Home to the official “World’s Most Dangerous Road”, Bolivia is notoriously challenging to travel through. Its extreme geography is a huge part of what makes it such a unique country, but it can also make it tricky to get from place to place.
If you plan on visiting many different parts of the country, it’s recommended to tough out the winter temperatures to decrease the chance that rain will derail your travels. In the rainy season, roads are more likely to be washed out and flights are more likely to be canceled because of flooded runways. But even if rain is not an issue, traveling through Bolivia can test your patience, temperature thresholds, and sense of adventure.
Buses are the most common and readily available way to get around the country. They are not the most comfortable option, but they are cheap. And there are wonderful moments to be had staring through the window in awe at Bolivia’s dramatic scenery as your bus navigates the sharp curves and cliffs of the mountainous terrain.
With any method of transportation you choose, it’s wise to have a somewhat flexible schedule. And the most important thing you can bring with you is a sense of humor…
Buy tickets directly from a bus company rather than an agent whenever possible to get the best rates. Every bus ticket I purchased in Bolivia was handwritten. Combined with a language barrier, there is a lot of room for error. So when you receive a ticket, check to make sure all of the dates and cities are correctly written on it.
Arrive early on the day of your trip. In places like Copacabana where the bulk of bus tickets are sold through agents, buses can be overbooked and you may not be able to get a seat. Also, while the length of the journey did not always go according to schedule, most of my bus departures in Bolivia were fairly on time.
Be prepared to pay a tax before exiting the indoor part of a bus station. Look for a booth where they will stamp or put a sticker on your ticket after you pay a small tax. Someone will check your ticket for the marking before they allow you to exit and board your bus.
If you leave your luggage in a pile to be loaded under or on top of the bus, make sure that you watch it until it gets on the bus. Keep your most valuable belongings (passport, large sums of cash, credit cards) in a money belt and keep anything else valuable close to you, especially on overnight bus trips. When it comes to the people you might meet on the bus, use your best judgment.
Rest Stops/Border Crossings
It is extremely important to watch out for yourself whenever your bus stops. More than once, I saw people almost get left behind and heard stories from other travelers who were left behind. So if your bus stops, do what you need to do quickly and then return to wherever the bus is parked. Drivers do not try to make sure that everyone is on the bus before they leave. You definitely don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with your luggage on it’s way to your destination.
Expect the Unexpected
Breakdowns, road blockades, and running out of gas are all realities of Bolivian bus travel. These issues also come up in Peru. Make sure you have an ample amount of water and wear layers for different types of climates. You should also have some food with you because on really long journeys you may not be able to find a decent meal on the road.
Getting off Before the Main Stop
If you want to visit a town that is not the main stop (and you definitely should), you need to remind the bus driver several times. This is especially important for overnight buses where you may fall asleep and bus drivers tend to switch. Don’t feel bad about reminding the drivers several times, even if they look annoyed. You’ll save time and money by going directly where you need to go rather than past it!
It’s a good idea to book your plane ticket through an agent, especially one that is located in or nearby your hostel/hotel. That way you can check to see if your flight is canceled or delayed before you head to the airport. Also, agents can be great at finding available seats on future flights if necessary.
For in-country flights, it’s very important to reconfirm your flight the day before you plan to leave. If you don’t, your seat may be given to another passenger. Also, if you’ve experienced cancellations and/or delays and your schedule has shifted, you should confirm that you have a spot on a return flight as soon as you arrive at your destination, and then reconfirm the day before.
As a foreigner for both national and international flights, you will be required to pay an exit tax either before you check in or before you go through customs. Look out for this to avoid waiting in line and then having to leave the line to pay taxes.
Choosing a Taxi
Just as you would do anywhere, always choose official taxis, rather than a random person with a car who claims to be a taxi driver. The look of official taxi cabs can vary from place to place, so get familiar with what an official taxi looks like when you arrive at a destination.
Whenever you can, check in with the hostel/hotel receptionist or a merchant to figure out what an appropriate price for a taxi ride is. In my experience, taxis were almost always very reasonably priced so there was no need for a lot of bargaining. Make sure you set the price before you leave so you are less vulnerable to being ripped off.
Similar to other places in South America, taxis tend to not have a lot of change, so try to make sure you have small bills and coins available.
Long Distance Taxis
In places where bus service is limited, you may need to take a taxi to get from one town to another. Rates for these taxis don’t vary much, so the best way to cut costs is having as many passengers in your taxi as possible.