Travel and country information, useful tips for one of South America's most unique destinations.
About Bolivia. A Guide by VisitBolivia.com
Officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the country is geographically the largest landlocked country in the Americas and one of South America's most diverse and unique nations. Bolivia is named after Simón Bolívar, a leader in the Spanish American wars of independence. It is equal in size to California and Texas combined. It is bordered to the North and East by Brazil, to the Southeast by Paraguay, to the South by Argentina, to the Southwest by Chile, and to the Northwest by Peru.
Bolivia has more than 13 different types of geography - making it one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world and causing the climate to vary drastically with altitude and from one climatic zone to another. The climate in Bolivia ranges from humid and tropical to cold and semiarid.
The Oriente is a lowland region ranging from rain forests to grasslands and wetlands. It comprises the northern and eastern two-thirds of Bolivia. In the he western part you will find the great plateau of the Altiplano, enclosed by two mountain chains of the Andes. Almost half the population lives on the plateau, where you will find the cities of Oruro, Potosí, and La Paz. Lake Titicaca near La Paz is the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world. The Salar De Uyuni in the South-West is the largest salt desert in the world, and a truly unique sight not to miss.
Is La Paz the capital of Bolivia?
Actually, the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre, while La Paz is the seat of government. Sucre used to be called La Plata and was proclaimed the provisional capital of the newly independent Alto Perú (now Bolivia) on 1st of July, 1826. The city was renamed in honor of the revolutionary leader Antonio José de Sucre by President José Miguel de Velasco on the 12th July, 1839 and proclaimed the capital of Bolivia. The seat of government moved to La Paz at the start of the 20th century after the Federal Revolution of 1899 and due to Sucre's remoteness from economic activity following the decline of the silver mines in Potosí.
The current Constitution, approved in 2009, assigns the role of national capital to Sucre, not referring to La Paz in the text. The Supreme Court of Bolivia is also located in Sucre, making it the judicial capital as well. However, The Presidential Palace (Palacio Quemado), seat of the Bolivian executive power, is located in La Paz, as are the National Assembly and the Plurinational Electoral Organ (OEP).
La Paz, with a population of about 1,715 million, is the second largest city in Bolivia after Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which is the principal economic and financial center. La Paz is the highest administrative capital city in the world, definitely worth a day or two to visit.
So, in case you are confused: Sucre is the constitutional capital, La Paz is the seat of government and the administrative capital and Santa Cruz is the economic center. Oh, and Cochabamba is where the Souht American Parlament is located.
Tourism in Bolivia
Many people think of Bolivia as primarily Andean country or think of Lake Titicaca or the Uyuni Salt Flats first. What they do not know is that the Andean region covers less than a third of Bolivia. Don't miss out on the other two-thirds of the country with beautiful tropical destinations such as rainforests and waterfalls, amazing national parks, the largest city in Bolivia, wonderful historic sites, all influenced by some of the less known ethnic groups in Bolivia such as the Moxos, Guarayos, Ayoreos, Guarani and Chiquitanos.
What you need to know before you travel:
Even though Bolivia is one of the least-developed countries in South America criminal statistics are quite low. In general, if tourists take basic security precautions, they may walk the streets in most areas of major cities without becoming victims of crime.
Traveling with children in Bolivia is also generally safe and fun, if you take into consideration the altitude, take shorter trips and choose the destinations with the climate in mind.
It is always important to take care of your health, but there are additional concerns to keep in mind when you're traveling. Whether you're taking a quick trip with your family or studying abroad for several months, it's easier to get sick when you're in a new place because your body hasn't had a chance to adjust to the food, water, and air in a new environment. Traveling can bring you in contact with things that your body isn't used to. Three of the most common health problems that you may experience when traveling are jet lag, altitude sickness, and diarrhea. When you fly across time zones, the differing amounts of light can change your internal body clock, resulting in a condition known as jet lag. Jet lag may cause symptoms like an upset stomach, insomnia, and tiredness.
Some areas of Bolivia reach extremely high altitudes, like La Paz, which ranges from 3,400 to 4,000 meters above sea level. Western Bolivia, including the Salar de Uyuni, Lake Titicaca and the cities of Potosi and Oruro, is also at a high level. High altitude can cause a number of health concerns, even for those in excellent health.
The subtropical areas of Bolivia carry a risk of yellow fever. You're advised to get vaccinated for this at least a month prior to traveling. Some neighboring countries, including Brazil, require anyone entering from Bolivia to have proof of a yellow-fever vaccination.
In addition to the medical issues, you must dress appropriately for the conditions. Especially consider the temperature fluctuations that occur in mountainous areas, particularly during the day compared to night. The sun in Bolivia is very strong and it is easy to get a bad sunburn very quickly, especially at high altitudes where the air is thinner and the cooler temperatures make you forget that you are in the tropics. To protect yourself from excessive sun exposure, stay out of the midday sun, drink plenty of fluids and avoid strenuous exercise in high temperatures. Always wear sunglasses and a hat. Use sunscreen with with both UVA and UVB protection. It should be applied generously to all exposed parts of the body approximately 30 minutes before sun exposure and should be reapplied after swimming or vigorous activity.
To enter Bolivia your passport must be valid for six months beyond the date of entry. Personal documents – passports and visas – must be carried at all times, especially in lowland regions. It's safest to carry photocopies rather than originals, but if you are going anywhere near a border area (even if you don't actually cross) you should have your real passport with you.
US citizens need a visa to visit Bolivia (a 90-day visa valid for 10 years costs US$160). Theoretically it is possible to obtain the visa upon arrival in Bolivia, but some airlines will not let you board your flight without one. Avoid problems and get one before you travel.
Weather and the best time to visit Bolivia
The weather in Bolivia depends much more on the altitude and topography of the region you plan to visit than the actual season of the year. At higher elevations, temperatures will vary from quite warm during the day to freezing cold at night. In the lower areas, the rain can seem unending even during the "dry" season. The valleys seem to live in an eternal spring and the mountains in everlasting winter. The best time to visit Bolivia depends on the places and sights you want to see, the tours you would like to take, and the mode of transport you wish to take.
Winter (dry season): June - July - August
Best for visiting the Bolivian Amazon (Rurrenabaque), Salar de Uyuni.
From April to October the weather is typically colder and drier. The coolest month tends to be July.
Summer (rainy season): December - January - February
Best chance of seeing the famous 'mirror effect' in the Salar de Uyuni.
From November to March the weather is typically warmer and wetter, though in some regions November may be quite hot and dry.
The altitude of cities like La Paz, Oruro and Potosi keeps things cool despite their tropical latitude, and warm clothing is advised year-round. In winter temperatures can drop significantly below freezing.
Santa Cruz, Rurrenabaque and other low-lying cities are usually "hot destinations" during most of the year.
The Bolivian currency is the Boliviano, and its symbol is Bs or BOB. Bills come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 bolivianos; in coins of 1, 2 and 5 bolivianos, and in 10, 20, and 50 bolivian cents.
The mid-market exchange rate USD to BOB has remained fixed by the Bolivian Central Bank for several years now. It currently stands at 1 USD = 6.96 BOB.
There are banks and exchange booths within the airport where you can exchange your currency for bolivianos. Street money-changers also buy sell currencies, usually at a marginally better rate than banks. Potentially counterfeit bills can be a problem though.
Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) are found in Bolivia's main cities. Be careful though, they don' always work! Also, there is a general limit of 200 USD per withdrawal`per day, so if you need to spend more cash, take precautions.
The most widely accepted credit cards in Bolivia are American Express, Visa, and Master Card.
Foreign currencies, in cash and travelers checks, can be exchanged in banks, "casas de cambio" (exchange booths or stores) and hotels. Banks only accept USD bills in absolutely perfect conditions (no markings, tears or even excessive dirt), so you may have a hard time paying with worn dollar bills anywhere.
The majority of transactions that take place are with American dollars and Euros, although in some places transactions are also done with less common foreign currency.Exchange rates for these is usually less favourable.
The official time in Bolivia is 4 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT-4). Bolivia does not follow daylight savings time therefore the time is the same year round and does not vary from one geographic region to another.
Contrary to what many may say, food in Bolivia is so much more than just rice and fried chicken. Using mainly a mixture of Spanish cuisine and indigenous ingredients, traditional dishes in west (high) Bolivia are generally suited to the high, cold climate in the Altiplano. Gustu in La Paz by the famous Danish chef and co-founder of Noma en Copenhagen Claus Meyer offers interesting culinary experiments with typical Andean ingredients. Don’t miss out on llama steaks and quinoa, an Andean super-grain!
In lower (tropical) regions, the main local ingredients are yucca, fried bananas, river fish, and even turtles and crocodile tail (see below).
One of the best ways to experience the local cuisine in any city is to eat at the local markets where you can get a quick, tasty and satisfying meal for as little as 2-3 USD.
Bolivians are rather fond of holidays. It would be a near impossible task to list all regional and local holidays when many activities are suspended, the official holidays when banks and offices are closed are:
January 1 - New Year's Day
January 20 - Constitution Day
Varies (February-March) - Carnival
Varies (March-April) - Semana Santa (Holy Week)
May 1 - Labor Day
June 14 - Corpus Christi
June 21 - Winter Solstice, Aymara New Year
August 6 - Independence Day
November 2 - Todos los Santos (All Saint's Day)
December 25 - Christmas
Please note that whenever a holiday falls on a weekend, the following Monday is usually declared a day off. Additionally, if it happens to fall on a Thursday or Friday, don't expect many people to be working until Monday.
Gran Poder Festival - The Gran Poder Folkloric entrance is a traditional festival that takes place in the well-known Ch'ijini neighborhood of La Paz city since 1974. The "greatest Andean festivity" gathers approximately 30000 dancers of 60 folkloric dance groups, which dance along a 6 kilometer route inside La Paz city. The festival takes place between the months of May and June.
Winter Solstice - Aymara New Year - The winter solstice is celebrated in Tiwanaku on every June 21st. This date marks the Aymara New Year or Machaj Mara; it also marks the beginning of a new agricultural year. The winter solstice indicates that the earth is at its farthest point from the sun. The Amautas (Andean priests) celebrate gratitude ceremonies to the Sun and the Pachamama (mother earth).
Carnaval de Oruro - Oruro Carnival - The Oruro Carnival is a distinctly religious festivity in devotion to the Virgin of Socavón. Every year folkloric dance groups from all over Bolivia and the world meet up in Oruro to play tribute with their music and dances to the Virgin of Candelaria also known as Socavón. The dancers make a journey of several kilometers, culminating at the Sanctuary of the Virgin to whom they offer their dance as sacrifice in exchange for the granting of a wish.
Official languages and people
Bolivia's population, estimated at around 11 million, is multiethnic, including Amerindians, Mestizos, Europeans, Asians and Africans. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of its population being of indigenous descent. After the Spaniards conquered the Incas in the 16th century, Bolivia's predominantly Indian population was reduced to slavery. The remoteness of the Andes helped protect the Bolivian Indians from the European diseases that decimated other South American Indians.
Spanish is the official and predominant language, although 36 indigenous languages also have official status, of which the most commonly spoken are Guarani, Aymara and Quechua languages.
Although the official religion is Roman Catholic, and the majority of the population claims to be Catholic, freedom of religion is accepted in Bolivia. Ties with the Catholic Church have remained strong through agreements and pacts between Bolivia and the Vatican.
Bolivia has a territory of 1,098,581 Km2.
Bolivia's geography is comprised of in broad terms the Altiplano (High Plains) with mountain ranges between 3000 and 6000 meters above sea level, valleys between 1500 and 3000 meters above sea level and tropical areas at around 200 meters above sea level. Two thirds of the Bolivian territory are tropical areas and more than three quarters are fertile lands for agriculture.
When traveling from the Altiplano to the Amazon, you will have a hard time believing you are still in the same country.