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Known as the 'Tibet of the Americas', Bolivia is the highest and most remote country in South America. The landlocked destination includes the East Andes Mountain Range and the Altiplano Highland Plateau, where most of its people live.
Bolivia's history spans the ancient Aymara, who lived on Lake Titicaca; the Altiplano's Inca Empire; and the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Visitors can still see traces of these civilisations in the country's ruins, museums and past colonial cities.
Culture lovers should note that Bolivia has one of the continent's most concentrated indigenous populations who have, for the most part, retained their traditional way of life. Visitors will encounter authentic houses, age-old agricultural methods and ancient weaving techniques. Haunting panpipe melodies ride the Altiplano's crisp mountain air, while livelier tunes fire up the warmer lowlands.
Thrill seekers will relish the country's dramatic geography: explorers can track wildlife in the Amazonian Basin or drive the Salar de Uyuni's surreal landscape. They can also venture to the world's highest navigable lake, Titicaca; scramble through muddy shafts in the silver mines of Potosi; and hike in the magnificent Andes.
Home to ancient indigenous tribes and spellbinding biodiversity, Bolivia offers the thrill of the unbeaten track. Adventurous travellers will come alive in the country's wilderness, which has something for every bent. Indeed, visitors can brave the Amazon Basin's sticky heat, explore parched desert, or scale rugged mountains, packing coca leaves to remedy altitude sickness.
Lake Titicaca is a must for nature lovers. So too is the breath-taking Salar de Uyuni: the world's largest salt flat. The Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve is full of otherworldly landscapes.
History buffs will enjoy the Spanish colonial town of Sucre, and exposure to the country's tribes, who still live as they have for centuries. The terror-inducing Yungus Road is another of the destination's gems, and is known as the world's most dangerous road.
On a cautionary note, travellers should plan their itineraries with Bolivia's lack of infrastructure in mind. Tourists generally have a richer experience by visiting one or two interesting regions, instead of trying to see more in a single trip.
People congregate in this imposing church's plaza, which is a mixture of neo-classical Spanish and mestizo architecture. Construction began in 1549 and only finished in the mid-18th century. Oftentimes, travellers will see colourful Quecha or Aymara wedding processions on Saturday mornings, leading to and from the church. The plaza is a wonderful place to pass the time and watch Bolivian life unfold on any day of the week. Visitors should climb the atmospheric stairway to the fabulous rooftop and enjoy the great views of the city.
Mercado de Brujas (the Witches' Market) offers tourists a truly Bolivian experience. Situated in a maze of narrow alleys in La Paz, it stocks an unusual collection of merchandise, including charms, potions, and herbs used in Aymara traditions. The traditional market scene stretches around it, selling a huge a variety of everyday goods, as well as Andean art and handicrafts. Visitors can expect to see yatiri (witch doctors), who wear dark hats and carry pouches of coca for fortune telling.
The museum covers the role of coca in Bolivia's culture and traditions. Visitors will learn about the leaf's healing properties, its use in Andean religious ceremonies, its chemical breakdown and different species. They will also canvas its use by soft-drink and pharmaceutical companies, and how it is turned into cocaine. Actually, one of the institution's missions in to counter the plant's cocaine-related stigma. Among other things, guests will leave knowing how to correctly chew coca leaves, which will allow them to feel its stimulating effects.
Entering the mines is like stepping back in time, given that current mining conditions remain untouched by modern advances. Indeed, they're much the same as when the Spanish used Andean peasants as slave labourers to extract the rich silver deposit. The experience involves guided tours leading groups along the narrow tunnels and up rickety ladders, stopping along the way to chat to working miners. Visitors won't struggle to find a tour operator offering trips out of Potosi, and the best guides tend to be former miners. Travellers should also consider that these trips, though fascinating, are potentially dangerous. For ethical reasons, tourists should perhaps remember that many people in contemporary Bolivia have no choice but to accept this hazardous life.
Spanish colonists used the Casa de la Moneda as their Royal Mint House, where they turned the silver they mined into coins destined for Spain. The institution is one of Bolivia's best museums, and covers the history of silver production in the country. Visitors will encounter coins and coin stamps, and assemblies of mule-driven wooden cogs that would beat silver into the right width for coining. They will also see a fascinating collection of religious paintings from the Potosi school (Baroque artwork).
Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, which exists courtesy of a prehistoric lake that went dry. This region is one of Bolivia's most spectacular natural attractions, and is a photographer's delight. Its surreal landscape combines salt pans, wandering llamas and wind-eroded rock formations. A landmass covered in towering cacti called, Isla de Pescadores (the Pescadores Islands), lies in the middle. Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde are other isolated marvels in Salar de Uyuni. One is a fiery-red lake; the other is a deep blue. Both are inhabited by flamingos and surrounded by extinct volcanoes. Nearby Sol de Manana reeks of sulphurous gases from geysers, fumaroles and bubbling mud-pools. The village of Uyuni is located to the southeast of the Salar, and is the best base from which to explore the area. Travellers can arrange tours from there. 'Salt Hotels' around the periphery of Salar are a unique form of accommodation, where everything (walls, furniture, etc.) is made from salt blocks cut from the flats.
The picturesque destination is known as a university city, home to San Francisco Xavier University. Founded in 1624, the institution is one of the oldest seats of learning in the Americas. Visitors will also find great bars, museums and restaurants, as well as shopping and nightlife. The small city is easy to get around and travellers will enjoy seeing the sights on foot, its white colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs and characteristic balconies capturing the essence of Bolivia's Spanish era. Tourists can visit the Casa de la Libertad on the main plaza, which was where Simon Bolivar signed the declaration of independence in 1825, or marvel at the renaissance, baroque and Andean Baroque architecture of La Catedral.
Located in Potosi Department, Tupiza mining town serves as a popular base for tours of nearby San Vicente, which is the region's major drawcard. San Vicente's 'Wild West' history features Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: two of the world's most famous outlaws. Both of them died in Tupiza after fleeing the US in 1901. They were gunned down by the Bolivian army. Organised tours from Tupiza lead tourists along the 'death trail' of Butch and Sundance, giving visitors the chance to follow the outlaws' last days. The trail leads all the way to their supposed final resting place.
Rurrenabaque is one of the main starting points for eco-tours to the Amazonian jungle and pampas. Perched between the surrounding jungle and the River Beni, this little frontier settlement is the loveliest of Bolivia's lowland villages. Many holidaymakers come to explore the nearby Madidi National Park and Pampas, which are home to caimans, macaws, monkeys, turtles, piranhas, pink dolphins, anacondas and capybaras (the world's largest rodents). Visitors can also take dugout canoes down the river or simply enjoy the rainforest's immense biodiversity. The terrain varies from mountain cloud forest to savannah.
Yungas Road is not an attraction for the faint of heart. Dubbed the 'El Camino de la Muerte' (Road of Death), it stretches between La Paz and Coroica and claimed 200 to 300 lives every year until 1994. Paraguayan prisoners built the road during the 1930s Chaco War, and it has extreme drops of up to 2,000 feet (609m). The Yungas Road has since become a popular tourist destination among thrill seekers, particularly mountain bikers. It remains dangerous, though, and trucks have serious problems passing each other. Crosses dot the road and mark where cars have plunged off the steep cliff. Drivers on Yungas Road must obey a strict set of rules, as rain and fog often reduce visibility and there are no guard rails. Contrary to normal Bolivian driving rules, drivers keep to the left, and uphill vehicles always have the right of way. Yungas Road has been upgraded with many new safety measures in the last decade, but the original route, now called North Yungas Road, is still in use by tourists.
Located in the Cordellera Real range, Huayna Potosi is a tremendous stop for adventurous travellers. The mountain is a mere 15 miles (24km) north of La Paz and only around 1,000 people a year make it to the summit. Many of those who attempt the climb turn back due to cold temperatures and the high altitude. The climb can be done in two daily stages and several difficult snow and ice routes go up the face. Those who make it to the summit will be rewarded with breath-taking views over the Cordillera Real range, Lake Titicaca and La Paz.
Coroico is a relaxing, low-altitude spot where visitors can escape frigid highland nights. The trip from La Paz traverses the Yungas Road, which makes for a photogenic and adrenalin-charged entrance into this laid-back resort town. Perched atop the peak of Cerro Uchumachi, Coroico offers gorgeous views of orchards, forested canyons, cloud-covered mountain tops, and the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real. Coroico is a good base for some interesting hikes into the jungle and for mountain-biking trips into the local area, including guided descents of the precipitous highway.
The Jesuit Church sent missionaries to a number of Bolivia's rural areas in the 16th century, with instructions to 'civilise' and convert indigenous tribes. Today, travellers can visit the churches they built and cultivated. Many vibrant villages lie around these beautiful colonial structures, which were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. The six historic missions that remain intact are San Miguel, San Jose, Santa Ana, Concepcion, San Rafael, and San Francisco Javier. All of them are in the Chiquitania region near Santa Cruz. Many local tour operators offer packages that include visits to several villages, all within easy reach of the city.
The tiny village of Samaipata lies two hours' drive southwest of Santa Cruz. Its home to an array of local tribes and some beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Visitors will encounter several important attractions, including El Fuerte, which is a set of pre-Incan ruins designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Las Cuevas Waterfalls. Condor Mountain and the stunning Amboro National Park are also nearby. Travellers should note that Samaipata is the start and end point of the Che Guevara Trail, which visits sites of interest.
Amboro National Park is a nature reserve in central Bolivia. Its wildlife population includes more than 800 species of birds, and many endangered animals such as the puma, jaguar and spectacled bear. Hikers will encounter a diverse terrain, which covers the northern Chaco, Andes foothills, and Amazon Basin. The region's spectacular scenery features canyons, forests, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. Visitors can pass the time birdwatching at La Chonta outlook, sunning themselves on the beaches of the Surutu River, or hiking the Yungas Mountains. Getting to the park is relatively easy, given that it's only around 93 miles (150km) northwest of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. A number of tour operators offer outings to Amboro and a range of activities in the park.
Lake Titicaca is the biggest in South America, and is one of the highest on the planet. Deep and enormous, it borders Bolivia and Peru and sits between Andean mountain ranges. More than 25 rivers flow into the lake, with some 41 islands breaking through the surface of this majestic freshwater giant. Interestingly, the Uros people live on around 62 floating islands made entirely from reeds, and are a must on any trip to Titicaca. Near the southern shore lies the ruins of Tiahuanaco, seen as a remnant of a major pre-Incan civilisation with enigmatic temples and intriguing monoliths.
In contrast with Bolivia's other cities, Santa Cruz enjoys a tropical feel which can be a welcome break from the harshness of the Andes. Strolling through town is a great way to take in the beautiful colonial architecture before mingling with locals in the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, where they play chess, feed pigeons or sip wine at outdoor cafes. Santa Cruz is also known as the fashion capital of Bolivia, its cosmopolitan atmosphere extending to discos, museums and art galleries. Santa Cruz's comfort and convenience make it an ideal base from which to explore some of Bolivia's most popular attractions, such as Park Amboro, the historical Jesuit missions and La Paz.
Due to the altitude, Bolivia's climate is one of extremes, with warm days and cold, sometimes freezing nights. Rain is heavy over the summer months (November to March), and Bolivia can be become very humid (especially at lower altitudes). The climate varies drastically between regions, so weather should be checked for each destination.
The dry winter season (May to October) is the high season for tourism, and generally the best time to visit. That said, tourists should check the best time to visit for the particular region and activity they are planning, as the country has many different climatic zones.
The official currency is the Bolivian Boliviano (BOB), which is divided into 100 cents (centavos). Money can be exchanged at bureaux de change in the main centres, at banks and hotels - banks are generally considered the best places to exchange currency. Main centres accept USD, but travellers will need cash when they journey to more remote areas.
Banking facilities are good in the main cities and ATMs cater for Visa and MasterCard. Major credit cards such as MasterCard, Dinersclub, Visa, and American Express are accepted in shops, restaurants and the bigger hotels.
Though Spanish is an official language, only 60 to 70 percent of the people actually speak it, often as a second language. Many indigenous languages, such as Quechua and Aymara, are also official.
220-230 volts, and 50-60Hz. US flat-bladed, two-pin plugs and two-pin plugs with round grounding are used.
US nationals: US nationals must have a valid passport and a visa to enter Bolivia. A visa is obtainable on arrival for a fee payable in cash only, with an invitation letter Bolivian Immigration Authorities (DIGEMIG), a printed hotel reservation, a printed return/onward ticket, and a printed itinerary. The visa is valid for a stay of no more than 30 days.
UK nationals: UK nationals holding valid passports do not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
CA nationals: Canadians require a valid passport, but a visa is not necessary for touristic stays of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australians need a valid passport, but do not require a visa for touristic stays of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South Africans require a valid passport on arrival and a visa to enter Bolivia. Visas can be issued on arrival for a fee in cash only, with an invitation letter Bolivian Immigration Authorities (DIGEMIG), a printed hotel reservation, a printed return/onward ticket, and a printed itinerary. Visas can also be obtained at http://www.rree.gob.bo/formvisas/. The visa is valid for a stay of no more than 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish nationals need a valid passport, but do not require a visa for touristic stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealanders need a valid passport, but do not require a visa for a touristic stay of up to 90 days.
All visitors travelling by air should have return tickets and all required documents for their next destination, as well as sufficient funds to see them through their stay. All travellers arriving from yellow fever risk areas must show valid yellow fever vaccination certificates on entry to Bolivia. Those who qualify for visas on arrival need to carry all the required documentation translated into Spanish and should confirm these requirements in advance. Travellers who do not have the required fee, documents and photographs for a visa to be issued will be denied entry.
Altitude sickness is the most common complaint in Bolivia, with much of the country lying above 10,000 feet (3,050m). Yellow fever vaccinations are advised as outbreaks do occur, particularly after flooding, and it's a requirement for those entering from infected areas. Malaria is prevalent in some parts of the country, as is dengue fever. It's best to only drink bottled water, and avoid undercooked meat and unpeeled fruit and vegetables. Comprehensive travel insurance is strongly recommended as medical facilities are generally not of a high standard.
A service charge is typically added to restaurant and hotel bills in Bolivia, but it is customary to add a five to 10 percent tip for good service over and above this charge. Porters at hotels expect small tips and drivers are only tipped if hired for a full day.
Bolivia is generally a safe destination, though visitors should be vigilant at all times. Pick-pocketing takes place on buses and in crowded areas. Travellers should avoid unlicensed guides and stay away from political demonstrations. Floods and mudslides from heavy rainfall may also strongly affect transport.
In conversation, rural Bolivians should be referred to as campesinos rather than Indians, as the later is seen as offensive. 'Machismo' is very much alive and husband and wife roles within the family are very traditional. Homosexuality is frowned upon, particularly in the Altiplano. Formal occasions call for a suit and tie for men, while women should wear dresses. It's also expected to call those older than you 'Señor' and 'Señora' as a polite sign of respect.
Relationship building is important is Bolivia, so getting down to business might take some time. Foreigners should remember not to rush things. Negotiations are generally quite slow, and face-to-face communication is preferred over phone calls or written communications. For these reasons, foreigners should be prepared to make many trips before reaching an agreement. Punctuality is expected, even if the meeting doesn't start on time, and schedules are often just a guideline. Consequently, meetings are fairly unstructured and deadlines are often unimportant.
Business people are expected to wear suits. Meetings begin and end with handshakes, with custom demanding that men wait for women to extend a hand first. It's important to include a person's professional title in the greeting if applicable. Otherwise, it's polite to use Señor (Mr) or Señora (Mrs) with a surname. Business cards should also include any academic qualifications, and should have one side translated into Spanish.
Unfortunately, women are generally considered subordinate in the workplace and visiting businesswomen should emphasise their qualifications and work experience. Office hours are generally 8:30am to 6:30pm, Monday to Friday, with a long break over lunch.
The international access code for Bolivia is +591. Mobile phones operate on a GSM network, with providers including Entel Movil, Tigo and Viva, while internet usage by the general population is on rise.
Travellers to Bolivia over the age of 18 years can bring the following items into the country without incurring customs duty: 400 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and 500 grams of tobacco, 3 litres of alcohol and a reasonable amount of perfume for personal use.
Newly purchased goods to the value of $1,000 per person are also duty free. Travellers departing from the country should note that it is illegal to leave with the following items without prior written permission from the appropriate local authority: pre-Colombian artefacts, historical paintings, items of Spanish colonial architecture and history, and native textiles.
Ministry of Culture and Tourism, La Paz: +591 2 2200910 or http://www.minculturas.gob.bo/
Bolivian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 483 4410.
Bolivian Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 20 7235 4255.
Bolivian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 5730.
Bolivian Consulate, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 9247 4235.
Honorary Consulate of Bolivia, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 11 646 1408.
United States Embassy, La Paz: +591 2 216 8000.
British Embassy, La Paz: +591 2 243 3424.
Canadian Embassy, La Paz: +591 2 241 5141.
Australian Consulate, La Paz: +591 2 2115655
South African Embassy, Lima, Peru (responsible for Bolivia): +511 612 4848.
Consulate of Ireland, La Paz: +591 2 242 1408.
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