Bolivia travel advice

Another of those random straight-from-the-unsorted-chaos-of-my-memory-to-the-unsorted-chaos-of-the-intertubes advice/tips-and-tricks posts.  Feel free to skip if you don’t have a trip to Bolivia potentially pushing its way into your not-too-distant future, especially since there aren’t even any pretty pictures to distract you with.


Most of Bolivia is high.  (Insert inevitable drug reference here.)  There are bits of it that are at, shall we say, normal altitudes (below two thousand metres) – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that two-thirds of the country is lowlands, and the lowest point is a delightfully oxygen-rich 90m above sea level.  But except for the areas you might visit to see the Amazon jungle, the bits you’re likely to encounter are all at three thousand metres or higher.

La Paz is the world’s most up-there (de facto / administrative) capital city, at 3650m, and when you fly in, you actually land at El Alto, La Paz’s higher next-door neighbour, so that you’re touching down at 4060m.  We came to Bolivia from Cusco and Machu Picchu, so had acclimatised to altitude a little – and our previous experiences with oxygen-deprivation in Nepal gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the thinness of air.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t expect still to be puffing and panting our way around, and we were definitely on the money with that assessment.

Other likely destinations in Bolivia are not going to offer much respite:  sure, Sucre is lower, at 2750m, but at 3840m, Copacabana is even higher than La Paz, and the Uyuni salt flats are La Paz’s equal, at 3650m.  (The 4WD tours you do from Uyuni will have you sleeping above 4000m, and visiting as high as 4800m, so you want to be coping well with the elevation by the time you embark on one of those bastards.)  While we didn’t go there, you could get a bit of relief in Cochabamba (2570m), but don’t expect any such kindness while visiting the silver mines of Potosí, which at 4090m is one of the world’s highest cities.

So come to Bolivia expecting that altitude will affect pretty much everything you do:  walking up hills will be hard, and won’t be made any easier by the polluted air from the bus/truck thing that is having just as much difficulty ascending as you are.  Hell, even taking a hot shower will leave you short of breath by the time all the steamy goodness of a well-enjoyed hot water service takes over half of your lungs.

Long story short:  be prepared for shortness of breath, and make sure you know a bit about altitude sickness.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to have some Diamox with you, just in case, and you should definitely be willing to change your travel plans and seek out some low-lying rest stops if you start suffering the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness.

Cross-country transport

I get the impression that this has improved markedly in the last couple of years, but be aware that buses in Bolivia are, well, crashy.

Stories of drunk or drugged-up bus drivers abound – one girl we met on our tour of the Uyuni salt flats seemed remarkably sanguine about having just survived an overnight bus trip which included a group of other passengers having to force their way into the driver’s compartment at 4am when the driving became erratic, to discover that the driver had pissed himself, vomited, and more or less passed out behind the wheel.  It all ended well, with a replacement driver installed and the original shoved unceremoniously into the baggage compartment for a not-so-well-deserved nap.  But it’s one of those stories I’d rather hear than experience nonetheless.

If you’re bussing between La Paz and Uyuni, the Todo Turismo bus – while expensive by Bolivian standards, at Bs 230 (£22 / $US33) per person – is basically the only acceptable option.  It’s a perfectly comfortable trip, and nothing to worry about.  The alternatives, not so much.  Todo Turismo’s offices are at Avenida Uruguay #102, in a blue building basically across the road (and down a little) from the Terminal de Buses in central La Paz (not the one in El Alto, which Google Maps will happily direct you to if you’re not careful to distinguish).

After our salt flats tour, we took an overnight tourist bus from Uyuni to Sucre – there are a number of operators on this route, and we just went with the one that our salt flats tour company booked for us (6 de Octubre, I think it was).  Probably should have researched that a little more beforehand, but it was fine, and I get the impression that that route isn’t typically a problem.

We ended up flying from Sucre back to La Paz – partly to avoid yet another overnighter with little sleep, and partly because the research I’d done suggested that the buses on that route are historically more problematic.  If you’re going to bus it, there’s a few recommendations on this Lonely Planet thread (check out comment #10 in particular).  With little more to go on than appearance, I’d back the suggestions there:  of the bus fleets we saw, El Dorado and Bolivar did look to have the nicest buses.

Bussing between La Paz and Copacabana doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a problem as other destinations:  it’s a shorter trip (three to four hours), and the buses run during the day.  We did have one nervous nitwit on our bus tearfully imploring the bus driver to slow down, citing fearfulness due to an overturned bus he’d come across elsewhere in Bolivia (he even had a photo on his camera to show the bus driver), but actually the driving was perfectly safe and reasonable.  We went with Diana’s Tours (getting there) and Tur Bus (coming back) – but basically any of the tourist buses would be fine, I’m sure.  I can’t vouch for the collectivos going from the cemetery area, but plenty of people out there on the interwebs do recommend them as a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

4WD tours of the Uyuni salt flats

Again, do your research to avoid drunken and drugged-up drivers.  There are plenty of horror stories out there:  crashes, drivers drinking while driving, drivers too hungover to drive the next morning, drivers too drunk to bother preparing meals, cars constantly breaking down, wheels falling off, etc.

Chris came prepared with a list of four of the more reputable companies:  Red Planet, Quechua, Cordillera, and Empexsa.  They all have their fair share of atrocious reviews, but they seemed to have fewer than the rest…

We ended up going with Empexsa, since we were hunting around on the morning we got to Uyuni and wanted to leave that day.  We were incredibly lucky:  we not only had a very safe, sober and reliable driver (Johnny – thanks, mate!) but we also had a great group of people in the other four passengers (a big thanks to you lot, too!).

So I can recommend Empexsa, especially if you have Johnny as your driver.

But one final word of warning:  even being selective about the company you book with might not be enough.  Companies will regularly offload their passengers into another agency’s car when they don’t have the right number of passengers to fill a car themselves – so the car you actually end up in might not belong to the agency you booked with.  Not really sure what you can do about that, other than book at the last minute, like we did, with an agency that’s looking to fill the last few spots in their car.


Bolivia has terrible internet access.  A fair number of restaurants and cafés do have the wi-fis, and almost all accommodation will too, but speed and reliability are nowhere to be found.

There’s enough that you’ll be able to touch base every so often and do a little bit of online research when you need it, but good luck trying to get a Skype call going.  And if you happen to be the narcissistic sort and have a travel blog, good luck getting new posts up – especially if they involve pictures.  (Sigh.)  Similarly, your legions of Facebook friends may have to wait until you make it to Chile or Argentina or Peru or wherever else you happen to be going next to see yet another picture of perspective feats and weirdness with giant toy dinosaurs on the Uyuni salt flats.

When you’re doing your normal research for accommodation, it’s worth seeing what the reviews say about the wifi.  And when you’re planning your trip, it’s worth saving information offline (on your phone – say with Pocket and/or Evernote and/or emails to yourself – or on your laptop) for future reference.  Don’t rely on being able to get it back out of the cloud when you get there.

Touring Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats)

Any farmer will tell you – I presume;  it occurs to me while writing this sentence that I don’t actually really know many farmers all that well, come to think of it – that a large amount of salt is one of the most thorough ways to render a tract of land completely useless.  And yet the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia are one of the country’s biggest money-earners.  It would be a little harsh to claim that as emblematic of Bolivia’s position in the world:  that the country’s best (tourist attraction) is other countries’ worst (threats to sustainability, etc.).  But there you have it…

The Uyuni salt flats

The Uyuni salt flats. Not the most riveting photo, I’ll agree – but it’s basically a big sheet of white. What did you expect to see?!

Aka Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are just that:  large expanses of salt – as far as the eye can see.  They’re up in the Atacama desert, in Bolivia’s south-western highlands.  And are the highlands ever high:  our four-day tour had us sleeping above 4000m every night, and cresting 5000m on a couple of the days.  My lasting memory of which is going to be the observation that there’s a lot more high altitude snoring that goes on when unacclimatised.  (Not that I’m claiming that I was magically unaffected by this, of course.)

Touring the salt flats is a little bit surreal, to be honest.  Basically, you’re being driven around the desert for several days so that you can see (a) some salt, (b) some rocks, and (c) some lakes.  Still, they’re all much-vaunted features of the Bolivian landscape, and so it seemed silly not to go see them.  And they were very pretty.

We got to Uyuni on an overnight bus, and spent the morning shopping around the various tour agencies for a tour which satisfied our two primary criteria:  first, was it leaving today;  second, was there a high likelihood that we would return alive and uninjured.  (Bolivia does not exactly have a reputation for great driving conditions – nor for great drivers – and many a salt flat tour has ended very unhappily for those who have chosen their provider poorly.  See upcoming post for recommendations on avoiding that fate yourself.)  Finally we found one and set off, discovering as we did that not only did it seem like we’d picked the tour operator well, but also that we’d been particularly fortunate in the travelling companions who’d chosen similarly – the four others in our 4WD were fantastic company for the time we spent with them.

Actually only one of the days of the tour is about the salt flats.  Probably a good thing, too – as fun as it is taking fancy photos playing clever tricks with perspective, it’s an activity which I imagine you’d tire of pretty quickly if you tried more than a couple of hours of it.

Perspective tricks on the Uyuni salt flats  (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Not sure which of these two girls is the angel on my shoulder and which the devil… (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Because of course part of the point of the salt flats is that they’re so surreal, so unusual, so uniform, that you lose all sense of perspective.  Which means you can play fun tricks.

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

So, once we’d done that, what else was there to do with our three days?  Well, there was a train graveyard, there were flamingo-filled lakes, there were beautiful sunsets, there were colourful lakes with mirror finishes beautifully reflecting mountains in the background, there were cool-shaped rocks in the desert, there were…

Well, there were lots of pretty things.  Which I guess means they’re better looked at than described.  Uyuni – and all of southern Bolivia – is most definitely a visual sort of area.

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake in southern Bolivia

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise in southern Bolivia

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise

A great spot for a hot spring bath in southern Bolivia

A great spot for a hot spring bath

Driving through the desert in southern Bolivia

Driving through the desert