Visiting Bolivia – What to know

After living for a month in Bolivia and travelling around to parts of the country, including La Paz, Valle de La Luna, the Salt Flats, Tibunaku and Copacabana, we learnt a little about how the country operates.

Some aspects took a little longer getting used to than others, so we thought we’d share with you some tips from our travels.

Bus station La Paz Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

A busy street in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia

Visiting Bolivia – What to know:

Language

The degree of difficulty understanding Spanish varies greatly depending on what country you visit in South America. I’ve had Spanish people tell me that even they found it tough to understand the Chileans – they are apparently one of the most difficult to understand in the region.

Thankfully, Bolivians are the easiest.

Take advantage of this and don’t expect the locals to be able to speak English – many don’t. Learn at least a couple of basic phrases before you go.

Some helpful ones are:

¿Dónde está el baño – Where is the bathroom?

¿Cuánto es? – How much is it?

Me gustaría… – I would like…

Par favour – Please

Gracias – Thank you

Consider taking some Spanish lessons when you arrive to get the gist of the language. Dave and I spent 10 days at an Airbnb where the owner of the apartment gave us an hour Spanish lesson everyday.

After searching online for Spanish schools and classes, this was by far the cheapest option – we ended up paying about US$10 per lesson for the two of us.

Transport

The spoken Spanish might be the best in Bolivia but I’m pretty sure the buses are some of the worst.

Thankfully you can chose what type of overnight / long journey transport you can go on, with there are normally two tiers – cama or semi-cama. The cama ones are the better ones and you can expect to have a toilet and perhaps even a blanket to keep you warm on the long distance journeys.

We always took our ‘sleeping kit’ with us on the buses, which included an inflatable pillow, an eye mask and ear plugs. A blanket is handy too because it can get very cold during the night.

Salt flats car ride Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

Travelling with friends in a four-wheel drive over the Salt Flats – a cramped but fun journey

Try not to drink too much water on the journey because even if they have a toilet on the bus it probably won’t be the most enjoyable experience to use it.

The shorter distance buses are in mini-vans and are really cheap, at around US0.20c (1.50 Bolivianos) for a 20 minute ride.

Dave and I were marvelling at how, in a developing country such as Bolivia, the public transport is often a lot better than in first world countries. They might be behind in some things but their transport rocks.

Toilets

Be prepared for the toilets in Bolivia. I wasn’t and it was a bit of a rude shock.

Firstly, many of them do not have soap to wash your hands with and this can cause numerous problems as I soon discovered when Dave fell ill from what was suspected food poisoning.

World's highest curry house La Paz Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

Eating chilli at the world’s highest curry house in La Paz – but I don’t think spicy food is the best dish at high altitude…

My lack of faith in the hygiene standards was further diminished when I saw an advertisement for washing your hands properly because of an outbreak of dysentery.

Our remedy to combat the lack of hygiene was to carry hand sanitiser with us at all times.

Along with a roll of toilet paper.

Because that’s the other issue – it’s rare you’ll find a toilet that comes with toilet paper.

But when you do you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Although you won’t enjoy disposing of it. The Bolivian sewage system can’t handle toilet paper so you have to throw your soiled paper into the waste paper bin rather than flush it.

Stir fried rice in Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

Found a delicious vegetarian restaurant in La Paz called NamasTe. Toally worth a visit

Food and drink

The staple food in Bolivia seems to be meat and potatoes, or sometimes pasta. We noticed that a lot of the dishes seem to compartmentalise the ingredients rather than mixing them together for a total dish.

For example, each day when Dave and I were living in Valle de la Luna, we would go to the local hotel to work. Sometimes we would eat our lunch there.

Each time, the main course would consist of meat, potatoes / rice / pasta and vegetables. But never would they combine all three into a rice stir-fry, for example.

I was trying very hard to continue the vegetarianism I started in the USA but it’s quite difficult in Bolivia as most of the dishes have meat in them.

But the desserts in Bolivia make up for it. Bolivians love their cake and ice-cream. Walking down the main street in La Paz and you’ll see cake store after cake store, all with numerous cakes looking delicious in the windows.

One thing you do need to be careful about in Bolivia is the water. DO NOT drink it. Brush your teeth with bottled water as well.

Cake in Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

Yum… delicious Bolivian cake

Altitude

Dave already mentioned he got terrible altitude sickness when we first arrived in Bolivia. It’s not surprising – Bolivia is home to the highest town in the world (Potosi) at a height of 4,000m.

Altitude sickness is something you either get or you don’t – it has nothing to do with your fitness.

View of Potosi Bolivia Double-Barrelled Travel

Potosi – the highest town in the world

Altitude sickness can give you headaches and an upset stomach. There is medication you can take to fight it, and the locals love to chew coco leaves to help ease it (it’s like chewing on a very bitter leaf), but sometimes the only thing to do is to acclimatise.

This took Dave nearly a week, but normal it should take only three days or so.

Even if you don’t feel like it, try to eat a lot because you burn more calories at high altitude. Avoid alcohol (trust me, the hangovers are AWFUL!) and drink a lot of water to stay hydrated.

And there you have it – some tips for visiting Bolivia – what to know.

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About the author

Carmen has been nomadic since May 2013 and the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel. She loves experiencing new cultures and learning new languages. She is having the most fun when skiing down a mountain, scuba diving in the Caribbean or curled up with a good book.

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