Bolivia may not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of South America, but the natural beauty and affordable prices are great reasons to add it to your list!
My sister Breanna and I had been discussing an international sibling trip for quite some time, and with South America at the top of her list, when we found cheap ($600 round trip) flights to Bolivia, we were off! We planned for two weeks, hitting the major attractions in Bolivia:
2 Weeks in Bolivia – La Paz, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Sucre, Cochabamba, Rurrenabaque and the Amazon Rainforest
12 days, 11 nights
- Travel day
- Day 1 – La Paz – Walking tour of the city, witches market, inglesia de San Francisco, Plaza Murillo, San Pedro prison
- Day 2 – La Paz to Uyuni – Flight to Uyuni, begin salt flats tour, train graveyard, salt mining production, salt flats, fish island
- Day 3 – Uyuni – Continue salt flats tour, llamas, lagoons and flamingos, atacama desert, rock tree, red lagoon, sol de manana volcanic crater, hot springs
- Day 4 – Uyuni to Sucre – Finish salt flats tour, Salvador Dali desert, green lagoon, travel back to Uyuni, night bus to Sucre
- Day 5 – Sucre – Mercado central, plaza 25 de mayo, parque bolivar
- Day 6 – Sucre to Cochabamba – Cementerio General, Casa de La Libertad in Sucre, afternoon flight to Cochabamba, relaxed dinner and evening in Cochabamba
- Day 7 – Cochabamba – Cristo Ray parish (family connection), La cancha market, sunset at Cristo de la Concordia
- Day 8 – Cochabamba to Rurrenabaque – Flight from Cochabamba to La Paz, and La Paz to Rurrenabaque
- Day 9 – Rurrenabaque – Begin Amazon tour in Madidi National Park, boat trip into park, afternoon hike
- Day 10 – Rurrenabaque – Continue Amazon tour, pirana fishing, hiking
- Day 11 – Rurrenabaque to La Paz – Finish Amazon tour, hiking, flight to La Paz
- Day 12 – La Paz – Cocoa museum and Bolivian National Folklore Museum or Tiwanaku ruins/Death Road day trips
- Travel day
If you have extra time:
Santa Cruz is a cosmopolitan city that easily fits into a trip to Bolivia, and Potosi is near Uyuni (the jumping-off location for Salt Flats tours). Consider adding both to your itinerary if Rurrenabaque and the Amazon are not on the top of your priority list.
Lake Titicaca is another great option and often a highlight of Bolivia for many travelers. Located a four hour bus ride from La Paz, consider spending 2-3 days in Copacabana and Sun Island.
Tips for a great trip:
- The rainy season spans November through March, which can cause travel challenges such as road washouts in a country already known for its lack of infrastructure
- Political unrest and roadblocks are not uncommon in Bolivia – if you frequently travel by bus, check the news regularly for locations which may be at-risk
- Bolivia has three major air carriers: Amaszonas, BoA and TAM. Amaszonas is the only carrier that appears on most travel sites, but BoA and TAM are slightly cheaper and can be booked in-country at local offices
- Most flights in Bolivia do not fill and can be booked the day prior for the same fare as booking in advance, so consider waiting to book flights until you arrive for maximum flexibility
- Internet in Bolivia is very basic, much more so than other places in South America. Plan for having nearly unusable WIFI at the majority of budget accommodations, as well as many restaurants and cafes. Where possible, download guides and maps before arriving in country
We started our Bolivia trip in La Paz, arriving early in the morning after taking a red eye flight. The airport is actually in the city of El Alto, which is a 30 minute cab ride from the city of La Paz. After grabbing breakfast nearby, we turned up for the morning city walking tour.
The walking tour takes about three hours, covers many of the major sights of La Paz and will get you well acquainted with the tourist center of the city. Highlights included the witches market, inglesia de San Francisco, Plaza Murillo, and San Pedro prison. Reputable tour companies include Hanaq Pacha and Red Cap tours.
We were eager to start the salt flats tour, so booked a flight to Uyuni for the next day but spent another two nights in La Paz at the end of our trip (more on that below). La Paz is a polarizing city, and most travelers love or hate it. As the highest (defacto) capital city in the world and a gateway to Bolivian culture, it’s a great place to spend 2-3 days during your trip to Bolivia.
Uyuni and the Salt Flats tour
We took a morning flight to Uyuni ($70, 40 mins) and booked a salt flats tour with Red Planet Expeditions. There are many tour companies in town, and all see the same sights and have similar vehicles. The primary differentiators are 1) english vs. spanish-speaking guides, 2) quality of accommodations, 3) the quantity and quality of meals. Most tour companies seem to offer a 1 day tour of the salt flats or a 3 day tour where you also see some of the surrounding desert and other interesting natural attractions.
If you wait until the the morning of the tour to book, consider picking 2-3 tour companies based on online reviews and other feedback from travelers, and ask the taxi driver to take you to one of them when you arrive at the airport (they are all located in close proximity). If you arrive by bus, it is a short walk from the bus terminal to the tour offices.
After confirming our tour, we had around an hour to wander around Uyuni before we headed out on the tour. Sights on day one included the train graveyard, salt mining production, the salt flats, and fish island. We spent the night in a hotel made of salt bricks.
On day 2 of the tour, we saw llamas, lagoons and flamingos, the start of the atacama desert, the rock tree, red lagoon, and sol de manana volcanic crater. After a full day of sightseeing, we were able to watch the stars in hot springs near our accommodation. One of our tour groupmates was a yoga instructor and led the group in some late night water yoga to loosen up after the long drive!
Day 3 of our tour was far more low-key. After spending a short time checking out Salvador Dali desert and the green lagoon, we traveled to the Chilean border to drop off part of our group that was continuing onto Chile.
We spent the rest of the day driving back to Uyuni, stopping on occasion to see minor natural sights and stretch our legs. When we arrived back in Uyuni, we booked a night bus to Sucre ($10, 9 hours), grabbed dinner and wandered about town until it was time to board our bus.
While you wouldn’t want to skip the salt flats on a trip to Bolivia and overall we were happy we did the 3 day tour, we would have been happy with the 1 day tour if we had less time or wanted to devote more days elsewhere. Since you see the salt flats strictly on the first day, consider if the other two days’ sights are well-suited to your interests before booking.
After arriving in Sucre early in the AM, we checked into our accommodation and slept in. Later in the morning, we explored mercado central and got smoothies and a few souvenirs. Afterwards, we relaxed in Plaza 25 de Mayo and wandered to Parque Bolivar in the early evening and grabbed dinner and ice cream in the park.
The following morning, we went to Casa de La Libertad and checked out Cementerio General in the afternoon. Afterwards, we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Cochabamba ($40, 35 mins).
Sucre has a wonderful, casual vibe but more than other cities in Bolivia, often has many businesses and attractions close for the majority of the afternoon. Plan for early mornings where possible, and spend the afternoon lazing about at a park or your accommodation.
While 1-2 days in Sucre are enough for many travelers, Sucre’s relaxed vibe makes it a great city to spend an extra day or two. When you do plan to leave, note that the airport is located approximately an hour outside the city.
We arrived in Cochabamba and spent some time looking into a few accommodations before selecting a place for the night. Afterwards we grabbed a casual dinner with some fellow travelers and called it a night.
The next morning, we set out to explore the city. Our first order of business was to find Cristo Ray parish, as my sister and I have a relative who had devoted his life to missionary work in Bolivia and had built this church in Cochabamba.
After seeing the church and attending a mass, we headed for la cancha market, which is one of the largest markets in South America and has a mix of tourist goods, necessities and fresh foods. We picked up a few souvenirs at the market and after spending a few hours wandering around the dizzying array of goods for sale, headed back to our hostel and relaxed for a while.
Later in the afternoon, we made our way to watch the sun set over the city at Cristo de la Concordia, which is the largest Jesus statue in the world. Often people think that Rio de Janeiro in Brazil holds this honor, but Cochabamba’s statue edges out Rio by a handful of inches. Access to the statue is available through three routes: 1) a dizzying array of steps, which are occasionally frequented by unsavory characters 2) a winding taxi ride up the side of the mountain 3) a modern cable car costing just a couple dollars per person (our chosen option).
After sunset and a brief return to our accommodation, which was Running Chaski Hostel – a modern, clean hostel with terrace and courtyard that was among our favorite in Bolivia – we set out for dinner. We found an epic Mexican dinner at Mad Mex near our hostel and then turned in for the night.
With its’ many sights, Cochabamba is a great place to spend 1-2 days of your trip to Bolivia. A gastronomic hotspot of Bolivia, if trying new cuisines is among your top to-dos consider spending even more time..
Rurrenabaque and the Amazon
Heading for Rurrenabaque and the Amazon meant a morning flight back to La Paz from Cochabamba ($35, 40 mins), and a connecting flight to Rurrenabaque ($90, 45 mins). While we intended to be in Rurrenabaque by early afternoon to book a tour to the Amazon, the weather had other plans.
When we arrived in La Paz, we discovered our flight was delayed due to low clouds in Rurrenabaque. Hours later, the two flights before ours had not yet left and our flight was canceled. We elected to wait it out and were able to get rebooked onto the only flight leaving that afternoon. With only an hour of daylight left the plane was finally cleared to leave, we were off to the Amazon!
The flight was uneventful but cozy in Amaszonas’ 13 seat prop plane, until we started to descend into the rainforest. The town of Rurrenabaque barely came into view as we flew through patches of dense fog and just a few hundred feet off the ground, we heard the engines pick up speed and felt the nose of the plane lift back skyward. The pilot came back on to tell us that landing wasn’t possible and we would be returning to La Paz.
We ended up being rebooked on the first flight the following morning and arrived in Rurrenabaque without much trouble. We booked our Amazon tour with Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, a tour operator in the Madidi National Forest run entirely by area indigenous and were off shortly thereafter, taking a 3 hour boat ride into the jungle up the Beni river.
A quick note on Amazon tours leaving from Rurrenabaque: There are two general types of tours offered by companies – pampas tours and jungle tours.
- The pampas are a wetland savannah on the edge of the rainforest, so don’t have the typical ‘rainforest’ look. That said, they do offer tremendous wildlife viewing opportunities along the narrow rivers and are incredibly inexpensive at many budget travel operators
- Jungle tours offer hiking in a more traditional rainforest setting, but less viewing of wildlife and considerably more expense than the pampas experience
Regardless of which experience you decide is best for your Amazon adventure, know that you’ll be saving significant cash over those going on similar tours in Brazil or most other countries.
After arriving at the ecolodge, settling into our rooms and having lunch, we set off for a jungle trek. We spent about 4 hours trekking through the trails while our guide explained the various flora and fauna we passed. On a few occasions, he heard animals in the distance that we couldn’t see from the trail and swiftly took us through the rugged jungle to get a closer look. Once we saw brown capuchin monkeys and later in the hike we got very close to a group of wild pigs. As nightfall loomed, we returned to the ecolodge for a great dinner and a night’s rest listening to the sounds of the jungle.
The following day was packed with a morning of piranha fishing, an afternoon hike spotting black spider monkeys and time at sunset on a high lookout point spotting a variety of birds. We even had a tapir visit us in camp after lunch! That evening, we took a night hike and checked out a number of insects.
On our last day in the Amazon, we went on a walk to see several giant trees, and our guide explained more about medicinal plants. We wrapped up with a stop off to see nesting macaws on our boat ride back to Rurrenabaque. From the tour company’s office in Rurrenabaque, we took a taxi to the airport and hopped the last flight of the day back to La Paz.
While we were able to book our tour the day of, most tour companies leave between 8:30AM and 11AM so it’s best to arrive the afternoon prior if you don’t have advance reservations. Since the travel to Rurrenabaque and onto the Madidi National Forest is formidable, it doesn’t make much sense to do a tour for anything less than three days. Including a travel day into the town, plan on spending 4 days of your Bolivia trip in Rurrenabaque and the surrounding Amazon.
La Paz (Continued)
Upon returning to La Paz in the evening, we checked into our accommodation, took a hot shower(!) and settled in for the evening. The next day we considered a day trip to the Tiwanaku ruins or the Death Road bike tour (both great day trips less than two hours from La Paz), but ultimately opted for some relaxed sightseeing before our flight home the following day.
We checked out the Cocoa museum, which was a bit dated but provided an informative deep dive into the culture and practices related to cocoa production and use in Andean regions. Afterwards, we went to the Bolivian National Folklore Museum and spent about an hour and a half looking at the diverse exhibits that highlight Bolivian culture, dress and dance. We devoted the late afternoon to writing postcards home and mailing them off. We finished off our last day in La Paz with a great meal at Kalakitas Food n’ Drinks.
When thinking about all of the natural beauty and adventure we experienced on our trip, Bolivia definitely did not disappoint. If you’re considering a trip to Bolivia or have any questions as you are planning your trip, leave a comment below or shoot us an email!