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BOLIVIA TRAVELER`S GUIDE

Updated: Jan 16

A self drive through the heart of South America



So you have decided to go to Bolivia? Thinking of a self drive road trip? Here are some useful stuff about driving yourself in the Bolivian Highlands.


How to get there


The main company that flies to Bolivia is, obviously, their national airline: Boliviana de Aviacion. The main airport is Santa Cruz Viru Viru, where all the long haul flights land. For all the other places, such as La Paz, Uyuni, Cochabamba, Sucre etc, you need to book domestic flights.



Visa


This is a actually a tricky one, as there is no much clear information on the internet about this. We actually got a bit scared about this just before our trip, because we read on our country`s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website that we can get visa on arrival, but we double checked and called as well the embassy of Bolivia, which told us something completely different.


Long story short, you need to pay for the visa, and since the money go to different places depending where you get your visa, the embassies have no interest in telling you to do the visa on arrival.


However, there are 3 categories of countries and there is different procedure for each one of them. This is the most comprehensive information that we could find and can be accessed on: https://embajadadebolivia.eu/en/turism-visa/

Group1: countries which don’t need a visa to enter Bolivia


( Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, State of Palestine, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom of Great-Britain and Northern Ireland, Uruguay, Vatican City State, Venezuela )


Group 2: countries which need a visa to enter Bolivia without a request to the Servicio Nacional de Migración (National Migration Service) --> can get VOA


( Albania, Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, China (including Taiwan), Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Micronesia, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Oman, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, São Tomé and Príncipe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe )


Group 3: countries which need a visa to enter Bolivia with a request to the Servicio Nacional de Migración (National Migration Service) --> need to get visa in advance


( Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Laos, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Timor-Leste, Yemen )

 

However, it is best to contact your country`s Embassy in Bolivia or your country`s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to confirm. We did this and we got the confirmation.


If you belong to the second group, like we are, you can do a Visa On Arrival --> ask for an American visa at the border ( they know what is all about ). Apart from that, you will need to register on the Bolivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and print certain documents such as: declaration, return flights, bank statement etc. ( full list of documents is specified on the same website )


Altitude sickness


Considering that the whole western part of the country lies above 3500 m and you don`t have time to aclimatize, altitude sickness can be a problem.

The ideal way is to ascend slowly, few hundred meters per day. Or to climb high and sleep low.

But since none of it was possible, we just had to deal with it and use some medication.


We were advised to buy SOROJCHIPIL tablets as soon as we land in Bolivia and take one 30 min before landing at high elevation. Also, we used couple of tablets of DIAMOX/ ACETOZOLAMIDE after we landed in La Paz and the following day and seemed to work. You need prescription if you want to buy them in Europe but you can buy them freely in Bolivia. It has some side effects like tingling in hands and feet but still better than falling sick.

Getting around


Although the public transport is cheap and quite developed, we preffered to fly the long distances and rent a car.


There are overnight buses in between cities but they can take as long as 12 hrs.


There are many domestic flights in between the main cities: La Paz, Uyuni, Sucre, Cochabamba etc and they can be quite affordable if you book a bit in advance ( like 50$ per flight ). The best thing is that you save a lot of time and energy.


As for getting to the main points of attracton such as Salar de Uyuni or Lagunas Route, most of the people choose to take the tours, as this is the easy way out and they don`t need to worry about anything. However,.the downside of it is that you don`t have any flexibility and you just need to carry on with the group


For this reason, we preffered to rent a car and do our own thing, stopping wherever we want, whenever we want and adjusting as we needed. And it was the best thing.



Car rental


This can be a little bit tricky in the sense that there are only few companies that allow taking their vehicles to the salt flats, due to the corrosive effect of the salt.


There is no possibility to rent a car from Uyuni either. So you need to rent it from La Paz or Sucre and drive it to wherever you want to go or have it delivered to you. I am not sure of there are any options to rent cars from Potosi.


We did our research and we chose to rent a car from Biz Rent A Car, a company which is based in Sucre. Although they have some bad reviews on the internet as well, our experience with them was completely smooth and would reccommend them.


They charge a price per vehicle/ per day but it comes with a limited number of kilometers, there is an extra fee of around 50 cents per extra kilometer, a fee for extra equipment ( gasoline in canisters etc ), desalination of the car fee ( about 85 $ ) and of course the deposit, which is quite a lot and varies with the type of car. They also have the option to provide the paperwork for exiting the country.

We chose to fly to Uyuni and have the vehicle delivered there ( which costed another 160 $ ) and then we dropped off the car in Sucre. Initially we wanted a bigger car, such as a Toyota Hilux or similar, but the deposit was around 3000 $ so we decided to book a Suzuki Jimny instead, for which the deposit was half, but was still 4x4. Although not all the roads require 4x4, you need to have the option, just in case. Don`t go to the Lagunas Route without 4x4!

The Jimny was good for most of the time but, at times, it felt less stable than a bigger car.


Don`t forget to take the EXTRA EQUIPMENT ( GAS CANISTERS ) - there are no gas stations on the Lagunas Route.




Navigation


This is one of the most important things to consider, if you want to do a self drive. It is totally doable to go on your own but download these three apps first and then download the maps:

MAPS.ME , iOverlander and Google Maps.

Do not use Google Maps on Laguna Route.


There will be no network in a lot of the places and it`s extremely important to DOWNLOAD THE MAPS. Maps.me works extremely well offline and iOverlander is extremely useful in finding dangerous spots, camping places, accommodation and interest points.

Here is a nice article that helped us in planning our self drive.


How long does it take to drive in between places?


That was one of the first questions when planning our road trip, since Google Maps doesn`t provide exact timing and didn`t find this information on any blog.

Crossing Salar de Uyuni takes roughly 2-3 hours one way and it pretty smooth as you can drive constantly 80-100 km/h at least.

COQUEZA - UYUNI ( via Salar ) - VILLAMAR MALLCU : about 8 hrs, including shopping for food and having lunch in Uyuni

VILLAMAR MALCU - SALVADOR DALI DESERT - LAGUNA VERDE - THERMAS DE POLQUES: one day - 9 am to 8 pm

THERMAS DE POLQUES - SOL DE MANANA - LAGUNA COLORADA - SAN CRISTOBAL: one long day - 8 am to 9 pm


The rest of the distances are accurate on Google Maps.

In order to visit Salar de Uyuni and Laguna Route from Uyuni you would need a minimum of 4 days, maybe 5.



Currency


First of all: BRING CASH!

Bolivia currency is called Boliviano. They didn`t struggle much to fina a name, huh? 😂

It is best to withdraw money in big cities or have USD or EUROs with you have have them exchanged. Apart from the big cities, cards are not accepted, as everything is really remote.


What to visit


La Paz


It is a must to see place, really. It is the highest administrative capital in the world, at 3500 m elevation and its airport El Alto, is the highest airport in the world, at 4100 m. The city is absolutely spectacular, located in a valley, surrounded by 6000 m high peaks and on top of that, the public transport is made up of cable cars, which provide an amazing view of the city. Absolutely stunning!



La Paz surroundings:

Valle de las Animas, Valle de la Luna and Death Road


Unfortunately, because the country is so big and plenty of places to see, we didn`t have time for all of them. We only reached Valle de la Animas, which is absolutely stunning. Contrary to our expectations, the place was just outside of the city. Theoretically, it can be reached by public transport, but since we had just half a day before our flight back, we decided to contact a guide to drive us there and show us.

In case you need his services, his name is Orlando and you can contact him on Whatsapp: +59172518401 ( Spanish speakers only )

Valle de la Animas


Valle de las Animas and La Paz

Salar de Uyuni


One of the most iconic places in Bolivia and the largest salt flat in the world. A must for anyone coming to Bolivia.Underneath the salt flats lies the largest lithium reserve in the world.

During the dry season it is completely white but during the wet season it transforms into the largest mirror in the world. The wet season is considered from November to March, however, the best chance to see the mirror effect is around February, they say.

We went there at the end of November and it was completely dry BUT, there are always some water patches around the edges of the flats, especially in the northern part, towards Tunupa volcano.

Contrary to what a lot of people say, navigating on your own on the salar is easy and straight forward, as there are many apps for navigation and a lot of car marks.


Don`t forget to visit the cactus islands, such as Isla Incahuasi or Isla del Pescado.


Isla Incahuasi


Tunupa Volcano


If you get some extra time in your drive, hiking Tunupa, either fully or partially, is super rewarding, as the views over the salt flats are incredible.

The trek can be done without a guide, but it`s better if you don`t go alone. However, there are few things that you need to bear in mind:

  1. Get an accommodation at the base of the volcano, such as in Coqueza. We stayed at Hospedaje de Sal Coqueza and we made the reservation via whatsapp +59168378000 ( spanish speaking only ). The place is very basic, though.

  2. Download Maps.me once again: it is extremely useful to see the trekking path

  3. Buy the ticket to climb the volcano from Coqueza village information point. They are very strict with this. There are three types of tickets: Mirador 1, Mirador 2 ( Mirador del Crater ) and Volcan Tunupa. If you will show up too late, they can refuse to sell you the ticket to Mirador 2 or volcano. Also, they monitor very careful the time you go in and the time you come out ( at the gate ).

  4. Start as early as possible and take into account up to 8-10 hrs if you want to climb to the top. We climbed only to 4800 m ( close to Mirador 2 ) because we were not fully aclimatized. The height of the volcano is just over 5300 m.

  5. You can drive until the end of the dust road, where there is a parking. The trek starts from there.








Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve


Also known as the Lagunas Route is one of the most epic drives in Bolivia. It borders Atacama desert in the south and comprises many lagoons and volcanos. The altitude of the whole regions varies between 3500 and 5000 m.


The most important destinations of this national park are: Laguna Colorada, Laguna Verde, Sol de Manana geysers, Thermas de Polques, Salvador Dali desert and Arbol de Piedra.


Driving around the park took us two and a half days, there were no gas stations along the route, we needed 4x4 car, had to carry some extra food with us and we almost slept in the car once. There are not many B&Bs around and even the ones that do exist usually prioritise the tours. Have some camping gear with you, including sleeping bags.

However, if you plan a bit the trip, it is much nicer to go on your own and totally doable to do a self drive here. Mostly if you like driving.



Laguna Colorada

Sol de Manana

Salvador Dali desert

Potosi


Quick history:

Potosí is one of the world’s highest cities ( elevation 4,050 metres ) and stands on a cold and barren plateau in the shadow of fabled Potosí Mountain ( also called Cerro Rico ), which is honeycombed with thousands of mines.

Founded in 1545 as a mining town, Potosi soon produced fabulous wealth, and the population eventually exceeded 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world during the 1600s. The rich mountain, Cerro Rico, produced an estimated 60% of all silver mined in the world during the second half of the 16th century.

Unfortunately, all the wealth was leaving the country and going to Spain, instead.

Another sad thing that is not mentioned that much is the fact that it is believed that 8 million people have died in the mines of Potosi, most of them either natives or African slaves. They used to be trapped underground for six months at a time, where they worked 20 hours a day.

Just for comparison, the Holocaust killed 6 million people.


Potosi looks very spectacular and it definitely worths paying a visit. Climbing San Francisco Church for an overview of the city, visiting the silver mines, drinking coca tea and enjoying the local food are just a few of the things you can do here.



The view from San Francisco church

Wandering the streets of Potosi

Sucre


Serving as the judicial and constitutional capital of Bolivia, Sucre is also widely regarded as Bolivia's white city. Founded by the Spanish in 1538, this city developed from mining roots, to become a regional center of religious, legal, and cultural affairs.


Having a lower elevation of 2800 m, one can definitely feel that the weather is much warmer here. There are various viewpoints such as Monasterio de la Recoleta, where you can see the whole city. Also, the atmosphere is very vibrant and there are many fancy coffee shops and restaurants where you can enjoy the local flavours.



The view from Monasterio de la Recoleta

Streets of Sucre

Some good tips before you go


Sleeping bags


Very useful to bring your own, especially if you are doing the self drive. There are no places to rent in Uyuni or the surroundings. You might find something in La Paz but even if you do, the condition might be poor.

You will be using them even in the accommodation.

We never had lower than 5 degrees Celsius anywhere, but consider a sleeping bag that is good for below freezing, just in case.

For reference, we had the Marmot Bantamweight 15 Long ( 780g ) and it was more than enough.


Buying food


Better to buy from big towns, such as Uyuni. You can buy breakfast/ dinner at some of the B&Bs but it is usually very basic.

Take extra food with you on the Laguna Route.


Gas stations


If you go in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Edoardo Avaroa ( Lagunas Route ), bear in mind that San Cristobal is the last point where you can refuel. THERE ARE NO GAS STATIONS in the National Park.


For the record, we managed to to the loop from San Cristobal to Laguna Verde and back ( via Villamar Mallcu ) with approximately 2 tanks full of fuel in a Suzuki Jimny and we had one spare tank available at the end of the trip.


Charging your electronics


We had a car charger and that worked perfectly fine. Usually B&Bs have plugs but sometimes they are limited in number or they charge slow. Having an external battery can also help.


Flying drones


There are no restrictions for bringing drones in Bolivia. Bear in mind that the weather can get pretty windy, mostly in the second part of the day.


Reflection period


A lot of people go to the salt flats for the amazing reflection. Bear in mind that this only happens during the wet season and even then, the best chances are around February.




A little treat: the salt hotel


After swallowing so much dust on the Laguna Route, we decided to indulge ourselves at the fanciest hotel in Uyuni: Hotel Palacio de Sal. Which was, by the way, absolutely stunning.

It is made out of salt, on the edge of the salt flats and features an interior swimming pool, a spa and a nice restaurant.


Next, we hope our photo gallery will convince you to explore this amazing country. All photos shot on Sony A7III and ocasionally A7IV. Lens used: 35 mm, 85 mm and 135 mm.

Videos in progress.



Salvador Dali desert

The only places we could find some water, close to the north gate


The amazing reflection in Laguna Colorada

Laguna Capina

The view in La Paz

The view from our hostel in La Paz: The Rooftop Bolivia

Valle de las Animas

You`re gonna see these cute llamas everywhere

The impressive Tunupa volcano

Some vicunos in Reserva Fauna Andina

Isla Incahuasi and the view of Tunupa volcano

Laguna Salada view ( where Termas de Polques are )

Some more cute llamas

Buying a poncho: a must

Salvador Dali desert overview

Looks a bit like Namibia :)

Let`s call it a mobile gas station :)

Some landscape from Laguna Route

Can it be more clear?

Laguna Salada in the morning

Nature is the best artist: Laguna colorada

Laguna Blanca, next to Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde, which was not so " verde " by the time we went there :))

The poor car had multiple layers of salt and dust :))

In the middle of literally nowhere

The locals of Potosi

This place is surreal: Valle de las Animas

Sucre

The colors of La Paz

Scenic view from La Paz cable car

Salar de Chaipiri

Somewhere on the beginning of Laguna Route

Laguna Route has such a diverse landscape

It was full of vicunos everywhere

Ion, Jimny and the drone

Feeding llamas

Some other cute llamas

Proud owner of a Bolivian poncho

Minimalism in Salvador Dali desert

Curiosity

Julaca, a town stuck in time

Julaca`s cemetery

The roof of San Francisco church in Potosi

Trekking Tunupa

More views of La Paz

Can you spot us?

Nature at its best

Calle Jaen: the the most colonial street in La Paz

This was the most friendly llama :)

The lost village: Julaca

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