3 months in Bolivia – what to expect

Hello there! Yes, it’s me, still alive after a couple of months of silence on this blog. Not that I was sitting still or got caught up in this thing called ‘life’. Well, maybe a little bit. The life thing at least. Since this blog mainly talks about my travels, I guess it’s more than fair if I take some time off once in a while. Just to have some adventures to write about. What happened during my months in Bolivia for example. How about a tiny little stop in Paraguay? Maybe also a couple of weeks in Argentina. – Okayyyy…I know I’m months behind on the next posts of my time in Colombia and Ecuador. I will write them. Eventually. I promise.

Whenever I decide to plan a trip, I start reading. Blogs, guides, (old) travel magazines, you name it and I will have read it. Most of the information you find is up to date, relevant, useful. Well-known places and things you just can. not. miss., like the Salar de Uyuni, definitely the most visited ‘tourist’ attraction in Bolivia but living up to it every second. Sometimes I stumble upon some rather questionable advice and some people just plainly warn you not to go: you’ll be robbed, local people ignore you and you’ll probably end up dead in a ditch somewhere. – maybe a bit exaggerated, but still – A lot of the things I’ve read didn’t make sense at all. So, writing as a solo female budget traveler who’s just spent almost the full 3 months in Bolivia, here’s what to expect when you visit Bolivia for the first time.

BOLIVIA LEAVES YOU BREATHLESS

Literally. Especially during a climb of some steep hills in La Paz or when admiring the mirrored surface of the Salar de Uyuni during rain season. A lot of what’s hot in this landlocked South American country will take place at high altitude, wether it is walking towards the Maragua crater on a two-day hike, taking pictures of some ancient murals on the altiplano or just having a fresh orange juice at the market in El Alto. The Andes hits ‘Bolivia’s top 10’ at least a couple of times.

On the other hand, while flying to the town of Rurrenabaque, the mountains quickly make place for a green jungle, a big brown river coiling through the trees like a giant snake. Humidity, mosquitos and heat are just an annoyance when standing face to face with a wild capucin monkey / capybara / jaguar – only if you’re lucky -. Watching the stars when fishing on a river at night, only surrounded by tchirping birds and jungle sounds. The thrill of seeing a tapir, closeby, wild and free. The humiditiy, the feeling of drowning inside a sea of green, green and green. Breathless. The magic of the jungle.

What else? Some big cities, like La Paz and Oruro, a tablecloth of brick buildings that doesn’t seem to stop. Buzzing, thrilling, always something to do. Markets in different parts of the city and on different days, aimed at tourists or just to sell the produce of the day. Superstition has a place on the witches’ market and old customs got a new dress on the Alasitas festival. Traditional clothing is still worn by the locals, representing the area and community they come from. Color is a key word.

A combination of the majestic Andes, the high plains where wild vicunas roam free, the magic of the Amazon with its lush forests and wildlife, together with the chaotic cities and small indigenous comunities living their traditional way of life is why Bolivia deserves your attention. It’ll leave you breathless, maybe even more than you’ll have imagined before.

LONG BUSRIDES. YES, MOSTLY ON UNPAVED ROADS. BUT THEY’RE COMFY.

Now, if you want to take a bus in Bolivia, my best advice is: go to a bus station and ask them when / what / how much on the spot. No need to book tickets in advance – they will be more expensive anyway – or check the timetables, it’s highly likely that the info you’ll find online isn’t accurate or that there are a lot more options than you’ve expected. The rest depends upon you: the comfort you want, how much time you have and, of course, how much bolivianos you can spend on your transport. For the budget travelers among us: yes, Bolivian buses can be very cheap.

Talking about comfort, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere as long as I have a space to rest my head on. Needless to say I’ve never picked a cama-bus or a – definitely more expensive – ‘Bolivia Hop’ option. Semi-cama is good enough for me, declining chairs, a foot rest and a shaking bus made me sleep like a rose most of the time. But, be aware, semi-cama being the cheapest option means there’s no toilet. If you desperately need to pee, just sign the driver and he’ll stop at the side of the road. Yep, you’ve read that well, those Cholita skirts are a practical thing on a long busride. – Fun fact: my first nightbus in Bolivia I didn’t know that ‘you need to ask the busdriver for a toilet break’, I was hoping for a quick stop in a restaurant in order to go to the toilet. Five hours later, I knew I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to talk to the gentleman beside me, in the hope he knew what to do. Friendly as the Bolivians are – they are, ignore what you’ve read on other blogs – he shouted to the busdriver to stop the bus, accompanied by a choir of fellow travelers desperate in need for a wee. I sprinted out of the bus, squatted behind some bushes and…relief. Only for a couple of seconds, until I realized that I was peeing right next to a free running pig. Luckily for me, it didn’t chase me, I could finish and continue my trip with dry panties. – For the more frugal travelers amongst us: if the bus didn’t fill up before leaving, it will stop one block from the bus station, trying to get more passengers at cheaper prices. The driver will wait about half an hour before he’ll start to drive or until the moment too many people start screaming ‘Vamos! Vamos!’ at him.

When you’re not such an easy sleeper like me, you can still go for a full cama trip on a local bus. ‘Cama’ means ‘bed’ in Spanish, so highly likely those seats will recline until you’re lying as flat as in a normal bed. – I never took them, but it seems logic though – Plenty of options, some come with food and at the bus station they can tell you what’s included in your bus ticket. I know I’ve mentioned something about ‘Bolivia Hop’, which is a bus service specifically catering to foreigners, which I also never took because 1. It’s more expensive 2. I can always meet fellow travelers in hostels if I want to 3. the local bus system is pretty good and you’ll find buses to nearly everywhere in the country, so no need for a shuttle service. I just prefer taking local buses at any time, that way you’ll get to know the people better – hurray for conversations with your neighbour, if you speak a bit of Spanish – and you’ll be better off when traveling on the cheap. Also, I love people coming on the bus to sell their food. Empanadas for the win.

But how about the safety on local buses then? – I can hear you think it. – Personally, I never had any issues on any local buses, but I’ve traveled often in South America and I’m quite careful with my belongings. Your big backpack will go in the storage space beneath the bus, always with a tag on it and you’ll have the other half. My small daypack / handluggage will be or at my feet or on my lap. Never. Ever. Ever. store anything in the compartment above you, you’ll be losing your stuff faster than you can blink. – In some scams a person that seems to belong to the bus company will forbid you to put your bag at your feet, telling you to store it above you. They’ll distract you and you’ll notice your bag missing. Just stand your ground and keep your bag with you. – Most of the time I’ll have a small bag on me with my passport, money and phone; this bag doesn’t leave my body for a second. Be careful with your stuff and you’ll be fine.

Last but not the least thing to say about bus-hopping in Bolivia: the roads. A lot of them have are paved and you barely notice driving from A to B. A lot more of those roads are a bit less paved…or they’re just a big mud pool the bus has to plough through. Hmpf. Keep in mind that traveling in Bolivia will take a lot of time, mostly because the roads are in such a bad shape. The route between La Paz and Rurrenabaque particularly can give you small heart attacks if you pay too much attention to what’s going on outside. ‘Keep calm, close your eyes and try to sleep’ is my advice. Just in case you really really don’t feel comfortable – as I can imagine on the La Paz – Rurre road – consider other options: boat / train / flight, just don’t expect them to be more affordable.

FRESH, LOCAL FOOD. BECAUSE A GIRL GOTTA EAT – AND THE BOYS TOO, YES –

I try to travel low budget. Try to, because on the way you’ll always meet somebody traveling with almost no money – something I highly admire but I haven’t been able to pull off myself -. Low budget in my eyes means: cooking a lot and eating mainly locally, thus getting to know the people and save money. Win-win. When I say locally, I mean: plastic tables at the roadside, street food and market food. The best food, actually.

If you want to cook, there’s no need to worry about a place to cook your own food. A lot of hostels provide equipped kitchens, so the only thing you’ll need is, of course, the food, some cooking oil – you’ll be standing there with all your stuff, ready to prepare a five-course meal and notice there’s no cooking oil – and the spices you’ll need. Many times there’s a free food section too, it’s handy to have a quick look there before you buy another kilo of rice while you only needed to grab it from the shelve. Then it’s up to you to prepare a delicious meal!

When cooking, what’s a better way than to buy your fresh herbs and veggies at the market? No plastic packaging, you only buy as much as you need and the lovely ladies at the market will gift you some extra’s. Just to see your pretty face again next time you’ll do your grocery shopping. In Bolivia, you can find basically everything you need at your local market: fruits and veggies, herbs, eggs, rice, homemade cheese, bread,… Besides buying your food, most markets have a food court where they serve a cheap lunch, called ‘the menu del dia’. – I already wrote about it in my Colombia-posts – For about 8 to 15 bolivianos you’ll indulge in a soup, main course and a drink of the day. Most of them have different options to the menu, giving you the choice between different meats or, if you’re very very lucky, they’ll have a vegetarian option.

Western food and other options are also widely available – especially pizza you’ll find everywhere – but expect also to pay the price – still not comparable to eating out in Belgium, but already four or five times more expensive –. Depending on your budget, you’ll notice if it’s better to stick to the lunch menus or if you can indulge every once in a while.

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS UP TO DATE

Opposite to what I’ve read on a lot of blogs about Bolivia: internet is everywhere. It might not be the fastest netwerk you’ve encountered, but most hostels, restaurants and bars have their wifi ready to be overused by broken backpackers and other travelers. Most travel blogs on the subject have been written a year or two/three ago, so a lot has changed in the meantime. Almost all hostels have free wifi, even the cheaper ones and not too bad either. Seriously, I paid 30 bolivianos a night in Sucre and could still download my favorite series without issues. Or videocall one of my friends abroad when I felt lonely. Campings on the other hand are less likely to have free internet, but then there are bars and restaurants galore to still your need for an online presence. Only when deep into the forest or high in the mountains you’ll have to refrain your urge to post your pictures. No need for it anyway, when enjoying the outdoors.

All in all, what you need to know: Yes, also in Bolivia you can watch your netflix and spend hours on instagram without any issue. You’re welcome.

EXPECT A LOT.

I guess that’s what you can expect from Bolivia: a shitload of activities ranging from museum hopping in La Paz to catching your breath during a hike in the Andes, long hours on not so good roads, eating fresh and locally while you can still videochat your mom if necessary. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bolivia. It is an amazing country and the reason I’m writing this ‘what can you expect?’ blogpost is to encourage you to look past the warnings of people who probably haven’t entered a foot in this beautiful country. Set aside your fears and be ready to read a bit more about Bolivia in my next post: ‘Tupiza to Uyuni – more than the world’s biggest Salt flats‘.

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