Bolivia’s a strange, but very cool country. If, like us, you’ve travelled from Argentina clock-wise, you’ll really notice the difference in Bolivia after Argentina and Chile. It feels significantly more South American – everyone looks less European, and has a distinctly darker skin tone, and very obviously Bolivian features. I’d describe it as fairly similar to India in terms of fondness for markets and general bustle, but here are a few specific Bolivian qualms to adjust to, for any would-be Bolivia traveller:
1. Food poisoning / upset tummy
The dreaded, yet delicious, market cheese that caused our first round of food poisoning
It’s super common in Bolivia, and in our language school, at least a couple of people were sick at any time. The water’s not potable, the food’s (usually) not refridgerated, and there’s a lot of importing going on (it’s wedged between the rest of South America’s countries), so sadly it’s inevitable. Even if you’re a control freak, you’re bound to eat some salad that’s been washed in tap water, or a too-old bit of cheese or meat. Things will improve by Peru. Just hang on in there.
2. The sea has disappeared!!
Lake Titikaka: sea-like
Unlike most of South America, Bolivia is tragically, totally land-locked. In its tumultuous history, it ended up giving away its scraps of sea to Chile and Peru (the bastards), so it’s now cut off from the coast (but it does get access privileges for trade. THANKS CHILE!) It’s quite noticeable, given there’s so much lovely coast elsewhere, and lots of Bolivians (including our ‘brother’ in our homestay) have never seen the sea! Whilst we were staying in Sucre they had the ‘day of the sea’ festival where they annually mourn their loss. So sad. But on the upside, Lake Titicaca is pretty huge, so that’s kind of like the sea. Right?! On a related note, don’t eat fish here outside of Lake Titikaka, as it’s been imported REALLY far.
3. Terrifying (electric) showers
We lucked out in that our first hostel had a strong, hot hose of a shower. But after that, it was all downhill. Your typical Bolivian shower situation is: weak, tepid, electric, scary, occasionally freezing. Everyone in Bolivia seems to think it does actually get hot, and if you wait long enough, occasionally it does. We’ve coped by overdosing every time we’ve had a good, hot shower, and getting in and out as quick as poss when we don’t!
4. Toilet paper – BYO
Toilet paper no longer exists for you in the outside world. You must learn to carry it with you, take it from hostel to hostel (it’s not really in hostels for the most part) and also take an emergency stash to restaurants/bars, as there probably won’t be any there either. Ditto hand sanitiser, because soap is also pretty hard to come by!
5. Lack of personal space
Crazy La Paz market with an unreal variety of potatoes
This is where the India reference came from. Everyone’s super lovely and friendly (and quite shy in comparison to other fiery South Americans), but when it comes to selling, and markets, it’s another story. Chullitas will get on a bus screaming ‘CORN!!!!’ as they pop down their hot, heavy basket of goods on your lap. A guy will approach you to sell you sellotape as soon as you step on the street. You’ll virtually trip over ladies selling their wares on the pavement. Kids seem to rule the roost, sitting precariously on laps on buses, getting up in your grill for conversations (or to shine your shoes… even when you’re wearing sandals). It’s all very sweet, but also takes some getting used to!
6. Transport will probably go wrong, and also be a bit mental
Bolivian bus drivers are known to be a bit over-zealous (and sometimes drunk) and you can see how this is true when you catch a long-distance bus. Roads are bad anyway, but you will REALLY feel the twists and turns in the road, the bumps, and there will probably be some altercations between other passengers and the driver about where he decides to stop. The driver may leave a bunch of people behind when stopping for a loo break. For the best part, we’ve made our journeys fine, but we’ve got on a boat that’s gone to the wrong place, and also suffered a 12 hour night bus WITHOUT A TOILET (but with an insane amount of leg room). Priorities are sometimes a little out of whack, to say the least! Take day buses where you can, or go with the most popular bus companies.
7. Jeez, it’s smoggy out there!
Central La Paz: hard to breathe!
The altitude probably has a bit to contribute here, but you’ll find that it’s often quite hard to breathe in big cities because of the amount of smog and car pollution around. Generally Bolivian buses and cars are shipped in second hand (a lot of the buses still have Chinese writing on them!) and they have mad exhaust fumes that make them huff and puff their way along the narrow streets, leaving a trail of black smoke behind them. It’s tolerable, and not dissimilar to London, but so much more noticeable at 3000m+ above sea level!
8. Another day, another festival!
Indigenous festival in the village of Tarabuco, outside of Sucre
Pre-election madness on the streets of Sucre
They love a festivity in Bolivia. In our 30 days there, we witnessed the following festivals: annual indigenous festival in Tarabuco, the ‘day of the sea’ as previously mentioned, local election campaigning (x3 festivals and marches), local election voting, Good Friday ‘solemn candle-lit procession’ with pilgrimage from La Paz to Copacabana. In and around these festivals and public holidays, it’s sometimes impossible to buy booze, lots of things close, and it’s tough to get around/get accommodation. Plan around these events! We heard of people even having their Salt Flats tour cut short because of stuff like local election voting. They take it PRETTY seriously.
9. Cool, indigenous outfits
A chullita on our funicular ride up La Paz
After fairly Euro-centric Argy and Chile, it was a nice surprise to see some local outfits appearing as we entered Bolivia. Chullitas have a pretty unique style – full colourful skirts, embroidered long-sleeved tops, long plaits, and either a straw hat or felt bowler. It’s amazing how uniform the look is, and despite heat and altitude, these ladies stick to these outfits (plus often a cardigan or thick tights) and they’ll haul around babies or goods wrapped in shawls on their backs. I’ve seen them climb steep cobbly hills, run across roads, and multi-task like you wouldn’t believe, preparing their stalls and goods for sale. Hats off to them! (No pun intended). Now, with Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Chullitas are gaining reputation, and there’s even a Chullita modelling school. There’s also ‘Chullita wrestling’ in La Paz, but this feels like horrible touristy exploitation to me. Boycott!
10. Umm, where’s the supermarket?
We came across a couple of deserted supermarkets in our time in Bolivia, but largely, it’s a country of manic food markets. This can be quite disconcerting for a European (especially when you know there are no prices on the market, and as a Gringo you’re gonna get super ripped off, whether you speak Spanish or not!) So you kinda have to buy all your different bits and bobs as and when you see them and try and work out how much things SHOULD cost. It’s a bit of a minefield, and often resulted in just eating out for us, as it all seemed like too much effort! Buying priced-up stuff from corner shops and haggling on markets soon wears thin. You’ll never under-appreciate a good food store again, trust me!