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Bolivia

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Travel Guide South America Bolivia

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Introduction

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san pedro 2

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Feed the adventurous spirit in you and travel to Bolivia! Though comparatively underdeveloped, Bolivia is recognized as one of South America's most spectacular destinations. The nation's rich cultural heritage remains intact amongst the indigenous people, a large majority of who retain traditional beliefs and practices. Travellers can visit the ancient remnants of past civilizations, or simply enjoy the land's diverse scenery: from the rugged Andes mountains in the west, to the untamed jungle wilderness hugging the Amazon through the northern and eastern stretches; from the Gran Chaco desert area in the southeast, to the world's highest lake, Lake Titicaca, on the border with Peru.

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Brief History

The region that is now known as Bolivia has been constantly occupied for over 2,000 years, when the Aymara arrived in the region. Present-day Aymara associate themselves with an advanced civilization situated at Tiwanaku, in Western Bolivia. The capital city of Tiwanaku dates as early as 1500 BC as a small agriculturally based village.

Between 1438 and 1527, the Incan empire, on a mass expansion, acquired much of what is now western Bolivia. The Incans wouldn't maintain control of the region for long however, as the rapidly expanding Inca Empire was internally weak, nonetheless the Incas left the greatest mark on the Bolivian culture.

The Spanish conquest began in 1524 and was mostly completed by 1533. The territory now called Bolivia was then known as "Upper Peru" and was under the authority of the Viceroy of Lima. Local government came from the Audiencia de Charcas located in Chuquisaca (modern Sucre). Founded in 1545 as a mining town, Potosí soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming the largest city in the New World with a population of more than 150,000 people. By the late 16th century Bolivian silver was an important source of revenue for the Spanish Empire.
Indian resistance delayed the conquest and settlement of the Bolivian lowlands. The Spanish established Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1561, but the Gran Chaco, the colonial name for the arid Chaco region, remained a violent frontier throughout colonial rule. In the Chaco, the Indians, mostly Chiriguano, carried out unrelenting attacks against colonial settlements and remained independent of direct Spanish control.

The struggle for independence started in 1809, and after 16 years of war the republic was proclaimed on August 6, 1825, named for Simón Bolívar. Hampered by internal strife, Bolivia lost great slices of territory to three neighboring nations. Several thousand square miles and its outlet to the Pacific were taken by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879–1884). In 1903, a piece of Bolivia's Acre Province, rich in rubber, was ceded to Brazil. And in 1938, after losing the Chaco War of 1932–1935 to Paraguay, Bolivia gave up its claim to nearly 100,000 sq mi of the Gran Chaco.

In 1965, a guerrilla movement mounted from Cuba and headed by Maj. Ernesto (Ché) Guevara began a revolutionary war. With the aid of U.S. military advisers, the Bolivian army smashed the guerrilla movement, capturing and killing Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967. A string of military coups followed before the military returned the government to civilian rule in 1982, when Hernán Siles Zuazo became president.

In June 1993, free-market advocate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was elected president. He was succeeded by former general Hugo Bánzer, an ex-dictator turned democrat who became president for the second time in Aug. 1997. Bánzer made significant progress in wiping out illicit coca production and drug trafficking, which pleased the United States.
In Aug. 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada again became president, pledging to continue economic reforms and to create jobs. In Oct. 2003, Sánchez resigned after months of rioting and strikes over a gas-exporting project that protesters believed would benefit foreign companies more than Bolivians.

The December 2005 elections resulted in a solid victory for oppostion leader Evo Morales and his Movement toward Socialism (MAS). Morales, an opponent of the coca-eradication program, became the first Bolivian of indigenous birth to be elected president.

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Geography

Bolivia, together with Paraguay, is one of the two countries in South America totally bordered by land. It has a very diverse geography, with elevation being a major factor between the lower eastern parts and the higher western parts of the country. About half of the country is in the Amazone Basin and Gran Chaco, which is shared with Paraguay. The former is much more humid than the latter and has a very diverse ecosystem with thousands of plantspecies, trees, flowers, birds and butterflies. The swampy areas see a diverse fauna system, with animals like the anaconda and the capibara, the largest rodent in the world.

A small central corridor of the country is formed by the mild (weatherwise) Central Highlands and more northerly the Yungas which form a transition zone between the Amazone basin and the higher altiplano and Andes. The Altiplano in the west is a high, flat and dry area, on the edges of the Altiplano are the Andes mountains with many summits, among which are severals volcanoes, over 6000 metres and a few even over 6500 metres. On these highlands are mammals like vicunas and guanacos, wild members of the family of the llama and alpaca, which are the domesticated ones. One of the most interesting areas on the highlands is the immense Uyuni Salt Flat, with salt as far away as you can watch

Bolivia shares international borders with Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile.

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Regions

Although there are over a hundred provinces in Bolivia, it is easier to use the 9 departments:

  • Beni in the northeast
  • Chuquisaca central south, including the capital Sucre
  • Cochabamba centre of the country, including the city with the same name
  • La Paz in the nortwest, including the city with the same name
  • Oruro in the west, including the city with the same name
  • Pando northest department
  • Potosi southwestern part, including Uyuni
  • Santa Cruz biggest department, in the east/southeast, including the city of Santa Cruz
  • Tarija south, along the border with Argentina

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Sights and Activities

Salar de Uyuni and Southwest Bolivia

Driving for hours on a perfectly flat salty plain is one of those experiences a traveller to Bolivia can enjoy. There are lots of tours from Uyuni but also from Tupiza in the south of Bolivia and even from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, which is the best way to see the salt flats as well as the extremely beautiful southwest of Bolivia, where lakes in the colours red, green, white and turquoise against a backdrop of high snow covered volcanoes make you feel as if you were out of this world. Few people live here and public transport is close to nonexistent, which makes a tour maybe the only feasible option unless you want to bike it! The flats are on an elevation of about 3600 meters but during a tour you will visit areas up to 5,000 metres, so bringing a warm sweater, sleeping bag and mountain sickness pilss are recommended. During most of these trips you sleep in sleeping bag accomodation with shared facilities. Rooms are rather dark and cold, but only add to the experience. Typical prices for these trips are around 120 dollars per person (3-4 days), including accommodation, full board, a guide/driver and a great experience. Add a few dollar for a tip or the option of staying in a cheaper salt hotel. If you like you can start this trip in Uyuni, but end in Tupiza or San Pedro, or the other way around of course, which makes a trip also a good option for moving on further along your route.

Samaipata

Samaipata itself is a town in the central parts of the country, and nearby Fuerte de Samaipata is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It was a holy place during the pre-inca and Inca period and was used for ceremonies. There is also a huge sculptured rock which is a testimony to pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs. The area around Samaipata though is equally interesting with great hiking in the mountains and along waterfalls.

Madidi National Park

The Madidi National Park is located in the northwest of the country and is one of the most biodiverse parks anywhere in the world. This is mainly caused by its combination of tropical lowland rainforest, grasslands, swamps and more moutainous areas of the lower Andes, the Apolobamba range. Animals include jaguar, spectacled bear, maned wolf and giant otter and the park contains over 10% of all species of birds in the world, meaning over 1,000 species to view. The park is best reached from Rurrenabaque which has lots of touroperators to choose from.

Tiwanaku

Close to La Paz, the ancient city of Tiwanaku was the capital of a powerful pre-Hispanic empire that dominated a large area of the southern Andes and beyond, mainly between the 5th and 9th century AD. Today, the monumental remains can be visited during an easy day trip from La Paz, where you will be able to be a witness of the cultural and political significance of this civilisation.

Yungas Road

Death Road  2008 12 01 (114)

Death Road 2008 12 01 (114)

© All Rights Reserved elliemike

The Yungas Road, or also called the Death Road, is a 60 to 70-kilometre long road from La Paz to Coroico, which is northeast of La Paz in the Yungas region of Bolivia. It is legendary for its extreme danger and in 1995 was officially named the "world's most dangerous road". It is estimated is that 200 to 300 travellers are killed yearly along the road. The road includes crosses marking many of the spots where vehicles have fallen. This is the northern section of the Yungas Road. The southern section connects La Paz to Chulumani, east of La Paz, and is considered to be nearly as dangerous as the northern part. Since 2006, the Yungas Road has an enlarged carriageway from one to two lanes, there is asphalt pavement, and a new section has been built between Chusquipata and Yolosa, bypassing to the north one of the most dangerous sections of the old Death Road. The original North Yungas Road is currently much less used by traffic, although an increasing number of adventure travelers bike it for the thrills. The road is especially rewarding when biking down from La Paz, which is a very popular daytrip, and recently it was even featured in a Top Gear episode!

Other Sights and Activities

  • Chacaltaya is the world's highest ski area at around 5,400 metres above sea level.
  • Potosi is located at more than 4,000 metres above sea level, this city was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world, mainly thanks to its large silvermines. Nowdays, a tour in these mines is one of the highlights here.
  • Historical Sucre is one of the best examples of colonial building styles.
  • Noel Kempff Mercado National Park like Madidi NP it is a very biological diverse national park with rainforest, grasslands, savanna and swampy areas, home to hundreds of birds, mammals and great flora. It is also very intact and becaus of its remoteness not visited that often.

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Events and Festivals

Bolivian Easter Week is one of the biggest holidays in all of Bolivia. The various churches around the city schedule the masses and services to celebrate the three most important days of Easter, Good Friday through Resurrection Sunday and each also schedules a procession in which a statue of Jesus on the cross is paraded through the neighborhood. The month of April is traditionally when the event is held and Bolivians take their holidays as well, so book well in advance as hotels are usually full to capacity.

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Weather

The weather in Bolivia is as varied as the geographical situation in the country. Especially the differences in elevation are very important for the temperatures.
Generally speaking, the months of November until March/April are the warmer but wetter months. June until September sees clear blue skies most of the times but temperatures can be as low as -25 degrees Celcius on the Altiplano and the Uyuni salt flats. During the day though, it can be over 20 degrees or more.
La Paz temperatures are pretty equal throughout the year, with maximum tempertures of 10-15 degrees Celcius and minimum tempertures around zero most nights.
In the centre of the country (Sucre, Cochabamba), it doesn't get that cold, but it doesn't see the temperatures of the Amazone basin as well, which can be over 35 degrees Celcius during the summer when it's wet and therefore not comfortable to travel.

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Getting There

By Plane

El Alto International Airport near La Paz and Viru Viru International Airport near Santa Cruz are airports with flights to and from other destinations within South America, but there are few direct flights from Europe (Madrid with Aerosur) or the USA (Miami with Aerosur or American Airlines, Washington, D.C. with Aerosur). Most important connections are with Lima and Cuzco in Peru; Arica, Iquique and Santiago in Chile; Buenos Aires in Argentina and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Check the following airlines for more details: LanChile, LAN Peru, Lloyd Aero Boliviano, Aerosur, Varig and Aerolíneas Argentinas. Gol (to Brazil), TACA Peru and TAM Mercosur (to Paraguay) are other options.

By Train

Bolivia - Brazil vv
Although technically it is not an international train, the Death Train serves the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz with the border of Bolivia with Brazil. There are several ways of getting from Santa Cruz eastwards toward Puerto Suarez and vv. Connections are daily and there are a number of trains you can take: normal, express or ferrobus services.

There are no notable intermediate stops on the way but the 24 hour trainride serves as a good option for travellers to and from Brazil. The border is at Quijarro where you can cross into Brazil at Corumba.

Bolivia - Chile vv
There is a train between Uyuni in Bolivia and Calama in Chile. Although there are better ways to travel between the two countries, like a trip between San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni, this train offers one of the rare occasions for enthusiasts to travel between two countries in South America. It leaves once a week and should take about 24 hours, although delays are not unheard of. Bring sufficient food and drinks and some warm clothing as temperatures plumid during the night.

By Car

Bolivia can be entered by car from Brazil, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. Crossings to/from Paraguay and Brazil are more difficult though and it is advised to travel by 4wd for those long journeys. This also applies to some of the roads on the Altiplano though. Have your documentation, driving permit and insurance in order and you will be fine.

By Bus

Overland travel is possible between Bolivia and all of its neighbouring countries: Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Travelling to and from Peru, Chile and Argentina is mostly straightforward, but travelling to and from Brazil and Paraguay is more adventurous, although there are no real problems. There is even a multiple day bus trip from Bolivia to Asuncion in Paraguay, travelling through the Gran Chaco.
Direct buses (called flotas) from Bolivia include those to Buenos Aires and Salta in Argentina, Arica and Iquique in Chile and all the way to Corumba in Brazil as well. An increasing number of travellers use tours to the Bolivian saltlakes to travel between San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni in Bolivia.
Brazil
The main crossing with Brazil is is at Quijarro, opposite the Brazilian town of Corumba. The best way to get to here is by taking the train from Santa Cruz to Puerto Suarez (see train above). This one is particularly interesting when you want to visit the southern Pantanal. At the northern Pantanal section it is best to travel from Santa Cruz directly to Caceres in Brazil, crossing at the Bolivian border town of San Matias, which is about 2 hours away from Caceres.
In the extreme west there is a crossing from Cobijia to Brasileia to Braziia, from where it is about 4,5 hours by bus further to Rio Branco in the Acre State of Brazil.

By Boat

It is possible to travel by boat on Lake Titicaca from Bolivia to Peru, but it is expensive and not frequent.

Boats also cross the river Rio Mamore from Guayaramerin to Guajara-Mirim (Rondonia) in Brazil. From here it is a further 5,5 hours to Porto Velho. You can reach this crossing as well from Trinidad in Bolivia by boat, which takes 5 days and is a very adventurous off the beaten track experience.

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Getting Around

By Plane

After LAB quit flying in 2007, Aerosur and TAM (not to be confused with Brazilian TAM Airlines) are the major airlines within Bolivia, with flighs between most major cities. It is cheap but not always reliable and flights are delayed or suspended sometimes. Cobija, Cochabamba, La Paz, Puerto Suárez, Santa Cruz (El Trompillo and Viru Viru), Sucre, Tarija are the main airports to be served.

By Train

There are two train lines in Bolivia which are interesting for travellers, one running from the border with Argentina north to Oruro and one between Santa Cruz and the Brazilian border, sometimes mistakenly called the death train. But that is mostly because of delays and the heat.

By Car

The Administradora Boliviana de Carreteras keeps an excellent website that details road conditions in real time: look here. Renting a car is possible, but not necessary or recommended, with roadblocks being just one of the things that will bother you.

By Bus

Travelling by bus is something most travellers can not avoid. Although buses travel the country frequently between most major towns, roads are not in a good condition except for some parts near La Paz, and roadblocks can be a problem occasionally. That said, you will probably be able to take a bus between two towns within a day. The routes most used by travelers are the La Paz to Tupiza road and side branches to Tarija, Potosi, Sucre and further on to Santa Cruz. Travelling by bus further east and north is possible but takes much longer, especially in the wet season.

By Boat

Being totally enclosed by land, there is only one boat service on Lake Titicaca, between San Pedro and San Pablo, mostly used when travelling between La Paz and Copacobana or further into Peru. Isla del Sol and the Huynaymarka islands in Lake Titicaca can be visited by boat as well.

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Red Tape

Visas are not required by visitors from the following countries:
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Andorra, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Chile, Cyprus, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vatican City and Venezuela.

People from the United States need a visa though. First citizens of the United States need to pay 131 USD processing fee and show proof of being vaccinated for yellow fever. The visa is good for three entries for up to 90 days.

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Money

See also Money Matters

ATMs of both the Cirrus and VISA networks are found all across Bolivia, though mostly in larger cities and logical stop-overs on routes that are densely travelled. If you venture further afield, especially in the Bolivian lowlands, it doesn't hurt taking some extra cash (don't overdo it, though, as there is a fair risk of getting pickpocketed as well). For an overview of ATMs, visit the locator sites of both networks, links are included in the Money Matters article.

When using an ATM, keep your receipt at all times. Reports of failed transactions that are booked off your account nonetheless are frequent, and you will need them to set the situation straight.

Besides the Boliviano, the US dollar is usually accepted for larger purchases and in most touristy destinations. Be wary of bad rates. Traveller's cheques are getting less and less useful these days.

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Language

Related article: Spanish language guide: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Bolivia has three official languages: Spanish, Quechua and Aymara. The latter two are Native American languages, while Spanish (also known as Castellano) came to Bolivia with Spanish colonisation.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Bolivia. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Bolivia) where that disease is widely prevalent. In practice, proof of yellow fever (recommended for the eastern Amazon region anyway) is asked quite often and sometimes you have to sign papers to declare that you can not sue the state of Bolivia for any damage regarding the consequences of yellow fever etc.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Bolivia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only in the northern and eastern lower areas (below 2,000 metres) and it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

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Keep Connected

Internet

There are internet cafés practically everywhere, they typically cost about 3Bs/hour, or about $0.50 per hour. Wifi is not as common as in many other Latin American countries, but more and more places offer it now, either free (sometimes for a limited amount of time) or at a cost. Avoid using your cellphone (with your home SIM card) when there is no wifi, as that's extremely expensive.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Bolivia is: 591. To make an international call from Bolivia, the code is: 0010. Emergency numbers include 110 (police), 118 (ambulance) and 119 (fire). Note that 911 forwards to the police (110).

Bolivia has three cellphone companies, Entel, Tigo, and Viva. If you are staying for a while, consider buying SIM cards for your cellphone. They are quite cheap and you get good network coverage in all main cities and towns. Entel sells good-priced international call possibilities for their SIMs. For example, you can buy 10 minutes for Bs20 (to be used in one day, disconnects automatically after expiration). You will need to register the SIM card at a local office of the telecom. You will need a photocopy of your passport and the mobile phone that you will use.

Practically every single town in Bolivia has an Entel office (almost always located in the main plaza). From here, you can make local, long-distance, and international calls. It's actually much more economical to make your international calls from an Entel office than to use an international calling card. To make local calls from a public phone, you need a phone card. You can buy them at any Entel office or any kiosk on the street. The average local call costs about Bs2 for 3 minutes.

Post

Correos Bolivia is the national postal service of the country. It offers a wide range of services at very reasonable prices. Services, speed and reliability are not up to the level it should be though and it can take several weeks for a simple card to arrive in Europe or North America. Most post offices in Bolivia are open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 8:00pm, Saturday from 8:30am to 6:00pm, and Sunday from 9:00am to noon. It costs Bs5 to mail a letter to the United States, Bs7 to Australia, and Bs6 to Europe. From time to time, you can buy stamps at kiosks and newspaper stands. There are no public mailboxes, so you'll have to mail your letter from the post office. If you want to send packages overseas it's best to use an international courier company like DHL, TNT, FedEx or UPS, as they offer fast and reliable services at competitive prices.

Quick Facts

Bolivia flag

Map of Bolivia

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Capital
La Paz (administrative)
Capital
Sucre (constitutional, judicial)
Population
8,300,000
Government
Republic
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Languages
Spanish, South Bolivian Quechua, Central Aymara
Calling Code
+591
Nationality
Bolivian
Local name

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