Bolivia Travel Guide
Bolivia is located in the southwestern portion of South America, next to Peru and Chile. Most travellers tend to skip Bolivia, favoring some of its more well-known neighbors. However, after travelling to Bolivia, I can truly say that it is one of the most beautiful countries, not only in South America but in the entire world.
Bolivia isn’t for the faint-hearted. Just a few adventures you might find yourself on could include tackling the world’s most dangerous roads, fighting altitude sickness while visiting some of highest cities and peaks in the world, or driving through high rise (often snow blanketed) deserts…all while surviving without your typical amenities and access.
Nevertheless, travelling here is one of the most rewarding experiences and certainly the adventure of a lifetime. Only in Bolivia can you find such a beautiful arrangement of nature’s finest treasures: the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, the steamy, dense jungles of the Amazon, the high altitude deserts, and the otherworldly landscapes such as the saltpans…they all come together to form one beautiful masterpiece – Bolivia.
This is just an overview – there is so much more that this country has to offer when it comes to natural beauty. Impressive rock formations, snow-capped volcanic peaks, stunning lakes of all colors, and natural geysers set Bolivia apart from any other country. Bolivia also boasts of incredible biodiversity. Here you can find rare pink dolphins swimming in the Amazon, as well as the striking “volcano flamingos” that breed in the algae dominated red lakes.
Although Bolivia is one of the world’s least densely populated countries, their culture is as diverse as their environment. Indigenous people make up about 20% of Bolivia’s population, consisting of up to 36 recognized ethnic groups. The rich culture and history of these indigenous people groups are felt all throughout the country. In addition, centuries of Spanish rule have had a major impact on the country’s religion, culture, and language.
Walking through La Paz, you are literally placed in the middle of the struggle between the past and the present. Many Bolivians are fighting to hold onto their ancestors’ traditions and rich heritage. In the streets, you will hear rumblings of Aymara and Quechua along with Spanish (the national language). As in many Central and South American countries, Bolivia holds remnants of impressive, ancient civilizations as well as the remains and effects of the Spanish conquest.
Shamans and witches are quite prominent, which is evident in the growing Ayahuasca (a psychedelic drug used by shamans for spiritual healing) tourism industry and the witch markets throughout Bolivia. In some places, ceremonial sacrifices to Pachamama or “Mother Earth” are still practised. These practices all echo back to the Incan spirituality and culture which defined Bolivia before Spanish rule. At the same time, about 77% of the population is Catholic, largely due to Spanish colonization. All of this makes the nation a stunning hotbed of cultural contrast.
CITIES TO VISIT
La Paz is the third-largest city in Bolivia and also the financial capital. Situated at an altitude of 3,640 m, La Paz is one of the highest major cities in the world. The charming city is dominated by iconic red brick houses, surrounded by the high rise and snow-capped mountains, giving the city a very unique look.
La Paz is an intriguing mix of contrasts: crumbling walls and the crowded streets where vehicles, shops and people are jostling for space next to the frantic new construction of flashy high-rise buildings and offices. Walking around the streets, exploring the markets and talking to locals is the best way to explore the unique and compelling culture of Bolivia. Many Bolivians still hold on to their century-old traditions, and La Paz is a perfect place to explore it.
The city, like the people, often emanates a struggle between the old and the new, which is truly the biggest charm of La Paz.
La Paz is also strategically located: some of the iconic places like Lake Titicaca and the Amazon are just a bus ride away. For the adventure lovers, La Paz is a short trip way to the iconic death road mountain biking and some incredible hikes in the Andes. You can read more about the things to do in La Paz here.
Where to Stay
Located in the center of the city, Loki is one of the best hostels in La Paz. The hostel also has a tour company that offers high-quality tours, which makes planning much easier. There is a lovely restaurant and bar on the top floor, a frequent party hotspot, offering panoramic views of the city.
A one-night stay in a 4-bed dorm room costs $10 and a double room costs $30.
Wildrover La Paz
Just a short walk away from bars and eateries in the area. The bar in the hostel was excellent with live sports constantly playing. The food was very good for a hostel. A travel agency is also present in the hostel.
A one-night stay in a 4-bed dorm room costs $9 with an additional $4 for breakfast.
Where to Eat & Drink
Popular Cocina Bolivia
This was the best food we had in La Paz. The food was delicious and beautifully presented. The restaurant opens at 12:30, but you should arrive at 12h and stay in the line – it is a small restaurant that fills up very quickly. Every day they have a different menu with an entree, main dish and dessert. The restaurant offers a modern twist on the Bolivian cuisine.
Cafe Vida is found off of a little hidden corner, but it’s definitely not something to pass upon. This 100% vegetarian, organic restaurant was refreshing, flavorful and a real value for the money. Fresh veggie bowls, fruit smoothies, quinoa burgers and burritos are some of the dishes on their menu.
A gem in La Paz with traditional Bolivian food, great quality, generous portions and low prices. Off the beaten track but it is really worth a visit.
New Moti Mehal
Being an Indian, I usually get disappointed eating Indian food outside of India. But this place reminded me of home. Very authentic flavours and a welcoming staff. A must visit if you fancy Indian food.
Where to Drink
Loki hostel has one of the best bars in town, with a ton of choices and a great atmosphere. This is a great place to meet other travellers as well.
One of the best places in La Paz to have a drink and dance. On Thursday nights, Malegria has excellent Afro-Bolivian music and a folk-dance show.
In my opinion, this is the best rest-bar in Bolivia. I loved the industrial-chic decoration where every corner of the place has been designed with detail, the mega cozy atmosphere, excellent music, great food and cocktails.
What to Do & See in La Paz
This plaza is the most important one in Bolivia because it is where the Presidential Palace and National Congress of Bolivia are situated. Plaza Murillo was named in honor of Bolivian hero Pedro Murillo, a signatory of the founding document of independence, who was hung by Spanish troops. Other key buildings in the plaza include the beautiful cathedral and national museum of art.
As mentioned earlier, witches are very prominent in Bolivia. At this market, you can see exactly why. Some of the large indigenous population of Bolivia still firmly believe in the ancient mysticism that has been flowing through the country for thousands of years. Incredibly, some of the shamans and witches are born after they survive a lightning strike, snake bite and other fatal encounters.
Visiting the market is a unique experience and some of the things sold here will astonish you and maybe haunt you as well. Below is a list of some of the things that you can find at the market.
- Spell boxes containing lists of pre-written spells that you can carry out.
- Amulets with different images, symbolizing various things including the three main animals of the Incan Mythology: the puma, snake and condor which symbolize power, wisdom and change respectively.
- Dried llama fetus astonishingly is used by most locals to be thrown under the foundation of their new homes for good luck.
- Dried frogs are bought by locals to attract money.
- Armadillos are used at the entrance to the house for protection against evil spirits.
Valle De La Luna
Just 10 km outside the city is a must-visit attraction called Valle De La Luna or valley of the moon. The canyons and stone spires are all that remains of an eroded mountain. Valle De La Luna is an otherworldly place and reminiscent of moon’s landscape. The rich mineral content of the rocks also gives it varying colours like red, purple and brown.
There are a few paths that you can take around the place and the longest one should take about 40-45 minutes.
The entrance fee is $2 and the gates are open every day from 8 am – 530 pm.
There is truly nothing like this cable car transit system which is the highest as well as the largest one in the world. La Paz and the surrounding city of El Alto are built on a hill, which makes the cable car the best way to travel around the two cities. There are three main lines operating and another three lines under construction. The cable car offers stunning views of the chaotic city and the far away, towering mountains of the Andes in the background.
The cable car is open from 7 am to 11 pm. The tickets for each line costs 3 BOB and you need to buy separate tickets for other lines.
Calle Jaen is a charming street with finely preserved colonial architecture, cobbled streets and colourful buildings. There is a nice art gallery along with hip cafes and restaurants.
This is probably the craziest attraction in the whole of South America. You can see indigenous Bolivian women wrestle in true WWE style. Most travel operators sell tickets for this for around $10, which includes transport.
Things to Do Around La Paz
Mountain Biking on the Death Road
One of the top attractions in Bolivia is an exhilarating mountain biking adventure on the world’s most dangerous road. The death road runs from the mountains close to La Paz at a staggering height of 15,000 ft. to the Amazon of Bolivia. Sharp turns on a narrow road without guide rails, cars and bikes that going every which way, waterfalls, and torrential downpours are just some of the obstacles you tackle on the journey. All of these hazards had led to an average of 300 people dying every year on this road before 2007, after which a new highway was made that diverted most of the traffic and made the death road comparatively a lot safer.
There are a lot of companies that offer the tour who will pick you up from your location and take you high up La Cumber at an elevation of 15,400 ft. The journey begins on the new highway with guide rails, stretching for 20 km entirely downhill! The thrill of going so fast that you can overtake cars is incredible. After the 20 km you reach the original death road and here you will cycle downhill for another 45 km where you will pass caves and waterfalls – just to name a few obstacles. On the way down you can even see crosses laid down for the ones who lost their lives on this road. From 15,400 ft you bike down to the Amazon losing almost 12,000 ft in altitude!
My experience of riding on the death road was unforgettable and other than the initial descent on the highway where there was a lot of speeding cars and trucks, I didn’t suffer any problems.
However, even with the diverted traffic, the death road is still very dangerous, and any lapse of concentration can have devastating effects. In our group, a rider was speeding too fast and he panicked and pressed the breaks too fast, falling headfirst on the rocks. He suffered a serious injury and had to be hospitalized immediately. A few guides have also lost their lives on the road and therefore it’s of the utmost importance to keep your eyes on the road and not to speed too fast or brake too quickly.
Not only is the experience incredible but the views are amazing! You come across the stunning Andes Mountains, some of which are about 20,000 ft. high and you also get a glimpse of the steaming Amazon Jungle. I would do the mountain biking trip again just for the spectacular views!
The most reputable company that offers this tour is called Gravity. They pick you up from your hostel/hotels. They have the highest quality when it comes to equipment and bikes. The guides are also very experienced. At the end of the tour, they take you to La Senda Verde Animal Refuge, featuring rescued monkeys, parrots, and much more.
The maximum group size is 14 and the price is $125 for this experience. The tour starts at 8 am and ends at 8-9 pm.
Another company that operates on the death road is called Barracuda Biking. The rate offered is only $85 which also includes lunch.
Chachaltaya Ski Resort
This was once the highest altitude ski resort in the world! Unfortunately, the glacier has melted and no skiing takes place anymore. However, the panoramic views of La Paz and the surrounding Andes Mountains make it a worthwhile stop on your visit. There are tours that offer to take you up to the mountain and you have to hike up 200 meters to reach the ski resort (which is quite challenging given the altitude). Some tours even combine Valle de La Luna with the ski resort for $20-$25 and that makes it a great offer. You can check out more here.
Hiking Huayna Potosi
Standing at almost 20,000 ft, this towering mountain is a major attraction for hikers and is located only 30 km away from La Paz. The climb is certainly challenging given the altitude and you need to be fully acclimated before attempting the hike. The climb takes about 3 days. On the final day you ascend at 1 am in the morning. Beginners can’t attempt this hike because of the technicality and the glaciers. Going with a guided tour can cost from $180 to $280 depending on the company. Here is one tour I recommend.
Lake Titicaca & Cochabamba
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake in the world and also one of South America’s largest. The lake borders Peru and Bolivia and is situated high up in the Andes Mountains. The stunning azure and tranquil waters and majestic snow-capped mountains of Lake Titicaca have been captivating tourists for decades. Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the Inca’s, who believe it was also the birthplace of the sun. Many fascinating relics and ruins from that period can be found here including a temple that is devoted to the sun.
Lake Titicaca has over 40 islands and the majority are devoid of any life. Some islands are not possible to visit because of a conflict between two tribes. The largest island is called Isla Del Sol or the island of the sun and there are a staggering 180 Incan ruins to be found here. This is the main attraction of Lake Titicaca and offers a great chance to see the indigenous culture. Some of the key sights on the island include:
- Titikala: a rock that the Incans believed to be the birthplace of the sun
- The Gold Museum: showcasing incredible artefacts and relics from the Incan civilization
- Cha’lla: a small village with pristine white sand beaches
- Inca Table: a place where people sacrificed humans and animals to Pachamama
To get to Isla Del Sol, you need to take a boat from a town called Cochabamba. Although some travellers do like this little town and stay overnight for a day or more, I did not find the town to be appealing and thought it was rather chaotic. A couple of hours is sufficient to see the sights and get the feel of the town.
How to Get to Isla Del Sol
You can take a bus from Terminal Cementerio in La Paz, there are many buses that depart every hour to Cochabamba. The journey takes 3 hours and includes a boat ride of 15 mins where the bus meets you on the other side.
The bus costs anywhere from 20-35 BOB depending on the quality of the bus and you have to pay 2 additional BOB for the boat ride.
After reaching Cochabamba, you need to take a boat from Cochabamba to Isla Del Sol. The boat ride is two hours long and departs at 8:30 am and 1:30 pm. Boats return to Cochabamba at 1:30 and 4:00 daily. The cost of the boat ride is 30 BOB one way or 40 BOB for a roundtrip ticket (valid only on the same day).
Where to Stay in Isla Del Sol
There are few hostels, guesthouses and hotels found on the island. The prices per night are steep and it is the most expensive area in Bolivia to spend a night.
Hostal Palacio del Inca
The cheapest accommodation on the island. The views are amazing, and you wake up to a beautiful sunrise over the Lake Titicaca. The hosts are very friendly, and a great breakfast is included in the price of $20 for a private room with bathroom.
Really nice spacious rooms with great views over the island. Great breakfast with lots of variety. A night in a king room with a lake view costs $62.
The capital of Bolivia is an UNESCO world heritage site and certainly one the most beautiful cities not only in Bolivia but also the whole of South America. The well-preserved colonial architecture includes splendid churches, monasteries and courthouses along with the beautiful whitewashed buildings with bright orange roofs, giving this charming town a captivating look. Sucre functions at a much slower and relaxed pace than other parts of Bolivia but it was here where the independence movement started across South America. The tranquil city is a perfect getaway from the adventures of South Bolivia or the crowds of La Paz.
What to See in Sucre
Plaza de 25 Mayo.
The plaza is one of the prettiest in Bolivia with its leafy trees, beautiful monuments and fountains. The quest for Bolivia’s independence was also announced here and hence it is a very symbolic place for Bolivians. Much of the local life revolves around the plaza as it is not only the meeting point for but also the entertainment hub with many restaurants and bars located close to the square.
Convento de San Felipe Neri
Convento de San Felipe Neri is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in Bolivia. The complex functioned as a monastery before, but now it is a parochial school. The views from the bell tower and the tilled rooftop are wonderful and you can see exactly why Sucre is nicknamed as the “white city of the Americas.”
San Felipe Neri is open to the public from 2.30 pm-6 pm daily, except for Sundays. The entrance fee is 10 BOB
Parque Simon Boliviar
Named after aSouth American soldier who was instrumental in the continent’s revolutions against the Spanish empire, the park is the biggest one in Sucre. The park features some colonial architecture along with small replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triomphe.
Castillo de la Glorieta
This fairy-tale pink castle was built by a rich mining couple and is situated just outside the city.
The castle is open to visitors from 9 am-4.30 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Entry into the castle costs 20B$’s.
The small town of Tarabuco is located two hours away from Sucre. Every Sunday the town hosts a market where indigenous people from all the country sell handmade wares and an impressive array of artisan textiles, clothing and trinkets. But what sets the market apart is being able to witness the incredible diversity of the indigenous people gather at the market, wearing different traditional clothes and conversing in different languages.
Where to Eat
If you’re after a quick bite to eat that’s cheap and full of flavor… then look no further! These arepas are delicious, they’re cooked fresh right in front of you and are bursting with flavor. This is a great pitstop, highly recommended. Options include arepas & cachapas.
One of the best restaurants in the city, with yummy vegetarian food. Cozy place. Friendly staff. The cheap menu at lunchtime. Options include falafel burger, sandwiches and pancakes to name a few.
Cosmo Café boasts of an excellent view over the Main Plaza. At night you can enjoy dinner “a la carte” with a wide variety of dishes including pasta, pizza and cheesecake.
Café Restaurant Florin
Very cosy place with a great atmosphere and friendly staff. Definitely a nice night out for food and drinks.
We loved this place! Its family run with great service and a lovely atmosphere, playing classic rock tunes most of the night. The beer is AMAZING and made by the owners. Highly recommend! Only open 3 days a week in the evening so check before you go!
How to get to Sucre
From La Paz the two options are to either take an expensive flight or a long and gruelling bus ride.
There are two routes to choose from when taking a bus. The first go via Cochabamba and enters Sucre from the North. It takes about 6 hours to get to Cochabamba. From there you need to take another bus which is 12 hours long and the roads are some of the worst you will ever come across.
The second option is much better and enters Sucre from the south, passing Potosi. The journey is 12 hours long and the only option available is an overnight bus.
The bus can cost anywhere from $7 to $26 depending on whether it is a local bus or private and if you choose a 180-degree reclining seat or not.
You can check this website for bus tickets and timings.