We bounced over the border, or what I thought was to be the border. It was my first crossing in South America by foot (by bus) and after reading the laundry list of items I needed to present as an American, I was worried this last minute change in itinerary wouldn’t go as planned. Luckily, I was with Peru Hop, and they seemed to have sorted out for me what was necessary before I hopped on the bus.
Everything was mored built up in my head than in reality, as these things usually are, and with minimal issues, I passed over the white line without consequence and as I dragged my luggage over the poorly paved street, I breathed an unconscious sigh of relief. Even though I’ve come over many borders over the last few years of my travels, I still get a little nervous when a myriad of forms & paperwork is needed to be presented.
Full disclosure, and I’d normally NEVER recommend this, but I went with let’s just say a “less than a credible” yellow fever vaccination, which is what was causing me the unnecessary anxiety. I had read mixed reviews that they don’t technically require it upon entry any longer, although it is listed as a requested document, so I would recommend having it prior to your trip to be on the safe side. With my visa freshly printed and slapped on a page in my worn, blue passport, we walked down towards the bus that was awaiting our arrival on the Bolivian side of the border. A group of boys were playing soccer on a unkempt field not far from the small hill that separates the two countries as a no man’s land. I watched their game as I climbed the stairs into our new bright green bus, I wondered who has the job of fetching the ball when it rolls over into Peru?
I had a long weekend to spend in Bolivia, and after being there for only a few days, I quickly realized that you need more than four days to explore this “plurinational” place. If you do plan for a quick visit, here is a great weekend Bolivia guide to make sure you hit all the highlights.
If you take the easy option and use Peru Hop/Bolivia Hop, you will most likely come through Lake Titicaca, which is a convenient way to see both the Peruvian and Bolivian side of the world’s highest navigable lake. While Peru has Uros, the floating islands, Bolivia has the largest land mass on the lake, Isla del Sol. Staying overnight on the smaller islands offers some time to unwind, there are quiet beaches for lake side swims, hiking trails for the views and some basic but comfortable lodging. A weekend Bolivia guide just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Lake Titicaca and I think even if you’ve been to the Peruvian side, it is worth checking out the Bolivian side as well.
This laid back lakeside town is the first place you’ll stop after the border crossing. There are several restaurants and bars lined along the water front, there is a sleepy vibe that could easily lure you in for relaxing days. Sticking around for a few hikes is a great way to spend some time here, the Cerro Calvario is a sacred hike that follows the stations of the cross but offers a perfect view of town for the religious and non religious alike. Be sure to check out the Basilica while you are there, it’s massive size takes up a whole block in the small town. Avenida 6 de Agosto is the main tourist street, it’s abundantly clear when you find it, there will be shops and restaurants trying to lure you in for a meal. I hit up the main open markets for snacks, fruits and veggies and mostly steered clear of the tourist restaurant traps with mediocre meals. In a bizarre twist, I had the best Irish breakfast here, at El Condor & the Eagle.
The highest capital city in the world, La Paz sits at a cool 11,400 feet above sea level, resting on a plateau in the Andes. If you aren’t used to higher altitude, the hilly streets will leave you breathless. Take a cable car up to admire the city, it’s one of the best views and make sure you go on a Thursday or Sunday so you can see one of the best open air markets I’ve been to. El Alto market is notorious for having everything and believe me, saying you can find just about everything here is no exaggeration. Pickpocketing is very common here, so take care of your belongings while perusing.
La Paz arguably has the most famous jail in the world and it’s right in the middle of the city. You used to be able to take tours but they don’t allow it any longer so if someone approaches you asking if you’d like a tour of San Pedro Prison, politely decline IT’S A SCAM! A friend who lives there told me a story of how a couple of foreigners fell for the trap and had to pay a bribe to the guards to be let out once they were inside and their “tour guide” conveniently disappeared.
One of my favorite things to do in a new big city is to explore their markets. It’s a great way to get a feel for the locals, the food and get your bearings on foot. Rodriguez Market is the largest food market in Bolivia, I’d challenge you to not find what you are looking for here. It’s easy to get lost under all the blue and red canopies, there is a see of produce and an equal amount of those famous tall yet tiny bowler hats that Cholitas wear. It’s a lesson in culture while picking up your weekly groceries, you can learn a lot about the famous Cholita women of Bolivia by heading to the market, how they were their hats signifies if they are married or single, their jewelry will tell you about their economic status. Be sure to ask before taking photos, usually these ladies are not always keen to have their pictures taken.
From sundries to sorcery, the other famous market in La Paz is the Mercado de Las Brujas, or the Witches Market. One of the more interesting sections of the city, the witches market has shop after shop of potions, llama fetuses, herbs and other spiritual items to keep your house safe, your man from cheating or your body healthy. Even if you don’t believe in witchcraft, there are just as many souvenir shops around to keep you window shopping.
Don’t want to set out on your own just yet? No worries! I’d recommend taking a walking tour with the Red Cap Walking Tours, I did one my first day just to get a sense of the city and would suggest them if you’d like to do the same. Where to stay? I was going budget on this one and so I chose a hostel but was really happy with my decision. There are several “party” hostels in La Paz but I found those style places to have a lot more younger back packers and not wanting to feel like a granny, I picked a newer place in the Sopocachi neighborhood, 3600 Hostel. It had a great courtyard, comfortable rooms and a laid back vibe. Dinners here have a small, rotating menu with a special of the day, the food and drinks were outstanding!
Salar de Uyuni
So getting to and from the salt flats in a reasonable amount of time is not easy for a long weekend. In hindsight, I’d recommend having a couple of buffer days so you don’t feel like you are only seeing Boliva through a bus window. I took a night bus to Uyuni so I wouldn’t waste any daylight. If you don’t sleep well on buses, I’d recommend making sure you have a full cama seat and not a semi cama (that means your seat will nearly completely recline, creating more of a bed than just a seat that partially reclines). When it comes to anything on wheels or in the sky I’m basically a narcoleptic so I had no issue getting a nights rest on our tourist bus. Pay a little extra and take the tourist buses and not the local route, you will thank yourself in the morning. The tourist buses all have similar schedules but I used Todo Tourismo and was happy with their service overall.
There are dozens of tour operators who go out for day trips or multi day camps through the salt flats. The pair of girls I befriended were taking their trip into Chile and I was just there for a few hours so you can get an idea of how vastly different the choices can be. Either way, they all have offices in town and although I booked last minute, I don’t necessarily recommend just showing up and looking for a spot. A lot of the tours can be sold out since they only have a set number of seats in the 4x4s.
If you’ve ever wondered what walking around on another planet was like, look no further. The salt flats are the worlds largest, spanning over 11,000 square kilometers so it truly feels like a barren, glassy, salty, gritty ground that spreads into nothingness. On our car ride back I inquired how drivers find their way back to the main roads and our tour guide told us a couple of stories about tourists who have rented cars and come out on their own only to get lost and have to be rescued by travel companies.
This is the place to bring props and be creative with forced perspective photography. The landscape offers a chance to look like you’ve popped out of a Pringles can or you’re being chased by a dinosaur. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon in outer space.
A night bus brings you back to La Paz, and then you have another full day to explore the city before you move on to your next South American location. Just like that, as quick as it began, your weekend Bolivia guide is complete. It’s a quick and dirty visit to the country, but a great way to get a taste for their culture, the bustling cityscape and unique natural landscape that the country has to offer.