13 Lessons I Learned Road-Tripping Across Bolivia

I travel by motorbike, and I love it. I find nothing more freeing than riding over vast distances while soaking up everything the land has to offer: Mountain passes, dirt roads, freeways, small towns, roadside cafes, suspicious hotels, beautiful sunsets, and everything in-between.

For almost a month now, that land has been Bolivia. After almost two years effectively trapped in Argentina due to Covid restrictions, I’m finally on the move again and Bolivia is, without a doubt, the most interesting, and most difficult country I’ve travelled through thus far. Here’s what I’ve learned, both good and bad, and in no particular order:

Bolivian Time

Punctuality is more optional than required. I’ve been on a tours that started, eventually. I’ve been on time for appointments and was frustrated by delays. Cashiers seem unnecessarily slow. The urgent documents I need to be processed will be processed, but there’s no hurry.

And nobody seems to mind. Traveling through Bolivia requires a mindset shift. Relax. There’s no rush. Or as the locals say, “tranquilo”. Having your expectations governed by first world concepts of punctuality will frustrate you immensely. Things are done differently here, and at a much slower pace. Take a deep breath and go with the flow. It’s not wrong, just different. Tranquilo.

Government Bureaucracy

The government loves paperwork. And lots of it. Everything submitted online needs a photocopy or three. I needed close to 60 pages of documentation to cross the border, and was required to prove things like financial solvency, and provide a detailed travel itinerary in order to get a visa. A myriad of checks were performed before I could enter the country, and the process was downright painful. Quite literally too. The 5 hour border crossing left me sun burnt. I documented the ordeal here

Prior to this, I considered a 1 hour crossing long.

I use a special document to get fuel. Visa extensions must be obtained every 30 days, but at most twice. There always seems to be a complex set of undocumented rules that need to be followed strictly. Just yesterday I tried applying for a visa extension at a valid migrations office, only to be told my request can only be serviced at a different branch on the other side of town. Navigating the bureaucracy is maddening, especially when it cuts into the very limited time allocated to you for your stay in the country.

Travel Is Slooooow

My first big trip in the country was from Villazon, near the Argentina border, to Tarija. Google estimated the distance as 194km, but with a travel time of over 4 hours. I scoffed at the idea. After all, I would be traveling through national freeways. An average speed of under 50km/h seemed ridiculous, and Google was of course being overly cautious.

Surprisingly, Google was spot on, and I was scheduled to arrive in 4 hours. The trip ended up taking closer to 6.5 hours, largely because for the last 50km, I chose to ignore Google’s advice and follow a dirt path over a mountain in the rain. While memorable and a story worthy of being considered another notch on my travel belt, the experience in the moment was no fun at all.

Travel in Bolivia is slow. Very slow. Motor ways are winding single lane mountain roads, often climbing or descending steeply. So it is commonplace to find yourself stuck behind a large bus or truck, or even a little family car travelling at 20km/h on a national freeway.

The road quality varies considerably. Route 5 (Ruta 5) near Uyuni in the south is just a massive dirt road with large muddy patches when rivers or lakes overflow. The road between Villazon and Tarija is a well maintained, but extremely winding dirt road through the mountains for about 70km. The roads between Tarija and Sucre were amazingly well maintained. But the journey between Sucre and Santa Cruz saw road conditions vary wildly, starting with meticulously well maintained tar roads, followed by a large number of mudslides that nobody bothered cleaning up, to roads so poorly maintained it was more pothole than freeway.

Combined with very conservative speed limits, expect a 500km journey to take north of 10 hours. I’ve learned to trust Google time estimates in Bolivia more than any other country.

The Food Is Great

The combination of excellent quality ingredients and a superb spice palette make Bolivian food some of the best I’ve tasted. The variety of fresh, yet cheap, fruit and vegetables amazes me. Meat is the order of the day and dominates most menus, though trout and other fish offerings are just spectacular in every town.

Vegetarians, unfortunately, are not well catered to, especially outside major cities.

From a taste and quality perspective, Bolivian food is fast becoming my favourite in the region!

Amazing Scenery

One of the highlights of road tripping though Bolivia is the spectacular natural landscape that’s just about everywhere. Travel on any national freeway for a few minutes and you’re likely to find yourself enveloped in the natural beauty of the country.

From dusty mountains in the south, to almost other-worldly landscapes in the middle of the country, to rolling green hills leading to the jungles in the east, Bolivia is a natural wonder. And there’s no need to look far for any of it; amazing views can be found almost everywhere.

Landscapes aside, city centres are often sights to behold, with colonial influences evident in picturesque streets. Walking through Potosi, Tarija, and Sucre feels like stepping into the past in a way. But the illusion is quickly dispelled once you leave the city centre and are faced with dilapidated buildings and poorly maintained streets. Still, it’s worth enjoying the good parts.

It is Safer Than Expected

I wouldn’t go as far as to claim Bolivia is safe, but it is certainly far safer than I expected. Numerous people warned me about the dangers of this country, from petty theft, to muggings, to streets I should avoid because of all the horrible things that would happen to me if I dared walk on them.

Perhaps I’ve been unusually fortunate, but my experience of Bolivia has been extremely positive. I don’t feel as safe here as I do in, say, Argentina, but neither am I in constant fear for my life or belongings. By taking regular common-sense precautions, I doubt many travelers will experience problems.

Fuel Is Hard To Find At Times

This is a tough one to deal with. Fuel stations are often few and far between, and since many are not listed on Google maps for instance, planning long journeys can be tricky. This is very unlike Argentina for instance, where it seems a fuel station can be found every few blocks in a big city, and stations are relatively commonplace on major routes.

By contrast, I’ve often found myself scanning the map for the next fuel station here in Bolivia, and keeping an eye out for businesses and even houses that offer fuel in small towns. Leaving Sucre towards Samaipata, for instance, there are no (or at least no easy-to-find) fuel stations for a few towns.

This isn’t really a problem when traveling by car, since the fuel range on a car is usually sufficient to bridge the gap between fuel stops. But traveling by bike, where the fuel range is effectively halved due to the small tank size, can be a concern. Thankfully I haven’t had a problem so far. But I fill up more often than I need to, when the opportunity arises.

Another oddity is the two-tier fuel price in the country. Locals pay one rate (around 3.50 Bolivianos per litre), and foreigners pay a different rate (around 8.50 Bolivianos per litre). I suspect the very cheap local fuel rate makes owning a 4x4 in this country an affordable prospect. And 4x4s are extremely common here.

Getting Information Is Tricky

It’s near impossible getting accurate information here. The government website is an indecipherable maze of disconnected links. I’ve largely relied on things like blog posts for information, with varying levels of success.

Bolivian embassies often supply conflicting, and often outright wrong information.

Much of the country’s information cannot be found online easily, or accurately. Street view, for instance, is not available in many parts of the country. Many businesses either do no have webpages, or their pages are very out of date. In many cases, things like a web search will not yield useful results. As mentioned above, fuel stations are hard to find. And only a small fraction of restaurants, supermarkets, and other useful places can be found easily online.

This makes modern travel difficult. Not impossible by any stretch of the imagination, but far more challenging than traveling in many other countries. But when in doubt, just ask a local. Bolivians are a friendly lot, and very helpful in my experience!

Traffic Stops For Nobody

See that pedestrian crossing? Yeah, nobody cares about it. Cars will not stop. I’ve joked that pedestrians in this country have great cardio because life as a pedestrian involves looking for a gap in traffic and running when you find one.

On a different note, driving on motor ways is often a game of life or death. I’ve almost been killed at least three times in the last three weeks. I’ve encountered cars and buses driving on the wrong side of the road, even around blind corners. Cars pull out into traffic without looking, while traveling at dangerously low speeds (for motor ways). One of the pieces of advice I was given before arriving here is don’t drive at night! From what I’ve seen so far, it’s great advice!

People Are Small

I’m around 1.89-ish metres (6 feet) tall. I’ve hit my head on door frames here too many times. I often need to duck to avoid hitting my head on awnings in front of shops. Right now I need a pair of size 12 or 13 shoes, yet all the shops I’ve visited go as high as size 11. These are not problems I was expecting.

People around these parts are smaller, and larger people find ourselves a little out of place at times.

Internet Is Better Than Expected

I purchased an Entel SIM card when I entered the country. Topping up is easy, and coverage is great. WiFi has not been a problem so far, and while speeds are not as spectacular as they are in, say, Buenos Aires, I have not yet encountered any serious Internet connectivity issues. Of course I doubt my experiences would be this positive if I frequented the more rural parts of the country, but in general, I’ve found the internet connectivity in the country to be surprisingly good!

I require good internet for my work, and so far I haven’t encountered any serious problems.

Extreme Altitude And Weather

Santa Cruz is at 400m above sea level, hot, and uncomfortably humid. So much so that running even 2 blocks will have me dripping with sweat.

Potosi is around 3800m above sea level, with temperatures in the mid 20s, perfect for exercise. But the town is build on hills and the altitude meant I was out of breath each time I walked uphill. I couldn’t run there.

I ran in Sucre. That entire city is just steep hills, so while the altitude and weather were pleasant enough, going for a run was really tough.

Altitudes and temperatures in this country vary wildly, even in a single season. In Potosi and Uyuni, I could see mountains covered in snow in the middle of summer. In Santa Cruz, the heat is so extreme I feel like melting.

While I knew Bolivia is a mountainous country, I wasn’t expecting the variety of altitudes and temperatures to affect me this much. I would dread going on a hike in Santa Cruz, or in Potosi, but for very different reasons.

Cash Is King

I have a Visa credit card which I have always used successfully in other countries. Here, things are different. I’ve successfully made credit card purchases, but around 50% of transactions have failed. The failures have been the type where my bank is notified of the transaction so the money is reserved on my credit card, but the transaction never completes successfully.

After about a week, I get my money back on my credit card, but the entire process is extremely inconvenient. Also, people around here just prefer cash. I asked at cellphone stores, restaurants, even when getting my bike serviced. It’s not that card machines are unavailable, it’s just that cash is preferred. This can get tricky with large payments (like servicing a motorbike)

On a positive note, ATMs seem to be plentiful in larger towns and cities, and transaction fees are low. But don’t count on finding an ATM in smaller towns, or assume card facilities exist there either. Having a few hundred Bolivianos in your pocket is likely to save you from major problems.

That’s my experience so far. Hopefully it’s been of some help.