Crime Crime against tourists is on the increase in Bolivia, especially in La Paz and, to a lesser extent, Cochabamba, Copacabana and Oruro. Scams are commonplace and fake police, false tourist police and ‘helpful’ locals are on the rise. Be aware, too, of circulating counterfeit banknotes.
Protests There is a strong tradition of social protest in Bolivia and demonstrations are a regular occurrence. While generally peaceful, they can turn threatening in nature at times: agitated protesters throw stones and rocks and police occasionally use force and tear gas to disperse crowds. Bloqueos (roadblocks) and strikes by transportation workers often lead to road closures and long delays. Be careful using taxis during transportation strikes – you may end up at the receiving end of a rock, which people pelt at those who are not in sympathy with them.
Wet season The rainy season means flooding, landslides and road washouts, which in turn means more delays. Getting stuck overnight behind a landslide can happen; you’ll be a happier camper with ample food, drink and warm clothes on hand.
Tour safety Note that the mine tours in Potosí, bike trips outside La Paz and the 4x4 excursions around Salar de Uyuni have become so hugely popular that some disreputable agencies are willing to forgo safety. Make sure you do your research before signing up for the tour.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (travel.gc.ca)
- US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)
There are plenty of great benefits to solo travel, being alone often opens up doors to meeting local people and other travelers. On the well-trodden gringo circuit, solo travelers should have little trouble meeting up with others and some hostels and hotels have noticeboards for those wanting to form groups to do activities. In places like Uyuni it’s relatively easy to meet other travelers around town to make up the numbers needed for excursions.
However traveling alone also comes with some precautionary considerations. Bear the following in mind:
- Safety is in numbers. Solo travelers should remain alert when traveling, especially at night.
- Hostel prices are often based on a per-person rate, although more upmarket hotels have separate prices for single and double, with the latter being more economical.
- The recent increase in tourism to Bolivia has meant that locals are becoming more accustomed to seeing Western travelers, including unaccompanied women. This has significantly reduced the incidence of sexual harassment and the concept of the ‘loose gringa,’ but in some places you may still face unwanted attention. Take no risks.
- If you are female traveling without a male companion and/or alone, it’s wise to avoid testosterone-filled domains such as bars, sports matches, mines and construction sites.
- It’s generally safe to catch a lift on a camión (flatbed truck) if you see lots of other people waiting; don’t get on board if anything seems fishy. Never hitchhike alone.
- Especially in urban areas and at night, women – even in groups – should be careful, and avoid isolation.
- Hiking alone is discouraged under any circumstances. It’s potentially dangerous not to have a partner who can raise the alarm in case of an accident.
Bribes are illegal in Bolivia, but common. With cops making just over US$115 a month, it’s easy enough to see why it would be so ubiquitous. People stopped for minor traffic violations or more serious infractions sometimes ask if they can ‘pay the fine now.’ Watch out for false police – authentic police officers will always wear a uniform and will never force you to show them your passport, insist you get in a taxi with them, or search you in public.
It’s likely you won’t be in La Paz long before you’ll hear about ‘tours’ to San Pedro prison. We strongly advise against participating in one of these unofficial – and, in fact, illegal – ‘tours’, which are organized by inmates, guards and dodgy operators. There are high risks associated with entering San Pedro prison. First, it’s illegal, and the Bolivian authorities are cracking down on unofficial visits. Secondly, inside the prison, there’s no guarantee of your safety and, well, you’re surrounded by criminals.
Bolivia offers plenty of opportunities to ‘Break Bad.’ With its status as a major cocaine-producing nation and a reputation for lax law enforcement, Bolivia is a popular destination for drug and sex tourism. Travelers who come to Bolivia to engage in these and other marginal activities can find themselves in trouble, however, as these activities have serious consequences and legal ramifications.
Prostitution is legal for adults aged 18 and older, and is common throughout the country. While legal, There are few protections for sex workers or controls on the industry (raising the chances of contracting an STI). Child prostitution (the average sex worker starts at 16 years old) and human trafficking are also real issues, especially in the Chapare and major urban centers. Young children are sold into prostitution, especially from the tropical lowlands, and brought to large urban centers or sold overseas as slaves or prostitutes. Trafficking from Paraguay to Bolivia is on the rise for the ‘mega brothels’ being built near Santa Cruz. In Southern Bolivia, around 10 children every month are sold into prostitution or slavery, and across the globe some 1.2 million children are victims of human trafficking annually. It’s a US$12 billion annual industry, and many advocacy organizations say consumers will control its end. Jail sentences for sex with a minor are 20 to 25 years in Bolivia, and those found guilty will also likely face criminal charges in their home country. (Sources: UNICEF, 2008 US State Department Human Rights Report, UNHCR, EFE.)
Cocaine and Other Drugs
Drug tourism is on the rise in Bolivia. The cocaine is pure, it’s cheap, it’s easily attainable, and it remains illegal. The laws are a bit contradictory and ill-defined. Personal possession, while illegal, is not supposed to carry a jail sentence, but trafficking carries a minimum eight-year sentence, according to the Andean Information Network. The only problem: there’s no definition of personal possession. Your best bet is to not do it. If you get caught, your embassy will not help you. The only option for many travelers is to attempt to pay their way out of the situation, which is also risky since bribes are illegal, too. It’s also worth noting that the same criminal organizations producing cocaine are also responsible for human trafficking; don't go down dark alleys after midnight looking to score. Moreover, cocaine can be deadly, especially at Bolivia’s high altitudes.
Marijuana is also common here (and also illegal), while other high-end pharmaceuticals, like ecstasy, are hard to come by. Hallucinogenics, like the San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca, are becoming slightly more common and sit in a grey area of the law.