Bolivia was always an intriguing visit for us. Before landing in the poverty stricken country, too many backpackers warned us off the tasteless food, the hygiene-less ways of living, the lesser-friendly attitudes, the lack of love for tourists and the feeling of being unwanted as a visitor.
A little harsh, right? But genuinely, nearly everyone we met told us the same thing. It became so normal for us to hear, and knew it had to be true. We expected it to be true. Especially when a woman named Luz, originally from Bolivia and descendent from the indigenous and native Aymara, where over one million natives occupy the Bolivian region, told us not to take any attitudes “personally” that they were not treating us that way because of us. It is just their nature and they know no different.
Ready for the “rudeness”, and prepared to take heed of all the warnings to avoid street food; we went in while wearing our thicker skin.
We arrived with our judging caps peaked, and reviewed our mental notes supplied by all those who passed through.
And then we landed on a different planet.
The heart-warming community feel to Copacabana, where the landscape’s beauty matched the Aymara smiles as they communicated in their native tongue.
The laughs in La Paz, where every Cholita asked us where we were from, and compared notes on the two tiny countries; our relatable histories, the geographic locations, the native languages to finish by always commenting on the colour of our eyes and wrapping up the conversation with a welcoming gesture, to then send us off with wishes for a lovely day.
Rurrenabaque, where we, alongside the many friends we made, were treated like royalty, fed like kings and made feel like home. Although, we didn’t appreciate the ill-treatment of street dogs in Caranavi town. A disgusting distaste as we noticed a large billboard urging locals to respect, nurture and adopt street dogs to then witness them beat, scare and even purposely hit one with a car. But you can’t judge them all.
Torotoro, where the locals and business owners deal in a non-competitive nature, where local pan-pipe players will invite you to listen as they practice, where market-sellers create a dish especially for you, one that isn’t even on their menu, and where tour guides work endlessly to deliver a dream day out in its local park, despite being paid very little.
Sucre, where even the local drunks offered us help, and owners of cafes, market stalls and hostels swapped stories, went out of their way for us, offered us helpful advice and appreciated our attempts at haggling.
Let’s not forget the towns around the Salar de Uyuni, where children ran up to us to take a closer look, 80-year-old men stopped to practice their English, and even the local llamas approached without caution.
In a nutshell, the Bolivia described was not the Bolivia we lived. Yes the locals are tough nuts, yes their attitude towards tourism is a little amateur, and yes everyone is out to make money in any way they can but we don’t see that negatively, in fact, we admire the black and white no bullshit entrepreneurial spirit.
So to end our “you leave Britney Bolivia alone” tear filled cry, let’s move onto the topic at hand. Here we have shared a few tips that can help you avoid hassle, encourage smiles, survive, and be the best God damn tourists’ Bolivia has ever met.
Tips and Hacks:
#1 Learn The Local Language
Yeah, yeah we know you’re working on your Spanish what more can you do, we hear you moan. Well, let us tell you that majority of the Bolivian population are proud Aymara, meaning that their primary and preferred language is that, Aymara.
Once we learned this, we searched and practiced a few phrases to throw around the streets. This was a big hit in the markets, meaning we got cheaper rates, and extra packed bags of produce. Even an attempt at speaking forced a massive and appreciative smile. It showed that we cared, that we were interested and willing to go that extra mile to respect and appreciate their heritage.
So go for it and know you are instantly building rapport with such proud people.
Three Useful Phrases:
#1 Hello, how are you?
#2 I’m good!
#3 Thank you
Do check and then triple check the region you are visiting as some corners speak the popular South American native tongue of Quechua (regions such as Potosi, Cochabamba etc.)
#2 Take Some Coke
The drinking kind! Sickness in Bolivia is, unfortunately, inevitable. We had yet to get sick in the 9 countires we visited through Latin America yet everyone did warn us that Bolivia “will get you”.
And it did. It so bloody did. Guys, avoid the fried chicken in Rurrenabaque – that’s all we can say about that. However, with dodgy tummies and dead legs (from the length of time spent sitting on the toilet) comes tips, tricks and advice from fellow sickness sufferers.
One being the genius that is Justyna, our Polish saviour who discovered a little tummy trick while travelling through the ‘delhi belly’ capital, India.
If in doubt after a meal, or if the tummy isn’t happy with your meal of choice, drink a bottle of coke to kill all and any bacteria. Considering the black fizz can make the dirtiest toilet sparkle, it’s guaranteed to zap, murder and extinguish any bacteria preparing to rampage through your body.
So remember kids, coke kills.
#3 Boil and Bubble…
Sticking with the same topic, it’s important to be aware that if you are attempting to avoid eating out by cooking in the hostel, you are not safe just yet.
Due to the Bolivia’s high altitude, water can take a little longer to boil. In places like La Paz and Potosi, water can reach the boil from 80° so be aware that although the water is bubbling, it may not be bacteria free. Add a little more water than you need and let it boil for as long as you can, the longer the better (safer!).
We will say it out straight, do NOT drink the tap water anywhere in Bolivia. No matter what anyone tells you, or whether they drink it or not. Just avoid it. It’s one of the most unhygienic countries in South America when it comes to water safety, and it’s not worth the risk.
To buy water isn’t that expensive. With 2ltrs averaging at 6B-8B (around €1) however if you’re a fish like us, water doesn’t last long and those euros add up. Instead, keep your water bottle and ask for “bolsitas de agua” (not every shop sells them but majority do) so keep on searching. And only pay 0.50c (that’s Bolivian cents!) for a 400ml bag (1/2ltr).
At this price you can fill up your 2ltr bottle for only 2B (€0.25). It takes a little more effort to rip the bags and pour, as well as being unkind to the environment (so please try hold on to the bags and recycle when you can!) but at least it’s cheaper on the pocket.
#5 The Kitchen-less Country
For some reason, Bolivia and kitchens don’t go well together. Especially in hostels. We did get lucky on some occasions but even at that, a kitchen might be more of a preparation area rather than a cooking area i.e. it has no stove, and maybe no fridge.
Even though Bolivia is cheap to eat out, we avoided it as much as possible which meant we (Luke) had to get a little creative with our cooking. Salads were a big hit, as well as tuna and avocado sambos with lots of fruit for dessert. So get your chef on and always prepare for a stay without a kitchen.
Honestly, it may not be for everyone but the temporary healthy veggie diet had us in great knick and we felt physically fantastic by avoiding cooked carbs, fried food and the unhygienic boiled water. Just remember to buy a lime, as even washed salads, fruit and veg means may need a wash in the dirty water. Squeezing a lime will also kill bacteria, a handy tip for the overly paranoid eater.
When it comes to busses, for the cheapest rates wait to buy tickets just before the bus’ departure. The prices will drop dramatically! But either way, you won’t pay more than €8 for a bus, that includes overnights and 18+ journeys. We just enjoyed discovering this little budget hack and thought to share it.
#7 Public Peeing
Speaking of which, never believe a Bolivian ticket tout. Not only when it comes to their sales techniques but particularly when they tell you there is a toilet on the bus. The biggest Pinocchio we have heard. Busses rarely have toilets and of all the busses we took up, down and around the country only one company had a toilet on board (Bolivar). Oh, but of course it was locked because it was “broken”. So yeah, never expect to pee in peace, even on the long haul-ers.
Busses will stop throughout the journey but be prepared to pee on the side of the street. The bus usually stops on a darkened road so passengers can dissapear out of sight to unzip and hover. All the locals do it, even the skirt-wearing Cholitas. Not the nicest (especially for women) but if you do make it through Bolivia without squating to pee on the side of the road, we salute you Wonder Woman.
#8 You Gotta Roll With It
After our last tip, this one might seem more obvious but ALWAYS carry toilet roll. Even in your hostel. Even to a comedor, even to the bus station and anywhere else you assume should supply the stuff.
It’s rare to find anywhere that stocks toilet roll. Yet an another annoying cost! Don’t pay more than 1B (€0.13) per roll and if you come across a really cheap deal, stock up. The only places that will give you a tiny bit of toilet roll are the public toilets but a quick visit costs 1B-2B (€0.15-€0.25) a pee. Hey, it all adds up!
#9 Hail No
Avoid taking taxis, there are always cheaper tuc tuc or collectivos available. If you do decide to take a taxi, haggle and agree on a price, then triple confirm the (total) price BEFORE entering the taxi.
We’ve heard some nightmare situations where a taxi driver agrees on a price to them act the con-man and, on arrival to the destination, play dumb and admit that price was per person not in total.
Unless you really, really, really have to take one, avoid, avoid, avoid.
#10 The Worst WiFi
The rumours are true. If you think you have suffered bad WiFi, wait until you arrive to Bolivia. 1999 dial-up puts this place to shame and it is the same everywhere you go.
If you are reliant on WiFi (it’s important for us to be connected as much as possible) pick up a cheap sim and top up. We went with the mobile company Tigo who offer a ‘data only’ plan. 10B (€1.25) credit meant we could top up 2B (€0.25) for 100MB lasting two days; choosing only the days we needed to be connected the most.
#11 The 30 Day Visa
Annoyingly, Bolivia only offers us Europeans 30 days to explore the country. Enough for some, but not for us!
Thankfully, at no extra cost, it is simple to extend your visa by an additional 60 days in La Paz or Sucre.
Simply show up to the local immigration office, take a ticket, flash the passport and recieve your stamp.
Remember to keep you entry visa slip safe and sound.
For our quick ‘how to renew’ guide – click here
#12 What a Shower of…
One that can work throughout Latin America, but something that Bolivia made us bring up (since so many people we met complained about the lack of hot water). So we thought to end on this one.
When you are met with an electric shower, the large, awkward bulb-like looking machine hanging overhead, know that there IS guaranteed hot water.
The trick is, unlike at home, to not turn the tap the full way as the more pressure the more cold water. Instead turn the tap slowly until you hear the heavy hum, a sign that the electrics have kicked in and wait. The water will be extremely hot, so then slowly but surely introduce the cold water. Although the pressure might not be the best, for those who prefer to scald their skin, you’re sorted.
The only region that didn’t have these showers was up and around the jungle. But in 30°+ heat, as you can imagine, we didn’t mind.
We hope the above will help ease you into the madness that is Bolivia. From peeing on the streets to carrying limes in your pocket, there is no doubt that you will be tested as a traveller.
But wow will you love it. We had no idea how in love we would fall, and never expected a ‘quick zip through’ to turn into over 6 joyful and exciting weeks.
We nicknamed it the “Central America” of South America, due to her rough and raw feel, culture ridden regions and the fact that there is something on every corner sure to make the jaw drop.
But you’ll fall hard for her. The Bolivia broad that she is.