Everything you need to know about backpacking in Bolivia in our ultimate beginner’s guide.
When you say the words “South America”, Bolivia’s probably not at the tip of your tongue.
There’s no arguing that its capital, Sucre is a world away from bohemian Buenos Aires or that its high-altitude cities and absence of coastline means it lacks the vibrancy of Brazil’s sun-soaked beaches and spirited cities.
Despite this, backpacking in Bolivia is a rewarding, exhilarating experience – but only for those looking for a real adventure.
Before you go, you need to realise that Bolivia is unique compared with all of the other countries in South America.
It’s a place where you can find into some of the most diverse, untouched parts of the Amazon Rainforest, hikes through mind-boggling landscapes in the Andes Mountains and days exploring its elegant, colonial towns – all while getting your head around Spanish and the country’s heritage.
Of course, there’s no escaping the fact that Bolivia is one of the poorest South American countries.
But by backpacking in Bolivia as a conscientious, responsible foreign tourist is an important way of boosting tourism and the local economy, while seeing a part of the continent that a surprisingly small number of other travellers ever do.
So whether you’ve been considering traveling in Bolivia or the thought of discovering this beautiful, traditionally South American country hasn’t yet crossed your mind, let me introduce you to the basics with this Bolivia travel guide.
Discover the places you need to visit, the adventure activities you can’t miss and other important considerations for safe and unmissable travel in Bolivia.
A Guide to Travel In Bolivia
Bolivia is an outstanding place to explore and, as someone who lived there for close to a year both volunteering and traveling, I am constantly trying to persuade unconvinced travellers of the rewards of going there.
No, the buses aren’t the most comfortable, yes, it’s sometimes dirty and smelly and if you go in expecting everyone to speak English, you’ll be rudely awakened.
But if you go in with a little bit of Spanish, respect for the local people and a sense of adventure, you’ll have an incredible experience.
General Advice For Backpacking In Bolivia
- People don’t speak English, except in tourist agencies and some shops and restaurants in La Paz, Uyuni, Sucre and Copacabana. Elsewhere, you’ll have to dredge up college-level vocab or rely on a phrase book – but that’s half the fun of backpacking in Bolivia.
- People in Bolivia may come across as rude, often because if you don’t speak Spanish, they can’t communicate with you. For a lot of local people, their first tongue is an indigenous language such as Quechua or Aymara, so communicating in Spanish can be difficult.
- Get by traveling in Bolivia by learning a bit of Spanish before you go or hang around in backpacker central and language learning utopia, Sucre (the capital city) to get the basics. You’ll find them invaluable.
- Yes, you will get ill in Bolivia, as will likely happen to you at least once anywhere in South America.
- To minimize the damage, never drink tap water or any water-based drinks in the markets or on the streets.
- Don’t completely ignore street food, such as delicious salteñas (the Bolivia version of the traditional South American empanada), tucumanas (a deep friend salteña) or papas rellenas (mashed potato stuffed with meat and deep-fried). Buy them fresh in the morning rather than ones that have sat around all day, and at stalls when there are plenty of other people buying food. Expect to pay between 3-5 BOB/ 50-70 cents.
- But still take a good stock of Imodium with you if planning to travel in Bolivia. You’ll thank me at some point for this advice.
Food And Accommodation
- Markets are excellent places for a cheap breakfast, lunch and early dinner. They’re also incredible for people watching (this is real South America) and good for a chat with a friendly local if you can muster up a bit of Spanish. What’s more, you can normally get a three-course lunch or dinner menu for around 10 BOB/1.5 USD.
- As with street food, always pick the market stall with the most locals eating there.
- Markets are also a cheap place to buy vegetables and more types of fruit than you probably knew existed if you’re planning on self-catering when backpacking in Bolivia. Be aware that few hostels and alojamientos (like a hostel, but normally cheaper, with individual rooms) have cooking facilities.
- As mentioned, street food is delicious, if always deep-fried.
- Accommodation will be far more basic than what you will experience in other countries across South America. It’ll also be cheaper. Expect to pay a maximum of 50 BOB/$7 USD per night.
- Don’t be fooled by the options on hostel booking websites; there is always a lot more accommodation available than online would suggest. Get recommendations from other travellers and be open to not always booking in advance. Arriving and wandering the streets a little (if it’s during the day – this isn’t a great idea at night) can see you finding excellent places to stay. Always ask to see the room, bathrooms and the prices before committing.
- There are a lot of misconceptions about Bolivia and its cities, primarily being that backpacking in Bolivia is unsafe – particularly in cities like La Paz. Of course, every city in every country in the world has parts where you shouldn’t go at night; La Paz and other Bolivian cities are no exception.
- To stay safe, stick to the main tourist areas in cities and seek advice from other travelers and local people about where you can venture further afield.
- The main concern in the cities is pickpocketing. Never walk around with your big DSLR swinging around your neck or your iPhone on display. Also, don’t get drunk and walk home to your hostel – this is a recipe for being mugged.
- Be careful in bus stations across the country, particularly if you’re arriving late at night or early in the morning. Try and get buses that arrive during the day or early morning. In the latter case, grab a coffee in a café in the terminal until it’s light outside and there are other people on the street.
- Don’t hail taxis on the streets of La Paz or Santa Cruz, as ‘express kidnapping’ (where someone else gets in the cab, the driver takes you to an ATM and forces you to empty your bank account) have been known.
- Book a radio taxi through your hostel or walk; most of the main sights are located close to Plaza Mayor so unless you’re coming back at night time from a bar, you shouldn’t need a taxi to get around the city.
- There are more accidents on Bolivian roads than in most other places, so always pay more to go with one of the more reputable companies (Trans Copacabana MEM, El Dorado and Bolivar) where possible. The bottom line: never put your life at risk in order to save a few dollars.
- In terms of comfort, buses aren’t great in Bolivia, particularly compared to those in other Southern American countries.
- When trying to book a cama (a 160° reclining seat), always ask for “cama tres filas” (three seats in a row rather than four) otherwise it’s not actually cama and you will be disappointed and uncomfortable.
- In general, there are either no toilets on board the bus, or they will be locked or broken. Expect the drivers to stop once at the side of the road for a toilet break, or ask them to stop if you need to go desperately. The best thing to do is just learn to hold it in; it’s excellent bladder-muscle building practice.
- Fly from La Paz to Rurrenabaque rather than take the 24-hour (at least) bus journey. Honestly – it’s worth the extra cost.
- Don’t expect buses to leave on time or arrive on time. Backpacking in Bolivia is an adventure – a mostly unpredictable one.
The Five Best Cities To Visit In Bolivia
Get yourself acclimatised because most of the cities in Bolivia are at some fairly lung-busting altitudes and the backdrop for many of them is similarly extreme.
Backpacking in Bolivia is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but there are wonderful cities to visit – far more than I mention below, and all of which merit at least a few days of exploration.
The de facto capital, arriving here is breath-taking not just for the altitude (the airport is at 4, 061m above sea level) but the city itself, which seems to be lurching down the edge of a plateau and into the valley below.
Luckily most of La Paz is at a more pleasant 3,500m, but take it easy when you first arrive or invest in some altitude sickness tablets to ensure you’ve got the energy to see the city at its best.
La Paz is worth the shortness of breath and the feeling that you’re about to get run over every time you step out onto the street.
It’s frantic, crazy and downright ugly at points, but at the centre, you’ll find the beautiful spires of San Francisco Church, street performances on the Plaza Mayor and nearby Mercado Lanza, where you can be wowed by the range of fruit, vegetables and other random items that you never before knew you needed to buy.
A bit further to the east, discover the alleyways blooming with artisanal goods (try and stick to only buying the one llama jumper, unlike I did) and the cherry on the top: the incredible Witches Market.
If you’re in need of a remedy (anything from the common cold to a broken heart), here’s where you’ll find it.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In La Paz
Muzungu Hostel, Avenida Illampu
Party hostels abound in La Paz, but if you want somewhere that’s cheap, no frills but still comfortable and with hot showers and working WIFI (a real luxury in this city), head to Mazungu Hostel. A three-minute walk from the activities described above, and about a 20-minute (downhill) wander from the bus station, it’s a really great place to stay.
Colibri Camping, Jupapina
Get out of the city with a bus to Jupapina to the south of La Paz and stay at the pretty little campsite, Colibri Camping. Rent a tent or sleep in one of their gorgeous teepees at prices only a little higher than what you’d pay in the city, plus exceptional views across the Valley of Flowers. The owners are also wonderful.
Mercado Lanza, Plaza Mayor
If you want to embrace the Bolivian way of lunching, pop over to Mercado Lanza and head right to the top, where bench tables in tiny kitchens are filled with locals dining on Bolivian favourites, such as picante de pollo (fried chicken in a spicy sauce served with boiled potatoes and salad). Expect a main course with soup and a drink, all for the bargain basement price of 10 BOB/$1.40 USD.
Mozzarella Pizza, Avenida Illampu
Ok so it’s not Bolivian food, but it’ll definitely give you one of the best pizzas you’ll have in the country. A tiny, four tabled eatery, the pizzas here are cheap, authentic and fast.
My Bolivian hometown and the actual capital of the country, Sucre is the place where most people backpacking in Bolivia get stuck; lured by the comfy cafés, elegant white buildings, museums and accessible Andean mountains skirting the city.
At 2,810m above sea level, it’s also at a slightly more manageable altitude than La Paz.
It’s also got history in spades: from the excellent Casa de La Libertad on the main square, where the Bolivian act of independence was signed (and which is now a really interesting museum), to Parque Cretático in the north east of the city, where the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world are on display in the local quarry.
But Sucre’s also just a cool city with plenty of nice bars, an excellent market to explore and buy food from and where some excellent adventures can be found on its outskirts.
There’s also a good network of other travellers here, so you’ll never be at a loss for people to hang out or to join you as you travel in Bolivia.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Sucre
The Beehive Hostel, Calle Avaroa
Not only is this an excellent hostel where you can work and get accommodation for free, it also supports projects for local women, making it doubly awesome in my view. This hostel is set in a huge old mansion with a beautiful courtyard, kitchen, hammocks and snug areas, so you’ll probably end up staying far longer than you planned.
Condor Café, Calle Calvo
Possibly the best vegetarian restaurant in Bolivia, Condor Café is literally everyone’s favourite place when travelling to Sucre.
They have a cheap menu of the day as well as other dishes (all of which are based on Bolivian recipes but with a vegetarian twist).
Both the profits from the restaurant and their excellent tour company (located in the same building) are plowed back into the local communities with whom they work, so you’ve really got no excuse not to go there.
Although Rurre (as the locals call it) isn’t much to write home about, I fell in love with the region, mainly because it still felt raw and like you were on the very edges of civilisation, about to plunge head first into one of the globe’s most complex ecosystems: the Amazon Rainforest.
It’s also not a city. It’s barely a town; just a collection of dusty streets riddled with Bolivians driving around like maniacs on motorbikes and scooters. But it’s still an unmissable stop-off when you’re backpacking in Bolivia.
Tours here are far cheaper than in neighbouring Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, just be aware that, as with everything in Bolivia, you get what you pay for.
The most budget tour operators (where you can get a three-day tour for as cheap as 500 BOB/$72 USD) won’t be bothered about protecting the environment or giving you a decent service.
Go with your conscience on how much you’re willing to pay here.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Rurrenabaque
Hostel Los Tucanes de Rurre, Avenida Aniceto Arce
A large courtyard with plenty of hammocks and a pool table, plus large bathrooms and clean, basic bedrooms made this my favourite place to stay in Rurrenabaque. It’s also very, very cheap, with three-bed dorm rooms, doubles and singles to pick from and breakfast included.
The French Bakery, Calle Avaroa
This place has become the stuff of myth and legend thanks to backpackers’ tales of its incredible croissants, pain au chocolat and pizzas. But it does exist. Go there for breakfast or to stock up on lunch as it’s only open in the morning.
Uyuni And Tupiza
If you want to visit the most famous landmark of all when backpacking in Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni, you have no real choice but to visit this dusty, uninspiring town.
Most travellers try and minimise the amount of time they actually spend here, preferring to get an overnight bus from La Paz and taking a tour directly from Uyuni the following morning.
You’ll find that accommodation and restaurant options here are limited, overpriced and poor quality, so you’re best off following other travellers’ lead.
That said, I took a salt flats tour from Tupiza, which is another three or four hours from La Paz. Tupiza is a much nicer little town, with a self-guided few hikes and the possibility of organising horse-riding excursions into the dramatic red rock landscape of the surrounding countryside.
It also had a much friendlier atmosphere than Uyuni and fewer other tourists.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Uyuni And Tupiza
There are a number of places in Uyuni, but they’re all fairly poor quality and if you can avoid it, don’t stay longer than you must.
If you have to stick around, get some suggestions from other travellers about where they stayed. Don’t expect the best quality or the cheapest prices here.
Refugio del Turista, AvenidaSanta Cruz
The hostel version of the flash Hotel Mitru, this is affiliated with one of the two tour agencies that take you to the salt flats and, if I remember correctly, gives you a discount on your accommodation if you prove you’re going with the tour company. This has excellent facilities and you can even use the hotel’s pool.
Food options in both Uyuni and Tupiza are basic and nothing to recommend!
Copacabana and Isla del Sol
Not to be confused with the Copacabana (“at the Copa, Copacabana”), Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca-side Copacabana has nothing on the famous Brazilian beach, so don’t even expect a comparison.
Instead, Copacabana is the prime location for a spectacular sunset over the gleaming waters of South America’s largest lake and where to take a boat trip to Isla del Sol.
According to the Inca, the Sun God was born on Isla del Sol, so expect to find plenty of examples of pre-Colombian ruins and incredible lake views as you hike from Yumani in the south across to Ch’allapampa in the north.
Just be aware, that with points of the island at 4,100m above sea level, hiking here is tough-going.
Recommendations For Places To Stay And Eat In Copacabana And Isla del Sol
Quality accommodation is hard to find. We were offered a deal on a hotel room because of the bus company we went with from La Paz, mainly because it was low season (September) and they clearly had few other guests.
This meant we stayed right on the lake front with some fairly incredible views, but pretty terrible service at Hotel Gloria Copacabana.
Instead, I would recommend seeking other travellers’ suggestions and having a wander to discover other options.
Pit Stop, Avenida 16 de Julio
This tiny bakery serves pizzas, salteñas and sandwiches, as well as cakes and brownies – excellent for stocking up on food before heading over to the island.
It’s also a welcome antidote to the deep-fried food you’ll be bored of within five minutes of backpacking in Bolivia.
Isla del Sol
As above. Be aware that there isn’t much water on the island so hot showers are fairly unlikely. Accommodation is based either in Ch’allapampa or Yumani.
Make sure you buy a boat ticket that takes you to the correct side of the island for where you’re staying as it’s a long walk from north to south.
Food is expensive and uninspired here; there are also few places to buy snacks and other essentials on the island.
Top Adventure Activities When Backpacking In Bolivia
The Maragua Crater, Near Sucre
A staunch favorite of all the backpackers who visit the Bolivian capital, the trek to the Maragua Crater combines jutting landscapes of rainbow-colored rock, 2,000-year-old cave paintings, a section of Inca trail and some dinosaur footprints preserved for posterity in some ancient mud. Seriously: what more could you ask for from a few days in the mountains?
ToroToro National Park, near Cochabamba
A lot of people miss out on this excellent national park because it’s not on the La Paz – Sucre –Uyuni backpacker triangle. But ToroToro boasts a huge collection of dinosaur footprints, fossils and surreal, ancient landscapes.
You can walk through the Torotoro Canyon to bathe in hot springs, explore the limestone caves of Umajallanta and follow a trail of millennia-old dinosaur footprints, using an affordable guide that can be organized from the tourist office in the main square.
How to visit ToroToro National Park: Buses take roughly six hours to get here from Cochabamba (leaving at 6am and 6pm) and very basic accommodation, including camping, is found in Torotoro village.
You’ll also find a very small market and a handful of restaurants. I almost got electrocuted by a shower in one of the alojamientos here though so be careful….
Huayna Potosi, Near La PazIt might be one of the easiest 6,000m+ mountains to summit in the whole continent, but those wishing to join the three-and-and-half-mile high club should be aware that this does require some serious mountaineering to reach its coveted peak.
Yes, you can pay for cheaper tours that will get you to the top in two days, but you might find that a three-day tour with an extra day included for acclimatization and ice-axe training will greatly increase your chances of doing so.
How to summit Huayna Potosi: I never had a chance to hike it, but friends recommended the agencies Refugio Huayna Potosi and Climbing South America. Remember that you get what you pay for when backpacking in Bolivia. In this case, it means the quality of the equipment, guide and their English skills – something quite important when you’re clinging the edge of the mountain and need their help.
Jungle Tours, Rurrenabaque
Tours into the nearby Parque Madidi (one of the most diverse places on the planet) can be easily organized using any one of the dozens of companies located around the town.
Remember that while it’s tempting to go for rock bottom prices in the quest to save a few dollars, if you want others to enjoy the Amazon for years to come, it’s your duty to visit it with a responsible agency.
How to visit Parque Madidi: I went twice, once with Madidi Travel and the second time with Mashaquipe Eco Tours.
I always recommend Mashaquipe Eco Tours, as this trip saw us camping in the middle of the jungle, building a raft and floating it down the river, as well as boating through the nearby pampas (an area of wetland rich in wildlife) where we eyeballed caimans, capybara and capuchin monkeys – an absolute highlight of my time in South America.
El Salar de Uyuni, Uyuni
El Salar de Uyuni or the salt flats have become synonymous with Bolivia, and when you see them, it’s easy to see why.
They’re literally miles of pristine hexagons of salt that fit together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle and create a breath-taking landscape of unending white.
And then there’s the sunrise; the dual sunrise. During the rainy season, if you time it right (January and February sometimes have too much rain so you can’t drive onto the flats), a fresh layer of water over the salt flats leads to the most incredible sunrise you will ever experience. Trust me: it was incredible.
Other highlights include flamingo-flecked Laguna Colorado, landscapes of steaming volcanoes, desert, salt-crusted lakes and even – randomly – snow. This is really an unmissable sight if you travel in Bolivia.
How to visit El Salar de Uyuni
An extra day weaving through epic landscapes and visiting the landmarks at different times of the day than the dozens of cars that leave Uyuni means you’re not elbowing someone out of your selfie when you get to each of the sights.
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