Bolivia

I thought two weeks would be enough for Bolivia — I was wrong! I stayed there almost a month and could have stayed much longer. The warm-hearted people I met, the beautiful parks that whispered to lay down, the historical architecture, and the incredible beauty of the lagoons close to Uyuni made it difficult to leave.

Copacabana (3’841 m)

Copacabana is a very small and peaceful town right next to Lake Titicaca. One of the largest, highest, and deepest lakes in the world. One evening I hiked up the Cerro Calvario where I had an unforgettable view of the bay. The sun sets for hours. Nearby, the Restaurant Bambu offers a peaceful place to hang around in its peaceful garden.

Volunteering at Hostal Joshua

An eco-hostel with compost toilets, a greenhouse, relaxed music, and a place for camping. They have a vegetarian/vegan restaurant with reasonable prices. Breakfast is between 12-22 Bs. and a meal between 22-30 Bs. The food is delicious! Among other things they offer hummus, falafel, arepas, guacamole, lentil burger, whole grain bread, and homemade ketchup. I was very happy to help in the kitchen.

La Paz (3’640 m)

La Paz (seat of government) is an incredibly interesting and vibrant city. There are a number of things to do but it is also nice to simply walk around for hours. Sopocachi is a beautiful neighbourhood and the Witches’ Market a fascinating area.

La Paz lies in a valley surrounded by massive mountains. Due to the hills and underground water they built a cable car (Teleferico) that runs on electricity, part of which is provided through solar power. The impact on the environment is a topic of great importance in Bolivia. Influenced by the indigenous world view that mother earth (Pachamama) is a living being. She is fertile and therefore sacred. She is the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is composed of all ecosystems and living beings that forms part of a big family.

Some Bolivians sacrifice Pachamama dried llama fetus when building a house. It is said that for larger buildings, a llama fetus is not sufficient. Therefore, a human was sacrificed. A homeless person that nobody misses. He got so much food and alcohol until he was unconscious. After that he was cemented alive. It is important that Pachamama decides on death and life. It is rumored that this is still practiced.

The cable car network is a fast and reliable public transport system. Many more lines are planned to be built. A one way ticket costs 3 Bs. Another modern and comfortable public transport is the Pumakatari bus. It has Wi-Fi and it is possible to take your bicycle for free. A collectivo is 2-3.60 Bs.

I highly recommend to go on one of the donation-based walking tours organized by Red Cap Tours starting daily at 11 am. It made me want to learn more about their history and politics.

My host, Daltry, was a big plus during my stay in La Paz. He was incredible helpful and knowledgeable. Daltry introduced me to Akbar (a delicious tea brand) and was very interested in a whole-food, plant-based diet. On his free day he took us on a three-hour ride to Coroico. It was a great trip 🙂 His dog, Kiara, is one of the cutest dogs I ever met.

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Cochabamba (2548 m)

With nicknames such as “Culinary Capital of Bolivia” and “The Garden City” — I knew I was going to enjoy this city. The beautiful old buildings and the lovely parks give the city a wonderful charm.

The family I was staying is so wonderful, warm, and helpful. Aida, the mum, cooked delicious food and made something extra that is vegan for me. My host Carmelo, an enthusiast meat eater, joined me twice to a vegetarian restaurant and fell in love with the falafels. They have seven dogs and a beautiful home with a garden where Carmelo takes care of his flowers. We watched movies together, did karaoke, danced, and went for many walks in the city and parks. My favourite parts of the city were Plaza 14 de Septiembre, Plaza Colón with its parrots, and to walk along El Prado.

Cochabamba is one of the safest cities in Bolivia. However, the area around the main bus terminal is not very safe late at night and on the stairs of the hill with the Christ statue Cerro de San Pedro have been robberies, some during the day.

Cochabamba has buses (micros), mini-vans (trufis) and shared taxis (taxi-trufis) that run along fixed routes. There are no set stops and in order to get off, you must say “voy a bajar” (I want to get off) or “esquina” (for stop at the corner). All are 2 Bs. At night they charge double.

Sucre (2’810 m)

Sucre is such a pretty capital with its white buildings that it tends to suck in travellers who find it difficult to leave. It happened to me. The climate is wonderful spring-like and the large student population gives the city a youthful vibe and happening nightlife. I highly recommend the website http://www.sucrelife.com that shows current events. Joy Ride Cafe offers free salsa and bachata lessons every Tuesday and Thursday at 9.30 pm. Every Wednesday at 7pm are free salsa lessons at Kultur Café Berlin. The park Simón Bolívar is beautiful and Recoleta is a nice overlook especially by sunset.

My first host in Sucre, Daniel, received me with a smile and open arms in the early morning, offered me cinnamon tea, and let me sleep for a few more hours. We explored the city and Yotala on his motorbike. Each curve I was relieved that we made it.

My second host, Omar, owns a hostel where I stayed (Hostal travelers Guesthouse). The hostel had an outside area to relax and enjoy the sun, a well equipped kitchen, was very clean, and had contagiously great vibe. In the evening we cooked together, went out dancing, and shared some interesting conversations.

Salt Flats tour of Uyuni

On this tour I went to some of the most impressive and beautiful places on earth I have ever been! My highlights were the striking red coloured Laguna Colorado, the Laguna Cañapa with its countless flamingos, the first night in a hotel out of salt bricks, the magical geyser for sunrise, and to swim in the hot spring.

The food was good. They prepared soja meat and eggplants for me. Dairy products were harder to avoid. The first lunch had sprinkled cheese on everything, the bread for breakfast had some cheese on top, and the pancakes contained butter. I only have a lactose intolerance when I eat a lot of cheese. So I was fine with eating just a bit. Dinner always started with tea and some snacks and the second evening we got a bottle of wine.

The third day is pretty much the return trip to Uyuni. We got up very early to watch the sunrise at the geyser. I took a bath in the hot spring (6 Bs.). And then I had to change the jeep because I had a transfer to Chile. The bus usually leaves around 10am from the border crossing. But before we visited Laguna Verde which was more brown than green. Our guide said it is greener in the afternoon. It has a lot to do with the wind and the minerals that come up.

Possible are either a one-, three-, or four-day tour. The tour starts at around 10:30 am. Each jeep takes maximum six people. I booked my three-day tour with Hodaka in Uyuni since they have good reviews (no drunk drivers) the same morning I started the tour. I payed 800 Bs. which included the bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile (50 Bs.). Usual price is 700-750 Bs.

Good to know:

  • They serve one bottle of water and Coca Cola each meal for six people. Insofar I recommend to take water with you.
  • There are many banks in Uyuni. It is possible to pay the tour agency in USD. But the rest of the tour you need to pay in Bolivianos.
  • You will go up to 5’000 m. Acclimatisation is beneficial.
  • The entrance fee to the national park close to Lagoon Colorado is usually not included (150 Bs.).
  • A visit to Isla del Pescado is optional (30 Bs.).
  • Toilets charge between 2-5 Bs.
  • There is no phone or Internet signal.
  • It is possible to take a (hot) shower in the first hotel for 25 Bs. The second hotel is very basic. No shower, electricity for only a few hours.
  • It gets very cold. Especially at night.
  • The jeeps can drop you off at the border with Chile and arrange for a transfer bus to take you to Chile.

Interesting to know

  • Bolivia is very wealthy in minerals (e.g. tin, lithium).
  • Bolivians protest a lot.
  • The current president, Evo Morales, is the first indigenous Bolivian president. He gave the indigenous majority more power.
  • Che Guevara was killed in 1967 in Bolivia.

Food

Eating in Bolivia was such a nice and delicious experience that I wrote its own blog entry: Vegan eating in Bolivia.

The tap water at most places is not recommended to drink. Although Bolivians may do so. Their stomachs are used to it. It is best to boil the tap water.

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is not very popular in Bolivia yet. I found a host in each city besides Copacabana.
  • Hostels are available for 40-60 Bs. per night in a dorm.
  • Volunteering is a nice option to spend a few weeks at one place.
  • Camping is possible at some places (e.g. Copacabana).

Transport

The transport system is chaotic. It is not unusual for buses to be delayed by protests leaving people stranded for days. I was lucky that one big protest just finished when I entered the country. Some roads are still unpaved, making traveling long and bumpy. Unfortunately there are drunk drivers and often dysfunctional on-board toilets. When I travelled with the bus company El Dorado we were twice close to a collision. It was an adventure! The bus terminals charge 2.50 Bs. for using it.

Long-distance buses typically cost about 3 to 10 Bs. per hour. Local collectivos inside a city are usually 2 to 4 Bs. The local collectivos usually stop whenever you like. If you want to get off just call “baja”. So the driver knows that he should stop.

For some Bolivians the traffic lights are like Christmas lights. So as a pedestrian if you see a gap, run for your life.

Buses I took:

  • Bus from Puno, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia: 20 soles (4h). First bus leaves at 6am. You will get off the bus in Yunguyo to check out of Peru, cross the bridge on foot, check into Bolivia, and then board your bus again.
  • Collectivo from Copacabana (departing from Plaza Sucre) to La Paz (Cemetery terminal, leaves every hour, 3.5h): 25 Bs. At one point on the way you will have to exit the bus and buy a ticket (2 Bs.) for the brief boat ride across the lake. The bus will collect you on the other side.
  • Bus from La Paz (Terminal de buses Lapaz) to Cochabamba: 20 Bs. (8.5h, El Dorado).
  • Overnight bus from Cochabamba to Sucre: 30 Bs. (7h, San Francisco).
  • Overnight bus at 8.30 pm from Sucre (main bus terminal) to Uyuni: 70 Bs. (7-8h, 6 De Octubre). I arrived at 4.20 am. It is freezing cold outside and there is no bus terminal. The guy who sat next to me let me sleep for a few hours in his house. It is also possible to stay in the bus for a few more hours.

Safety

Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. Ask which the neighbourhoods you should avoid are. Petty theft and slashing (of bags) happen sometimes. Especially in busses.

Health

Altitude sickness is not felt until you surpass 2500m. Even though Bolivia’s altitudes ranges from 90 to 6542 meters above sea level most cities are above 2500m. It is basically your body telling you it is not getting enough oxygen. Most common symptoms are a headache, nausea and tiredness. In very small number of cases, you could also suffer from significant shortness of breath, confusion, drowsiness, coma and even death. That is why it is very important to give yourself enough time to acclimatise at least a few days. Rest, drink plenty of water and suck coca leaves that many believe helps alleviate altitude’s affect on the body. Alcohol goes to your head more quickly at higher altitude.

Climate

Bolivia’s weather differs greatly depending on the altitude and topography of the region. The highlands (west) are less affected by rain. The rainforest (northernmost area) has an equatorial climate with hot and humid weather and rain distributed all year long. I do not recommend visiting the Amazon forest in the rainy season (November to March) since it is often flooded. In the lowlands (east. e.g. Santa Cruz de la Sierra) the climate is tropical, with a dry season in winter (May to October), and a wet season in summer (November to March). Temperatures tend to drop slightly in the winter.

Language

Spanish is the official and predominant language although 36 indigenous languages also have official status, of which the most commonly spoken are Guarani, Aymara and Quechua. English is taught in schools. I was surprised how many of the people I met spoke great English. Some even French and German.

Currency

Official currency: Bolivian Bolíviano (BOB). At many banks it is only possible to withdraw 500 Bs. each time. At Bancofie I could withdraw 1’500 Bs. with Mastercard.

Visa

No entrance or exit fees. The Visa is for 30 days (free for most countries). If you want to stay longer you can extend your Visa free of charge pretty simple in most major Bolivian cities for of up to 90 days annually. The tourist Visa fee for U.S. citizens is 160 USD.

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