Amboro National Park is one of Bolivia’s unsung highlights (above)
As the poorest country in South America, Bolivia’s economy makes it very cheap for backpackers from western countries to visit. Dorm room beds vary from between 30 to 80 bolivianos per night ($4-$10), with meals as cheap as 12 bolivianos ($1.50). However with cheaper living comes less infrastructure, with some areas lacking asphalt roads, mainline electricity, hot water and internet. The main languages in Bolivia are Spanish and Ketchua, with few people speaking English apart from some of the people working in tourism and those in some of the cosmopolitan cities such as La Paz and Sucre. Here is our guide to the main cities in Bolivia and their highlights, tips for getting around, and looking after your health.
Main Cities, Towns and Highlights
The Salt flats
The surreal, moon like surface of the Salt Flats (above)
For many the highlight of Bolivia, the Salt flats tour is one of Bolivia’s must dos, with tours including close views of hundreds of Flamingos, red, blue and green lakes, colourful mountains, a cactus island, natural hot springs, sulphur pits, salt hotels and of course the worlds largest salt flat. 3 and 4 day tours are available from the towns of Tupiza, Uyuni and San Pedro (Chile) amongst others. There are a lot of horror stories on internet sites such as trip advisor about these tours with drunk and dangerous drivers, however most people report to have had overwhelmingly positive experiences. Three of the main companies running tours are Cordillera, Estrella del Sur and World White Travel, however it is important to do your own research to pick which one you think is best. If you are looking for a english speaking guide we can recommend Neffi at World White Tours. Tours generally cost the equivalent of $140 for a three day, two night tour including 3 meals per day and accommodation. Altitude ranges from around 3,500 to 4,700m so please stay somewhere at high altitude before taking this tour to let your body adjust to the height, and take it slow.
The ‘Train Graveyard’ is one of Uyuni’s few attractions (above)
Lying at the edge of one of the world’s largest salt flats, Uyuni is a small town that is the start and end point of many peoples Salt flat tour. From here buses are available daily to Sucre, La Paz, Potosi and other destinations. The town has a train grave yard, which has many old train wrecks but other than this there is not a great deal to do with most travellers staying for one night to rest up before heading on to their next destination. If you are staying here we can recommend the Piedra Blanca hostel. It’s quiet and there is some social space to relax, it’s reasonably priced and the beds are clean and fresh. The bus from here to Potosi is a pleasant ride, with a paved road the whole way, but buses to La paz and Sucre feature a rough track for some of the journey.
As one of the highest towns in the world Potosi lies at over 4000m high. A traditional mining town, Potosi is generally a cheap location for accommodation and food. The city has enough to offer for tourists to justify spending one or two nights there. The mining tour is popular and a interesting insight into the hard life in the mines, but not for the faint of heart, with very small spaces to walk through, and some toxic gases in the air. Many tour companies offer gas masks and protective gear to keep you safe in the mines. Here are some of the mining tour companies that have had mostly good feedback:
Remember that many of the workers in the mines have extremely hard lives, and their life expectancy is very low, thus some of them may be drunk or be over familiar. This is an enlightening and unforgettable experience for some tourists, but not reccommended for those with claustrophobia or breathing problems such as Asthma. You will be given a chance to buy presents for the miners such as alchohol or dynamite before going into the mines.
Hostal Eucalytus is a clean and pleasant place to stay in Potosi, with double rooms starting at 150 bolivianos (approx $22).
With it’s cobble stone streets and white buildings, Sucre is a popular tourist hotspot (above)
The white city of Sucre offers the perfect place for backpackers and tourists to spend a few weeks. The climate is not hot or cold, the altitude is 2800m which is very unlikely to cause any serious altitude sickness problems, and the city is beautiful and safe, with many good bars, restaurants, hostels, hotels and a large amount of spanish schools directed towards English speaking tourists, offering spanish, cooking and salsa lessons, volunteer work and homestays. All the above means one may often meet tourists staying here for a longer period of time, often between 1 week and 3 months. Sucre’s popular spots:
Boasting the best views in the city, Cafe Mirador comes highly recommended (above)
At one of the highest spots in the city, the Mirador is a great spot to walk up to, then relax, grab a drink, and enjoy the views of the city. The hill lies on the South side of the city, and the cafe there, called Cafe Gastro Mirador comes highly recommended.
One of the biggest and best parks in the city, Parque Bolivar features many monuments and is a great place to spend an hour or two wandering around on a sunny day.
In the center of the city, Mercado central is a large market selling fruit, veg, groceries, sanitary products, clothes, smoothies, and on the top floor, typical Bolivian food and drink at cheap prices. This is a must do if you want to experience an authentic part of Bolivian culture.
In the centre of the city, not far from Mercado central, the central plaza is a large square with some shaped hedges featuring views of the Bolivian houses of parliament and some european style cafes and restaurants.
A slightly more ‘off the beaten track’ market, Mercado Negro is a short walk out of the city, and another great place to buy cheap vegetables and traditional Bolivian clothes.
Sucre Spanish schools:
There are a great deal of good Spanish schools (at least 6) in Sucre all competing with each other, which makes it one of the best (and cheapest) places in the world to spend some time studying Spanish. Most schools offer 4 hours per day of private tuition, for 45 bolivianos (approx $6) per hour. With most of the teachers being experienced, university educated, native Bolivians, this is a chance you really should not miss. 4 of the best are listed below with links to their websites:
Sucre Spanish School – Located in a vibrant part of town, close to the Kultur Berlin hostal, Sucre Spanish school has a very friendly welcoming atmosphere
Bolivian Spanish School – One of the oldest Spanish schools in Sucre, Bolivian Spanish School offers great Spanish lessons and home stays
Latino School – Part of an organisation which runs Spanish schools all across Latin America
Me gusta – Another great Spanish school located next door to the Celtic Cross Hostal, which is owned by the same owners, they offer discounted accommodation for those attending the Spanish school
Just a 2 hour taxi or bus ride out of Sucre, Tarabuco is a market town which hosts a huge market every Sunday. Offering many of the same products and prices as Sucre’s main markets, Tarabuco is only worth the trip if you are looking to get out of the city for a change of scenery.
Great Sucre hostels:
Kultur Berlin – German themed hostel Kultur Berlin, is well run, clean, sociable. They have a bar attached where they run regular events, and do good food.
Casa Mario – Located a bit out of town, and a little difficult to find, Casa Mario is the cheapest and most basic Hostel, featuring rooms made of Adobe brick, if you are looking for a cheap place to stay. Sorry, we couldn’t recall the address but hopefully you can find it by asking around! If you can remember the address, please tell us in the comments below.
Celtic Cross – Located directly next to the Me Gusta Spanish school, Celtic Cross is an Irish owned and run hostel.
Great Sucre restaurants:
La Taverne – Probably the most expensive restaurant in Sucre, but still very cheap by Western European and American standards. Nice comfortable environment and great food.
Abis Patio – Swanky restaurant, serving great steaks and burgers.
Condor Cafe – Vegetarian cafe that gives some of it’s proceeds to charitable causes. Delicious food, huge portions and very cheap.
As Bolivia’s largest city, La Paz has a whole host of things to do, and is host to many great hostels. From here you can also get tours to death road and the Amazon, and have easy access for Copacabana, Isla del Sol and across to Peru. Known as a party spot among backpackers, be cautious about which hostel you stay at if you need an early night. Here in hostels you will find many travellers opting to stay for longer periods of time. At 3,700 metres high, be cautious about arriving here from the lowlands!
Death road tours
Gravity – Although the most expensive, gravity is the only company you want to take the death road tour with. You don’t want to take any chances, although of course doing the tour itself is taking a chance. Gravity are experienced, well prepared, well staffed, and provide good quality, well maintained bicycles and safety gear. And if anything does go wrong, this is the company you want to be with. A girl recently broke her collar bone whilst doin the tour with gravity and had to spend 5 days in hospital. Gravity provided her with a translator and they visited her daily to check her progress.
In the tropical lowlands, the thick air and hot sun of Santa Cruz will be a welcome destination for those arriving from high altitude. With not a ton of activities to do, Santa Cruz is a great place to relax and enjoy some beers in the sun. Santa Cruz is the wealthiest region in Bolivia, so naturally hostels and food are a little more expensive, and there are plenty of nice places where you can enjoy a wonderful cold beer and some American style food. Santa Cruz is an easy location for travelling to the wonderful town of Samaipata and it is possible to get a tour from here into the Amazon rain forest.
Santa Cruz Hostels:
Jodanga backpackers – a true Rolls Royce establishment. Up there with the best hostels in Bolivia. Good quality showers, a nice pool and bar, clean beds, regular activities, incredible breakfast of fruit and fresh eggs cooked to order, and helpful English speaking staff.
Loro Loco – Still a great hostel, however lacking the nice pool and outstanding breakfast in the one above. Good kitchen. A great alternative if the above is full.
Head down to the ‘Plaza 24 de Septiembre’ for a wander around. Check out the Cathedral and have a wander around the Museum in the Cathedral if you have time. Around this area there are places to relax with a coffee and an Ice cream and also some nice food places, mostly selling burgers, chips, and American style food. From here head south along Rene Moreno and you will get to the ‘Centro de la Cultura’ on the right hand side. This is a great place to check out some exhibitions of Bolivian and other south american art.
At around 1700m elevation, and with it’s subtropical environment, Samaipata has the perfect climate for Bolivia (above)
Samaipata is a small and very multicultural town just a 2 hour drive from Santa Cruz. Surrounded by lush Scenery, with mostly Adobe made buildings, this is a true hippy mecca. Many of the hostels in the town are not online and have no wi fi, so you just have to turn up. Here you can take great tours to see the Amboro national park, and also do the Che tour. Tucandera tours is particularly recommended, it is run by a Bolivian university professor, who studied biology at Cambridge university and has no end of fantastic knowledge about Amboro national park. If you have a strong interest in birds, science and biology then Saul at Tucandera is pretty much the best tour guide on the planet for you. Near to Samaipata there is also a number of self sufficient local farms, that you can volunteer and work on for anything from 0 to 80 bolivianos per day. The only one of which you can book before hand is Ginger’s paradise (listed below) to find the other just wander to the various hostels in Samaipata and ask the staff working in the hostels if they know of anybody nearby looking for volunteers.
Andorina Hostel – cheap relaxed and well run. Dorm beds available.
El Jardin – Cheap, very relaxed, beautiful garden, comfortable beds. Dorm beds available. No need or way to book normally – just turn up!
Posada del Sol – beautiful lodging – more of a bed and breakfast. The best option if you are in a couple but the two above are a better option if you are travelling alone.
Ginger’s paradise is a non commercial, self sufficient organic farm run by family team Chris and Saul, and any number of there 5 wonderful children. The farm is located just 10 minutes walk from a drop off point on the road between Samaipata and Santa Cruz. The cost per day is 120 bolivianos ($17) per day for all food and board, reduced to 80 bolivianos ($11.50) with 4 hours work on the farm per day. This may seem a lot but Chris and Saul are well organised, hugely welcoming, and you are so well fed and entertained that the price is more than justified. Many report such experiences to have stuck with them the most and give you an environment where you can make friends for life. This will certainly be a top learning experience and for me was my best experience in the whole of Bolivia.
Health and Safety
Please note I am not a medical professional and can not offer any advice other than the pure speculation written below. Do not believe my medical advice and speak to a qualified health professional about the below if heading to risk areas.
Altitude sickness can be dangerous, and can cause severe problems for those who are not prepared from it. Many believe it is a sickness that you either suffer from or you don’t, however no science is in place to prove it is that simple. The best way to guard against it is by slowly ascending, keeping relaxed, not doing any strenuous exercise until you have adapted to the altitude, and refraining from smoking and drinking. Always have an escape route to lower altitude in case you get sick! The only medication known to be effective against altitude sickness is Acetazolomide (often better known by the brand name Diamox). This medication is widely available over the counter in bolivia however is not recommended due to a high risk of experiencing side effects such as dizzyness and a bad stomach which are very difficult to differentiate from the actual illness itself. Coco tea, although not proven scientifically to do anything for altitude sickness is reported by many to lessen symptoms, but the only thing you can really do to cure the sickness, other than give your body time to adapt is move to a lower altitude.
Dengue, Malaria and Chagas
Malaria – malaria is a risk in some of the lower regions of Bolivia. The best medicine with the least side effects to cover you against malaria is Malarone and it is not widely available in Bolivia so make sure you get some before you go. The best way to avoid Malaria is to avoid getting bitten by wearing long sleeve tops and trousers, avoiding areas where there may be pools of stagnant water, not using perfumed shower gels, moisturisers, shampoos, deodorant or fabric conditioners, keeping your room door well closed at night time and wearing and good quality organic insect repellent.
Dengue – Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and symptoms kick in up to 14 days after getting bitten. Symptoms include a fever and extreme muscle soreness. There is no vaccination against Dengue, the only way to avoid it is by avoiding getting bitten. In most cases, although unpleasant, Dengue fever is only life threatening after it has been contracted more than once.
Chagas – very unknown in the developed world, Chagas is a disease carried by Triatominae insects, also known ‘kissing bugs’, as they have a tendancy to bite the face whilst we are sleeping. Chagas shows no initial symptoms, however if it goes untreated it can cause largening of the heart. Triaatominae insects live in holes in the wall, and as such, staying in Adobe housing can be a risk factor in contracting Chagas. If you have been staying in Adobe housing, and have been bitten on your face then go and get tested!
In many hostels you will hear horror stories about unsafe Bolivian buses. Taking a bus in Bolivia is considerably more dangerous than buses in the developed world, due to poor roads in some parts of the country, and very little traffic policing. However the buses are mostly, not as dangerous as we are led to believe. The safest way to travel in Bolivia is by plane. To maximise safety on buses, try to find a company with well maintained vehicles and that have two drivers who regularly swap during long journeys.
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