Bolivia is known to test travellers. Like an old car, it’s slightly rattling and entirely rough around the edges but it always delivers. Travelling here is full of jaw-dropping moments and ‘grab life by the horns’ experiences. Be prepared for a challenging, yet rewarding backpacking experience. In our comprehensive guide to backpacking Bolivia, we cover everything from the best things to do, the perfect time to visit and how to stay safe in the country— it’s all here!
Also See Our Bolivia Travel Guides (Listed A-Z) – Each guide will open in a new window
INTRODUCTION | Backpacking Bolivia
- Currency: Bolivian Boliviano
- Capital city: La Paz
- Population: 11.51 million
- Main religion: Roman Catholic
- Main language: Spanish
- Telephone code: +591
- Time: GMT – 4 hours
- Emergency numbers: 911 (Police 110, Ambulance 118, Fire 119)
You’ll love Bolivia if…
- You’re a shoestring backpacker. Bolivia is considered to be THE cheapest country in South America, meaning you can travel for longer.
- You are craving adrenaline and adventure. Hurtling down the world’s most dangerous road on a mountain bike? Who wouldn’t want to do that?!
- You want to experience a rich culture that is likely to be unfamiliar to your own. 62% of Bolivia’s population are of indigenous descent and the country is home to witch markets, rituals and shamanism.
- You’re a photographer. With everything from the dreamy salt flats to the playful marmosets of the Amazon, Bolivia presents some great photo opportunities.
- You enjoy a challenge and love experiencing everything that travel involves. Backpacking Bolivia can be rough but that is its charm!
Read Next: Bolivia Itinerary
WHEN TO GO | What is the best time of year to visit Bolivia?
Bolivia has two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season spans from November to March and the dry season is from April to October. Although the country can be visited year-round, most travellers favour the dry season.
The infrastructure in Bolivia is pretty poor and the influx of rainfall during the wet season often disrupts transport. Landslides and flooding are common around this time of year. However, the month of April is the best time to visit the famous salt flats. The last vestiges of rain leave a layer of water atop parts of Salar, while other areas remain dry. This gives you the chance to see both the stunning mirror effect and the desolate dry salt desert.
The dry season is ideal for outdoor activities such as trekking and climbing. It coincides with the Bolivian winter so you can expect blue skies and mild temperatures.
Read more about the best time to visit South America.
VISAS | Do I need a visa for Bolivia?
30 Days Visa-Free
Many nationalities will not require a visa to enter Bolivia. These include but are not limited to, New Zealand, Canada, UK and many countries in South America and western Europe. Upon arrival, these travellers will be given a 30-day stamp.
However, those from the USA, China, Russia and the UAE (not an exhaustive list), will require a visa.
If you have entered Bolivia on the 30-day stamp, it is pretty simple to extend your stay. Simply head to any immigration office in one of the major cities. You can renew free of charge for another 60 days in total. However, you will have to do this on two occasions, as you will only be granted 30 days at a time.
Visa runs to other countries are not allowed.
Penalty for overstaying your visa in Bolivia
If you overstay your allocated time in Bolivia, you will be fined for every extra day you are in the country. It is possible that in this instance, you may be asked for additional money upon leaving (a.k.a a bribe) or you may be banned from reentering the country.
HEALTH | Vaccines and Malaria Tablets
Do I need vaccines to travel to Bolivia?
Disclaimer: We always recommend that you seek professional medical advice before travelling.
If you are heading to Bolivia, the following vaccinations are recommended:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Yellow Fever
The immigration officials in Bolivia may ask for proof of a yellow fever vaccination upon entry.
Do I need malaria tablets for Bolivia?
Disclaimer: We advise that you visit a travel medical clinic prior to travelling to Bolivia for the latest health information.
Most traveller destinations in Bolivia at generally low-risk areas for Malaria. The risk is highest in the northern Beni and Pando departments, however, malaria tablets are usually only advised for particularly vulnerable travellers to these areas.
SAFETY | Is Bolivia safe?
Although Bolivia didn’t make it into our list of safest South American countries, travellers should not worry too much. The poverty in Bolivia means petty crime can be frequent but savvy backpackers should be able to mitigate the risks with awareness and few simple precautions.
Crime in Bolivia
Pickpocketing and petty theft are the main things you’ll need to look out for in Bolivia and like in most countries, you’ll find it more prevalent in the big cities. Try to keep your valuables hidden and on your person whenever possible.
Thieves often scout bus stations hoping to pick off the most vulnerable so make sure that you have a transport plan in place once you arrive at your new destination. You are also advised not to take buses which will arrive in the early hours if you can help it.
Violent crime is much rarer in Bolivia but be aware when you’re withdrawing money from ATMs as these are often sites for express kidnappings. Check out this post to learn more about common scams in South America.
Roads in Bolivia
The roads in Bolivia are generally not very well maintained and journeys can be long and bumpy. It tends to be worth paying a little more to travel with a reputable bus company.
Road blockades are a form of protest used by some indigenous communities to attract the attention of the central government. Such disruptions may make some roads impassable and can obstruct tourist routes.
Natural Disasters in Bolivia
During the rainy season, flooding can be severe and landslides are likely. It is not uncommon to experience delays to transport, both on the ground and in the skies.
Food and Water Hygiene in Bolivia
Try to eat from restaurants and food stalls which have a high turnover of customers as the food is more likely to be fresh. Also avoid raw foods such as salad if you can, as these are often washed in water which may upset your stomach.
During our time backpacking in Bolivia, we didn’t meet a single backpacker who hadn’t experienced the dreaded traveller’s diarrhoea. Therefore, it is better to be overcautious. Don’t brush your teeth using tap water and make sure you carry antibacterial gel so that you are able to keep your hands clean. Every little helps!
Tap Water in Bolivia
As with tap water in many South American countries, you are not advised to drink tap water in Bolivia. To save on single-use plastic, we recommend investing in a travel water filter bottle which can get rid of nasty bacteria and viruses. Our top pick is the Grayl Geopress which also filters out viruses.
Drugs in Bolivia
Bolivia is the third-largest cocaine producer in the world which means there is an ongoing drug problem there. To attempt to conquer this, the authorities have introduced strict laws to curb the selling, trafficking and possession of illegal substances. The minimum sentence relating to drugs is 8 years in Bolivia.
Many backpackers may have heard about the infamous San Pedro prison in La Paz through the book ‘Marching Powder’. In previous years, tours of the prison were run for backpackers. Although these are now illegal, rumour has it you can still enter with a bribe. We do not recommend this.
There have been instances of visitors having drugs planted on them or being blackmailed by guards. If you find anything outside of the prison on the street, do not pick it up. If it is drugs, then somebody will have arranged to collect them.
Hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro and the ayahuasca vine are available to purchase on La Paz’s Witch Market. We urge travellers not to view these strong psychedelic substances are ‘just another travel experience’. Although these are legal in the country, they can be dangerous.
South America Backpacker does not recommend drug taking of any kind in Bolivia. It is dangerous, detrimental to the local communities and is likely to land you in very hot water.
8 Tips for Staying Safe in Bolivia:
- Keep your valuables out of sight at all times.
- Invest in an anti-theft backpack and money belt.
- Try to avoid arriving at bus stations during the night.
- Don’t get involved with drugs.
- Use reputable transport providers whenever possible.
- Do your research when choosing tours and make sure safety is taken seriously.
- Filter your drinking water.
- Buy travel insurance!
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Travel insurance for Bolivia
If you are travelling to Bolivia, you should definitely invest in travel insurance. This is a diverse and rich country to travel in but it does come with risks.
Make sure you buy travel insurance that will cover you at high altitudes. Many policies will not cover you for any activity over 3,000m unless you purchase an add-on package. As many of Bolivia’s most popular tourist cities are located at high altitudes, you will need this.
Our Facebook Group’s top picks for travel insurance are World Nomads and SafetyWing. World Nomads have been around since 2002. In Bolivia, you’re likely to need one or more of their extra packages to be fully insured. Always be sure to read the small print and ask when in doubt! SafetyWing is designed for travellers who want to keep their plans flexible, as they work on a subscription basis, allowing you to extend your policy when you are already travelling.
WHAT TO PACK | What should I pack for a trip to Bolivia?
Packing for a trip to Bolivia can be a little overwhelming, mainly due to the differences in climates across the country. If you have no idea where to begin, the following information should help.
Clothes for Bolivia
The key to successfully packing for your trip to Bolivia is to consider bringing lightweight clothing that is easy to layer up.
- Base layers: If you are taking on some of Bolivia’s best hikes, you’ll want your base layers to be warm!
- Waterproof jacket: The more extreme the altitude, the more likely you are to experience varied weather. You’ll need to account for all possibilities.
- Fleece: These provide a lot of warmth considering they don’t take up too much room in your backpack.
Aside from these things, opt for quick-dry clothing whenever possible and make sure you prioritise comfort above appearance. Bolivia is a rugged destination and your pretty Instagram dresses won’t stay nice for long in these conditions!
Footwear for Bolivia
- Walking boots/shoes: If you are planning to do some trekking in Bolivia, you will want to make sure that you have invested in a good sturdy pair of boots or shoes. Bolivia is a rugged destination and the pavements and roads can be of poor quality. Make sure that your shoes can withstand the terrain.
- Light trainers: These are ideal for walking around cities. Tropicfeel does a particularly versatile shoe that is great for travellers.
- Insect repellent: If you plan to visit the Amazon basin in Bolivia, you will need mosquito repellent. For the best results, pick up one with decent DEET content.
- Padlock: In many hostels around South America, you will be expected to provide your own padlock.
- Universal travel adaptor: Make sure you can charge your devices! A universal travel adaptor is ideal for backpackers and even better if it has multiple USB ports.
- Suncream: With so much of this country located at high altitudes, it is very easy to get sunburnt, even in cooler climates.
- Medical supplies: Parts of Bolivia are very remote and help can be quite far away. Carrying your own medical supplies in the form of a travel first aid kit could really benefit you if you get in a muddle.
- Water filter bottle: The tap water isn’t safe to drink in Bolivia so you’ll want to use a water purifier such as the Grayl Geopress.
FLIGHTS | Airports and airlines in Bolivia
Flying to Bolivia
As Bolivia borders five countries, backpackers usually enter via land borders. However, if you are flying to the country, you are most likely to arrive at El Alto International Airport (La Paz).
Direct flights into Bolivia are fairly limited and most travellers will need to do multi-leg journeys. There are no flights from the UK or Ireland into Bolivia and visitors will need to transfer in Europe, often in Madrid.
If you are travelling from the US, there are direct flights from Miami which travel to both La Paz and Santa Cruz. Travellers from Canada or Australasia won’t be able to fly direct and will be required to transfer in the US or somewhere in South America.
Flying within Bolivia
Although most backpackers tend to do the majority of their travel using long-distance buses, there may still be some instances in Bolivia where you’ll need to fly.
For travellers heading to the Amazon via Rurrenabaque, there are two options for travelling there: bus and domestic flight. The bus route there is notoriously unsafe and accidents are common, sometimes resulting in fatalities. This is one journey we’d recommend flying for! The flight takes around 40 minutes from La Paz is will cost in the region of $90USD one way. Flights are sometimes included in the cost of a tour if booked from La Paz.
Bear in mind that in the rainy season, domestic flights are routinely cancelled because of bad weather. If you can, it is best to be flexible with your plans if you are flying within the country. Domestic airlines include BOA, Amaszonas, Aerocon and TAM.
LANGUAGE | Spanish Tips
Bolivia is one of South America’s Spanish speaking countries. Whilst this is the most widely spoken language by far, there are 37 official languages in total, including a few extinct ones.
All of the indigenous languages are deemed official languages of the country under the constitution. Aymara, Quechua and Chiquitano are some of the most common indigenous languages that you are likely to hear throughout your travels in Bolivia.
COMMUNICATION | Phone & internet in Bolivia
Staying connected in Bolivia isn’t always easy. Remote locations like the Amazon basin and Uyuni are not well served by communication infrastructure and this can make finding reliable WiFi and phone signal a challenge.
However, assuming you want to get online when you can, it works out much cheaper to invest in a local SIM card once you arrive in the country. A bit of Spanish will come in handy here but if you’re confused, you can always ask someone at your hostel for advice.
Usually, you’ll buy the SIM on a market and the person will be able to set it up for you. It is best to avoid official shops if you can help it as these often require a Bolivian ID. Tourist packages that include data offer the best value for money so make sure to ask for this.
When it comes to WiFi, most hostels will provide it for free. However, connectivity is often patchy, especially outside of the big cities.
BUDGET | How much does it cost to backpack in Bolivia?
Bolivia came top in our recent article of the cheapest South American countries so shoestring backpackers are in for a treat here!
Exchange Rate: US dollar – 6.90 bolivianos
Cost of Accommodation in Bolivia
Much like most other things, accommodation is generally cheap in Bolivia. However, in certain cities such as Cochabamba, you will find that prices increase because there is less competition. This is something to bear in mind as you travel.
Even though Bolivia is a very popular country with travellers, you’ll only find backpacker hostels in the main tourist areas. In cities such La Paz, you’ll be spoilt for choice but in lesser-visited spots, they’re harder to come by.
Hostel dorm beds tend to cost from 40-70BOB (around $6-11USD) which is pretty reasonable. Internet can be a bit more patchy in Bolivia than in other countries so expect your hostel WiFi to drop out now and then.
In Bolivia, hotels are also reasonably priced. There are budget-friendly options, as well as more luxury choices. In the cheapest of these, you can expect a well-worn room with very basic facilities. However, in places such as the famous Palacio de Sal, you’ll be shelling out anywhere upwards of 1310BOB ($190USD) per night.
Bolivia is home to some incredible national parks but they are not all good for camping. For example, if you camped in one of the lowland jungle parks, you may get eaten by a jaguar!
There are some campsites across Bolivia, including the wonderful Colibri Camping outside La Paz. However, with accommodation options being very cheap, most prefer to exchange a bit of cash for comfort, rather than sleeping in a tent. If you do want to wake up to the sounds of nature, prices tend to start around 40BOB ($6USD) for a tent pitch.
If you are taking on some of Bolivia’s high-altitude hikes, you may need to camp. However, you’ll need to be sure that your gear will stand up to the conditions. The mountain environment can be punishing.
Cost of Food in Bolivia
Although Bolivia is overshadowed by the culinary scene of its neighbours, the country offers an exciting cuisine. Street food is cheap to buy and includes favourites such as salteñas, antichuchos and buñelos.
As with much of Latin America, if you’re on a budget it makes sense to make lunch your largest meal of the day. This way, you can take advantage of the almuerzo deals. These tend to include a starter, main course, dessert and drink and cost in the region of around 14- 20BOB ($2-3USD).
Cost of Beer in Bolivia
Backpackers will also be pleased to hear that beer is cheap in Bolivia. As with anywhere, expect to pay less for beer from a shop than in a club. In a bar, you can expect to pay around 14BOB ($2USD).
Cost of Activities in Bolivia
With so many epic and exciting things to do in Bolivia, your main challenge will be deciding which ones to do first! Luckily, tours offer great value for money in this part of the world and you can get a lot of bang for your buck. We’ve listed a few of our favourite activities below to give you an idea of the costs.
- Death Road Cycling Tour: $80USD
- Uyuni Salt Flats 3 Day Tour: $180USD (excluding park entrance fee $30USD)
- Lomas de Arena Day Trip: $80USD
- Cochabamba Street Art Tour by Bike: $12USD
- 3 Day Pampas Tour: $180USD
TRANSPORT | Getting Around Bolivia
Don’t forget to factor in the cost of transport when travelling around Bolivia.
Taxis in Bolivia
The taxis in Bolivia do not generally have meters so you’ll need to agree on a price before the journey starts. It is a good idea to speak to a local or someone working in your hostel to ask how much a journey should cost you beforehand.
When travelling by taxi in Bolivia, you’re advised to look for radio taxis (which have a phone number on the top), as these operate legally. Scams are common in Bolivian taxis so avoid anyone who doesn’t look legit (a battered piece of paper in the window claiming to be a taxi spells trouble) and avoid hailing a taxi on the street after dark.
Uber and some of the other rideshare apps do operate in the bigger cities which are a good option for travellers who don’t feel safe using traditional taxis.
Buses in Bolivia
Buses are the best value for money option when travelling around the country but some routes are particularly sketchy and should be avoided if possible. For example, the road which connects Rurrenabaque to La Paz.
In the rainy season, delays to buses are common and alternate routes may be used. Generally, expect to pay around 10BOB per hour of travel on a standard bus. Prices will go up for VIP tourist services.
Trains in Bolivia
The train is generally not a popular method of travel for tourists in Bolivia. There are limited lines and although prices are on-par with buses, they are usually a lot slower.
Flights in Bolivia
Although you may have to fly internally to reach some destinations, this is undoubtedly the most expensive way to travel around the country. To conserve your budget, it’s recommended to avoid flying when possible. Your wallet and the planet will thank you!
If you are short on time and need to fly, bear in mind that although pretty much all of the major cities are served by airports, they are often located a good distance from the city. For example, La Paz’s airport is nearly an hour’s car journey from the centre and is actually situated in El Alto! You’ll also need to factor in the cost of travelling from the airport to your accommodation too.
Cable cars in Bolivia
If you know anything about La Paz, you probably know that it is famous for its cable car, known locally as Mi Teleférico. Perhaps the coolest way to travel, there are currently ten lines in operation, all serving different parts of the city.
If you are in La Paz, make sure you do at least one journey using the cable car. It offers an incredible way to see the city and presents a startling contrast between the buzz of the streets below and the serene surrounding mountains.
Even better still, the cable car is great value for money. A trip on one line costs just 3 bolivianos – that is just $0.50USD!
WHERE TO GO | Places to Visit in Bolivia
Bolivia is a hugely diverse country when it comes to wildlife and there are plenty of places to explore if you want to spot exotic animals. Most travellers head to Rurrenabaque for pampas and jungle tours as this is the cheapest place to experience the Amazon basin in South America.
More intrepid adventurers won’t want to stop their exploration there though. Although Santa Cruz de la Sierra is often treated as a pitstop for backpackers, there is plenty to see there.
Notable wildlife tour company Nick’s Adventures is based out of the city and offers all sorts of ethical wildlife tours to destinations such as Lomas de Arena and one of South America’s best national parks, Kaa-Iya of the Gran Chaco.
Although Bolivia’s food is often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Peru, the country still boasts their fair share of mouthwatering dishes. Cochabamba is the capital of cuisine and foodie travellers will want to make sure they try a few of the local delicacies.
For culture shock…
Culture shock may usually be framed as a negative thing but we here at South America Backpacker don’t really subscribe to that. After all, isn’t it the really crazy travel experiences that you come back to in your head time and time again?
If you are looking for a place to push you out of your comfort zone, La Paz is it. From staggering altitudes, creepy witch markets, indigenous wrestlers and buzzing streets, this city is sure to shock and delight in equal measure.
For otherworldly landscapes…
When it comes to world-class landscapes, it doesn’t get much more awe-inspiring than the incredible Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest salt deposit anywhere in the world for a few weeks every year, the surface water turns the scene into the largest mirror!
Did you know that you can even eat the salt from Salar de Uyuni? Check out this article for more mind-blowing facts about Bolivia!
THINGS TO DO | Top 10 Things To Do in Bolivia
1. Visit the World’s Largest Salt Flats
Located in the south of the country, 3000 metres above sea level, you will find the unbelievable Uyuni salt flats. They are the largest salt flats on earth, stretching out over 11,000 square kilometres!
Marvel at this other-worldly landscape where the land and sky seem to merge into one… this is one travel experience that you’ll need to see to believe!
2. Explore the Witches’ Market in La Paz
Ever wanted to see a shrivelled llama foetus? Us neither. Now imagine you had the opportunity, you probably still would, right?
In the middle of La Paz lies the Witches’ Market, known locally as ‘Mercado de las Brujas’. Pick up dried frogs, folk remedies, soapstone figurines and llama foetuses to ward off bad spirits and keep yourself safe.
Even if you don’t fancy making a purchase, a around this area is a must-do for any adventurer!
3. Bike Down Death Road
Heralded as the world’s most dangerous road, North Yungas Road links La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas rainforest region.
More commonly known as ‘Death Road’, this infamous track is just 61 kilometres in length but the road is renowned for being incredibly dangerous. Before it was closed to vehicular traffic, it was estimated that 200-300 lives were lost there every year.
The road has strangely become a major tourist attraction and nowadays, thrill-seekers speed down the gravel track on mountain bikes.
Death Road isn’t for everyone, as this article written by two different travellers shows but it’s become a rite of passage for backpackers in La Paz!
When choosing a tour operator, make sure you do your research. Not everybody has a good reputation when it comes to safety. We recommend Bolivian Bike Junkies, a local company run by loveable adrenaline junkie Jose.
4. Eat at Cochabamba Market
Ask any local where you can try the best authentic Bolivian food and they’ll likely tell you Cochabamba. This city is home to Bolivia’s gastronomy scene and hosts a number of local dishes you’ll struggle to beat.
Head to Mercado 25 de Mayo for a traditional Bolivian communal dining experience. When it comes to must-try dishes, you could eat for hours but make sure you don’t miss the Lomo Barracho and Silpancho.
5. See Sloths in Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Santa Cruz de la Sierra is a destination often missed from backpacker itineraries. However, this buzzing metropolis offers a different experience from most Bolivian cities.
Santa Cruz is home to the largest sloth population anywhere on earth and you can often see them hanging out in trees around the city.
Head to the Jardin Botanicó where they like to chill or head off on a day trip to Parque Lomas de Arena to combine your wildlife spotting with a touch of sandboarding!
6. Trek in the Andes Mountains
Often described as the ‘Tibet of South America’ Bolivia is like the wild west for walkers. Unlike more famous treks such as those to Machu Picchu and around Patagonia, Bolivia’s best hikes lay firmly off the Gringo trail and few ever embark on them.
However, the world-class scenery, high-altitude setting and lack of tourists make hiking in Bolivia an epic adventure for those who love exploring on foot. Many of the hikes can be done independently, however, if you are not experienced with high-altitude mountain trekking it is always advisable to go with a guide.
7. Hike Isla del Sol
Located within eyeshot of famous border town Copacabana, Isla del Sol is the reason many backpackers choose to spend a couple of days in this unassuming lakeside spot.
Most choose to visit Isla del Sol on a day trip, however, to really get a feel for the place we recommend staying overnight.
The island is home to Incan ruins which offer a fascinating insight into Bolivian traditions. There are no cars on the island so the only way to explore is on foot. Although the steep hills can be tiring, the views are out of this world, making it easy to forget the exertion.
Unfortunately, it is now impossible to visit the northern part of the island. The communities who live on Isla del Sol have failed to reach an agreement over-tourism revenue and as a result, those living in the north have created a blockade to prohibit outsiders from coming in. It’s a heated situation so even if you were to overcome the blockade, we doubt you’d be met with a warm welcome. Stick to the accessible parts of the island.
8. Visit Uyuni’s Train Cemetery
Although most backpackers find themselves in Uyuni with the sole purpose of experiencing the epic salt flats, there are other attractions near this unassuming city.
The Great Train Graveyard sits on the outskirts of Uyuni and has become a surprising tourist attraction for those visiting the city.
Once an important transportation hub, there were plans to expand Bolivia’s railway further. However, tension with neighbouring countries put an abrupt end to such plans. As a result, these locomotives have been left to rust in the middle of nowhere.
9. Experience the Amazon
Bolivia is the cheapest place from which to access the Amazon basin. Pampas tours tend to be the backpacker favourite as they are the most affordable but jungle tours are well worth the extra dollar.
Whilst you’re likely to see capybaras, monkeys and snakes on both kinds of tour, a jungle tour could even result in you spotting a jaguar (if you’re really, really lucky)!
Always do your research before booking an Amazon trip as some of the companies have been known to cut corners and encourage unethical practices. Never go with any organisation that encourages feeding the animals. For any kind of wildlife tour in Bolivia, we recommend Nick’s Adventures.
10. Watch the Cholita Wrestling
Ever wondered what it would be like to see indigenous ladies wrestling? El Alto offers the opportunity to turn that dream into a reality!
Whether you think Cholita wrestling is a tourist trap or an authentic travel experience, an evening spent watching these women slam each other around in the ring is guaranteed to be a good night.
Tours are available to book all over La Paz. Although it is possible to head to El Alto independently via cable car, it has a bad reputation for crime and travellers are an easy target. We wouldn’t recommend heading there solo for that reason.
Do you have any more questions about Bolivia? Contact us by email, leave a comment below or ask away in the South America Backpacker Facebook Community!