Offical language: Bolivia is a multilingual country. While just about everyone speaks Spanish these days, the range of indigenous languages covers Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní and a lot more.
Currency: The Boliviano
Bolivia is a place that feels like nowhere else on Earth. From the colourful, sloped streets of La Paz to the endless glistening expanses of the Uyuni salt flats, this is the kind of travel destination that many people can only dream of. This vast, landlocked country is famous for having some of the world’s highest cities, as well as a host of unique attractions. The distance between the cities means that they each look and feel different to each other, offering a world of varying customs, accents and food to the adventurous travellers. The starting point for many tourists here is the startling city of La Paz. Set in a huge bowl, this is the kind of place where going for a stroll is likely to turn into something far more interesting than you had originally imagined. The street life here is hectic and the Witches Market will introduce you to the mystifying world of Andean good luck charms and curses, such as llama foetuses. You can get lost in a magical world of captivating cities, friendly smiles and unfathomable customs here very easily. A traditional street parade of fiesta might not seem all that interesting at first but you will soon get caught up in the excitement and fun of the event if you allow yourself to relax. Music also plays a big part in the life of most Bolivians. Thankfully, the modern beats of reggaeton are usually drowned out by beautiful songs on typical instruments. In La Paz you are likely to get the chance to see a live show featuring emotive pan pipes and tuneful charangos. All in all, Bolivia is the kind of country where you just don’t know what you will come across, which makes it exciting, unpredictable and somehow wildly romantic at the same time.
Must see places in Bolivia
Not far from Potosi is Sucre, which is the constitutional capital of Bolivia and probably its prettiest city. The fantastically well preserved centre of this city is wonderful for exploring, with a range of museums and other attractions of cultural interest. A big reason for visiting Sucre is to see the stunning cathedral, which has a rich museum attached to it. The craft market held on Sundays at nearby Tarabuco makes for a rewarding day out, with some amazing weaved products and trinkets on sale. The lower altitude in Sucre means that it has a more pleasant, spring like climate than high altitude cities such as La Paz and Potosi.
The frantic and fascinating city of La Paz is an unforgettable travel destination. The fact that it sits at 3,650m (11,975 ft) above sea level means that most visitors arrive here gasping for breath. The markets are among the highlights here, with the area around the famous Witches Market offering some of the best souvenir shopping in the continent. The main attraction here for many visitors is the life on the street, with locals selling just about every type of product or service imaginable to passersby. It also has its classy areas in the south side of the city, as well as sprawling, impoverished shanty town of El Alto sitting above it.
Even higher than La Paz, Potosi is classed by some people as the highest city in the world. The first impressions might not bowl you over but dig a little deeper here to find one of the most memorable travel destinations in the world. This is home to the hill known as Cerro Rico, which miners have been dragging precious metal out of since Spanish colonial times. Millions of miners died here in colonial times and a trip to the mines makes for a poignant way to pass some time. It is a popular destination for backpackers and has some interesting colonial architecture that pays testament to the days when this was one of the richest and most important cites in the Americas.
The magical, mystical Lake Titicaca sits on the border between Bolivia and Peru. On the Bolivian side is the relaxed town of Copacabana. Boat trips can be made from here out to spend a night on the sacred Isla del Sol, where Inca legend has it that the world began. Trout from the lake is among the most popular dishes in local restaurants here. There is a large religious festival held here every year and the Basilica is an attractive building.
Located in the heart of the country, Cochabamba is one of Bolivia’s most important cities. The lovely valley climate makes it an important agricultural centre and has also enticed many foreigners to come and live here. Few visitors can resist the chance to take the cable car up to the giant statue of Jesus while they are in Cochabamba. The city is also famous for its cuisine and iconic dishes such as pique macho and silpancho have their roots in this city.
Getting to Rurrenabaque, in the northern province of Beni, isn’t always easy, with flights from other Bolivian cities regularly delayed or cancelled due to the weather conditions. However, it is worth the effort. This laid back, tropical town offers a gateway to the rainforest and to the pampas, with many tour agencies operating from here. The spectacular Madidi Park is a giant park in the Amazon Basin and part of one of the largest protected areas on Earth.
Salar de Uyuni
The city of Uyuni is small and unremarkable. However, the salt flats next to it are anything but small and unremarkable. These are the biggest and highest salt flats in the world, making an unmissable tourist attraction. They can be explored on a multi day 4x4 trip that also takes in the incredible sight of some coloured lagoons, a train cemetery and other local attractions. It gets cold out on the salt flats at night but the view of the clear, starry night is a sight view visitors forget.
The high altitude mining city of Oruro is the scene of the country’s most famous carnaval celebrations. For a couple of days the streets get filled with marching bands and elaborately dressed dancers. The carnaval here is recognised by UNESCO and attracts tourists from all round the world. At other times of year this is a popular market city, where goods arrive from Chile to be sold to vendors from the rest of the country.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra
The modern city of Santa Cruz is the most heavily populated in Bolivia and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Its low altitude and European feel make it very different from many of the country’s other main cities. The rich agricultural lands around here have helped fuel Santa Cruz’s growth and have turned it into an economic force. The city is easy to explore, as it is set up in a series of concentric rings. Away from the centre, there are some lovely resorts around Santa Cruz and the Jesuit Missions nearby make for a fascinating trip out to the smaller towns of the region.
The south of the country is less visited by tourists but still has its share of treasures. Tarija is a small, spotlessly clean city that was once part of Argentina. The natural gas reserves in this region have helped the city undergo a boom period in recent years but it still retains a sleepy, lost in time sort of feel. The famously friendly locals and the numerous local festivals help to make it a more memorable destination than it first appears. Wine lovers will enjoy visiting the local wineries, which are arguably the highest altitude wineries in the world.
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Southwest Bolivia contains some of the world's wildest and most spectacular landscapes, including the Laguna Verde, backed by the dormant 19,555ft Licancábur volcano. It is one of several striking coloured lakes, including the Laguna Colorada, where the fiery red waters and arctic-white shores (a result of salt and borax deposits) contrast with the colour of the lake's three species of breeding flamingos. You can climb the volcano or join a tour of the lakes and other landscapes (see below), including the vast and equally celebrated salt pans to the north.
Things to do in Bolivia
Explore the Streets
It is quite thrilling to walk around the streets of cities such as La Paz and Santa Cruz. Street vendors are a common sight, and they could offer you anything from a milkshake made on a mobile cart to a new pair of sunglasses or a pirate DVD of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. High altitudes and strong sunshine are among the hazards but the rewards make it well worthwhile. You are advised to be as careful as you are anywhere you visit but Bolivia is generally seen as a safe destination.
Enjoy the Fiestas
Wherever you go in Bolivia you are likely to come across a fiesta at some point. Interestingly, they vary in style across the country. In La Paz and Oruro you are likely to find lavish parades, with the locals showing off their best clothes and jewels. In Santa Cruz, beauty pageants are common in many different fiestas. Meanwhile, in Tarija there is a low key, old fashioned approach to most fiestas. Many of the main events have a religious significance which isn’t always immediately obvious, so be sure to stay respectful while you enjoy the special atmosphere.
Visit the Markets
Every city in Bolivia of any size has a traditional market, while big cities like La Paz have several of them rubbing shoulders with more modern shopping centres. The traditional markets have stalls where you can buy fruit and vegetables, cut flowers, clothes and lots more. You might not buy anything here but you will still enjoying walking around it and feeling the charms of the place. They also often have small food courts which are usually the cheapest places to eat in town.
Try the Food
Bolivian food isn’t exactly world famous but it is definitely worth trying. The size and diversity of the country can be witnessed in the cuisine, with each region offering different specialities. Among the classics you will find pretty much everywhere are sopa de mani (peanut soup) and pique macho (a meaty stew). In Santa Cruz a rice dish called majadito is among the traditional dishes to try. In Tarija you will find a typical dish called saice.
You will want to leave some space in your luggage for souvenirs when you travel to Bolivia. La Paz is a wonderland of crafts and beautifully woven clothes, all at bargain prices. You can choose from colourful ponchos, hammocks, wooden chess sets, intricate good luck statues and a lot more. Sucre is also a good place to buy some goods, while each of the other cities has something to offer as well.
Best time to visit Bolivia
Tourists travel to Bolivia between May and September
Generally speaking, winter is the dry season and runs from May to September. The rest of the year is warmer and wetter. You might want to avoid tropical regions such as Pando and Beni in the wet season, because of possible transport problems. On the other hand, high altitude places like La Paz, Potosi and the Uyuni salt flats can get bitterly cold in winter. Hot cities likes Santa Cruz and Tarija are probably best enjoyed in winter, with lower temperatures and clearer skies. Having said that, it is possible to enjoy just about any part of the country at any time of year. The different weather you come across will be influenced by the altitude as much as anything else. Lower lying areas such as Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Tarija enjoy noticeably warmer weather than high altitude cities like Potosi, Oruro and La Paz.
The large distances that separate the main cities means that some planning can help you make the most of your time here. Bus trips are exciting here but can also be long and difficult, with some roads unpaved and many buses being old and in rather poor condition. Thankfully, flights are relatively cheap in Bolivia and flying could help you get around far more easily.
The strong sun in high altitude cities like Potosi and La Paz can take travellers by surprise. Be sure to take some sun cream with you, even if you are going in winter time.
Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of places. The black market is predominant here, so most people buy from markets and small shops rather than big stores with card facilities.
Public protests and marches often block the streets of La Paz. They only very occasionally turn ugly but you should still take care when you see this sort of public gathering.