12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Bolivia: Tips & Tricks!

Bolivia has an ever-growing tourist following. With a rich culture and otherworldly landscapes, it’s a must-see destination in South America. But with any new country, you need to be prepared. Here are 12 of our tips and tricks, we wish we knew before travelling to Bolivia.

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. 

Sunset over the salt flats Uyuni, Bolivia
Sunset over the salt flats – Uyuni, Bolivia

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….

Basic accommodation - Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Basic accommodation – Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

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!

Salt Flats, Photo on the flats, Uyuni, Bolivia
Salt Flats, Photo on the flats, Uyuni, Bolivia

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.

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5 of Our Must See & Do Activities In Bolivia!

Bolivia is much more than just the salt flats. From lagoons, to mountains, deserts, lakes and forests, there is something for everyone! Here’s 5 of our must see and do activities, when planning your trip to Bolivia.

Bolivia is a country that takes your breath away. Both literally and figuratively! Its largest city La Paz sits at greater than 3,600m above sea level which makes it the highest unofficial capital city in the world (Sucre is its official capital, but La Paz is the country’s seat of government). Whilst acclimatising to the altitude can prove tricky, it’s well worth the trouble.

Although most famous for its salt flats, that’s not all Bolivia has to offer. Beyond the salt flats there are equally breathtaking lagoons, mountains, deserts and lakes. The true beauty of Bolivia we experienced is in the variety of landscapes we passed through and richness of experiences on offer. It’s the only country on our trip where we’ve managed to experience -18°C degrees at geysers above 5,000m and mountain bike through tropical forest climates within the same week.

There is a wealth of activities to do in Bolivia, but below are our 5 favourite must do things in Bolivia.

1) Take a 3 day tour of the salt flats and surrounds, departing from Uyuni

Most people have seen at least one photo of the infamous Bolivian salt flats with its mirror effect or mind deceiving endless plains of white salt. At over 10,582 square kilometres in size, it’s the largest salt flats in the world, with Neil Armstrong famously spotting it from the moon and mistaking it for a giant glacier.  

It’s so popular now that Japanese tourists are even known by locals to fly for over a day just to reach the salt flats, stay for 3 days taking photos before promptly flying back home again! (We call that dedication to the gram)

All that aside, it’s an absolute must visit when in Bolivia. Rather than merely doing a 1 day salt flat tour though, we’d highly recommend taking the 3 day tour through the salt flats and surrounds. Note it may say ‘3 day salt flat tour’ but typically tour companies only spend 1 day on the salt flats with other 2 days spent exploring other equally impressive and beautiful Bolivian landscapes.

Although it is extended periods of driving each day, there are many stops along the way, and the driving will be worth it in the end 😊

Our recommendation:

  • Most tour companies will stop at key sites such as the red lagoon, arbol de piedra, antiplanic lagoon and hot springs, however not all visit the lesser known black lagoon. This lagoon with it’s cute long eared rabbits was the highlight for us in the 2 days outside the salt flats!
  • A 3 day tour takes you into some of the most remote places in Bolivia, away from big cities and lights. It’s therefore a perfect time to do some night shots of the sky, if you have the right equipment. You can check out some tips to do this here.

Look out for our tips and tricks post for Bolivia coming soon with things to look out for when booking your tour operator!

2) La Paz cable car

When we arrived in La Paz, our first impressions of the city as we drove through the congested, dirty streets was somewhat lacking. Considering it is Bolivia’s largest city, home to over 2.3 million people it lacked the beauty and expanse one usually finds in a major city. But rest assured, you can find this in La Paz if you ride their extensive Teleferico (cable car) system.
To see and appreciate the beauty of La Paz, you have to go high! High above the streets where you get a birds-eye view of the valley across which the city is sprawled.

Opening in 2014 as a means to improve congestion and reduce travel time for locals between La Paz and El Alto, the Teleferico is an easy system of coloured aerial cable car lines and an inexpensive way to see the city. Costing only 3 Bolivianos per ticket per line (~AU64 cents), you can ride the cable car system in a circular route around the city in a few hours.

When we were there in May 2019, the Teleferico was never congested and with its prominent coloured lines, dead easy to navigate.

Our recommendation:

  • The red (linea roja) and yellow lines (linea amarillo) give the best birds-eye view of the city, so they’re a must-see. Hop off at the stop El Alto and perhaps if it’s a Thursday or Sunday peruse the supposedly largest outdoor market Mercado 16 de Julio in South America. It’s a giant flea market with everything from pots and pans to car parts.
  • The newer white line (Linea blanco) travels through downtown city buildings too, so provides a different and unique perspective to the other lines.
  • The cable car system opens late, so grab your camera and take the purple line (linea morada) to El Alto to get some great night shots of La Paz!
View of the cit of La Paz in Bolivia
The view from the La Paz cable car

3) Visit Potosi mine

Located to the south east of La Paz (2.5 hr flight or 8 hr drive away) lies the seemingly mundane but historically significant town of Potosi. First founded in 1546, it was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world and larger than Paris and London at the time. Potosi as a silver mining town was established by the Spanish and for 473 years has produced over an estimated 60,000 tonnes of silver. In the second half of the 16th century alone, Potosi accounted for over 60% of all silver mined in the world.  
In keeping with true colonial fashion, the spoils of Potosi were promptly shipped back to Spain where the wealth of the city funded the Spanish colonisation of the New World. It is famously quoted “You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out”.

A visit to Potosi mine itself is an incredible opportunity to learn about the history of the town, the process of silver mining and importantly get a glimpse into the modern Potosi miners life. We will warn you though that a mine visit is not for the claustrophobic as to first enter the mine, you need to crouch down and walk through a small mine shaft opening. Once inside, the tunnels do open up to standing height however it is never what you would call spacious!

It is a surreal feeling standing in a mine shaft dug out and still standing from colonial times. The most eye opening part of the tour is being able to see first hand the conditions and working life of the modern Potosi miner. It’s harsh, back-breaking work in what can only be viewed as unsafe conditions with minimal safety equipment, large pits on the side of narrow walkways descending stories down and blasts of dynamite echoing in seemingly close chambers. Hearing about teenage workers and the alcoholism amongst miners is a sobering and sad experience, and one we’ll remember for a long time.

In total, we descended approx. 100-200m into the mine for about 45 minutes, but trust us when we say it felt like much longer and further and never have we been happier to see day light again.

Our recommendation:

  • We highly recommend taking your tour with a miner collective, so all tours are run by miners and profits shared amongst them.
  • Wear comfortable clothing. You’ll be given a thin protective jumpsuit, face mask, hard hat with torch and gumboots for the tour.
  • Visit the National Mint of Bolivia too in Potosi to learn more about the cities fascinating history and see how silver was minted into currency in colonial times. Whatever you do though, don’t forget to bring a jacket as it’s the worlds coldest museum as our tour guide liked to joke!

4) Visit Bolivia’s capital city Sucre

What La Paz lacks in beauty and grand buildings, Sucre makes up for as the political capital of Bolivia. With a population of only 300,000, it is perhaps the antithesis of La Paz, being a relaxed, congestion free city and pedestrian friendly – relative to La Paz! Being lower in altitude at only 2,800 m above sea level, during winter it also has a warmer climate than other cities such as La Paz, Potosi or the salt flats, so can be a welcome warm relief.

Try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria.

Known as the ‘white city’ for its fondness of whitewashed buildings, Sucre is a beautiful showcase of colonial architecture and a definite must for those looking for a few relaxing days!  

Our recommendation:

  • For great views of Sucre visit the recoleta, a little piazza close to downtown that overlooks the city and close to downtown, and Convento de San Felipe. A beautiful old monestary, climb to the top at sunset and stand on the roof for a beautiful view of Sucre.
  • For something different check out Parque Cretácico located 5 km from the city centre. Accidentally discovered in 1994, over 5,000 dinosaur tracks preserved in what use to be the banks of a river, were slowly revealed after the top layer of sediment from a mining area eroded. It currently covers an area of 1,200m x 110m and is one of the largest deposits of footprints in the world, and is interestingly seen as a vertical wall now, thanks to tectonic plate shifts.
  • It is rather odd walking down to a historical site that is located right next to a cement quarry, but it is definitely cool seeing footprints from 65 million years ago up close.  The park provides tours in English as part of the entry ticket and if you decide to go, be warned – there are a lot of stairs!
  • My personal favourite – try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria. They have delicious flavours, but my favourite is the yoghurt ice cream with honey and quinoa pops. It’s so refreshingly it honestly feels like you’re eating a breakfast snack, so your guilt factor is way less!

5) “You have to do death road!” -Biking down the notorious North Yungas road

Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”, the reputation of North Yungas Road precedes itself. Nicknamed death road, there have been many write-ups about this infamous road, but perhaps the main thing to note if you are considering embarking on this 70km bike ride is that in 2006 a new much safer road was opened for cars. This meant the part of North Yungas road most famous for car accidents and deaths is now largely left to just cyclers and quad bikers as cars now take the safer route. Thankfully on our ride, we didn’t have to compete against cars for space on the narrow dirt road.

Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”

That being said, it is still dangerous and if you have never ridden a bike before, Bolivia’s death road is perhaps not the time to start. If however, you are a competent rider, this bike ride is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the views you get are genuine showstoppers.

The most common response I got from people who had visited Bolivia when I told them we were going was “You have to do death road!”. Now that I’ve joined these ranks of people, it’s my turn to say it.

We’ll be posting a detailed write up on death road and our experience shortly so stay tuned for it! In the meantime check out our gallery here.

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