Travel Tips: Bolivia Travel Guide

General Comments

Bolivia seems to be one of those countries that some people seem to really love while others think it is vastly overrated. It has one of the highest percentages of indigenous population and is one of the least developed countries in South America. Again, these two items are either pluses or minuses, depending on your outlook, or more likely both depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. Without a doubt, there is a lot of natural beauty on display in this country, with access to 6,000m mountains and the Amazon within hours of the impressive capital of La Paz. As for the food, again some find it exceptional while others find it exceptionally bad. I personally often longed to find a decent bakery though I really enjoyed the salteñas. I think most would generally agree that the transportation system isn’t one of the country’s highlights or bragging points and you will also be hard-pressed to meet someone who has spent more than a little time in the country who hasn’t been in some way affected by some civil unrest, usually in the form of a strike or street blockade. You will also find general agreement that Bolivia is an incredibly affordable country, so fear not budget travelers. And, as most guidebooks will readily point out, a large portion of the country that would interest a tourist is at very high altitude and can cause problems for those not acclimated. Finally, like Perú, toilet paper seems to be a precious commodity in this country for some inexplicable reason.

Crossing the Border from Puno, Perú

Crossing to Bolivia from Puno is very easy as there are direct buses to Copacabana for about S/.20. I paid S/.18 with some agency I can’t recall, that I purchased directly in my hotel so I didn’t have to make an extra trip to the bus terminal. The trip is relatively short, two and a half hours to the border and about 15 minutes on to Copacabana, and the bus waits for everyone as they cross the border. There are basically two options for going, early in the morning (07:30 I believe) or in the afternoon (14:30). For those who wish to continue on the La Paz you can purchase a ticket from Puno to La Paz for about S/.30 but you will switch in Copacabana. The tourist bus from Copacabana to La Paz is timed to leave at 18:30 to accommodate these passengers.

One caution: If you need to change money to Bolivianos (and there are apparently no ATMs in Copacabana so this is likely for those staying there), your bus, like mine, may stop before the actual border at a fairly official looking money exchange center and tell you to change your money there. DON’T DO IT. It is some kind of collaboration between the two and the rates are horrible. At the actual border there will be someone (in my case, a sweet old lady) that will offer a much better rate. To illustrate, the rate for US dollars where we stopped was 6.7, and the sweet old lady offered 6.9. For Peruvian Nuevo Soles (PEN), the rate at the place we stopped was 2.3, the old lady offered 2.4 or 2.45 (I forgot which).

A Note About Visas for U.S. Citizens

I had read online that if you were going to Puno it was better to get your visa there as it was only US$100 versus US$135 at the border. That was apparently a very old site considering that was only true until December 2008. Now you pay the same in both places. For those worried about corrupt border officials or not having everything in order, it still might be a good option to get the visa in Puno and that is what I tried to do. Unfortunately, I was told to come back at noon to see the actual consul (the secretary working there wasn’t authorized to grant the visa apparently). When I came back I was told the consul had called and said he wouldn’t be coming in until 14:00. Since my bus was leaving at 14:30 the secretary suggested I just take my documents to the border instead as he had already confirmed they were in order (though I originally had to leave and print out a Bolivian hotel confirmation since I was lacking that – see below). In the end, the two immigration officials working at the border were very pleasant (even making jokes and chatting) and I had no problems whatsoever getting my visa. I did have to make a copy of my application form but there was a place to do that at the border so it doesn’t matter if you do that ahead of time or not.

Whether you get your visa in Puno or at the border, here are the things you will need to show the immigration officer:

  • the visa application form (I got mine in Puno, but I imagine you can fill one out at the border)
  • a passport photo to affix to the application form
  • a photocopy of your passport
  • a photocopy of your yellow fever immunization
  • proof that you are leaving the country (a copy of a flight reservation, even a fake one, would suffice, though I also heard that a clearly printed itinerary for your stay is also acceptable)
  • proof of financial wherewithal, most logically a printout of your current bank balance, though I think possibly a credit card is acceptable also (not sure about that)
  • confirmation of a hotel reservation somewhere in Bolivia (I just made a fake email confirmation and printed it out)

Note: for those who haven’t gotten a yellow fever vaccination, you can do so quickly and cheaply at the hospital in Puno. I don’t know the exact cost because I already had mine but I did read it was cheap, and in any case, will certainly be much cheaper than it would cost back home.

Copacabana

Lodging

My first night I stayed in Hostal Lago Sagrado on the main avenue from the plaza to the lake (6 de Agosto). From the outside it looks quite nice and the owners at first seemed friendly. I paid B$30 for a single with private bath and at first appearance it seemed to be a nice room with a decent bed, a television and a large bathroom. The first sign that everything wasn’t as great as it appeared was when they told me they didn’t have the key to the room so I should just not lock it, but not to worry they were making a new key to be ready shortly. I also asked if I could store my backpack while I went to Isla del Sol the next day and they said no problem. They neglected to mention they would charge me B$5 for the privilege. Not a lot of money, but such service should be included and, at a minimum, if not, should be mentioned. Later another guest (I think there were only two of us) asked for an extra blanket and they wanted to charge her B$5 for that as well. Considering how cold Copacabana can get and the fact that the beds only were made with one blanket, that seemed ridiculous. After complaining a lot, they did give her the blanket free. She also ended up not being able to get any reception on her TV. There is no cable, and my TV didn’t get any channels either, but I rarely watch TV so it wasn’t a big problem for me. Still, why put televisions in each room if they can’t actually receive any channels? Apparently, some rooms do get decent reception so she asked to move to one of those, as she hadn’t used the bathroom or bed yet. They said the other rooms were more expensive and refused to move her, despite the fact that I believe they were all completely empty. The one plus to the place was that it was very quiet and I could sleep fairly well, albeit fully dressed with the one blanket. Unfortunately, in the morning when I went to take a shower I was dealt the worst blow of all, barely warm water from the suicide (electric) shower. In a cold place (really, in almost any place) that is a deal breaker for me.

On the bus from Puno, a guy got on at the border and explained a few things to us about Bolivia and then mentioned that the Hotel Mirador al Lago was having an off-season special price of B$40 for a single, including breakfast. The bus even stopped directly there to let those off who were interested. It is probably the biggest hotel in all of Copacabana but it did look pretty nice, being basically on the lake and with most rooms having a view of the water so I decided to switch to that hotel for the second night. The Loki hostel booklet mentions this place and says it is nice but that it has received complaints. When I inquired about a room the staff wasn’t especially friendly but I had no problems with them. They told me at first there was no single room available but I could have a double or triple for B$60. I politely said no and then they offered me a triple bed room for the B$40 price. It was a very nice and spacious room with a view of the lake. The beds were comfortable and the shower was hot (although the shower head wasn’t the greatest). I was also much warmer this night, though I can’t swear it wasn’t partly due to better weather. Breakfast was basic, but reasonable, consisting of bread rolls with butter and jam, hot tea or coffee, a juice like drink (not real juice), and fruit (papaya and bananas).

Before arriving, I had heard from several other travelers that La Cúpula was a fabulous place to stay and to eat. It is quite a bit more expensive (I believe the cheapest single room is US$14) and, like the rest, had no WiFi so I decided against it, though I did try to eat there and it seemed nice (in the end, I didn’t eat there because the restaurant was closed).

Another good option that wasn’t available during my visit is Hostal Brisas del Titicaca.

So, my conclusion is that there are a ton of places to stay in Copacabana with varying prices, quality, service, etc. It is a fairly small place and easy to walk around looking at places, so do that and good luck or stay at Mirador if you can get a good price.

Other

There isn’t really much to see or do in Copacabana besides the walk up to the mirador and the nice church on the main plaza (Plaza 2 de Febrero). The main reason to be here is to relax and/or to visit Isla del Sol.

Transportation

There are buses and mirco buses to La Paz that leave frequently (I believe every hour) and I heard conflicting advice about these. Lonely Planet and a local I met said it is much better to take the tourist bus, which lets you off at the main terminal, or for some, a couple blocks away from the popular San Francisco church area. Another local told me the local buses, which let you off near the cemetery are plenty safe and cheaper (well, at least during the day). Still, for only B$25, and the option of being let off so close to the hostels I was considering, I opted for the tourist bus. As I have seen often in Peru, multiple buses do the same route at almost exactly the same time. In this case, all of them (at least four I know of: Maco Capac/Colectur, 2 de Febrero, Tur-Bus, Tour Peru) leave at either 13:30 or 18:30.

Photos

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Useful Links

Isla del Sol

My original plan was to spend a night here as so many other travelers had recommended this to me, and I did want to see the supposedly spectacular sunset. Also, my plan was to take a ferry to Yampupata and hike from there back to Copacabana (4-5 hours I believe) as I heard it was a lovely hike that passes some floating islands (islas flotantes) as well. In the end, I was underwhelmed with the island and learned that there are only private, expensive ferries to Yampupata. Maybe I was just not having a great day or maybe I have seen too many nice places, because although I found it very pleasant, I didn’t think as highly of it as so many others seem to. I had read that doing a one-day trip isn’t really sufficient due to the size of the island and the way the tours operate. I just went to the dock and bought my ticket, specifying I wanted to go to the north side. At the time, thinking I was staying a night there, I only purchased a one-way ticket for B$15 though I believe a round-trip is only B$20, which later bit me as I had to pay B$20 just for the return trip (apparently that one-way return trip is run by the people of the island whereas if you purchase a round-trip it is done by an agency in Copacabana so perhaps my B$20 did some good). The reason I mention this is that the staff on the boat told everyone that was getting off at the northern dock that they could either return to that dock around 1:00 and be brought to the south dock or they could just walk all the way there, so long as they arrive by 3:20 for the 3:30 departure. Since the morning boat leaves Copacabana at 8:30 (there is also another that leaves at 1:00 or 1:30, I can’t recall which) and arrives at 10:30 at the northern dock, that is 2 1/2 to 3 hours for those catching a boat to the south and another couple hours in the south. For those walking the whole island it is almost 5 hours to hike and eat, which I found to be sufficient. An extra hour would probably be better for the slower types, but it is definitely doable.

Photos

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La Paz

Lodging

Considering how many travelers pass through La Paz, I had a hard time getting good recommendations for places to stay here and my research process took much longer than normal. In the end, I was deciding between the following places:

  • Hostal Cactus (Calle Jimenez # 818, in Witches Market, a recommendation from a fellow traveler but hard to find anything about it online)
  • Hostal Jacha Inti (Calle Murillo 760, said by a fellow traveler to be very nice with clean rooms, a roof terrace, and free kitchen, but almost impossible to find anything about this place online)
  • Hostel Maya (WiFi, said to be nice by both Lonely Planet and Wikitravel)
  • El Solario (Calle Murillo 776, WiFi, popular with Japanese and French but with a good mix of guests according to Wikitravel) [Update: perhaps this place has closed as the only thing I can find on it now is the Facebook page for Hostal Naira, which says the two pages were merged]
  • Hostal Austria (Yanacocha 531, dm/s B$35/45, WiFi)
  • Hotel La Valle (C. Evaristo Valle Nº 153, no Internet)
  • Arthy’s Guesthouse (Internet, Av Montes 693)

I ended up at El Solario. It’s a strange place. It was definitely true during my stay that it was popular with French and Japanese which were the majority of guests there. The thing about this place is that there is nothing especially nice about it. And, the staff that work there aren’t especially friendly (though not unhelpful either). And, while the kitchen is pretty decent you in theory aren’t supposed to store food in the refrigerator. Considering that the aforementioned French and Japanese were often in couples or groups, combined with the fact that the common areas are split among three different levels meant for me that meeting other guests wasn’t so easy. OK, having said that, I actually like this place even if I can’t say why exactly.

Apparently, La Paz is home to two of the all-time biggest party hostels, Loki (the original in the chain I believe) and Wild Rover. The stories I heard about these places made my head spin and I was there more or less in the off season. So, be warned or encouraged, depending on your attitude about places like that.

Other

La Paz is, like the country itself, a city some people love and some hate. There is a fair amount of things to do around the city to keep you busy a number of days though within the city itself the must-see things are fairly limited. Some choose to do the famous prison tour, though I didn’t. If you are considering it, my advice is be very careful to arrange something through a contact that you can trust (preferably a referral from a fellow traveler who did the tour successfully). I heard numerous accounts of people having their advance payments taken by charlatans.

I did check out one of the other popular tourist draws, namely the Cholita’s lady wrestling show. All I can really say about it is that if you hear about it and think it sounds awesome you should go and if it sounds stupid to you definitely don’t. It’s both, completely dependent on your attitude on the whole spectacle.

I also gave a go at two other big tourist draws, the Death Road bicycle tour and climbing the 6,000m Huayna Potosi. Further on you will see my thoughts on each.

A tip on book exchanges, check out Oliver’s Travels Bar, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and Café Sol y Luna but be warned that Oliver’s and Café Sol y Luna charge really outrageous prices even after trading in a book. The best advice is to arrive in Bolivia with a full supply of reading materials.

Other ideas for things to do include:

  • A day trip to the Valle de las Animas and/or the Valle de La Luna (according to my friend, las Animas is far better though La Luna is more famous)
  • A day trip to Tiwanaku and/or Chacaltaya (I heard mixed reviews about Tiwanaku)
  • A trip up to El Alto to visit the markets and look down over the city (watch your pockets up there)
  • Parque Laikacota, at the top of Av. Ejercito west of the city center, for the best panorama from within the bowl
  • Mirador Monticulo, next to Plaza España, is a small park (free entry) with a church and lots of trees which block much of the city, but the clear view of Illimani makes it an evening hotspot

For transportation tips, be aware that there are apparently two main points of arrival and departure for buses. The one I used was the main terminal for long-distance buses and is pretty close to everything and seemed relatively safe. The other one is close to the cemetery and I heard it can be a bit sketchy, especially at night. If you plan to take a flight you can save quite a bit of money and take a collectivo directly there instead of a taxi.

For food, there are quite a few tourist-focused restaurants that are actually quite good. For steak you will be pleased with Casa Argentina or The Steak House. I wasn’t personally that impressed with Oliver’s but I think some others were. Cafe Sol y Luna was fantastic and for Japanese there is Wagamama or Ken-Chan, with the latter being cheaper. I ate a good curry somewhere but don’t recall if it was Star of India or some other place. Not sure what the good vegetarian places are.

Photos

Around Town
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Cholita’s Wrestling
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Useful Links

Huayna Potosi

Huayna Potosi is a 6000m peak located a short distance from downtown and is generally considered one of the “easiest” such peaks to summit, especially since the starting elevation is so high. There are a ton of tour agencies in town that will be very happy to sell you a package. The standard package is three days with the first day spent practicing the use of crampons and doing some fun glacier and ice climbing. I thought the first day was fun and since the price difference between a two day and three day package is fairly small I highly recommend doing three days. In any case, definitely make sure you have given yourself sufficient time to acclimatize before tackling this mountain.

As for choosing a decent agency, that is indeed very important. I read a lot of articles and advice on this and the general idea is that you want good guide (duh) and good equipment. When I went there were a few other climbers sharing the same lodge who had chosen a cheaper outfit and their clothing was far inferior and not waterproof. For the prices involved (very affordable), this is not the tour to scrimp on. Generally speaking the agency will provide transportation, guides, a refugio, food to eat (you should definitely bring your own snacks though), a jacket, trousers, a ski mask (balaklava), outer gloves (you’ll need your own inner gloves), crampons, an ice axe, a harness, boots, a helmet and gaithers. You will need a headlamp (bring extra batteries), sunglasses, snacks, water (only 2 1/2 liters), fleece, lip balm, and trekking shoes. Generally you will be responsible for bringing your own backpack (minimum 50L), sleeping bag and thermal underwear though a good agency will offer you any of these if you don’t have them. Most agencies will provide a basic sleeping bag for free but will charge a small amount for a better quality one. Finally, you will definitely want to buy some cocoa leaves to chew on at altitude and possibly some altitude sickness pills (soroche pills). some people say ginger products (like a gum) are good as well.

I am sure there are many great agencies, but for those who care, I chose Travel Tracks and was pleased with my choice. It is run by a Dutch woman and her Bolivian partner (who I believe grew up in the States) so arranging things in English or Spanish will be no problem. They, and other agencies, do claim to have English speaking guides, but in this case there was only one or two and the guides rotate on and off the mountain so if this is very important to you, be flexible with your dates to ensure availability of those guides. Other agencies I heard decent things about and might be worth investigating include: Huayna Potosi, Topas Bolivia, and Andean Summits.

As for guides, I think most of the reputable agencies use no more than one guide for two climbers) and some use a one-to-one ratio. Since a fair number of people can’t make it to the top for various reasons (mainly the altitude) some guides will end up having to turn back to accompany the climber to high camp. No problem for one guide to one climber situations and not too bad with one guide to two climbers as you will just join another group of two climbers, but you absolutely don’t want to have a worse ratio.

If you are wondering how much this will cost, I think a three day price when I was there in January 2011 was about B$1000 though I was offered a discounted price of B$900 (about US$130). There is also a park entrance fee of B$10. Renting a nicer sleeping bag was B$50 for all three days.

Finally note that though Huayna Potosi is the most popular climbing choice there are multiple other options in the area as well.

Photos

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Useful Links

Death Road Bike Tour

The North Yungas Road (alternatively known as Grove’s Road, Coroico Road, Camino de las Yungas, El Camino de la Muerte, Road of Death or Death Road) is a roughly 60-70 km road leading from La Paz to Coroico, 56 km northeast of La Paz in the Yungs region. It is legendary for its extreme danger and in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it as the “world’s most dangerous road,” though in recent years a new, safer road has opened so that most traffic on the death road are idiot foreigners (yes, that includes me) riding its distance on a mountain bike.

Lots of tour agencies do this trip and the price can vary a lot amongst agencies and depending on on the quality of bike Most agencies offer 3 or 4 different quality bikes with different prices. If your agency offers four options, I would choose the second cheapest. Mine (El Solario) offered three options and I chose the cheapest and had no complaints. Just make sure that whatever bikes offered are well maintained. Another consideration is the number of people who will be on your tour. Some agencies, like El Solario, are quite popular, probably because they are cheaper, and thus tend to have larger groups, which for those into mountain biking can be a drag as it means slowing down and frequently stopping to wait for the laggards. If this sounds annoying to you, shop around for an agency that will promise a small group.

For those afraid, let me say that the experience certainly does deserve your fear and respect, as going too fast around a corner and losing control could result in a plummet to your death! Having said that, liberal use of brakes and common sense should ensure a safe journey. For those most afraid, follow the exact opposite advice regarding group sizes above: seek out the larger agencies that will have a big group so you can find some comrades to go extra slow with. In no case will a competent guide try to make you go faster than you are comfortable going.

In days past, most tours ended in Coroico, those these days they usually end just a bit before there. The tour includes return passage to La Paz, but you can choose instead to relax overnight or longer in Coroico, which at 1750M is considerably warmer, and by all accounts, is truly charming. That was actually my plan, but there was a massive strike threatened when Evo removed the gasoline subsidies and, as Coroico is so small and has no ATM, I wasn’t excited about the possibility of getting stuck there for untold days. Naturally with Murphy’s law I chose to return to La Paz and the strike was cancelled/delayed. But, everyone I met who did visit Coroico raved about it so I recommend you consider it.

As for what to bring on your bike ride, your agency will give you good suggestions, though consider that at the beginning you will be cold and at the end you will be hot so pack accordingly. You will be able to de-layer along the way as the van usually follows the bikes. For the end lunch/swim, be sure to take along insect repellent.

Photos

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Useful Links

Amazon Pampas and/or Jungle Tours

Lodging

In the jungle or pampas themselves you will be staying in lodges that belong to your tour agency. If you choose to stay in Rurrenbaque for a night or two there are a fair number of options. I met another traveler on the plane and we decided to share a double room at Hotel Oriental right by the square the night before the tour started. When we returned we switched to another place that was cheaper but also nice and was recommended to us by our agency. Other places I had heard good things about include: El Curichal, Centro de Recreación del Ejército, Hotel los Tucanes de Rurre, and Hotel Asai.

Other

First, it should be mentioned that there are two basic tour options: a jungle tour and a pampas tour. I guess the pampas tour is more popular, but both are meant to be quite good. Quite a few people do both. I only did the pampas tour, but in the useful links section you will see an article comparing the two. For either you will have to get from La Paz or wherever you are to Rurrenbaque. You can go by bus, boat or plane. I never met anyone who went by boat and everyone I met who went by bus severely regretted that decision, so my recommendation is to fly. The flight prices are set so there is no worrying about searching for a good deal. Two airlines make the flight with the military airline being slightly cheaper but offering fewer scheduling options. You can either purchase your tickets by yourself or you can get them through an agency in La Paz when you purchase your tour. Of course, you don’t have to book a tour in advance, there are several agencies with offices in Rurrenbaque so you could just go there and get a tour easily. For maximum flexibility you may wish to book a one-way flight to Rurrenbaque and book the return flight from there when you decide which day you want to return. If the airline office will be closed before you start your tour you can usually get your agency to book the return flight for you while you are away.

For disclosure, I ended up going with Indigena Tours after reading some good reviews about them online. Overall I was pleased with the experience and would recommend them. I met a girl in the restaurant the night before leaving who ended up choosing a different outfit in town and we kept running into her group during our trip and she also seemed pleased so perhaps many (most?) of the agencies are pretty good.

Below are recommendations for things to bring, taken from some website (probably Indigena):

Clothing

  • Clothing suitable for humid, tropical weather, for trekking through bushes and traveling by boat, canoe
  • 4-6 pair of socks
  • 4 – T-shirts
  • 2 shorts for walking
  • 2-3 cotton pants (or other light material)
  • 3 long sleeved cotton shirts (for sun and mosquitoes)
  • Hiking boots
  • Sneakers (rubber shoes for boat trips)
  • Light windbreaker
  • Bathing suit
  • Hat or cap
  • Sleepwear

Equipment

  • Camera and film
  • Pocket knife
  • Sun glasses
  • Notebook
  • Flashlight w/batteries
  • Binoculars
  • 1 medium to large backpack
  • Towel

Other

  • Documents (Passport or any other type of ID)
  • Insect Repellent (90-100% DEET)
  • Vitamin “B” to repel mosquitoes
  • Copy of vaccination record for yellow fever and tetanus (Malaria is not present)
  • Imodium or other over the counter diarrhea medicine

One important thing I should mention is that I went right at the beginning of the rainy season. I had great luck and we only had rain one night (after we were finished for the day and safely in the refuge) and during our boat trip back to meet the jeep. But, that last rain was truly horrendous and I learned that waterproof clothing has limits! I really don’t think doing this tour in the rainy season would be too much fun but if you happen to end up in Bolivia during that time of year ask others who have just returned what they thought before you decide.

Finally, if you spend any time in Rurrenbaque, do not miss the French bakery Panadería Paris (Calle Vaca Diez, next to Moskkito Bar). It is only open 6am-noon Monday to Saturday (much to my chagrin when I returned on a Saturday night and the next day was unable to get the goodies!).

Photos

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Useful Links

Sorata

I heard wonderful things about Sorata and had wanted to visit but never made it there.

Oruro

I didn’t visit Oruro, which is more or less a transit point between La Paz and other locations (Sucre, Potosí). If you happen to be around for the Carnaval de Oruro though, a friend told me that is one of best events in the world.

Potosí

Lodging

By this time in my journey I had met up with a fellow traveler from Germany and we had a similar agenda so we traveled together. He however, hated staying in hostels so we ended up searching for hours in the streets looking for some decent, affordable private rooms. In the end we found something (I think it was Hotel San Antonio) that was cheap and clean but nothing special. We went to Koala Den to book the mine tour with them and that place seemed like the typical hostel for those interested, though it was actually full when we arrived so you might want to book ahead. I heard from a friend that Hostel Compania de Jesus, an ex monastery, is very nice, if a bit cold at night (they give plenty of blankets though).

Other

Potosí, the world’s highest city at 4070m, is a nice enough place though to be honest it was hard to reconcile what I witnessed with the fact that at one time it was one of the most prosperous cities in the entire world.

When I went in January 2011 it was low season for gringos but high season for Argentineans and there were a lot of them around. One thing I learned is that apparently the Argentineans aren’t very well loved in Bolivia, or at least they have a bad reputation amongst the hostel owners I talked with. Anyway, I don’t know what the place is like in high season for North Americans and Europeans but it was pretty peaceful in January.

Below you can read about the mine tour, but be aware that there are actually a few other decent things to see in Potosí so you can plan a couple or few extra days to see them. In particular, though the cathedral is being renovated you can take a tour and climb bell tower for a good view of the city. I also enjoyed the guided tour of the Casa Nacional de Moneda. I didn’t go but did hear good things about the Convent of Santa Teresa.

For the vegetarians out there, a friend recommended Manzana Magica, a place with good, cheap food, big portions and great breakfasts.

Photos

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Mine Tour

Most foreigners come to Potosí for the mine tour, which I did and found highly educational, if not just a wee claustrophobic! For the tall amongst you beware that you will be hunched over a long time and all will have to crawl occasionally (they provide coveralls so that isn’t a concern). The worst aspect of the tour, from a comfort perspective, is breathing through a bandana to avoid inhaling all the dust. It really is uncomfortable, especially in the heat and you find yourself at times preferring to just inhale. How the miners can put up with that day in and day out for years is mind-boggling.

I went with the agency run by the Koala Den hostel and it was a good experience and our guide was an ex-miner who taught himself English so that he could get out of the mines. He worked for years as an assistant to a guide while he kept working on his English and now he has an assistant who is trying to do the same. I also read that Marco Polo Tours is a good outfit and that their guide Willy speaks good English as well.

The way the tour works is that you start in the morning and go to the area where all the miner supply stores are located. Then you buy the miners some gifts. This is voluntary but considering the experience you will have and the difficulty of their lives it would be pretty awful of you to not do so. Typical gifts are dynamite (yes, any fool in the world could buy dynamite in Potosí), grain alcohol, soda, and coca leaves. The guides will give you recommendations on what is reasonable but do remember to bring along an extra 20-50 Bolivianos for this expense. After loading up on gifts, you go to the mine. In the mountain you will visit several levels, depending on which active mine you visit. I believe my tour went down four levels. Often not everyone makes it to the lowest level (each lower level is more strenuous) but our entire group did. Along the way you will get chances to speak with some miners and understand the overall operation of the mountain. You will also visit El Tío, the entity that must be appeased to bring good mining luck. After the actual tour you go outside and usually someone in the group will have bought an extra stick of dynamite and the guide or his assistant will illustrate how it is used and blow it up. Then you head off to the actual factories where the minerals are processed. All in all about a half-day tour.

I still haven’t had a chance to do so, but I was recommended the movie, The Devil’s Miner, a documentary about a youth working in the mines in Potosí. Apparently they show it twice a week in Sucre but when I was there I just missed both showings.

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Useful Links

Sucre

Lodging

I visited several places in Lonely Planet that were either not nearly as nice as described or lacking WiFi, or both. After walking around a bit I came across Hostal Colon 220 (yes, located at Colon 220). Strangely, at first the owner (Norman, who is Bolivian but raised in Germany) told me there was nothing available but a double and seemed a bit unfriendly so I went to check out the Hostel Amigo just down the street. I don’t recall why but I didn’t like that place so I went back and talked with Norman about getting a double and then switching to a single the next day. In the end he turned out to be a super nice guy who speaks good English, German and Spanish and his place has WiFi, though for some reason he turns it off every night around 11 pm. The problem was a large group of young tourists from Argentina who had run havoc on his place for over a week and driven him crazy. Thankfully, they checked out the day I arrived and Norman ended up giving me the double for a single price as it was low season and fairly empty after that group left. It wasn’t a special place necessarily, but Norman was nice and it was clean and reasonably priced.

I read later that Santa Cecilia (Potosí 386), another small guesthouse that’s not in any of the guidebooks or hostel booking sites, is a good choice, though apparently their WiFi was sporadic. Another friend also recommended Hostal Charcas opposite the market.

Other

I really liked Sucre with its nice colonial appeal and good weather. I didn’t get to go to some other nice places like Coroico and Sorata or anywhere further East but Sucre was probably my favorite place and I could imagine settling down there for a month or three to study Spanish or just relax. In fact, there is a highly recommended and inexpensive Spanish school or two in town and so many people do just that. And, Sucre has one of the best fruit and vegetable markets I have found. Having a fresh juice, licuado or fruit salad at the market is heavenly. For my vegetarian friends, I read that Freya is a good lunch spot with a great three-course almuezo for around a pound including a drink.

In terms of things to do in and around Sucre, there is quite a bit. I did ride the Dino Bus (which departs from plaza daily at 9:30, noon and 14:30) to Cretaceous Park, with 5000 dinosaur tracks and while overpriced (for Bolivia, which means still affordable) it wasn’t too bad but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really have the time. Basically, you can only see the tracks from afar and the actual site is a mini park/museum with replica dinosaurs. I did also visit the Convento de San Felipe Neri and, frankly I didn’t expect much from it but was very pleasantly surprised. I spent a lot of time taking pictures there and enjoying the views. For more great city views you can also head up to Museo de la Recoleta (besides the museum there is a quiet plaza and a cafe to relax in while you soak up the views). The thing I didn’t have time to do were the local hikes. Well, it would have been difficult as well since it was low season and none of the agencies seemed to have any other customers wanting to go to share the costs. If I would have gone, I guess the following are popular options:

  • Chataquila (Inca) trail hike
  • Seven waterfalls (by bike or hike)
  • 4WD and hike tour combo to Maragua crater
  • Rock paintings of Pumamachay and Incamachay

Apparently, recommended agencies include Condor Trekkers, Bolivia Specialist, Candelaria Tours, Joy Ride Bolivia, and Locot’s Aventura.

Finally, I am not one of those who regularly visit cemeteries when I travel, but a lot of people recommend the Cementerio Municipal so I did drop by and must say I was impressed. Since then I have visited the famous Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires and I personally preferred the one in Sucre.

Photos

Around Town
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Cementerio
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Convento de San Felipe
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Dinosaur Park
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Useful LInks

Tupiza

Lodging

I stayed at the popular (and more expensive) Hotel Mitru (Chichas 187) and found it a very nice place (and it has a pool), though their WiFi would sometimes stop working and, though usually the box just needed to be reset, it was located in an office which got locked at night and weekends and thus could be a problem for hours or even days. But, hey, at least they have WiFi and I think they might be the only one. A friend stayed at La Torre Hotel (Chichas 220) and I went to see her once and thought that place looked quite nice also.

Other

I like Tupiza. The town itself is nothing to write home about but the surrounding areas are lovely and full of hike, bike or horse ride excursion opportunities (some popular spots include: Quebrada de Palala, Quebrada de Palmira, El Cañon del Duende, Quebrada Seca, and El Sillar, Cerro Corazón de Jesús). I had read a blog post about Tupiza being a nice alternative for doing the Salar de Uyuni tour, so I decided to give it a try. Plus it is close to the border of Argentina where I was heading next and was fairly easy to get to from Potosí.

One thing to keep in mind is that there is no ATM in Tupiza. Very strange for a town that size and maybe they are working to get one but when I was there in January 2011 no dice. So, make sure to get enough cash to cover your salar tour before going.

In terms of eating in Tupiza, I was hugely disappointed. There must be 10 almost identical pizzerias (I am serious, the exact same menu, interior decorating, etc.). To be fair, I had a bit of bad luck by meeting a fellow traveler (unnamed to protect the guilty) who had been to Tupiza many times and swore that all the restaurants were horrible and insisted we go to the same mediocre pizza place repeatedly. As I was spending time with a group that was going to do the salar tour together I didn’t want to complain too much but I really hope that he was wrong in his assessment. I had read that Alamos, Il Bambino, and Rinconcito Quilmes were recommended but I don’t think they were ever interested in visiting those places.

Finally, if you are coming to Tupiza from Uyuni, I highly recommend you take the bus. I believe the Lonely Planet says the train misses the beautiful scenery and the bus doesn’t. Well, I don’t know about the train, but I can concur that there really is some stunning scenery between Uyuni and Tupiza. Since I did my salar tour from Tupiza I ended up doing that return trip in the jeep and I think it added something to the overall experience.

Photos

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Useful Links

Salar de Uyuni Tour

Lodging

I didn’t stay a night in Uyuni so have no recommendations (though a friend recommended Hotel Avenida). What I can say is that Uyuni is NOT a pretty place and seems to exist, for foreigners at least, solely as a gateway for the salar tours. So, your best bet is to time your arrival and departure so that you don’t need to stay a night at all.

Other

I won’t bother to give you a detailed overview of the incredible salar de Uyuni tour I took as so may others have done it better than I could (see links below). What I will do is recommend that you do the tour from Tupiza if it fits in your schedule as you get an extra day visiting places the regular tours that start in Uyuni don’t see. I would also suggest that you check out some of the interesting perspective photos others have taken, on the Internet or in your tour agency if they have any. Why? Well, when we got to the actual salar and had the chance to take pictures, none of us in my group had any good ideas for what pictures we should take. I suppose a good guide should help with this but I don’t think many do. If we would have looked at some photos before starting the tour we would have had some good ideas to work with.

In terms of logistics, I originally had planned to do the tour from Uyuni and be let off at the Chilean border near San Pedro Atacama. Then I decided to go from Tupiza and learned that the tour from Tupiza passes that border area early in the tour so I changed my plans to do a full round-trip from Tupiza and then cross into Argentina. If you wanted to visit San Pedro in Chile but also do the trip from Tupiza, you could cross into Argentina and work your way down to Salta and then take a bus from Salta to San Pedro (assuming the Andes pass isn’t closed due to bad weather).

As for which agency to use, again this is a plus of doing the tour from Tupiza as there are much fewer agencies to choose from and, as far as I can gather, all have pretty good reputations (which cannot be said of many of the agencies in Uyuni). In particular I have read good reviews of Tupiza Tours, La Torre Tours, El Grano de Oro and Alexandro’s Adventure Travel (I think I went with these guys, but having waited six months to write this review I can’t be completely certain). If you are going from Uyuni, I heard or read good things about: Andes Salt Expeditions (B$940 for four people), Estrella del Sur, Atacama Mystica and Blue Line.

For pricing, the tour definitely costs more when done from Tupiza (one extra day and less competition) but it is still a good deal. Typical cost when I went was B$1250 for four people in the jeep or B$1000 with five people. Unless you are on a super tight budget, I would pay the extra and go with four. Five wouldn’t be too awful though as the second seat has decent legroom, but you’d have to be smoking crack cocaine to want to go with six people as the back seat is fairly uncomfortable with only two people, let alone with three! You may also want to rent a good sleeping bag (a basic one will usually be included if you ask) for an extra B$50. You will also have to pay an entrance to the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa of B$150. Everything else besides gifts and extra snacks or drinks should included in the tour cost.

Photos

Day 1
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Day 2
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Day 3
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Day 4
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Day 5: Returning from Uyuni to Tupiza
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Useful Links

Useful Bolivia Related Links

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