I highly recommend that everyone travel to Bolivia. It’s an underrated country that many people ignore when traveling to more “exciting places” in South America like Rio, Buenos Aires, or Machu Picchu. But it has a lot of exciting things to see! The salt flats in Uyuni are unlike anywhere else on earth, and it’s really cool to see the desert scenes (including flamingos). The walls around Sucre contain more dinosaur footprints in one spot then any other place on earth! The death road in La Paz is an adventure filled day of mountain biking. The islands of Lake Titicaca highlight the culture of the region while allowing you to see the majesty of the stars at night (without any light pollution). However, if you’re going to travel to Bolivia, you will also run into a few bumps in the road!
There are many things that you can do to prepare for a trip. You can learn the language, book your accommodation, understand cultural norms, and pack all the medications/clothes you anticipate needing. But that’s not enough in Bolivia. Even though Bolivia has a big tourist industry, it’s not well set-up to avoid unexpected delays, cancellations, and disappointments. I believe that you will still have a great time, but it’s important to keep expectations low so you don’t get disappointed. If your whole trip is centered around one activity, you may be in for a rude awakening. Here are a few examples from just three days of traveling in Bolivia (considering I also live in Bolivia).
We’re used to taking the bus in Bolivia.
• Booking a bus – Originally, we wanted to take the bus to Tarija. The buses in Bolivia are super cheap (about $4 for a 3-hour journey) so we thought we could save some money. Unfortunately, all the buses from Sucre to Tarija leave and arrive at super inconvenient times. Who wants to leave the city at 3 pm (if you can even get off work early to leave at that time) and then arrive in a new place at 4 am? Not only will it take up your whole day, and you won’t get any sleep, you also have to book a hotel for that night because nothing is open at 4 am for you to do. Couldn’t the buses leave at 8-9pm and arrive at 8-9am? I wish… We decided it wasn’t worth it, so we were going to take the plane instead.
Waiting a few hours in the airport for a flight isn’t the end of the world.
• Arranging flights – We tried to book our flights online. There are only about 4 flights a week between Sucre and Tarija, and only with one airline. After deciding on our dates, we tried to book online, FIVE TIMES. No success. Every time there was a different error message. Thankfully the Boa Airlines office is just down the street, and it was during office hours. Steve popped up to the agency and got our tickets booked in person within 20 minutes with no problems. If we hadn’t lived in downtown Sucre, this probably wouldn’t have been an option and we wouldn’t be left with many options other than booking a whole different trip…
Just nice to have somewhere to lay your head down.
• Staying at a Hotel – Hotels should be easy, right? You look up all the options, choose the best balance of price/location, press book, and you’re good to go. There’s sometimes a snafu about the specific type of room and how/when to pay (cash on arrival vs. online deposit, etc.) but that’s about it. This time was much worse. We got a bus, found the hotel, and… nothing. There was a sign but nothing else, just a building that was all closed up. We had even booked it on a pretty reputable site (Booking.com), not some weird Bolivian site that looks like it hasn’t been updated in 5 years. There were bars on the windows, locks on the gates, and the phone number wasn’t in service! Now what? Thankfully, we only had one duffle bag (not huge suitcases), and it was still early afternoon. We also had phones with SIM cards and GPS to explore the city. We found a street near the plaza with a hostel on each side fo the street. I went in one, Steve went in the other. Fortunately, they had rooms available for a low price. The room wasn’t beautiful or fancy but we were so glad to have somewhere to sleep that we didn’t care. I can’t imagine what would have happened if all the hotels were booked up (which can easily happen on long weekends).
The museum we tried to visit is featured on the 20 Bs ($4) note.
• Tour at a Museum – We knew the museums were only open during the week. Thankfully, our flight go in around 2 pm on Friday, so we still had all afternoon to visit the two museums (which were both near the central plaza and open until 6). We visited the paleontology museum with no problems at all. The Casa de Dorado was a lot more problematic. The main door wasn’t open, so we wandered around the building until we found a door open (but there was a gate closed). A random guy was coming out so we asked what was up, and he said you can only go in for a tour, and they’re only on the hour, so come back at 5 pm (it was 4:30). We came back 20 minutes later (still 10 minutes early) and they said “Sure, go get a ticket over there”. No problem – we went to the ticket lady and she said “Nope, we already have 20 people. Come back another day”. “Are you open Monday?” “Yup”. “Even though it’s a holiday?”… “Oh, nope, we’ll re-open Tuesday.” Seriously? Not very well organized, so no museum for us…
Steve loves frothy, boozy, ice-creamy, coffee drinks, and I love garlic bread (but maybe not enough to want 15 pieces…)
• Eating at a Restaurant – Many of the restaurants in Tarija are amazing. Unfortunately, the hours are a bit weird. Some aren’t open at all on certain days of the week, and only for dinner some days and only lunch some days. We missed out on trying some of the restaurants we were hoping to visit because the time didn’t work out. Thankfully, there were other great places to choose from.
Can’t go to Tarija without visiting a few wineries…
• Visiting Wineries – We knew that we wanted to visit a few of our favourite Bolivian Wineries while we were in Tarija. Unfortunately, they’re only open during the week, and Saturday mornings. So we booked it in advance, online, even though it seemed quite expensive for Bolivia (about $50/person for half day or $100/person for full day) to ensure we had a spot for Saturday morning. Each day we would get a new email from them with more questions. Which hotel were we staying at, what language did we want our guide to speak, etc.? The questions were fine, but by Friday afternoon they weren’t replying to our emails and we still hadn’t received confirmation of the tour we were supposed to have finished booking days before. Thankfully, it was cheaper to book in town, so we went and booked one on Friday afternoon for the next morning. We were able to pay cash in person, get our voucher, and it cost less than half the price. Definitely the best outcome of a planning failure!
• Catching our Flight Home – Airlines in Bolivia are notoriously bad at leaving on time. If you have an important activity or other flight to catch, I recommend leaving A LOT of wiggle room. For example, when we were in La Paz and headed back to Sucre, they canceled our flight due to the weather and then delayed our flight 3 times the next day. We arrived in Sucre about 24 hours after anticipated, had to pay for another night in a hotel, and missed a day of work – all for a 1-hour flight! This time when we were flying back from Tarija, we arrived at the airport about 1.5 hours early. We checked in with no problems, but they wouldn’t let us go to the gate. That’s fine, we saw that the flight was delayed by an hour, so we napped for about an hour and tried again. This time they let us in the gate, and our flight was delayed another 30 minutes. That’s fine – we read our books. Then it started pouring, and they closed the plane doors, and all the personnel were waiting under the overhang. Eventually, an announcement came on saying all flights were cancelled until further notice. The girls behind us were obviously tourists, and were really shocked and upset – it was a bit amusing to be honest. We shrugged and sat back to read and eat our snacks. About 2 hours after our flight was originally scheduled, they called us to the gate, gave us all giant umbrellas, and we headed to the plane. We got back to Sucre a bit later than schedule, but no harm, no foul.
So, that’s 7 examples of how things can wrong, and they all happened in only a 3-day period – pretty impressive right? This is pretty standard for Bolivia. If you don’t think you can handle the hassle, I recommend trying an “easier country” first, where things are a bit more reliable. With that said, I think living and traveling in “developing countries” is a great opportunity to learn about yourself and to develop the much sought after skill of being able to “go with the flow.”
P.S. Don’t hate Tarija just because of this post. I loved a lot of things about that city too! To check out more of a city guide with all the great things we did in Tarija, Bolivia over the long-weekend, read my next blog – A Weekend in Wine-Country: 3 Days in Tarija, Bolivia (coming soon).