Top Tips for Getting Around

Transportation to most places in Bolivia is covered by small bus, boat, train and airline companies. Over the past few years Bolivia's roads have vastly improved as the government has invested in paving major roads. However road closures caused by protests, construction or landslides are common, as are flooded roads and rivers with too little water to traverse. Air transit is also getting easier and slightly more cost effective and prevalent, especially in the lowlands.

Air

  • Save time by flying Flights will save you days of travel, but can add to your overall budget. In the Amazon, flying is now much preferred to boat or road travel.
  • Reconfirm Cancellations are common. Call ahead to make sure you are still booked. You may need to wait until the next day, and if not you may be able to get a 70% refund.
  • Carry heavy stuff Weight limits are often 15kg for checked bags.
  • Save money online Book online or with the airline office.

Bus

  • Go direct Direct cama (reclining seat), semicama (partially reclining seat) and tourist-class services cost more but can save several hours.
  • Safeguard valuables Keep them with you on the bus (not in the overhead bin). You should padlock your bag if it’s going on top.
  • Stay warm Bring warm clothes and even a sleeping bag if going anywhere in the altiplano.
  • Bring snacks Roadside vendors offer snacks along the way, but bring some just in case, as well as some water.
  • Be patient Times may change; expect transit times to vary by up to three hours. Getting stranded overnight is not hugely uncommon.
  • Stay safe If your driver is drunk, don't get on board. Accidents caused by drunk bus drivers are all too common in Bolivia. Daytime driving is the safest.

Boat

  • Don't rely on boats Boat services are less common in the lowlands than they used to be. Adventurous spirits will find unique experiences if they are willing to seek services out, but it's not always cheap.
  • Protect valuables Keep them padlocked.
  • Bring creature comforts Such as hammock, book and mosquito repellent.

Car & Motorcycle

  • Speak Spanish Only drive or ride if you speak Spanish moderately well.
  • Expect delays There might be speed traps, potholes and closures on the road.
  • Bring supplies Bring a GPS, a good map, extra food and water, sleeping bag and clothes.
  • Don’t drive at night Stick to daytime travel.

Train

  • Expect delays Timetables are more like guidelines than strict schedules.
  • Plan for comfort Bring snacks, games and sleeping bags.
  • Stay alert Pickpockets and bag snatchers often lurk at stops.

Air

Air travel within Bolivia is inexpensive and the quickest and most reliable way to reach out-of-the-way places. It’s also the only means of transportation that isn’t washed out during the wet season. When weather-related disruptions occur, planes eventually get through, even during summer flooding in northern Bolivia. Schedules tend to change often and cancellations are frequent, so plan ahead.

Airlines in Bolivia

Amaszonas Domestic connections to La Paz, Santa Cruz, Uyuni, Sucre, Cochabamba, Rurrenabaque, Trinidad and Riberalta.

Boliviana de Aviación Flights to La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Sucre, Oruro, Uyuni, Tarija, Trinidad, Chimore, Cobija and Yacuiba.

TAM Flights to La Paz, Santa Cruz, Tarija, Rurrenebaque, Riberalta, Sucre, Cochabamba and Cobija.

Bicycle

For cyclists who can cope with the challenges of cold winds, poor road conditions, high altitudes and steep terrain, Bolivia is a paradise. Mountain bikes are common on Bolivia's large number of dirt roads. While traffic isn’t a serious problem (though cliffs are), intimidating buses and camiones (flatbed trucks) can leave cyclists in clouds of dust or embedded in mud. Finding supplies may prove difficult, so cyclists in remote areas must carry ample food and water. Given these challenges, many prefer to leave the work to a tour company.

If you’re considering any biking in Bolivia, make sure you purchase a comprehensive travel insurance policy.

Bolivia has its fair share of inexpensive bikes, which are mostly supermarket beaters from China. Quality new wheels are rarer. Your best bet for purchasing a used, touring-worthy stead is through agencies in La Paz. Try Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking for spare parts and help with repairs. Bringing your own bicycle into the country is generally hassle-free.

Boat

Ferry

The only public ferry service in Bolivia operates between San Pedro and San Pablo, across the narrow Estrecho de Tiquina (Straits of Tiquina) on Lake Titicaca. You can travel by launch or rowboat to any of Lake Titicaca’s Bolivian islands. Boats and tours are available from Huatajata to the Huyñaymarka islands in the lake’s southernmost extension.

River Boat

There’s no scheduled passenger service on the Amazon, so travelers almost invariably wind up on some sort of cargo vessel. The most popular route is from Guanay to Rurrenabaque. Thanks to the Guayaramerín road, there’s little cargo transportation further down the Río Beni to Riberalta these days.

Bus

Bus travel is cheap and relatively safe in Bolivia, but can also be quite uncomfortable and nerve-wracking at times. Buses are the country's most popular type of transport, and come in various forms.

Types Long-distance bus services are called flotas, large buses are known as buses, three-quarter (usually older) ones are called micros, and minibuses are just that.

Terminals If looking for a bus terminal, ask for la terminal terrestre or la terminal de buses. Each terminal charges a small fee (a couple of bolivianos), which you pay to an agent upon boarding or when purchasing a ticket at the counter.

Theft There have been numerous reports of items disappearing from buses’ internal overhead compartments and luggage holds. Put any valuables into your day pack and keep them close to you in the bus. Try to watch as your luggage is loaded – there have been instances of bags becoming ‘lost’ or ‘disappearing.’ You will be given a baggage tag, which you must show when reclaiming your bag. A lock is a good idea: very occasionally belongings are stolen from within bags while they are in the hold.

Departures Except on the most popular runs, most companies’ buses depart at roughly the same time to the same destinations, regardless of how many companies are competing for the same business. Between any two cities, you should have no trouble finding at least one daily bus. On the most popular routes, you can choose between dozens of daily departures.

Safety It’s always a good idea to check the vehicles of several companies before purchasing your ticket. Some buses are ramshackle affairs with broken windows, cracked windshields and worn tires; it’s best to stay away from these and look for a better vehicle, even if it means paying a little more. Don’t try to save on safety.

Classes & Costs

The only choices you’ll have to make are on major, long-haul routes, where the better companies offer coche (or ‘bus’), semicama (half-sleeper, with seats that recline a long way and footrests) and cama (sleeper) services. The cost can be double for sleeper service, but is often worth it for the comfort. Tourist buses to major destinations such as Copacabana and Uyuni are twice the price of standard buses, but are safer and more comfortable.

The DVD player on the newest buses will be in better shape than the reclining seats (expect Van Damme all night), heaters may function, snacks may be served and toilets (yes, toilets) may work. Be prepared.

Prices vary according to the different standard of bus (from the more luxurious bus cama service to the ancient Bluebird-style buses) and the length of trip (whether overnight or short day hop).

Reservations

To be certain, reserve bus tickets at least several hours in advance. Many buses depart in the afternoon or evening and arrive at their destination in the small hours of the morning. On most major routes there are also daytime departures.

Car & Motorcycle

The advantages of a private vehicle include flexibility, access to remote areas and the chance to seize photo opportunities. Most major roads have now been paved but some (especially in the Amazon) are in varying stages of decay, making high-speed travel impossible and inadvisable.

Preparation The undaunted should prepare their expeditions carefully. Bear in mind that spare parts are a rare commodity outside cities. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is essential for off-road travel. You’ll need tools, spare tires, a puncture repair kit, extra gas and fluids, and as many spare parts as possible. For emergencies, carry camping equipment and plenty of rations. You’ll also need to purchase a good travel insurance policy back home (check with your credit card to see if it covers rental insurance in Bolivia).

Fuel types Low-grade (85-octane) gasoline (nafta) and diesel fuel (gasoil) is available at surtidores (gas stations) in all cities and major towns, but in more remote areas these can sometimes run out. Before embarking on any long journeys make sure you know where you can get fuel and, if necessary, take it with you. Gasoline costs about B$8.68 per liter for foreigners (the price of fuel is subsidized for Bolivians, who pay about half the price) and more in remote areas.

Motorcycles In lowland areas where temperatures are hot and roads are scarce, motorbikes are popular for zipping around the plazas, as well as exploring areas not served by public transportation. They can be rented from about B$100 per day from moto-taxi stands. Note that many travel insurance policies will not cover you for injuries arising from motorbike accidents.

Driver’s License

Most Bolivian car-rental agencies will accept your home driver’s license, but if you’re doing a lot of driving, it’s wise to back it up with an International Driver’s License.

Bolivia doesn’t require special motorcycle licenses, but neighboring countries do. All that is normally required for motorcycle and moped rentals is a passport.

Private Drivers

Hiring a driver can be a more comfortable and efficient alternative to being squashed in a bus for long periods on bad roads. Alternatively, many people just want transportation to trailheads or base camps, rather than a tour.

Private 4WD service with a driver costs about B$250 to B$300 per hour for the entire car (four to six people). Private taxi service and/or driver service costs B$80 to B$150 per hour.

You can hire drivers through car-rental companies and tour operators. Private taxi drivers may also be hired.

Rental

Few travelers in Bolivia rent self-driven vehicles and with high-mountain passes and potholes, not to mention other drivers to contend with, driving in the country is challenging. Only the most reputable agencies service their vehicles regularly, and insurance purchased from rental agencies may cover only accidental damage – breakdowns may be considered the renter’s problem. Check ahead and make sure your credit card covers incidentals.

You must be aged over 25, have a driver’s license from your home country and provide a major credit card or cash deposit (typically around US$1000). You’ll be charged a daily rate and a per-kilometer rate (some agencies allow some free kilometers). They’ll also want you to leave a copy of your passport.

To save money, book online or through an aggregator. Weekly rentals will save you more. Daily rates are about US$50 for small cars, while 4WDs cost upwards of US$100 per day.

Road Rules

Traffic regulations are similar to those in North America or Europe. Speed limits are infrequently posted, but in most cases the state of the road would prevent you from exceeding them anyway. If stopped, you should show your driver’s license rather than your passport. If your passport is requested, only show a copy. Bribes are common here.

Bolivians keep to the right. When two cars approach an uncontrolled intersection from different directions, the driver who honks (or gets there first) tends to have the right of way if passing straight through – but this can be somewhat hit and miss. In La Paz, those going uphill have right of way at an intersection. When two vehicles meet on a narrow mountain road, the downhill vehicle must reverse until there’s room for the other to pass.

Hitching

Thanks to relatively easy access to camiones and a profusion of buses, hitchhiking isn’t really necessary or popular in Bolivia. Still, it’s not unknown and drivers of movilidadescoches (cars), camionetas (pickup trucks), NGO vehicles, gas trucks and other vehicles – are usually happy to pick up passengers when they have room. Always ask the price, if any, before climbing aboard, even for short distances. If they do charge, it should amount to about half the bus fare for the same distance.

Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.

Local Transportation

Camion

Prior to today's expansive bus network, camiones (flatbed trucks) were often the only way for travelers to venture off the beaten track. These days, in the more populated areas you might consider a camión trip more for the novelty value than necessity.

Camiones generally cost about half the bus fare. You’ll need time and a strong constitution, as travel can be excruciatingly slow and rough, depending on the cargo and number of passengers. A major plus is the raw experience, including the best views of the countryside.

On any camión trip, especially in the highlands by day or night, be sure to take plenty of warm clothing as night temperatures can plunge below freezing and at best they can be chilly.

To get on a camión, wait on the side of the road and flag it down as it passes.

Micros, Minibuses & Trufis

Micros (half-size buses) are used in larger cities and are Bolivia’s least expensive form of public transportation. They follow set routes, with the route numbers or letters usually marked on a placard behind the windshield. There is also often a description of the route, including the streets taken to reach the end of the line. They can be hailed anywhere along their route, though bus stops are starting to pop up in some bigger cities. When you want to disembark, move toward the front and tell the driver or assistant where you want them to stop.

Minibuses and trufis (which may be cars, vans or minibuses), also known as rapiditos or colectivos, are prevalent in larger towns and cities, and follow set routes that are numbered and described on placards. They are always cheaper than taxis and nearly as convenient if you can get the hang of them. As with micros, you can board or alight anywhere along their route.

Taxis

In cities and towns, taxis are relatively inexpensive. Few are equipped with meters, but in most places there are standard per-person fares for short hauls. In some places, taxis are collective and behave more like trufis, charging a set rate per person. However, if you have three or four people all headed for the same place, you may be able to negotiate a reduced rate for the entire group.

Train

Train fares range from B$11 to B$240, depending on the class and distance. Prices are competitive with bus fares and trains are more comfortable, but typically they are quite a bit slower.

Empresa Ferroviaria Andina (www.fca.com.bo) Operates the western network from Oruro to Villazón on the Argentinian border. Note that at research time trains were not running south of Uyuni due to track damage.

Ferroviaria Oriental (www.fo.com.bo) Covers eastern Bolivia, operating a line from Santa Cruz to the Brazilian frontier at Quijarro, where you can cross to the Pantanal. An infrequently used service goes south from Santa Cruz to Yacuiba on the Argentine border.

Tren Turístico Guaraní (www.ferroviaria-andina.com.bo/tren_turistico_fca) A tourist service departing every second Sunday of the month between El Alto and Tiwanaku.

Reservations

It's a good idea to buy your tickets in advance, which you can do at the train station. At smaller stations, tickets may not be available until the train has arrived and intermediate stations along major routes are allotted only a few seat reservations. Careful planning is needed to avoid disappointment.

When buying tickets, make sure you have a passport for each person for whom you’re buying a ticket.