If you are travelling through South America, Bolivia is probably on your list.
From the Uyuni Salt Flats to cycling the Death Road, to lakes with pink flamingos, and cheap Amazon tours, this small country has a lot to offer.
We were excited to visit and experience these things, not to mention the fact that everyone said it was ridiculously cheap to travel in Bolivia.
Coming from the more expensive countries in Latin America like Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, we needed to save some money. As South African citizens, we had to apply for visas (more about it here) but we knew this. We planned our dates, got our visas and off we went in search of adventure and cheap travel.
As travellers, we have the unique opportunity to really experience a country, not from TV shows and pretty Instagram pictures and other people's online blogs. And what we often find, is although inspirational and super helpful, these pictures or blogs don't always portray the real sentiment or conditions of a country or place.
Different people have different experiences - we look at things with different eyes- but we feel that it is also necessary to sometimes report on the other side, the not-so-pretty side, and thus 6 things no-one tells you about Bolivia:
1. Altitude Sickness could be a serious problem
Yes, most people know this, and talk about this, but few travellers realise how dangerous altitude sickness can actually be.
Some people told us how they literally would black out in an instant without any signs of trouble. Some had to go to hospital and were treated for a while before they could travel again.
So don't take this lightly.
Potosi is situated at an elevation of 4 067m above sea level. La Paz, the administrative capital, is at
3 640m above sea level. Many lower lying cities in Bolivia in the Andes mountains are elevated above 2 000m.
Most people aren't used to this elevation, we certainly aren't, coming from sunny Durban at sea level.
The locals chew Cocoa leaves, but apparently it is quite disgusting. Travellers we spoke to had mixed reviews about whether it actually works or not. You can drink cocoa tea, but that actually made me more sick when I tried it, so no thanks.
Because of the altitude, any physical activity, like walking down the street, is hard. And as if it is not already difficult to breathe and you feel slow and tired all the time, most cities in Bolivia have steep uphill streets! Really? They couldn't make it anymore difficult.
Take it easy and drink a lot of water. As a great alternative, you can make some lemon tea. It immediately takes away your headache and helps you breathe easier. It increases the oxygen in your blood. After all, this is what allowed Sir Edmund Hillary to reach the top of Mount Everest.
2. It is cold
Naturally, being one of the highest countries in the world, and in the Andes mountains, Bolivia is cold. We were there in summer, and in certain parts of the country, the max temperatures were only 4 degrees C. It can get hot during the day, but night time is chill or freezing cold. And when it rains, it is even colder.
3. Hot showers are not the norm
Which brings me to the next point: if you think that you can have a nice hot shower after spending the day in the freezing cold, I'm sorry to tell you that most places do not have hot showers!
They use the same electric shower heads that Brazil uses, which is ineffective. And many times, the water was luke warm at best. Often plain ice cold.
Oh, and they also do not have central heating or even heaters. We stayed in a variety of different types of accommodation, and none of them had heating. So prepare yourself for some chill showers too.
4. It is dirty
Bolivia is a stark contrast between the clean countries of Argentina and Uruguay.
In Bolivia, the streets are dirty, the bathrooms are dirty and the people are dirty.
Firstly, public bathrooms have no toilet paper. You have to pay to enter a public bathroom, and they give you toilet paper (but you have to pay even if you bring your own!). It's like you literally pay for toilet paper, because it's not as if all the bathrooms are spotlessly clean and hygienic smelling of bleach. No. Floors are dirty, bins have no lids - you still cannot flush your paper down the toilet here (Argh).
Some places don't even have bins, so people just chuck their shit paper (literally) on the floor. It smells of all kinds of nastiness and I'm sure this is where most travellers pick up a stomach bug or two.
Many places do not have running water, so obviously, hands don't get washed, toilets don't get flushed. Some places have a huge tank of water outside, so you scoop a bucket full of water and throw into the toilet. If I tell you, these things really got to us. Gag reflex on a daily basis.
From our experience, Bolvian people, especially the ones living in the more rural areas, were dirty. The stench of unwashed dirty hair on the bus; dirty, grimy brown toes in peep-toe shoes (I hope it was from stepping in a puddle of mud on the way to town) is everywhere...
We were also in Bolivia during Carnaval time, so naturally people drink a lot and get drunk, but then drunk men stop in the middle of the road to relieve themselves as people walk by, and ladies squat down on street corners in broad daylight for the same reason. No shame, no attempts to hide or find a bush. Apparently when nature calls...
In the same breath, be wary of food, especially from street vendors because you never know under what circumstances they prepare the food. We ate it anyway because it was the cheapest.
5. "Go to Bolivia" they said, "it is ridiculously cheap" they said
Yes, if you are American or European, or pretty much from any other country except South Africa! Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, and yet, their currency is still two times stronger than the Rand (R1 = 0.50 Bolivianos). The cost of living is not cheap either: besides really cheap public transport, we didn't really save any money and spent pretty much the same as we would in South Africa or any of the neighbouring countries.
So, if you have Dollars or Euro's you are lucky, but Rands will make you cry.
6. You pay more if you are a foreigner
Yeah, so we realised this after speaking to many citizens of neighbouring countries. This mostly applies to accommodation (when you don't book beforehand) but also when buying goods in markets.
Most hotels and hostels actually have two price lists: one for foreigners in English, and one for Spanish speaking locals. Not that they can actually show you this list.
If they think you are foreigner (mostly judged on your skin, eye and hair colour) even though you can speak Spanish, they often offer you a price at least twice to 3 times more than what they offer locals or some other Spanish-speaking people. This becomes really annoying after a while when you are getting seriously ripped off while others pay ridiculously cheap prices.
If you can speak some Spanish and can negotiate, it helps to actually ask if the price is because you are a foreigner and try and bargain for a cheaper price.
So obviously, this is just our perspective, and maybe these things won't bother other travellers, but actually it should because you can get really sick and honestly, it is not always fun. Maybe we should've title this post "Why we didn't like Bolivia that much". You should also read out post on the Oruro Carnaval, because honestly, we didn't have a great experience either.
Don't let this put you off from visiting this beautiful country, it does have a lot to offer and we had some great experiences - other travellers really loved it.
Sometimes, you should know the whole truth.