Skip past the photos to the Bolivia tips, reasons to go and highlights here.
Bolivia – Should You Go?
If you are looking for a unique experience of South America that isn’t Peru then yes, go. As the 2 countries are next to each other, you will probably end up doing both – which is highly recommended.
Bolivia has quite a strange mixture of experiences to it, with other-worldly landscapes, deadly mines, pristine whitewashed towns and superstition lurking in weird back-street shops. We travelled through overland, entering via the border with Peru in the north and exiting into Chile in the south.
Must see places and sights
Salar de Uyuni
The world’s largest salt flat is simply incredible. There is a little “island” (Isla Incahuasi) make of rock and plants in the middle which acts as a kind of base. There’s a small shop and cafe on the island but other than that there are just piles of salt and vast stretches of white nothingness! Once you have taken the obligatory perspective photos and had a wander around the island there is nothing to do but gawp at the glaring flat emptiness. Taking the photos is the fun part of course, and the whole place makes for a strange scene of tourists holding odd poses and objects as they compose their pictures. TIP – whatever you do, don’t forget sunglasses – the altitude, sun and reflective salt will send you blind without eye protection.
The nearest town to the flats is Uyuni itself, where you will have no problem booking a tour out to the flats and finding accomodation if you need it.
If you are in Uyuni for the salt flats then this trip is essential. It only takes an hour or so, but you’ll probably never see anything quite like it. Loads of old rusty trains parked in the middle of nowhere! No buildings, no equipment, no people except a few tourists – just dead trains. Eerie.
This is a high plain in The Andes consisting of mostly nothing and it’s fantastic. There are volcanic vents blasting out steam which is cool, flocks of flamingos and scenic lakes and mountains. The Salvador Dali Rocks – so called because of their surreal shapes and likeness to the artist’s paintings are worth a look too. Don’t forget to look up – the altitude and lack of pollution make for beautiful skies of amazing deep and purest blue.
The constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre. It’s just beautiful, relaxed and charming with its whitewashed buildings and sleepy parks and quiet backstreets. There was also the 2010 soccer World Cup going on in South Africa, so the bars were busy and there was a great vibe about the place in general. There was some civil unrest when we were there, I never did find out about what exactly, but I had my first experience of tear gas – not nice. It seemed to be a sort of pitched battle between students and police moving about from street to street. The tourists were ignored but we kept our heads down best we could anyway and used it as an excuse to stay in a bar all day getting hammered on pisco sours!
Also see or maybe do
Potosi & Cerro Rico
Potosi is another city with whitewashed buildings that has a charm to it, but the main reason to go is to visit the silver mine at Cerro Rico. You can hire a helmet, torch, boots and overalls and actually go inside with a guide – which is bloody dangerous – I kid you not! Once inside you will be crawling through narrow tunnels, breathing in dust, climbing down pitch black shafts and generally thinking “who thought this was a good idea?” Every now and then, you’ll hear a muffled explosion and feel a slight tremor as the miners blast some other part of mine. Before going in, take some coca leaves and dynamite for the miners, and some food or treats for their families. It is a genuinely dangerous place, and the life expectancy of the miners is low – so be generous.
Back in safe daylight outside, you can let off your spare dynamite for some fun – I recommend doing this under supervision! There can’t be that many places where you can just buy dynamite on the street and go and blow up rocks. Just to stress again – the mine experience is not for the faint hearted – but I personally though it was ……. a real blast!
La Paz & Cochabamba
The other Bolivian capital La Paz is OK for a day or 2. Most memorable for me were the gruesome dried alpaca foetuses hanging up in some of the shops. The Coca Museum is also very interesting. Cochabamba was OK for an afternoon, mainly for the trip up the mountain to the massive statue of Jesus at the top and the far more interesting views of the city.
- Bolivia felt pretty safe in general, but be aware many people are very poor. I heard of one robbery at a hotel when the occupant was out. On buses, there is no need to clutch your bag with a white-knuckle grip as if someone is about to grab it from you. If however, you are sleeping on a longer trip it is a good idea to have your bag on your lap and not up top in the overhead storage. You can also have the strap wrapped around your ankle and the bag on the floor. Some back streets in La Paz looked a bit dodgy, but you’ll find that anywhere.
- Get fresher, green coca leaves to suck on, the old dried brown ones are useless as they just fall to bits in your mouth. The idea is to have a ball of leaves in your cheek with a bit of ash to activate them. You can buy it in the street, it’s non-addictive and gives a very mild and pleasant euphoria.
- We heard of border scams at the Peru border, but didn’t experience any problems ourselves. The usual type of thing to get you to part with your money.
- Many places speak English but trying a bit of Spanish goes a long way when interacting with the Bolivians.