Ten Essential Tips – and what I wish I knew – For Traveling Bolivia
When I first arrived in Bolivia ten months ago, I mistook the picturesque backdrops of Bolivia 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 Amazonian jungle in a few hours of 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 especially during 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 will stand 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 is 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 also has narcotraffickers and cocaine operations, a sight you don’t want to see on a trekking excursion. Stay safe and always participate in guided excursions 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 on the mentality that each driver owns the road and may do as he pleases. Pedestrians do not have the right of way and 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.