067m and Sucre at 2,810m.
As such you should consider a buffer in time (at least 24 hours) to acclimatise. This is particularly relevant if you are flying direct into La Paz. Ideally, to minimise the negative symptoms that might occur, a gradual climb up to altitude is best. However, this is not always possible, particularly if you are beginning your journey in La Paz.
We are not doctors by any stretch of the imagination, but some key things to know about altitude sickness are:
- Altitude sickness, unfortunately, can affect anyone. There’s just no way to predict who and how badly it will impact an individual. It doesn’t matter if you’re the tallest, most muscular, lean or the most yoga-loving person.
- There is medication you can take, commonly called Diamox, or Acetazolamide (if you need to buy it in Bolivia). This can help alleviate the symptoms. It’s recommended to start these two days before you arrive at altitude.
- Be warned though it is a diuretic, so it will make you pee a lot more. It’s almost a glimpse into life at the age of 80+….
- Stay hydrated and aim to drink 1.5 – 2L of water per day. Hydration plays a crucial role in helping you acclimatise!
- If you are starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness, i.e. headaches, dizziness, nausea or a general feeling of unwellness, rest immediately. if it gets worse, see a doctor.
- Most hotels also hold oxygen tanks for guests as having 10-15 minutes of oxygen can also help alleviate the symptoms, so ask if you need it!
*Sucre is the official capital but La Paz is the country’s seat of government
2) Cash is king
As with many developing countries, cash is required to pay for most things. During our time in Bolivia, only at select restaurants (and typically the pricier ones) do they accept credit cards. At the markets and most shops, they predominantly deal in cash.
Best local bank to use
When in Bolivia, our recommendation is to use either Santa Cruz bank or Banco Nacional de Bolivia (BNB). Both are reputable banks and best of all, neither charging a local ATM fee. Just look for the green signs!
Planning to visit the salt flats?
The salt flats are undoubtedly the highlight of a trip to Bolivia and to visit them you will need to hire a tour guide. To maximise your chances of having a great experience, here are some key things to note before you head there:
3) Know what time of year you’re going for the salt flats
If you are looking to recreate that perfect reflection shot you’ve seen before you need to head there during their summertime or wet season. This typically runs from November to April and sees the salt flats wet enough to provide those infamous shots. The downside during wet season is, the salt flats can get rained out and closed to tourists due to flooding. During dry season which runs from May to October, there is slim to no chance of this occurring. Also, perspective shots are easier to take; however, the trade-off is it will be much colder and you do miss out on the opportunity for reflection photography.
4) Do your research carefully before booking your salt flat tour guide
When picking a tour operator ideally they come recommended, but if not make sure they have excellent reviews (that are recent). Even through Intrepid, a renowned tour agency, our experience with the local tour operator they used was less than ideal. After being asked and agreeing to a delayed departure at 10 am, we were still left waiting until 11 am when they finally rocked up.
Why? They hadn’t yet filled the last car so spent the morning looking for tourists who would sign on last minute.
Our tip is to confirm whether the car is already full (or if they will depart with less than 6 in the car) and what time you depart in the morning.
Having a delayed start time eats into the time you have on the salt flats. Unfortunately for us, it meant we only had about 45 minutes to take photos. Including the group shots, this was not nearly enough time, particularly when you’re playing around, trying to work out perspectives and helping out your fellow travellers with their shots as well.
5) Know your itinerary
If you book a three-day tour, you should know that you only have 1 day on the salt flats, being the first day of the tour. Most tour operators will then head out from the salt flats and circle back around to Uyuni, never passing back through the salt flats. This means, your only chance for photos and to experience the flats is that first day!
We had friends ask their driver if they were coming back and after assuring them they would, guess what – they never did!
6) Be prepared for very basic accommodation
Despite being the key attraction in Bolivia, decent accommodation in the salt flats and surrounding landscapes have yet to be built. Besides Luna Salada (the one decent salt hotel where you can expect to pay a premium), all other accommodation is very basic dorm room style. On our second night on tour, we 6 to a room, no showers and 2 toilets for 24 people….
7) Pack layers, beanies, gloves and warm socks!
If you are heading there in the wintertime, it can be freezing on the salt flats. With windchill, we experienced -18°C at 5 am when we visited the geysers. It was so cold and windy, people from only 1 of the 3 cars ventured outside to witness the geysers up close, so remember to rug up!
8) Check out Uyuni train cemetery after dark
When we arrived in Uyuni, it would not have seemed out of place if a giant tumbleweed rolled down the main road. Uyuni is just a gateway town into the salt flats and where travellers depart and arrive back from tours. The one attraction just next to Uyuni town though is the train cemetery.
This stop is usually the first one for all salt flat tours and as such, becomes quite busy each morning.
Our tip is to visit the train cemetery at night time when it’s peaceful and to capture some fantastic night shots of the sky.
You can organise with your hostel/hotel to have a cab take you to the cemetery late at night. For 100 Bolivianos they’ll come out to the train yard with you and wait around for a couple of hours until you’re finished enjoying the night sky. I recommend doing this between 10 pm and midnight.
You check out my post here about how I took the photo above.
9) Taking the perfect photo
Getting the perspective right is harder than it looks, and it usually takes at least two people to do.
If you are using props, our tip is not to try and line up the subject and the prop on the same horizontal plane – it is harder to do well and in focus. Instead, angle the accessory and subject diagonally in your camera frame and play with the perspective from that shot!
10) Bolivia is cheaper for souvenirs than Peru
A popular travel route is to visit Peru and then head down into Bolivia. If this is the case, Bolivia is generally less expensive for the same souvenirs, so it might be worth saving all your shopping until the end!
11) Be careful when purchasing alpaca or baby alpaca items!
Bolivia is famous for its alpaca and baby alpaca wear, however be warned as every street corner vendor will swear what they’re selling you is “baby alpaca”. More like “maybe alpaca!” as our guide joked. If it costs only BOB$50 (~AU$20) for a baby alpaca jumper, i’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not what they’re claiming it to be.
Many of the jumpers sold by many stall owners are a synthetic, or wool blend, so make sure you know what you’re paying for. The basic test for real alpaca is it should feel cold to the touch – always, even if in sunlight. If you are able to as well, break off some fibres and light them as real alpaca will burn like hair whereas synthetic will melt. True 100% alpaca jumpers will set you back no less than BOB$200 (at a minimum with baby alpaca even more!) but if you’re still unsure head to stores such as Inca Brand or LAM where you’ll pay a bit more but be confident the garments are what they say they are.
Being said, a blend of alpaca and wool still makes a beautiful jumper!
12) Always double check your laundry
If you’re paying a local laundromat to do your washing, make sure to count the number of pieces before you drop it off. The few times used a laundry service they always managed to; misplace one of our items, or we managed to pick up someone else’s!
They manage the laundry by sewing tiny coloured threads onto the tag of your clothes. There is one colour per customer to help the sort which piece belongs to who. As you can imagine, this can still get confusing, even for the laundromat. So also make sure you remove any previous laundromat threads before you send them for another wash!
Coming Soon: Thinking about whether to do a tour or DIY around Bolivia? We’re pulling together a post that discusses just that and reviews our 25- day Bolivia & Peru intrepid tour.