I’m starting to realize I have this thing about travelling to places that aren’t huge/easy tourist destinations. Do I know anyone who’s been there? Nope? SIGN ME UP. Which is why I was VERY excited that my first trip in South America would start in Bolivia¹.
“FADE INTO BOLIVIAN.” ²
That’s exactly what my dad said!
That IS off the tourist path. What’s the deal with Bolivia?
It is truly a fascinating country! Bolivia is a landlocked country smack dab in the middle of South America. It is bordered by Brazil, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. Bolivia offers all of the beauty of South America in one package: dense rainforests, otherworldly deserts, giant mountains, waterfront towns, alpacas, etc. Oh and 30% of the country is located around 10,000 feet altitude, which promised fun for my altitude averse, “sea-level 4 lyfe” body.
How do you even get to Bolivia?
It is basically a 2 step process.
Step 1. Acquire Visa. Having a passport from the United States is usually good because most countries will let you in with a stamp when you land in the airport. Bolivia is NOT one of those countries, it instead requires you to get a visa before setting foot on Bolivian soil. Getting one isn’t HARD but is kind of a hassle if you don’t live near an embassy.
You just fill out an application online and submit with it your passport, proof of lodging in Bolivia, proof of funds (a photocopy of your credit cards will work), proof of the yellow fever vaccine, departure information (a travel itinerary of your exit plan will also suffice, they just want to know you’re not trying to stay illegally), and $160. On the bright side, the visa is good for 10 years.
Step 2. Fly into Bolivia. The main international gateway is El Alto International Airport in La Paz³. It’s probably the only airport whose name actually says something about the airport, El Alto (English: Tall) is the highest international and 5th highest commercial airport in the world. And sitting at a lofty 13,300 feet, flying in was actually NO JOKE. But we will get into THAT story in a second.
Alternately it is easy to cross the land border into Bolivia from neighboring countries, provided you have your visa (see Step 1) in order before you arrive at the border.
³ The airport is TECHNICALLY located in El Alto, a community sitting on the cliff edge that looms over La Paz proper.
SIDE STORY TIME: Altitude Sickness is THE WORST and My Expensive Taxi Ride
Traveling in Bolivia means traveling at high altitude at some point. To put it in perspective, the tallest mountains in the United States are 14,000 feet (and my sea level, 0 feet, body could barely tolerate getting to 12,000 feet). So flying from sea level into an airport at 13,000 feet had me reasonably concerned about getting altitude sickness.
Side effects of altitude sickness may include: shortness of breath, respiratory distress syndrome, inability to exercise (or stand up), general discomfort, dizziness, fatigue, drowsiness, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, low oxygen in the body, rapid heart-rate, headache, and insufficient urine production.
The overnight flight itself was okay, kind of bumpy and crowded, but overall not too traumatizing. We landed around 6 AM and it was still dark outside. Then the crew opened the cabin door and all hell broke loose in my body: immediate cold sweats, light headedness and nausea. I knew the next few hours were going to be…a struggle.
I hobbled down the aisle like a cripple, stopping every 10 feet because I felt very weak and out of breath. The ultimate joke: I finally made it out of the plane only to discover the jetway was an uphill ramp.
Bolivia: 1, India: 0.
Meanwhile old people are flying past me like Speedy Gonzalez⁴, occasionally stopping to ask if I need help…WHICH I DID, low-key I’m seriously considering asking for a wheelchair, but in my youthful pride I say “I’m okay, I’m okay.” I felt AWFUL. Eventually I reach customs at the top of the ramp, literally the last person to pass the finish line. As is typical of customs there is a line, but standing in it makes me feel like death so I slump over on a bench until the lines go down.
After customs I collect my bag (thank GOD for push carts), and accept the first offer for a taxi I find. I had no energy to negotiate and don’t even know what price I agreed to pay, I just needed to not be vertical anymore. I should also mention I was meeting up with a friend who had been robbed in Chile a week before, and had her replacement valuables mailed to me in the US before I left. So I’m hobbling around the airport feeling like I’m about to die with thousands of dollars of my own and my friend’s valuables on my back.
The ride into La Paz was actually incredible and the city COMPLETELY exceeded my expectations, but more on that later. Finally I get dropped off in front of the hostel where I just shove a large bill into the driver’s hands and tell him to keep the change because I cannot bear to wait for him to count it out. I overpaid by A LOT but to this day do not regret it, I felt THAT terrible.
My friend was blessedly waiting for me in the lobby and I immediately shove the bag of her valuables into her hands, because I needed that burden off my shoulders, and collapse onto the lobby bench. I direct her to my passport for check in because I couldn’t stand up long enough to do it myself. Then proceed to empty my stomach contents into the recycling bin while she finishes checking in for me. And the vomiting continued ALL MORNING, nothing would stay down, until I remembered: I have altitude pills. I HAVE ALTITUDE PILLS. Took one and still felt like shit but the vomiting stopped.
The moral of this story is, if you are traveling to altitude BRING ALTITUDE PILLS and drink LOTS of water. You may not need to take them but if shit starts going south you will be glad you have them.
⁴ Racist pun not intended.
What’s this I hear about a cocaine and altitude?
So the coca leaf is a very popular, traditional/herbal remedy for altitude sickness in South America. It is in fact the same leaf used to make cocaine, so you can only buy it there and don’t try to bring any back with you.
Many places offer a coca leaf tea, which I drank daily out of precaution, or you can buy the actual leaves and chew them like gum. I personally found the texture of chewed leaves pulpy and disgusting and ironically more nauseating than the altitude sickness, so I saved them for last ditch emergencies and mainly relied on my altitude pills.
Getting into Bolivia sounds like a drag. Why would anyone want to go there?!
It is country with stunning natural beauty, a local fashion to rival New York Fashion week, easily accessible 20,000 feet mountain peaks and local women to lead you to the top, and baby llamas…
However the main draw for me (and pretty much every other tourist that makes it down to Bolivia) was the Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest salt flat in the world. And that place truly is MASSIVE. It is a VERY unique landscape and I was excited to take pictures there.
Okay, sounds worth it. I GUESS. How is the weather down there?
I went in May which in the southern hemisphere would be late fall/winter. Add to that high altitude which meant it was pretty chilly. But I usually felt comfortable while walking around in my light jacket.
Nights were colder but Bolivians have figured out how to make a blanket; everywhere I stayed had the most amazing, warm blankets! You didn’t even need a heater, which was fine because most places didn’t even offer the option of using one.
Tolerable. Is it expensive?
Not really! More than Southeast Asia but definitely less than Europe and the US.
Hostels: A dorm bed will be around $10/night and a private room around $25.
Meals: Around $5.
Public Buses: Under $1
Luxury Long Distance Bus: $18 each way
Bottle of Water: $1
What exactly did you do?
I gave myself a few days in La Paz to acclimatize, in anticipation of my body not handling the altitude well. Turns out those days were MUCH needed and I was thankful for my foresight.
When I was finally able to be vertical for longer than 20 minutes we ventured into the market area of La Paz and just taking in the city of La Paz. I was actually blown away by La Paz, the city is built into the valley walls like mold. There are buildings everywhere, and it is unlike any Western urban area because things like building codes do not exist. In La Paz walls go up and it just works.
After La Paz we caught an overnight bus to Uyuni and spent 2 days on the salt flats. Then back to La Paz where we caught another LONG bus to Cusco, Peru.
What were your favorite experiences?
Cholitas. The local ladies of Bolivia are super stylish. I LIVED for their hats and braids. And we frequently bonded over the fact that my hair was braided “like theirs.” And they always thought I was beautiful. #Vain #LovesCompliments #UnitedThroughHair
The Salt Flats. They were absolutely as amazing as I’d expected. Read about that experience here.
La Paz Transportation. Getting around La Paz turned out to be an attraction in its own right. Since the city is built into a giant cliff it’s difficult to go from top to bottom. So the city has this amazing system of cable cars that whisk you over the rooftops and across La Paz. The cable cars are BY FAR the most modern part of the city, they really stand out. And the fare is about $0.50 so they are truly meant to be used BY ALL. The design/execution of La Paz was just really incredible to me because I have never seen another city like it. Floating above houses, parks, cemeteries and hills just really took my experience of the city to the next level.
La Paz also has a system of “public buses,” that are really just numbered vans and elaborately decorated school buses that follow an “in general we go this way” route. You stand on the side of the road watching hundreds of other “buses” pass by, looking for your number. It’s a bit like Where’s Waldo. When you see your number you flag it down then cram in with the other passengers and watch for your stop. It was exceptionally daunting because the drivers don’t speak English.
What were your least favorite experiences?
Flying into La Paz. (See Above)
The Witches Market. I WAS really looking forward to visiting the famed Mercado de las Brujas; I love macabre so obviously. Well the market was not even open the first time I exerted myself to walk there. The second time it was just really small and not many shops were open. I could totally have not gone far enough but my expectations were a bustling market of “witchcraft” merch. I did see plenty of Llama fetuses though.
What did you miss that you’d like to see next time?
Huyana Potosi. There were a few HUGE mountains visible from La Paz, the closest being Huyana Potosi. Huyana Potosi peaks at 20,000 feet and is very accessible for such a high mountain. I REALLY wanted to make a day trip to the base of Huyana Potosi, which is totally doable from La Paz, but altitude sickness ruined that plan.
Yungas. North of La Paz is a region inhabited by the Afro-Bolivians. Next time I visit I absolutely would love to spend time with them.
Valle de las Lunas. Another place I’d planned to visit, but ultimately cut after my altitude sickness took me out for a few days, was the Valle de las Lunas. It is a park full of scenic rock formations, and located conveniently right outside of La Paz. Next time I would like to wander the rocks at twilight.
Gustu. At the southern edge of La Paz is seemingly where the “nice” neighborhood exists. And in the “nice” neighborhood is a really NICE restaurant that does multi-course meals. I read about it somewhere and when I saw llama tartare on the menu I knew I had to try it in principle. The meals are pretty expensive but they also offer a la carte appetizers and cocktails, which is what we elected to try. My cocktail began with the bartender burning a sprig of rosemary in the cup, infusing the ice with a delightful smoked rosemary flavor. And the food was EXQUISITE. My favorite, a locally grown tomato salad with a creamy cheese sauce.
Least Favorite Meal?
Alpaca/Llama. I did not end up liking the llama tartare or cooked alpaca that I tried later in the trip. The flavor was too game-y.
Adventure Brew Hostel. I only slept in 2 “hotels” in Bolivia so there’s not much to choose from, but I did enjoy my stay at Adventure Brew. The stairs were a BITCH, but the beds were comfortable and they offered free breakfast and a daily can of beer.
Place to Photograph?
La Paz from Above. It is not common (or usually cheap) to be able to experience cities from above, which is what makes the La Paz cable cars a double win. Cheap and you get fantastic views of La Paz from above!
So now you have an idea of some things to see and do in La Paz.
What items are you glad you packed?
– Acetazolamide (aka Diamox). In an ideal world my body could land at high altitude and not completely shut down, alas. Altitude pills seriously saved my trip. They are inexpensive and take up minimal space in your suitcase so my high altitude mantra is better to have them and not use them than need them and not have them.
What items do you wish you’d packed?
– A Refresher on Espanol. English is definitely NOT common and it was very helpful to know some Spanish vocabulary. I do wish I’d done a quick refresher on it before arriving though…to prevent myself from saying things like “MI AMOR” when I really meant to say “ME ENCATA!”
What did you bring/wish you brought back with you?
– Warm blanket. I didn’t even think to look for one at the time but the more I used those warm maybe wool blankets the more I realized I really wanted to have one back home with me. I did try to find one later in Peru but they were more expensive and not quite the same. I would honestly go back to Bolivia JUST to buy one of those blankets.
– A Cholita bowler hat. The Cholitas of La Paz are iconic! Tiny Bolivian ladies in colorful skirts, draped in colorful scarves, hair neatly braided and a fabulous bowler hat sitting perfectly on top of their heads. It was amazing. I REALLY wanted a hat and did actually find a shop around the Witches’ Market, but had 2 weeks of rough travel ahead of me and did not want the hat to get destroyed. NEXT TIME I WILL GET ONE FOR SURE.
Would you go back to Bolivia?
ABSOLUTELY! I really enjoyed my brief jaunt to Bolivia, that was cut even shorter by my getting sick as soon as I landed there. I was a HORRIBLE photographer there (between feeling like shit and being nervous in a new place with expensive gear), and need a redo.
On that note, I’m sorry I did not take great pictures in La Paz and most of these are cell phone pictures. I promise I did better on the rest of the trip!