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Rugged and landlocked, Bolivia is routinely skipped by tourists in South America seeking only surf and sand or beautiful resorts. But if you’re seeking culture, authenticity, and adventure, then Bolivia is an unbelievably great destination.
Backpacking in Bolivia does come with a few challenges and it helps to plan ahead. Luckily we’re here to help set your expectations and to share the most important travel tips.
Plan your trip to Bolivia
Is Bolivia Worth Visiting?
In a word: “yes!”. Being one of the most authentic and wide-ranging countries you can visit in South America, Bolivia can surprise you in so many ways.
However, while there are so many amazing things to do in Bolivia, this country does have a few important aspects to be aware of.
Bolivia possesses a raw culture that doesn’t try to please tourists. While this can put some off, I’ve found it extremely refreshing, since you’ll be seeing the real country on a day-to-day basis.
It does also mean the infrastructure (such as accommodation and roads) will be of a lower standard than what you’re used to, but this is all part of the fun and games of backpacking Bolivia!
Cities like La Paz have so many fascinating things to experience, from the wild witches’ market to colonial architecture. You’ll also have the chance to try various Bolivian foods, which I feel is an underrated cuisine. Be sure to try local favorites such as Pique Macho and the quick-to-go Cuñape.
The scenery in Bolivia can also vary extremely, making it the perfect country to see a range of different climates.
In the Altiplano and Andes regions, we can find many striking mountains covered in snow year-round, which are home to many glacial lakes that you can hike to. Sweeping Lake Titicaca, bordering Peru, is the highest-altitude major lake on Earth.In stark contrast, we have the hot and humid Amazon jungle, which can either be reached via the dramatic Yungas Road (where you’ll see the mountainous landscapes shift to jungle as you descend), or from Santa Cruz de la Sierra further south.
In the jungle, you’ll find all kinds of animals such as capybaras, pink dolphins, and howler monkeys, and especially so in the Madidi National Park, which is one of the most ecologically diverse zones on the planet.
Lastly, we have the major highlight of a trip to Bolivia: the Salar de Uyuni. This giant white salt field that extends as far as the eye can see is easily one of the top attractions in all of South America. In the region around the salt flats are multi-colored lakes, remote deserts, and giant dormant volcanoes all waiting to be explored.
Given Bolivia is still not on the mainstream tourist path, be sure to keep your eyes open for some lesser-known gems. These include Rurrenabaque (the gateway into the Amazon), the breathtaking ruins of El Fuerte which is located near Samaipata, as well as having a wild local bus ride through Cochabamba!
Whether you plan to follow the classic backpacker route or wish to explore some less-visited places, my Bolivia backpacking guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Is Bolivia Cheap to Travel?
Out of all the countries I’ve traveled around in South America, Bolivia is by far the cheapest of the lot.
This is mainly due to Bolivia’s landlocked geography, which has led to a slower rate of economic development in comparison with neighbors such as Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
I recommend budgeting for roughly USD $20-25 a day when in Bolivia. This lets you stay in a nice hostel dorm bed (or even find a bargain on Airbnb), enjoy mostly local meals, and see an inexpensive tourist attraction or two.
It’s important to note that certain nations may have to pay an additional fee for a visa, which can be costly in some cases. For example, at this time of writing in 2023, US citizens have to pay $160 at the border to enter Bolivia. Be sure to check the latest visa requirements for your country to avoid surprises. (Travellers from the EU, UK, Australia/NZ, and other countries can enter without needing a formal visa or any fees.)
While Bolivia is a cheap country in terms of day-to-day costs, some of the most epic experiences in Bolivia are best done with qualified guides on a tour, which can raise your average expenses. This includes mountain biking down the “Death Road” (usually around $50 USD for the day) and a multi-day tour of the salt flats (around USD $250 for 3 days).
That said, food and drink are cheap, and even on a smaller budget you can eat three really filling meals with ease, so cooking your own meals is rarely worth the trouble.
While Bolivian food isn’t as tasty and memorable as other Latin cuisines, there are some dishes that are really worth trying (such as Pique Macho and Silpancho).
Accommodation spans all budget categories but is very affordable overall compared to other countries in the region.
How to see the salt flats
Since so many backpackers come to Bolivia with the salt flats first on their travel list, let us share some tips on how to get the most out of this experience.
Every Latin American country has its major must-visit attraction. In Peru it’s Machu Picchu, in Costa Rica the Monteverde Cloud Forest… and here in Bolivia, it’s the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Spanning over 10,000 square kilometers, we’ll find this giant white area covered in salt in the extreme southwest of the country. The Salar de Uyuni was once a giant prehistoric lake, which eventually dried up some 40,000 years ago and left all of its rich minerals behind.
To get there you will need to first head to the town of Uyuni. From La Paz, it takes around 10 hours by bus, while those in Sucre can get there in roughly 8 hours.
You can also start a tour of the salt flats from the town of Tupiza which is some 200 km further south, which is a better option for those coming from Argentina or the nearby city of Tarija.
It is possible to visit the salt flats independently, particularly around the edges where there are occasional buses (such as to the town of Llica). However, the practical requirements of entering deeper into the protected area, as well as the remoteness and the advantages of having a good guide, make an organized tour by far the best option.
A full-day tour
A 1-day tour is the most popular option for tourists coming to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats. The tour is well-structured, so you’ll know exactly what you’ll be seeing and it’s fairly inexpensive too (typically around $60 USD).
You’ll set off in the early morning around 9:00 am and head to the Train Cemetery, which shows a unique remnant of Bolivia’s historic tin mining industry.
Next, you’ll visit the nearby Colchani Salt Refinery, which extracts the salt from this area for various uses.
From here, we then set off into the heart of the salt flats, where we can take many surreal forced perspective photos as well as visit the mesmerizing Incahuasi Island, which is full of hundreds-year-old cacti.
The one-day tour doesn’t give you access to the more remote regions and landscapes, but it’s an action-packed day with lots of highlights with little driving distance between them. However, my advice is definitely to do the more complete 3-day experience if you have the time and budget available.
The ultimate 3-day experience
The complete 3-day tour is the option that I went for, which ended up being one of my favorite experiences in the entire two years I spent backpacking around Latin America.
I highly recommend this for the true adventurers out there. If you want to see some truly unique landscapes in a really remote area of Bolivia, you don’t want to miss this!
The exact stops or accommodations may differ a little based on the exact tour provider, but they generally follow a very similar route.
The first day of the tour will be spent the same way as you would on a full-day tour, except you’ll sleep in a hotel close to the salt flats.
On the second day, you’ll wake up early to visit the Chiguana Desert, followed by the memorable Laguna Hedionda which is filled with Pink Flamingos (you can get pretty close to them too for that epic travel shot).
Afterward, you’ll visit various lava formations in the desert such as the Árbol de Piedra (Rock Tree), before making your way to the Red Lagoon just before sunset.
On your final day, you’ll again get to see the sunrise. This time it’s over the incredible Geysers Sol de Mañana, which is full of steaming holes and bubbling magma.
Back on the road, you’ll make a stop at the Salvador Deli Desert, before reaching the famous Green Lagoon which sits at the foot of the Licancabur Volcano (which straddles both Chile and Bolivia).
You’ll then make your way back to Uyuni, although you’ll want to stay awake in case you pass any wild Vicuña or Alpacas along the way!
You can pre-book your spot with this high-rated tour, which includes all meals and accommodation, a professional driver, and a guide who will also take you to other hidden gems not mentioned here.
I usually try to do things independently where possible and sometimes leave booking my activities for during the trip, but given that only several companies run these tours, it’s one thing that’s highly worth pre-booking.
Tips for visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats
One of the most important things to keep in mind is the season that you will visit Uyuni.
If you want to see the infamous mirror effect (which looks like one sky painted on top of another), then you’ll want to visit during the wet season (November until March). This is when rainfall collects on the flats and creates a perfect reflection of the sky.
Just bear in mind that this season does make travel around the region more difficult, and you may miss out on seeing other destinations such as Incahuasi Island.
The dry season (from April until October) is best for seeing white salt in all directions and is a better time of year to head on the multi-day tour deeper into the region.
I also suggest preparing well for your Uyuni tour and packing a few essentials.
The sun can get really intense (not only does the salt reflect the light, but we’re also at high altitudes), so it’s important to bring some high-quality sunscreen and to use sunglasses regularly.
Those heading on multi-day trips through the region will also want to stock up on blankets and other warm clothes (such as gloves and hats). Temperatures regularly dip below freezing at night and you’ll have some early start times in the morning (such as to the Geysers Sol de Mañana, which are located at an altitude of 4900 meters).
Speaking of altitude, it’s also wise to bring some coca leaves or altitude sickness medications to deal with any altitude-related problems.
The Salt Flats and Atacama are quite remote places, so the accommodation during your tour won’t necessarily be luxurious. It’ll be hostel/guesthouse-style and quite basic, but given that you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s really quite comfortable.
The great thing about backpacking Bolivia is that you can see quite a lot in a relatively short amount of time.
The usual visa length given to foreigners upon entry is 30 Days, though you can extend this up to an extra 60 days hassle-free (you just need to visit any immigration center in Bolivia with your passport in hand).
Below I’ve created several backpacking itineraries, each with its own advantages depending on how much time you have and what you’ll want to see.
1 week in Bolivia (a Peru trip add-on)
Many travelers enter Bolivia after having traveled through Peru, given it’s an easy hop to make across the border.
Those who head here from Peru will have most likely already seen many awesome landscapes (such as the Sacred Valley, Arequipa, and Huacachina), so will probably just want to fit in the highlights of Bolivia.
There are two main border crossing points. The first is Desaguadero which is directly on the road to La Paz, but I personally recommend the Kasani crossing which I have done several times. Here you’ll enter Bolivia via Copacabana, a town that lies on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca.
I recommend spending 2-3 days here. You can take a boat trip out to Isla del Sol as well as climb the Cerro Calvario for some impressive sunset views over the lake.
From here we can take an overnight bus to Uyuni, which is home to the impressive Salt Flats. Given it’s the biggest highlight of a trip to Bolivia, it’s a good idea to book your tour in advance.
If you can I suggest heading on the multi-day trip, as there’s much more to see aside from this mesmerizing giant white landmass. You can also visit a red lagoon, get up and close with Pink Flamingos, and head through some epic remote deserts.
1 Month in Bolivia
Are you looking to see everything that Bolivia has to offer? Then I would recommend planning a minimum of 1 month.
Starting your trip in La Paz is a good idea, given the airport here is well-connected to other cities in Latin America (particularly in Peru, Colombia, or Chile), although it’s lacking in flights to other continents.
I would recommend spending 5-6 days in La Paz, as there’s quite a lot to see and do. This includes getting to know the city highlights such as El Mercado de las Brujas, as well as walking along the quirky Calle Jaén which is full of colorful colonial buildings.
There are also many memorable day trips to take from the capital. This includes visiting the alpine lake of Charquini, as well as riding a bike down El Yungas Road (which is known as the world’s most dangerous road – a must for any adrenaline junkie!).
From La Paz, we can then head to Sucre, which is a beautiful city in the south known for its incredible white architecture. It’s worth spending around 4 days and visit the mirador of La Recoleta as well as the Templo de San Felipe Neri. Just outside of the city lies the Parque Cretáceo, which is an area with over 5000 visible dinosaur footprints.
From here there are several other smaller destinations worth adding to your trip. This includes Potosí (3 Days) which is home to the Cerro Rico mine, Uyuni (3 Days) for the salt flats, Santa Cruz de la Sierra for its warm climate and proximity to the Parque Nacional Amboró, as well as the must-visit Lake Titicaca (4 Days).
For more trip ideas, you can check out these 19 amazing experiences in Bolivia.
Getting off the beaten path in Bolivia
If you want to get really into the heart of Bolivia, you’ll find there are even more unique destinations to visit.
One of my absolute favorites has to be Rurrenabaque, which is a jungle town in northern Bolivia. While more popular nowadays, it’s the gateway to the Madidi National Park which is one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. Here we can see all kinds of mammals and insects, including tarantulas, and howler monkeys, and the jungles are even home to jaguars. You can also camp out in the deep jungle, which is especially surreal at night.
The other must-visit area here is the Pampas, which is best for spotting wildlife. On a tour you can see everything from capybaras and crocodiles to piranhas, pink dolphins and coati. To get to Rurrenabaque you will need to fly from La Paz, or take the dramatic 13-hour bus ride.
Cochabamba is a great city for seeing authentic Bolivian culture, where you can also take the gondola up to the Cristo de la Concordia as well as snack on tasty Salteñas.
Those after a relaxed mountain town will love Samaipata, which is just a 3-hour bus ride from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Here we can visit the picturesque El Fuerte Ruins (which are one of the most important in Bolivia), as well as go for a dip in the jungle waterfalls of Las Cuevas.
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How to Get Around Bolivia
Traveling within Bolivia is quite inexpensive, but it’s important to lower your expectations of service and bus quality when compared with its South American neighbors. Poorly-maintained roads and complicated terrains are often issues as well.
We can find various flotas (large buses) that travel throughout the country, which can vary in price depending on the quality you select. For example, the 13-hour bus from La Paz to Rurrenabaque costs around 70 Bolivianos (about $10 USD), whilst the 6-hour ride from Sucre to Uyuni costs around 90 Bolivianos.
Booking bus tickets is relatively simple. It’s actually easiest to go to the terminal the same day (or the day before if you’re on a strict schedule) and book your ticket in advance. You can also book online on sites such as Tickets Bolivia, though they will only show the more exclusive bus companies as well as limited schedules.
If possible, I highly recommend being flexible with your travel times. By heading to the bus terminal and catching the next departing bus to your destination, you can save up to 40% on the original ticket price as the companies look to sell off any remaining seats.
Within cities and destinations, there are also multiple ways to get around. Using taxis is fine, although I’d recommend Ubers more. They’re safer and you’ll pay the same rate as locals do (unlike taxi drivers who may sometimes hike up prices for foreigners).
There are also the local colectivos (informally known as chicken buses) that run riot on the streets, which are both a super cheap and efficient way of getting around. It will help a lot to know some basic Spanish here, as the local bus scene in Bolivia is quite a hectic and fast-paced environment where you’ll need to think on your feet (they stop and start driving quickly, all kinds of cargo being added etc). It’s best to have your money ready, and usually local city rides will cost anywhere from 2 to 7 Bolivianos.
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Posted OCT 17, 2023