Bolivia Survival Guide: Top 10 Essential Tips for Traveling Bolivia

By: Jessica Janoski

When I first arrived in Bolivia ten months ago, I mistook it's picturesque backdrops for some sort of indication that life here would be just as quaint. Take it from me, folks – for a country comparable to the size of California and Texas combined, Bolivia is an unassumingly complex nation and at times can be challenging to navigate. (As in (for example), weather conditions varying from glacial to steamy rainforest within a few hours travel, and 38 official spoken languages to differentiate – that kind of challenging.)

And while bumps in the road make for the best detours and mishaps turn into the most epic of stories, there are a few things in life that one just needs to know before exploring a new country. Whether you’re planning a visit or initiating your new expat adventure, bear in mind these essential survival guidelines to help make the most of your experience in Bolivia.

1. Be armed. Water balloons are the citizens’ weapons of choice. Holidays and festivals here are celebrated with a good soak and sneak attacks during carnaval and ordinary days plagued by heat are a favorite pastime. Gringos, as you may guess, make for the best targets. Keep a few balloons in your back pocket.

2. Wear comfortable shoes. Bureaucracy is not Bolivia’s forte. In fact, it appears as though government rather enjoys inefficiency and nonsensical procedures leaving you at the mercy of reams of carbon paper and incessant lines. At least once you'll find yourself standing in line to be directed to yet another which will close abruptly forcing you to start the process over only to have all of your documentation lost. This applies at airports, grocery stores, government agencies, schools, hair salons, etc.

3. Pack a spare roll. Toilet paper, like in many Latin American countries, is not a guarantee in public restrooms. Unfortunately, neither is soap. Keep ‘em handy and don’t shake anyone’s hand you’ve seen visit the “washroom.”

4. Ask and ask again. It is advisable to inquire for a second and third opinion when soliciting information, even if just asking for the time. On a very, very rare occasion will someone admit they simply don’t know the answer, leaving you with directions that lead you in circles and no indication as to when lunch will be served.

5. Be patient. In Bolivia time is never of the essence. In fact, American punctuality is viewed as an obsession with time and foreigners are encouraged to relax when setting appointments. A good rule of thumb when planning events is to set the time an hour of ahead of when you would actually like your guests to arrive.

6. Skip dessert. You undoubtedly will eat carbs with your carbs accompanied by a choice side of more carbs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bolivians just love their potatoes. It’s little wonder, though, as the Andes are the potatoes’ geographic birthplace, and more than 4,000 varieties of the tuberous crop are grown here.

7. Stay on the guided trails. It’s a jungle out there and it’s not particularly the safest. Wildlife conservation is a struggle for the country as hardwood traffickers after Mahogany trees attack national parks throughout the night, while trophy hunters stalk jaguars during the day (a legally permissible sport). Bolivia is also notorious for narcotraffickers and cocaine operations, a sight you don’t want to see on a trekking excursion. Stay safe and always participate in guided trips through the forest and mountain regions.

8. Buckle up. Perhaps more dangerous than a run-in with lurking drug lords is the act of getting from one place to another. Not only does Bolivia claim the number one world’s most dangerous road, appropriately known as “Death Road,” the country also operates under the mentality that each driver owns the road and may do as he pleases. Pedestrians do not have the right of way and  in the bustling cities there are no laws regarding the proper usage of brake lights, blinkers or headlamps. Watch out!

9. Pack your party pants. Bolivians sure know how to throw a fiesta! The country enjoys a huge number of national, regional and local festivals throughout the year, some which feature thousands of costumed dancers and brass bands. 

10. Disfruten. Enjoy. Be appreciative of the foreign traditions, the seemingly strange customs and the beautiful views that Bolivia has to offer. It’s a country rich in cultural and ethnic diversity set amid mystical terrain and astonishing landscapes. There truly is something for everyone. Remember, we travel not only to see the beauty of the world, but also to experience the reality of it. 

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJessica Janoski is an American expat living in Bolivia. Blog description: Wanderlust musings of Jessica Janoski, a photojournalist living and working as an expat in Bolivia. The blog shows life from behind the lens, exhibiting cultural and personal photographs to tell my story and those of the people I meet in SA
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Contest Comments » There are 23 comments

Juan Carlos Paz wrote 10 years ago:

This one is not only for tourists, but for people who will be staying in the country for a while. Nice article!

Jenny Chantler wrote 10 years ago:

Such helpful article for expats - the author has listed some of the obvious and not so obvious examples of expat life here in Bolivia and adds humour to the listing too - something every expat DEFINITELY needs to survive life here in Bolivia ;) Great job Jessica!

John wrote 10 years ago:

This piece is not only easy to read and informative, but approachable. The author does a great job of making a guide that has useful information and creates a feeling of wanderlust. This piece makes me want to go Bolivia and be hit by water balloons. Bravo!

David Boldt wrote 10 years ago:

Well done. You nailed all the main points, and made it funny without getting mean.

Mark Meador wrote 10 years ago:

Thoughtful assessment of the Bolivian reality. Point #10 is particularly appropriate for navigating the challenges of living here. The previous comment (Juan Carlos) says it well -- Bolivia is a long-term investment.

Geddy H wrote 10 years ago:

Well done Jessica! Bolivia isn't for everyone, but if you want adventure and to experience an interesting mix of cultures, give Bolivia a try!

Martin wrote 10 years ago:

Well done, BUT food poisoning part is missing. "Don't eat fresh vegetable" is more sound advice than "Don't eat carbs" Carbs will make you fat, sallmonella will make you crap your pants. For me the 2nd is pretty much more annoying Although it's faster to clean your panties (and your body with ciprofloxacine) than to loose weight ;-)

Claudia Garcia wrote 10 years ago:

I think it's a great article and pretty accurate 10 tips for survival in Bolivia. Well done Jessica I love the informative yet humorous way of looking into navigating and surviving Bolivia.

Melany Zwartjes wrote 10 years ago:

What a beautifully written article! Thanks for sharing your unique perspective and tips! Your last sentence is so true--it really resonated with me. I wish you the best of luck!

Jeff wrote 10 years ago:

What a great article and nicely written. I have lived in Boliva nearly two years and visited for the past 12 years. I can agree with all said in your article to be true! Well done!

John C wrote 10 years ago:

What a great article. I also really enjoy your photoessays on the people that you have met. You have shown a great appreciation for a little known SA country. Keep up the great work!

Stephanie wrote 10 years ago:

a helpful, practical look at traveling to Bolivia. I haven't been there but am now inspired to go and would feel more prepared to truly experience Bolivia.

Kyrstin wrote 10 years ago:

Wonderful article and so informative! It really painted a picture in my mind of Bolivia and what it would be like traveling there.

Cecilia Suarez wrote 10 years ago:

Great article! very informative and accurate for anyone who plans on traveling to Bolivia. Really helpful. Congrats!

Sam wrote 10 years ago:

Great article, Jessica. People love lists these days (ie Buzzfeeds success) Great job injecting humorous witty twists in there!

Cassandra wrote 10 years ago:

This article is a great tool for the brief need to know items. I personally think the keeping a spare roll on you is a must if you travel anywhere outside the United States. The "be alert" section of the article was hilarious. Bolivia sounds like an amazing place to visit. Thank you for the helpful tips.

Amanda wrote 10 years ago:

Entertaining, concise and wonderfully written, this makes me want to know more about Bolivia and book a ticket there as soon as possible!

Sarah Callaghan wrote 10 years ago:

A very organized and easy read to explain the short. I personally love the part about 'Bureaucracy not being Bolivia's forte', and your example of waiting in line just to wait in another line and then it closes… such a typical occurrence that throws you off the first couple times it happens. And I had to LOL about 'ask and ask again' because just tonight downtown I was literally directed to the same store for two hours by several different people, none of whom actually knew where it was. When I finally found it, it was a fluke. Keep writing, sister!

Ingmar wrote 10 years ago:

What a great article, very easy to understand and definetly Bolivia it's a wonderful place to visit.

Sergio Steinbach wrote 10 years ago:

Pretty accurate and sadly true, though very helpful for anyone who plans to visit. Great article!

Alejandra wrote 10 years ago:

Great article, nicely written! I enjoyed reading all the guidelines!

Janae wrote 10 years ago:

This is fantastic! It's been so fun seeing your photos and reading about your adventures in Bolivia!

Arianna wrote 10 years ago:

Lovely article! Made me chuckle a bit. Definitely some parallels to Costa Rican living as well. :) #3, #5, and #6 but because of rice and beans!

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