A few days ago, I left Bolivia for Peru.
Because while I’ve seriously enjoyed my time in Bolivia, there’s no doubt that over the last three months it’s also slowly been driving me crazy.
What’s the reason for this? Well, Bolivia has a number of idiosyncrasies that have the ability to make or break a traveller’s experience here.
Once you get off the well-trodden gringo trail of La Paz, Sucre, Potosí and the Uyuni salt flats, it turns out that Bolivia isn’t very set up for tourism. And while I relish the challenge of navigating a non-touristy country, there are a myriad of barriers to surmount – mainly in terms of transport, money, food, culture, and the country’s unique method of giving advice.
So I thought a round up of my experiences in Bolivia – and the ensuing lessons I’ve learned – was in order. Not to dissuade people from visiting, but more to provide an overview of what you can expect from a period of Bolivian travel.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
1. Bolivian transport can be tricky
The first thing most travellers will encounter in Bolivia is the transport system. Like most of South America, people get around the country via an extensive bus network – but experiences on these can be debatable.
The process of catching a Bolivian bus deserves a post all to itself, so for now I’ll mention the bare basics: over speeding drivers, bizarre departure and arrival times, a constant gamble as to the bus temperature… You get the idea.
In terms of the more short-term transport options in Bolivia, though, I spent most of my time in two: taxis and trufis.
Taking trufis and taxis in Bolivia
When I first arrived in La Paz, I was pretty nervous about catching the local buses. Known as trufis, these little minibuses throng the city’s streets and feature ticket sellers leaning out of the open doors shouting their destinations – information supported by a placard propped up in the windscreen.
The problem is that the drivers essentially make up their routes: if there’s a road block or too much traffic, they simply go another way. For a tourist, this is something of a difficulty when they barely know the name of the street their hostel is on.
Luckily, by the time I conquered my fear and boarded a trufi, I’d walked around enough of the city to know which direction we were speed-driving in. And if I ever lost my bearings, I’d simply shout, “Isquina por favor!” and jump out at the nearest corner. A rule I never would have learnt without experiencing it first – however worried I was about getting lost.
Bolivia is also the only country where I’ve been consistently required to know both the directions and eventual location of where I’m headed infinitely better than the taxi driver. There have been slews of drivers who look terrified when you flag them down – that is, if they stop at all. Numerous taxis have driven straight past me, or started their engines and speeded off as soon as they hear an address they’re not explicitly familiar with.
I stayed at an incredible hostel in Cochabamba which was marred solely by the fact that absolutely no taxis had any clue how to get there. My favourite journey back to Las Lilas hostel was with a driver who held an expression like a frightened rabbit for the entire ten minute ride. I had to continually coax him to take each new turning, and clambered out of the car exhausted.
Bolivian transport: the positives
There are a number of benefits to the way Bolivians travel, though. First off, Bolivian transport is cheap. Hence why I took taxis a lot of the time – something that’s never been a habit in other South American countries.
Secondly, the experience is usually pretty friendly. On every trufi ride, I realised that each passenger said “buen dia” or “buenas tardes” as they boarded, presumably to the rest of the bus – and I adopted the tactic very early on.
Third, and most appealing to me, is that being a taxi driver in Bolivia is often a full family operation. Many times I’ve caught taxis with the driver’s son or daughter, wife or girlfriend in the front seat – and once in Sucre, even met a new born baby, whose father clearly couldn’t bear to spend his days away from her. Despite the numerous strange drivers, there are also many who are really eager to chat away in Spanish about what you’re doing in Bolivia.
Sadly, though, these conversations were often tainted by a constant issue: paying the fare.
2. Dealing with money in Bolivia is stressful
Like many countries around the world, people in Bolivia have a problem with giving out their change. I understand why: one tourist pays with a big note, and suddenly all your spare coins disappear as a result.
But when the biggest Boliviano note in common circulation is 100Bs, equivalent to £10 or $14, it becomes rather frustrating to constantly argue with taxi drivers, tienda owners and restaurant waitresses, who consistently maintain that they don’t have change.
I often found myself pretending I didn’t have smaller denominations in these situations, just to be able to break a note. It’s not the nicest feeling, but sometimes ends up being totally necessary.
The pricing of products also carries its own set of difficulties; more often than not, I had the sneaking suspicion that sellers were simply making their prices up on the spot. Regardless of whether it’s due to obviously being a foreigner, things got problematic when I tried to barter with the clearly invented price, and was either bluntly shot down or laughed at.
Of course, the huge positive aspect to money in Bolivia is that pretty much everything is insanely cheap. Whether it’s a ten hour bus journey for £10, a three course meal with wine for £5 or an ensuite room in a hotel for £7, sometimes it’s necessary to put things into perspective a bit.
Ok, the service might not be the best, but you’re still saving a ton of cash in the process.
3. Eating in Bolivia is always an experience
Bolivians certainly know how they like their food. In a country that’s home to thousands of different varieties of potato, the locals supplement a starch-heavy diet with a nationwide obsession with sweet stuff: plastic cups of coloured gelatine topped with whipped cream are sold on every street corner, sugary empanadas are grasped in sticky hands, and Coca Cola is the drink of choice.
The weirder Bolivian food facts include drinking juice out of plastic bags (actually a rather sensible idea!) and most older Bolivians chewing on a ball of coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude – which results in a constant bulge in their cheek.
But by far the most incredible – and most typically Bolivian – foodie experience happened on my second visit to Isla del Sol, the night before I left the country entirely.
Tired out and starving from a full day of hiking around the island, we chose a small restaurant overlooking Lake Titicaca and ordered a pizza, topped with olives, peppers, and ham. A ten year old girl took our order, brought us two beers, and vanished into the kitchen. We were the only customers at this point.
After a forty minute wait and the disappearance of the sun below the horizon, we started to wonder where our food was. We looked to the ten year old, busy putting oven gloves on after opening the oven door, and she smiled and dipped her head at us. Another twenty minutes, and a pizza finally appeared – but missing the ham the description had stated we’d get. Obviously this really wasn’t an issue, but we asked anyway. “This was supposed to come with ham, right? Well, there isn’t any…”
We were halfway through the pizza when our ten year old waitress appeared at the table, bearing a small china plate with two square slices of prepackaged ham, clearly straight out of the fridge.
“Todo bien?” The girl said, clearly perplexed at why we were laughing. We’d been given the ham we’d wanted, after all – what else could be the matter?
Still hungry when the pizza had gone, we ordered a plate of spaghetti. By this point the restaurant was filled with people, and the pasta took another forty minutes to arrive. Yet when it did, the stuff was so crunchy and brittle that it clearly hadn’t met boiling water for longer than a few minutes. After two mouthfuls I took it back to the kitchen.
“No puedo comer eso – es demaciado fuerte.”
The teenage boy glanced at the poor ten year old. She took the plate away – and there was no more mention of pasta. Not even the question of whether I wanted a fresh plateful.
Bolivian food: the positives
Luckily, Bolivia’s food offerings have kept me happy more often than not. I’ve waxed lyrical before about my love for the South American menu del dia, and Bolivia is no different. While daily helpings of soup, rice, meat and platano can sometimes get old, there’s no doubt that this simple meal is a quick, cheap fix for being hungry.
Outside of the typical Bolivian lunch, there’s a number of chances to happen upon amazing eateries if you just go looking. Potosi boasted incredible hot chocolate; we indulged in cheese fondue twice in Copacabana; and in Sucre, I ate the best steak of my entire life at a churrasqueria not even mentioned in Lonely Planet or on Trip Advisor.
Most importantly, the attitude Bolivians have towards eating is ultimately communitarian, and it’s a lovely thing to see.
When someone passes your table in a restaurant, you’ll usually hear ‘buen provecho’ – the Spanish equivalent of ‘bon appetite’. There’s also nothing odd about sharing your table with strangers: a trait that I think many other cultures would benefit hugely from.
4. Bolivian culture is absolutely fascinating
There’s no doubt in my mind that Bolivia’s cultural traits are one of the main reasons it stands out so much.
Indigenously dressed men and women are a common sight in all towns, villages and most big cities – many of whom shy away from photos because they think a camera will steal their souls. Young boys shine shoes in the middle of the street, their faces covered by balaclavas to conceal their identities. Llama foetuses hang above market stalls, inviting people to bury them under the foundations of their houses for good luck.
These aspects of Bolivian life are things a foreigner simply can’t hope to understand. And Bolivians themselves have many behavioural eccentricities that often prove acutely stressful for a foreigner such as myself.
5. “Giving advice” actually means making things up
On Boxing Day in Copacabana, we wanted to hire a motorbike. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, zipping along the lake’s coastline to a few scenic spots, and we’d questioned the elderly gentlemen renting out bikes a few days before. He’d given a good price for four hours of rental on an automatic bike – “yes of course, we definitely have automatics” – and things seemed set.
Except when we arrived, he wheeled out a tired, battered and bruised bike, and proceeded to explain that there were only four gears we needed to use.
“…so it’s not automatic,” I ventured.
“Si, si, it is! There is no clutch, so it’s automatic,” he said, grinning.
I tried again.
“No… if it has gears, it isn’t automatic. We asked for an automatic because we don’t know how to drive with gears!”
His teenage accomplice attempted a different tactic.
“This road is straight, it’s flat. It’s an automatic road,” he said, unsuccessfully evading eye contact with me.
This kind of errant subterfuge occurred almost daily during my time in Bolivia. I constantly tried to get a handle on it – maybe people lied because they just really wanted to help? – but ultimately I fell short.
Time and time again, these things happened in Bolivia. A stranger would confidently point me in the wrong direction to an address I asked about; a shop owner would tell me they didn’t stock produce I could clearly see on the shelf.
But then again, some of Bolivia’s cultural crazinesses are what really makes the country special. Like real zebras helping you to cross the road.
A touch of my own advice
Talking to lots of travellers throughout Bolivia has matched my own opinions: this country is a challenge, certainly, but it’s also an utterly fascinating place.
So what’s my advice for travelling in Bolivia without encountering these stresses? Stick somewhere for longer than a few days. Find a homestay or an apartment. Take Spanish classes, shop at the local markets, and try to actually get under the skin of Bolivia.
Despite the stresses and the difficulties, there are so many positives – the awe inspiring landscapes and scenery, the budget-friendly prices, the fascinating culture, and the sense of adventure and possible challenge that comes with everything here.
So thank you, Bolivia!
Thanks for testing me to my limit, but simultaneously throwing me into the midst of an amazing array of totally unexpected experiences. South America would have been a lot less eventful if it wasn’t for you.