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5 Things to Know Before Traveling to Bolivia

Bolivia Insider Guides
by Flora Baker Mar 25, 2014
1. Bolivian transport can be tricky.

The first thing most travelers will encounter in Bolivia is the transport system. Like in most of South America, people get around the country via an extensive bus network — but experiences on these can vary.

The process of catching a Bolivian bus deserves a post all to itself, so for now I’ll mention the bare basics: speeding drivers, bizarre departure and arrival times, a constant gamble as to the bus temperature — you get the idea. For short-term transport, though, I spent most of my time in two sorts: taxis and trufis.

Taking trufis and taxis in Bolivia
When I first arrived in La Paz, I was pretty nervous about catching the local buses. Known as trufis, these little minibuses throng the city’s streets and feature ticket sellers leaning out of the open doors shouting their destinations — information supported by a placard propped up in the windscreen.

The problem is that the drivers essentially make up their routes: If there’s a roadblock or too much traffic, they simply go another way. For tourists, who barely know the name of the street their hostel is on, this is something of a difficulty.

Luckily, by the time I conquered my fear and boarded a trufi, I’d walked around enough of the city to know which direction we were speed-driving in. And if I ever lost my bearings, I’d simply shout, “Esquina por favor!” and jump out at the nearest corner. A rule I never would have learnt without experiencing it first, however worried I was about getting lost.

Bolivia is also the only country where I’ve been consistently required to know both the directions to and eventual location of where I’m headed infinitely better than the taxi driver. Slews of drivers have looked terrified when I flagged them down — that is, if they stopped at all. Numerous taxis have driven straight past me, or started their engines and sped off as soon as they heard an address they weren’t explicitly familiar with.

I stayed at an incredible hostel in Cochabamba, which was marred solely by the fact that absolutely no taxis had any clue how to get there. My favourite journey back to Las Lilas was with a driver who held an expression like a frightened rabbit for the entire 10-minute ride. I had to continually coax him to take each turn and clambered out of the car exhausted.

Bolivian transport: The positives
There are a number of benefits to the way Bolivians travel. First off, Bolivian transport is cheap. Hence why I took taxis a lot of the time — something that’s never been a habit in other South American countries.

Secondly, the experience is usually pretty friendly. On every trufi ride, I realised each passenger said “buen día” or “buenas tardes” as they boarded, presumably to the rest of the bus, and I adopted the tactic very early on.

Third, and most appealing to me, is that being a taxi driver in Bolivia is often a full family operation. Many times I’ve caught taxis with the driver’s son or daughter, wife or girlfriend in the front seat — and once, in Sucre, even met a newborn baby, whose father clearly couldn’t bear to spend his days away from her. Despite the numerous strange drivers, there are also many who are really eager to chat away in Spanish about what you’re doing in Bolivia.

Sadly, though, these conversations were often tainted by a troublesome issue: paying the fare.

2. Dealing with money in Bolivia is stressful.

As in many countries around the world, people in Bolivia have a problem giving out change. I understand why — one tourist pays with a big note, and suddenly all your spare coins disappear as a result.

But when the biggest Boliviano note in common circulation is 100Bs, equivalent to £10 or $14, it becomes rather frustrating to constantly argue with taxi drivers, tienda owners, and restaurant waitresses, who consistently maintain that they don’t have change.

I often found myself pretending I didn’t have smaller denominations in these situations, just to be able to break a note. It’s not the nicest feeling but sometimes ends up being totally necessary.

The pricing of products also carries its own set of difficulties. More often than not, I had the sneaking suspicion that sellers were simply making their prices up on the spot. Regardless of whether it’s due to obviously being a foreigner, things got problematic when I tried to barter with the clearly invented price and was either bluntly shot down or laughed at.

Of course, the huge positive aspect to money in Bolivia is that pretty much everything is insanely cheap. Whether it’s a 10-hour bus journey for £10, a three-course meal with wine for £5, or an en suite room in a hotel for £7, sometimes it’s necessary to put things into perspective a bit.

3. Eating in Bolivia is always an experience.

Bolivians certainly know how they like their food. In a country that’s home to thousands of different varieties of potato, the locals supplement a starch-heavy diet with a nationwide obsession with sweet stuff: Plastic cups of coloured gelatine topped with whipped cream are sold on every street corner, sugary empanadas are grasped in sticky hands, and Coca Cola is the drink of choice.

The weirder Bolivian food customs you’ll see: people drinking juice out of plastic bags (actually a rather sensible idea), and most older Bolivians chewing on a ball of coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude (which results in a constant bulge in their cheek).

Bolivian food: The positives
Luckily, Bolivia’s food offerings have kept me happy more often than not, particularly the menu del dia. While daily helpings of soup, rice, meat, and plátano can sometimes get old, this simple meal is a quick, cheap fix for being hungry.

Outside of the typical Bolivian lunch, there’s a number of chances to happen upon amazing eateries if you just go looking. Potosí has incredible hot chocolate, we indulged in cheese fondue twice in Copacabana, and in Sucre I ate the best steak of my entire life at a churrasqueria not even mentioned in Lonely Planet or on TripAdvisor.

Most importantly, the attitude Bolivians have towards eating is ultimately communitarian, and it’s a lovely thing to see. When someone passes your table in a restaurant, you’ll usually hear “buen provecho,” the Spanish equivalent of “bon appétit.” There’s also nothing odd about sharing your table with strangers, a trait I think many other cultures would benefit hugely from.

4. Bolivian culture is absolutely fascinating.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bolivia’s cultural traits are one of the main reasons it stands out so much.

Indigenously dressed men and women are a common sight in all towns, villages, and most big cities. Young boys shine shoes in the middle of the street, their faces covered by balaclavas to conceal their identities. Llama fetuses hang above market stalls, inviting people to bury them under the foundations of their houses for good luck.

These aspects of Bolivian life are things a foreigner simply can’t hope to understand. And Bolivians themselves have many behavioural eccentricities that often prove acutely stressful for a foreigner such as myself.

5. ‘Giving advice’ actually means making things up.

On Boxing Day in Copacabana, we wanted to hire a motorbike. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, zipping along the lake’s coastline to a few scenic spots, and we’d questioned the elderly gentleman renting out bikes a few days before. He’d given a good price for four hours of rental on an automatic bike — “Yes of course, we definitely have automatics” — and things seemed set.

Except when we arrived he wheeled out a tired, battered, and bruised bike and proceeded to explain that there were only four gears we needed to use.

“So it’s not automatic,” I ventured.

Si, si, it is! There is no clutch, so it’s automatic,” he said, grinning. I tried again.

“No, if it has gears, it isn’t automatic. We asked for an automatic because we don’t know how to drive with gears!” His teenage accomplice attempted a different tactic.

“This road is straight. It’s flat. It’s an automatic road,” he said, unsuccessfully evading eye contact with me.

Time and time again, these things happened in Bolivia. A stranger would confidently point me in the wrong direction to an address I asked about, a shop owner would tell me they didn’t stock produce I could clearly see on the shelf.

But then again, some of Bolivia’s cultural craziness is what really makes the country special.

This post was originally published at Flora the Explorer and is reprinted here with permission.

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