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Backpacking Bolivia - whats it really like?

Typical street market

Backpacking in Bolivia is an amazing experience which youŽll never forget.As soon as you cross the border or land in Bolivia you will realize you are somewhere different, there is something around every corner which prompts rewriting in your mind what you think is normal. It might be a little old lady wearing a tall bowler hat you would associate more with the once fashion in 18th century europe among gentleman; or it might be a street stall selling the fetus of a llama believed to bring good luck if buried under your house. Bolivia is a fascinating country which has a little bit of everything for the visitor, including ruins, adventure, history, eco-tourism and fun!

As a landlocked country most backpackers cross a border to enter the country. From Peru they depart from the city of Puno and cross the border at Copacabana, the Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Travelling from Chile many cross by way of the Uyuni Salt Flats on 3 day jeep tours from San Pedro de Atacama. From Argentina they head north from the city of Salta to the Bolivian border town of Villazon, and from Brazil they catch the train from the border after completing a Brazilian Pantanal tour. Which ever way you arrive you will most probably end up spending time in La Paz, also the major entry/exit point for international flights.

Bolivia has two main regions, namely the 'altiplano' (high planes) in the Andes associated with high altitudes and the lower lands where you are more likely to encounter humid jungle. Most of the countries populations and centres of interests for backpackers are located in the high Andes, and remember it might take some time for you get accustomed to the altitude. Major cities like La Paz, Sucre, Potosi (4,000m) and the isolated town of Uyuni are located in this zone as well.

Shaman Car Blessing ceremony in Copacabana

Bolivia is also known to the backpacker world as a bit of a bargain. If you are spending too much money in neighbouring countries you will welcome the cheap prices of Bolivia. You will find a variety of hostels and cheap hotels for your stay and cheap prices doesn't necessarily mean you will spending the night in cockroach infested rooms. Most Bolivia hostels are nice and social but expect electric shower heads (just remember less pressure means warmer water) and toilets that don't cope with toilet paper (yes, you will need to use the bins provided). Food is cheap as well and you can fine dine in nice restaurants and leave with a lot more change in your pocket than your used to.

Just be prepared for a real third world experience in Bolivia which may leave you with a little culture shock in the beginning, but you will certainly warm to the Bolivian idiosyncrasies. Don't expect to see groomed streets, rather buildings that may seem half-built but functioning normally with large families dwelling in them, and prepare yourself for a lot of street markets where you can buy anything from fresh produce to electric tasers; but don't think you have arrived to a dangerous country as crime is low compared to other countries in the area, just use normal caution. Remember to be respectful of the locals, especially those of indigenous descent, who daily have to cope with an ever encroaching modern world, while strongly holding onto their past. Bolivia is home to the largest concentration of indigenous people in South America, and this adds great value to the experiences to be had while backpacking Bolivia.

I guess like most of South America, the successful way to travel is to have patience and acceptance of how things work here. The bus might be late to leave the station, the food might come out after a long wait seated at a restaurant, but that's life in Bolivia; and to wish for change here might be wishing away what makes Bolivia so unique to visitors in the first place!

Written by Val Murray (Green Toad Bus founder)

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