Some other travellers we met along the way told us that we could have skipped Bolivia, but I’m so glad we didn’t listen to them because this country has something so fascinating about it that even though it wasn’t one of my favourite countries while we were there, the more I think about it, the more awesome it seems.
Here is a short guide on things you might find useful if you are planning to visit Bolivia:
- Crossing from Peru
- Why go
- Classic Bolivian adventures – our itinerary
- When is the best time to go
- Getting around
- Volunteering in Bolivia
Crossing from Peru
Crossing by bus from Peru into Bolivia was completely stress free and did’t take long at all.
From Puno, we got a Tranzuela Bus that stopped at the border for us to get an exit stamp on the passport and then we walked through an arch into Bolivia, where we were picked up by the bus again. There is also a part where you have to get on a boat to cross part of the lake Titicaca.
The bus costs 20 soles (or €5.50), but we decided to give ourselves a little treat and choose the VIP seats for an extra €2.50 and paid 30 soles for our tickets.
Bolivian culture is so different and beautiful! The two main things I loved about it are people’s relationship to nature, as well as their belief in magic.
Pachamama – or nature – is a goddess revered by all people in the Andean region. However, Bolivian people have a special relation with it. In Bolivia, nature is honoured all the time before doing anything, from simply cooking a meal to building a house. Usually, Bolivian people spill a few drops of a drink to the ground, and , in turn the Pachamama gives them her blessing. Sometimes though, bigger projects require a bigger price to pay and, for example, animals like alpacas (or apparently even humans) are sacrificed to it, through some special rituals.
This brings us to the next point, the culture of magic. As a matter of fact, Bolivia is home to brujas (witches), the Kallawaya (traditional healers living in the Bolivian highlands), and curanderos (shamans).
And so in Bolivia you can find the Witch Market, for example, in La Paz, who can do anything from fortune telling to helping you prepare your offering ritual to the Pachamama, to selling you love potions, dried starfish, coca leaves, and llama fetuses. Once offered to the Pchamama, you will get in return better health, business, love, safe travel, and good luck.
When crossing the country by bus, we also saw Kallawayas, healers who are believed to have a strong connection to the earth, who were carrying out some ceremonies with the brasero, a metal structure with a wood fire underneath. The ceremony also involves the use of special herbs and coca leaves.
Of course there are several other reasons to visit this beautiful country besides culture, such as the breathtaking and diverse landscape, the welcoming people, the numerous indigenous festivals, history and even the possibility to study Spanish for as little as €2 per hour. Sounds great, right?
Classic Bolivian Adventures – Our Itinerary
We spent a little over three weeks in Bolivia and decided to go for all the classic backpacking spots.
We started off in Copacabana, to head on to La Paz. In La Paz, we took some time to visit the city, including Lo Alto, the area outside of the city where you can see some authentic Bolivian culture and lifestyle, as well as the witch market. We also went on some popular day trips, including Chacaltaya, Valle de La Luna and the very famous Death Road.
After La Paz, we moved on to Sucre, the actual capital of Bolivia. A beautiful city, ideal to soak in some beauty and relax.
From Sucre, we then went to Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4090m above sea level. Here, while I spent some time visiting the city, Eoghan decided to go explore the mines and get an insight into the living conditions of people working here.
Finally, we reached our last stop in Bolivia, Uyuni, from where we visited the famous salt mines and several national natural reserves.
To read useful tips and find out what to do in each of these places, click on the button below.
When to go
Bolivia can be enjoyed all year around. There are two main seasons here: the dry season from May to October and the wet season for the remaining months of the year. Unfortunately, however, the dry season coincides with the country’s winter, and so it can be very cold during these months, particularly July and August, and especially in the highland.
We visited Bolivia in February and, except a few showers, we had some dry days too.
The only thing you might want to pay attention to, is the Salar de Uyuni. The best time to visit this place will depend on the type of the experience you are looking for. Between July and October, it’s supposed to be the best time to view this place, as it’s completely dry. However, we went there at the start of March and reflections in the water were just amazing. As a matter of fact, the period between the end of February and April, is the best time to go for reflections, which makes the place look so magical.
We had friends going there in January and they found very high level of water, so they weren’t completely happy with their experience.
The best and cheapest way to get around Bolivia is by bus. Tourist buses are usually cheap and comfortable enough and you can choose between a cama and semi cama option (completely reclining seats or partially reclining seats). Also, tourist buses will save you several hours as they skip a few stops.
There are a few things you need to know before getting on a bus in Bolivia:
- Passengers are asked to pay a small fee like a “Terminal Tax” for the use of the terminal of approximately 2 bolivianos (€0.30) for the use of the terminal
- Expect delays: unfortunately, due to road conditions – particularly during wet season – and buses tend to stop quite a lot, so just be patient
- Stay warm: Bring warm clothes with you and a blanket, or even a sleeping bag, in particular if you are travelling in the altipiano, as it tends to get very cold on the buses.
- Be safe: Keep your valuables always with you and don’t put them on the overhead box and always padlock your bag. Unfortunately we heard a lot of stories of backpackers being robbed on buses! Also, road accidents due to drunk drivers are extremely common in Bolivia, which was a bit scary for us at the start. So always check if your driver is drunk and, if you can, travel during day time. However, we did take two night buses and they seemed safe enough.
Volunteering in Bolivia
There are many volunteering opportunities and NGOs in Bolivia, which make the country a good place for those who want to have a volunteering experience while travelling.
A good way to find out about volunteering opportunities, especially if you are looking for accommodation in exchange for work is Workaway.com, one of the best investments I made, since I was planning to do a lot of volunteering while travelling.
Another very good website to find interesting volunteering opportunities in Bolivia, both long and short term, is Sustainable Bolivia, an organisation that promotes economic and environmental sustainability and promotes projects in several sectors like education and youth development, conservation and environmental, art and research and NGO general support. You can find more info here.
When we were in Copacabana, we had lunch in a very nice small bakery called Panamericana, and here we found out about the Comedor Social de Niños, a social canteen that prepares and distributes free food to children (and adults) in need.
In Sucre, there is an organisation called BiblioWorks that promotes literacy and education, by providing communities in need with tools and resources to develop sustainable literacy. This organisation runs projects in schools, libraries, and cultural institutions and they look for volunteers all year around.
If you are interested in environmental projects, instead, Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi, which you can find in several locations in Bolivia near Cochabamba and La Paz, runs projects for national parks maintenance and for rescued animals, such as monkeys, pumas and Andean bears. This organisation requires a fee to volunteer with them, that will be used to cover living costs and also park maintenance projects.
Video Diary – Bolivia
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