Dubbed the ‘Tibet of the Americas’, Bolivia sits on the crest of the Andes, and is famed for its epic salt flats. Begin planning your trip with our guide to backpacking in Bolivia.
Bolivia is a playground for adventurers, set at breathtakingly high elevation and adorned with an array of natural wonders. From Amazonian jungle in the north to the sprawling Salar de Uyuni in the south, and everything in between, it is a country rife for exploration. This guide to backpacking in Bolivia introduces the highlights and the essentials for getting prepared. To plan your route, check out our guide to the classic two-week Bolivia itinerary.
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Bolivia travel: the basics
Currency: Bolivianos (BOB). Look up the latest exchange rates before you travel at xe.com.
Safety: Bolivia is generally a safe country for travel, but petty crime and substandard tour operators can pose a risk to visitors. Exercise common sense and read up on the common scams before you go. Travellers Worldwide produced this comprehensive guide to safety in Bolivia.
Language: Most of the population speaks Bolivian Spanish, one of the easiest forms for foreigners to understand. Learn a few Spanish phrases before you go. Dozens of indigenous languages are also spoken.
Best time to visit: Similar to Peru, the dry season from May to October is the most popular time to visit Bolivia, bringing good conditions for outdoor exploration. The early shoulder season in April/May is quiet with weather improving, and vegetation still lush from the wet season.
Top experiences and attractions in Bolivia
Best tours in Bolivia
We recommend G Adventures for small group adventure tours in South America. They have decades of experience in organising group tours, and work with the best and most trusted local experts.
In Bolivia, G Adventures runs two big packages: Bolivia Discovery (11 days) and Highlights of Bolivia (8 days), each including exploration of La Paz, Uyuni, Sucre and Potosí. The longer package includes a more extensive tour of the salt flats, so it gets our vote! A shorter tour, Bolivia Express, is also available, covering just La Paz the salt flats and desert landscapes (this tour is restricted to ages 18–39).
Experiences in Bolivia are also included in several of G Adventures’ extended tours in South America. We did the Inca Trail with them in Peru, for example, which is included on some packages with Bolivia. Check out all G Adventures packages that include Bolivia tours here.
Things to do in Bolivia
While many visit Bolivia to see the famous salt flats, there is so much more this country has to offer. Here are some of the top experiences to try:
Bolivia’s urban centres are an eclectic mix of vibrant metropolis, masses of concrete high-rise and majestic colonial cities. Here are the most notable:
La Paz, the world’s highest capital, is a hive of activity carved beautifully into the Andes. Here are our top things to do in La Paz.
Sucre, the ‘White City’, is the country’s constitutional capital. Cheap Spanish lessons are among the popular things to do in Sucre.
Cochabamba is reputed as the culinary capital of Bolivia. Here’s a neat guide to the city by South America Backpacker.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra offers a different perspective of Bolivia off the beaten track in the east. Here’s a guide by Tales from the Lens.
Food and drink in Bolivia
The cuisine of Bolivia may not enjoy the same international acclaim as neighbouring Peru, but this lofty, charismatic country has a surprising wealth of flavours for foodie travellers to discover. Here’s a quick rundown of the notable dishes and tipples to look out for, and food tours to try.
What to eat in Bolivia
Pique macho – a classic, and our favourite – a messy heap of potatoes, beef pieces, sausage, onions, peppers, egg and sauces.
Sanduíche de Chola – one of the best pork sandwiches you’ll ever eat, with veg and spices. Grab one in Las Cholas park in La Paz.
Chicharrón – delightfully indulgent street food, consisting of deep-fried, salted chunks of fatty meat, typically served with corn.
Salteñas – Bolivia’s answer to the empanada. Baked pastry snack with a filling of meat, spices, potato, egg, olives and raisins.
Mondogo – we loved this local specialty in Sucre’s markets, consisting of crispy fried pork in a chilli and garlic sauce.
Trucha from Lake Titicaca – if you visit the great lake it’s a must to try a grilled fresh catch of trout from its deep blue waters.
What to drink in Bolivia
Singani – this brandy liquor is Bolivia’s national drink, distilled from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes in the high valleys.
Chicha – a refreshing alcoholic beverage made from fermented corn, typically drunk from a round bowl.
Chuflay – a singani-based cocktail dating back to the 19th century. With ginger ale, lemon/lime soda and a slice of lime.
Bolivian beers – from widespread favourites Paceña and Huari to a diversity of local brews in the growing craft beer scene.
Top food tours in Bolivia
Evening foodie tour – see the highlights of La Paz while become immersed in its food and drink culture, with special tastings.
Kitchen 69 – an alternative cooking experience in La Paz, with insights into Bolivian culture and classic dishes, with drink sampling.
Festivals, celebrations and other dates for your calendar
Add some spice to your Bolivia experience by coinciding it with a major national or local celebration. Here are some to look out for:
Carnaval de Oruro, February/March – the altiplano city of Oruro hosts the biggest celebrations of the widespread festival in Bolivia.
Independence Day, 6 August – celebrations on the streets of Bolivian cities with music, dancing, fireworks and parades.
Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria, February – week-long festivities and feasts (the liveliest celebrations are in Copacabana).
Aymara New Year, 21 June – celebrated in La Paz and Tiwanaku, the indigenous milestone is marked with bonfires and parties.
Gran Poder, May/June – street dances involving thousands of performers in lavish costumes, and plenty of alcohol.
Alasitas, 24 January – during the ‘festival of small wishes’, the streets of La Paz are animated with market stalls selling craft and food.
Getting around Bolivia
Bolivia’s transport system relies on its network of roads, and so bus is the easiest and most common means of getting around. The mountainous terrain makes for some gorgeous journeys, so we didn’t mind! We found it was usually easy to buy tickets at bus terminals on the day of departure.
La Paz features the world’s highest cable car system, Mi Teleférico, which provides a cheap and spectacular way to get around the city. Take the journey up to El Alto for some truly breathtaking views of the city’s colourful skyline on the Andes mountains.
In the south and east of Bolivia, some rail networks connect cities to the borders with Argentina and Brazil. The most popular line runs from Oruro to Villazon on the Argentine border, passing through Uyuni and Tupiza. Flying is possible between main cities, but is a more expensive option.
Accommodation in Bolivia
Accommodation in Bolivia is often basic and very cheap. Hostels in the cities come as cheap $5 a night, and hotel rooms can be as little as $15. Anything over $100 a night would get you the highest-end luxury. Browse booking.com to find the best rates and options to suit your style.
Packing for Bolivia
Bolivia’s altitude and diversity of landscapes makes it a tricky to pack for. Nowhere else I’ve been has the temperature dropped so suddenly at sundown, from scorching hot to bitter cold! There’s also security to consider, and whether or not you want to go out and party. Bolivian Life has a useful packing list to help you make the right decisions. These are some of the essentials:
Sunglasses, hat and sunscreen, especially for the salt flats
Water bottle and/or camel pack
Quality camera for the outstanding scenery!
Money and costs in Bolivia
Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries to travel in South America for everyday costs like food, accommodation and transport. However, the big-ticket activities like the salt flats, Death Road cycling and jungle adventures can still burn a hole in your pocket. In our analysis of Bolivia trip costs, we review what we spent in the country and suggest some tools for planning your own travel budget. Note that exchange rates and inflation may have affected local prices since our trip, but it will give you an idea of where you may need to concentrate most of your funds.
Budget: hostel dorm rooms from $5
Mid-range: basic hotel rooms from $15
Top-end: nice hotels from $35
Budget: street food, markets from $2 a meal
Mid-range: regular restaurant meal from $5
Top-end: fine-dining restaurant meal from $15
Budget: bus, intercity from $5
Mid-range: train (regional), intercity from $10
Top-end: intercity flights from $50
Great books about Bolivia
Reading a good book set in a destination or telling its history can really fire up your imagination before visiting. These are our top picks for Bolivia:
Marching Powder by Rusty Young (true story of a drug smuggler’s eventful time in La Paz’s famous San Pedro Prison)
I am a taxiby Deborah Ellis (set in Cochabamba, young adult fiction about the journey of a child whose parents are imprisoned)
Our series of brief guides gives quick insights into destinations, handy to keep on your tablet. The Bolivia edition combines essential information from this page with a rundown of quick tips to help plan your trip. You can get yours for free by signing up for our emails using the form below.