Before I came to South America, Bolivia wasn’t really on my radar. It wasn’t until someone I met during my travels showed me pictures of the Salt Flats that I thought: “I must go there!” (yes, I’m guilty of making an itinerary based on social media pics).
So far, I’ve traveled through Brazil, Colombia and Peru…and now…I’m finally in Bolivia…but sadly, I haven’t had a chance to fully enjoy what it has to offer ~ because I decided to try to extend my Brazilian visa (and enjoy more time with the people who I’ve fallen so deeply in love with there), I’ve had to rush through Bolivia (and Peru) ~ only getting one week to explore Bolivia.
The effect? Incredible!
But not in a good way.
I never anticipated to have anticipated so many problems, stress and tears from coming to Bolivia and trying to tick off the Uyuni Salt Flats from my bucket list. It definitely tested me and pushed my boundaries. I definitely bawled my eyes out many times.
But regardless of the pain and sadness I felt throughout this experience…I managed to check the famous Bolivian Salt Flats from my bucket list (and get those amazing Insta-worthy photos lol). I also eventually found solutions to all my problems (as horrible as they have been for my stress and ego). In the end, I can look back and learn a great deal from the experience I had. That’s what’s inspired me to write this piece – it has been an EXTREMELY long journey…and it’s given me many tips and a big story to share with you (it’s so big that I decided to split it into two parts 😊)
As always ~ I’ve got my tips at the top and I’ve segregated the story into different sections (click on whichever one interests you if you don’t have time to read the whole thing). Or if you do have time ~ please enjoy!!!
And last but not least ~ a note to all my readers: I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Thank you for being patient – I’ve been offline, with no internet access from doing the 5-day Salkantay trek in Peru and 3 day Salt Flat tour…my stories will be coming up again!
General Tips for La Paz
- ALWAYS have extra local cash with you in South America. This has been my BIGGEST mistake in Bolivia.
- Check the dates for public holidays in the places you are visiting. This is the 3rd time I’ve been stung really badly because of a public holiday
- Bolivians are very picky with American currency. It must be completely clean with no tears, etc.
- Some laundromats in La Paz don’t charge by weight. They charge one flat fee – which means you can basically wash as much as you want. If you know this beforehand and have lots of washing then it probably ends up being cheaper but I thought it was the traditional per-kilo pricing so I brought less with me.
Getting around in La Paz and Bolivia
- When in La Paz, do yourself a favour and USE THE CABLE CAR! It’s RIDICULOUSLY cheap, efficient and such an amazing experience.
- Each ride costs 3 Bolivianos without a re-usable card
- The re-usable card costs USD$8 and is only discounted if you are a student
- If you have a re-usable card with the discount, the price is about 50% less
- The cable car is a coloured system. You need to pay 3 Bolivianos each time you enter into a new coloured cable car
- You can only buy the ticket and top up the card with CASH
- Uber only accepts cash in Bolivia and for many Colombian drivers
- Taxis are cheaper than Uber in La Paz
- If going by bus to anywhere in Bolivia, you need to pay 2.5 Bolivianos for every single ride/checkpoint
- If you run out of time, you can pay the 2.5 Boliviano tax on the bus
Traveling and buying flights in South America
- It takes a LONG time to travel within South America – give yourself an extra 2 days in your itinerary. Since I got to Peru, traveling has been absolutely exhausting.
- Flights from Bolivia are EXPENSIVE!
- South American Flights to Rio de Janeiro are EXPENSIVE!
- Buying plane tickets at the retailer directly can be cheaper than online
Going to Uyuni and booking the Salt Flats Tour
- Go to Tupiza to book your tour – they are more expensive there but they are better quality
- The bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni takes at least 12 hours. I only realised this after I landed – so if you’re doing bus to and from, it takes an extra day.
- Buses La Paz to Uyuni cost around 70 Bolivinos and more
- It’s much cheaper to book the Salt Flat Tours directly at Uyuni
- Do not go for the cheapest tour unless you’re on a strict budget – you get what you pay for
- If going to Uyuni Salt Flatz – it’s recommended to explore for 3 days
- 30 April 2019 – First thoughts. Later Story.
- 29 April 2019 – The day before…
- 30 April 2019. The start of the day…
- “Exploring” La Paz ~ when I finally left the house
- Next stop – LATAM Head Office
- Next: Salt Flats?
- The turning point…
- Para el Centro! (To the centre)
- 6:00PM – Trying to find a ticket at the Bus Terminal
- 7:16PM…when time started ticking. When I started panicking.
- 9:30PM Driving through the center, trying to catch my bus
30 April 2019 – First thoughts. Later Story.
Oh. My. God. Today was such a big ordeal. I had absolutely no idea my first day in La Paz and Bolivia would end up just being a day of administration, stress, an unexpected bus ride and rushing to catch the bus to Uyuni.
So much for my plan to slowly explore La Paz for 3 days…
I didn’t even get to see the city on the first day – well…kind of. It started off as a relaxing day where I was slowly walking around, admiring the surrounding mountains and enjoying the cable cars…but everything changed when I made the executive decision to go to Uyuni at the very last minute. I wish I knew beforehand that my decision would almost give me a heart attack and steer me in an almost-depressed like state.
But what was done, was done. There was nothing else I could do except to go with the flow.
29 April 2019 – The day before…
After catching a 17 hour bus and arriving to my Couchsurfing hosts’ house very late…(I walked to the nearest Teleferico station (cable car station)… almost about to hop on but quickly gave up when I realised I was a little confused and was supposed to arrive at my host’s place about 6 hours before. It didn’t help that I didn’t have any data to contact him either). The ride took ages too (I’m sure it took 1 hour) – we went through so many parts of the city and my driver actually got lost. I had to get my driver to call my host a couple of times to get directions and to get my host out of his apartment because I had no idea which apartment number he was (great communication – lol).
Once I arrived, I was warmly welcomed by my host and his dogs. I was impressed from the moment I stepped foot in his place – it was very clean, modern, and homely ~ a place I definitely could call home…but, as his personality quirks unfolded while I was talking to him…I realised that this guy was a little bit OCD (not trying to be judgmental but I’ve never encountered so many rules in a CS house before lol). I had to make sure the house, my dishes were spotless clean and clean the walls of the shower and floor after having a shower. Somehow I felt pressured to reciprocate by buying gifts for this guy too. I know that it’s common-sense respect to clean up after yourself but cleaning a shower after using it is a little bit over the top for me personally. Basically it doesn’t come across positively when a host complains about other guests – it definitely made me feel uncomfortably pressured.
30 April 2019. The start of the day…
While I was piss-farting about all day organising my shit (It literally took me 5 hours to leave the house from organising my things), I finally got my stuff sorted and made it out to explore the city a bit…
I kinda made a decision not to buy a sim card and to solely rely on WiFi in Bolivia (unfortunately at my expense of time and inconvenience) and that’s made things all the more harder for me ~ I’ve had to spend some time at ‘home’ planning my route and preparing Maps Me to make sure I know how to get to and from home, where I am going and how to get from A to B (lol, yes I’ve had to use my brain because I’m not using my smart phone).
You’re probably wondering why it took me so long to go out an explore – I mean, it only involves eating breakfast, having a shower and getting ready.
Should only take 15-20 minutes right?
After slowly making breakfast and drinking my coffee. I decided it was time to look at flights to Brazil. After all – it was the plan to leave Bolivia in about a week to arrive at around the 4th or 5th May. Time was ticking. I felt like I had to prioritise booking this flight before it got too expensive.
Panda Tip #1 flights from Bolivia are EXPENSIVE!
Panda Tip #2 South American flights to Rio de Janeiro are EXPENSIVE!
I wanted to go on the 6th May but tickets were over AUD700 – uhhh no!! The 7th was about half the price ~ they were around AUD$400.
The cheapest airline was LATAM (which is quite a good South American airline actually)…but I didn’t like the idea of a South American flight being more expensive than a flight from South America to Europe…so I was determined to find an alternative route…
That’s when I diverged into wasting a whole bunch of time…
I ended up going off on an online-tangent searching for the most economical and efficient way to get to Brazil…
I couldn’t help but wonder whether catching a bus to Sao Paolo was cheaper… (Sao Paolo is much closer to La Paz than Rio de Janeiro)… ~ turns out that there were buses for just under USD$100! (USD$200 cheaper than flights). The only catch was that the journey would take 2 days – ugh! I mean, I’m used to long bus rides but I just can’t be bothered anymore at this stage of my travels and 2 days is just over my limit.
Hmmm…what about a train?
Like all of South America, there’s no direct way to travel between countries by train. I’d have to catch a train to the border and then a bus… and then certain trains left only on certain days of the week at certain times (once a day) and then I’d have to organise my own bus from the border to the place I wanted to get to in Brazil. Basically it seemed a little too complicated for me ~ and to top it off, there was a high risk of trains being cancelled or delayed.
I just couldn’t bare the risk
Panda Tip #3 it takes a LONG time to travel within South America – give yourself an extra 2 days in your itinerary. Since I got to Peru, traveling has been absolutely exhausting. Trying to rush back to Brazil has definitely added lots of challenges to my trip and changed my itinerary like crazy.
To be honest, as amazing and jam-packed as my adventures have been, I’ve definitely recognised that this is NOT the way I like to travel whatsoever. I’m exhausted and want a break. I don’t even know how I ended up on this bus to Uyuni…especially after deciding when I woke up that I needed a few days to rest.
OK… it seemed like a flight was the most viable option…but when I went on LATAM’s website…the prices didn’t seem to match what was advertised on Google Flights…and then there was the luggage fee… ☹
At first glance, the flight to Rio was WAY more expensive than what Google said…then I realised that LATAM doesn’t display the flights in lowest price order. Once I realised this…I found the price I was looking for (USD$304)…but then…to get a package which included checked baggage…it was going to cost me USD$400
There’s no way I was going to pay that much!
Then I saw that LATAM had an option to pay only USD$20 for checked baggage instead of upgrading to the $400 package – SOLD!
It should have been simple enough – choose the $304 flight and add $20 for luggage…
But when I tried buying the ticket…there was no option to pay for extra luggage. I was so confused…and frustrated – how the fuck was I going to get this ticket for USD$324??? I tried refreshing the page a few times to see if it would make a difference but nope…no luck!
I messaged LATAM on Facebook and then discovered on their website they had an office in La Paz close to my place….and it was also close to the Laundromat ~ PERFECT!
My itinerary was sorted.
- LATAM Office
- Check out the city centre
“Exploring” La Paz ~ when I finally left the house
While I was getting ready, my host gave me a cup of fresh carrot juice – DELICIOUS!
I was ready, fed, I had my Teleferico card from my host….but then…just as I was about to leave – it started raining really heavily.
Host: “make sure you wear something warm – it gets really cold when it rains. Do you want to borrow my umbrella?”
Me: “No that’s ok, I’ll just use my Poncho. It’s designed for monsoon rain anyway.”
I’m so glad I brought my poncho and wore my waterproof jacket because it was hailing while I was walking to the laundromat. The combination of water-protecting clothes did wonders in protecting my body.
Along the way, I stumbled upon this cute local patisserie which had these amazing fresh baby donuts for 2 Bolivianos (basically nothing) but the muffin wasn’t so good.
The rain basically slowed down while I was eating my sweets.
Eventually, I got to the recommended Laundromat but regrettably discovered that laundry was way more expensive than Cusco (should have got it done in Cusco ☹). They wanted 44 bolivianos which is equivalent to about AUD$9. If I knew how the system worked then I would have used it more efficiently
Panda Tip #4 some laundromats in La Paz don’t charge by weight. They charge one flat fee – which means you can basically wash as much as you want. If you know this beforehand and have lots of washing then it probably ends up being cheaper but I thought it was the traditional per-kilo pricing so I brought less with me.
I didn’t want to pay but just couldn’t be bothered carrying it around with me anymore so I succumbed into accepting the outrageous price.
I saw a card machine but for some stupid reason decided to use cash to pay even though I didn’t have much cash ~ a mistake which I didn’t realise would be fatal.
Next stop – LATAM Head Office
The walk was nice and relaxing in a cool and developed area with lots of modern restaurants and shops. It did seem like it took forever though but I did eventually find the LATAM office.
To my surprise, I was quoted USD$303 including luggage
Huh? How is it cheaper than the online price!?
Panda Tip #5 buying the ticket at the agent directly can be cheaper than online
I didn’t care, I just wanted the better price.
Me: “Will you accept a credit card if I don’t have the physical card but I have the details?”
Guy: “No. Card only.”
Me: “OK. Do you have Wi-Fi for me to use?”
Me: “That’s a problem for me because I need to transfer money if I use my credit card.”
Guy: “We can hold the quote until 6pm today.”
Perfect! That would give me enough time to figure out if it was cheaper to buy the ticket online or to use my debit card with the 2.5% fee (yes I’m very calculative).
Me: “Ok, please hold the quote for me.”
I made my way to find a cool café nearby with Wi-Fi and card facilities after getting the quote.
As soon as I sat down, I started doing some heavy research, discovered that buying at agent would be cheaper and transferred the money.
Yes~ airline tickets were almost sorted! My decision was made!
Next: Salt Flats?
While I was at the cafe, I couldn’t help but start planning my itinerary in Bolivia as well ~ after all, my time was pretty limited. I really needed to figure out how much time I needed for the Salt Flats. Luckily, I had a friend which had done La Paz and Uyuni and gave me lots of info. Her tips?
Panda Tip #6 buses La Paz to Uyuni cost around 70 Bolivinos and more
Panda Tip #7 it’s much cheaper to book the Salt Flat Tours directly at Uyuni
Panda Tip #8 do not go for the cheapest tour unless you’re on a strict budget – you get what you pay for
Panda Tip #9 (discovery after the tour): Go to Tupiza to book your tour – they are more expensive there but they are better quality
The turning point…
Panda Tip #10 if going to Uyuni Salt Flatz – it’s recommended to explore for 3 days
Panda Tip #11 the bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni takes at least 12 hours. I only realised this after I landed – so if you’re doing bus to and from, it takes an extra day.
When I realised that my flight was basically at midnight on 6th (it’s actually at 4am) I started feeling this sense of urgency ~ all the locals recommended 3 days for the Salt Flat Tour and it would take 24 hours to commute between La Paz and Uyuni. To give you a clearer picture:
- Tuesday – 30 April
- Wednesday – 1 May (Public Holiday)
- Thursday – 2 May
- Friday – 3 May
- Saturday – 4 May
- Sunday – 5 May
- Monday – 6 May
- Tuesday – 7 May (Flight at 4AM)
It was the 30th of April. My flight was on the 7th…at 4AM…
It would take 12 hours to get to Uyuni (and another 12 hours to return)….
Ok…I had enough time to leave on the 1st May to make it back in time…
But there was just one thing I didn’t factor in which lurked in the back of my mind…
Before I left to explore, my host said to me:
“It’s a public holiday tomorrow…I don’t know if there will be any buses tomorrow”
My friend’s local friend also confirmed it would probably be dangerous to go on the 1st because most drivers would be drinking
I had two options:
- Leave today – on the 31st and arrive to Uyuni on the 1st to start my tour then; or
- Leave a day later (2nd) arrive on the 3rd
But if I started the tour on the 3rd, I’d probably arrive back to La Paz on the 6th at god knows what time and then I’d have to probably rush to catch my flight on the 7th. It just didn’t feel like enough time. Plus, I didn’t have any idea if there would be any issues or delays.
Hmmm…let me sit on it while I go to the Centre to explore a little.
Para el Centro! (To the centre)
My host highly recommended for me to use the Teleferico! (Cable car)
Panda Tip #12 when in La Paz, do yourself a favour and USE THE CABLE CAR! It’s RIDICULOUSLY cheap, efficient and such an amazing experience.
It took some time to walk to the closest station but once I got there, using the cable car was easy. I had my re-useable card from my host so I just needed to go to the machine to put credit on it. If you don’t have the reusable card you need to purchase a ticket.
Panda Tip #13 Each ride costs 3 Bolivianos without a re-usable card
Panda Tip #14 The re-usable card costs USD$8 and is only discounted if you are a student
Panda Tip #15 if you have a re-usable card with the discount, the price is about 50% less
Panda Tip #16 the cable car is a coloured system. You need to pay 3 Bolivianos each time you enter into a new coloured cable car
Panda Tip #17 you can only buy the ticket and top up the card with CASH
As soon as I went onto the cable car, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like a theme park ride with an amazing view of the city. I couldn’t believe my eyes – La Paz is truly a magical and beautiful city with amazing surrounding nature …and all for 1.5 bolivianos! WOW!
And I had the whole carriage to myself.
I admit – it was a really long ride to get to the centre (over 1 hour) but wow, it was an amazing way to soak in the view of the city and have the unique local experience at a really low cost. I was so hungry by the time I got to the centre but had no idea where to eat and no data to check. I quickly searched Maps Me and found The Carrot Tree ~ a highly recommended café with credit card facilities and Wi-Fi. It was super westernized (like many cafes and restaurants in the tourist district of La Paz). They kept speaking English to me.
While I was waiting for my food, the info I had about the drivers being drunk on the 1st of May really started playing on my mind. I couldn’t help but feel it would be wise to go to Uyuni straight away.
My friend Donovan was going too and kind of planned to go together…
That darn public holiday!!!! FML
I even messaged my host to see if he thought it was a good idea to leave to Uyuni straight away (and he did) ☹
It seemed like the most logical thing to do was to go to the bus station to sort out a ticket to Uyuni first after checking out the times to see if I even had enough time to go back to my place, get my laundry and then get back to the center (remember it took me about an hour or longer to get to the centre).
6:00PM – Trying to find a ticket at the Bus Terminal
The first bus company’s departure time was 8:00 – no way!
The sales person told me to go to Titicaca Bus Company (Company #1)
They had a bus at 10:00 – much better!
Me: “Cuanto cuesta para Uyuni?” (How much is a ticket to Uyuni?)
Guy: “100 Bolivianos”
I walked off and went to another company a Couchsurfer recommended (Company #2).
They also had buses from 10:00 for the same price…
Donovan: “Why don’t we check with my company to see if they have later buses?”
We walked to the other side of the station only to find out they didn’t have any buses later than 8:00PM
When I went back to Company #2, ready to buy my ticket, they didn’t have any card facilities ☹
Shit ~ I hope Company #1 accepts card.
They accepted cards but there was a 10 Boliviano fee… (I didn’t really have a choice)… but when I tried to buy the ticket with my card, it kept declining – WTF!? I started getting scared that my card had been blocked again due to fraud (from my lovely Brazilian experiences).
Salesperson: “You can use the ATM.”
Me: “No, I can’t use my card at any ATM. It’s an emergency credit card.”
What was I supposed to do!?
Me: “Do you accept American dollars?
I thought I had 20 dollars but turns out I only had 10…
Me: “Can I pay half in dollars and the rest in Bolivianos?”
I only had about 70 Bolivianos left to spend – I needed to stretch it out as much as possible – so much for my stupid challenge of trying to not withdraw any cash in Bolivia (a stupid challenge I made for myself earlier that day)
I even got to negotiate my exchange rate..but when it came to giving them the note, they wouldn’t accept it because it had a tiny little tear or fold in the corner of the note. It was barely damaged but they refused to accept it and told me to go to a money exchange place.
Panda Tip #18 ALWAYS have extra local cash with you in South America. This has been my BIGGEST mistake in Bolivia.
Panda Tip #19 Check the dates for public holidays in the places you are visiting. This is the 3rd time I’ve been stung really badly because of a public holiday
Panda Tip #20 Bolivians are very picky with American currency. It must be completely clean with no tears, etc.
We even tried another money exchange place but faced exactly the same issue ~ they also wouldn’t accept my note ☹
Well……I had some Brazilian reals left over…
I fumbled through my pouch to grab a 50 note but it was torn – shit!
I’m sure there’s another one here.
After fumbling through my pouch for a couple more minutes, I found my other 50 real note which luckily was not torn at all. It was almost enough to pay for the ride.
I gave over the 95 Bolivianos to the bus company…and then started getting severe anxiety.
What if my card is blocked? Then what? I’ll get to Uyuni and not be able to afford to buy anything.
I needed to check with my bank.
Just as the lady was asking me where I wanted to sit, I told her to wait for me while I checked something with my bank.
Luckily the bus company was kind enough to let me connect to Wifi so I could contact my bank (everything was good).
Me: “Ok. Everything is fine!”
After deciding on my seat and getting my ticket, I had to face the next big task – going back to get my luggage and laundry and then back to the bus station within 2.5 hours (it was 7:00pm and my bus was leaving at 10:00. I was supposed to get back to the station by 9:30).
Surely I had enough time to catch the cable car right?
7:16PM…when time started ticking. When I started panicking.
I left at about 7:16…time was definitely kicking…and I was stressed ~ it took about 1 hour each way and I still had to get my laundry.
I started running towards the closest Teleferico station. To say it was an uphill battle was an understatement ~ not only did I have to run uphill the whole time, I had to fight with the pollution and lack of oxygen from the high altitude (I think the station is about 3500m above sea level). I had a loooooong way to go. I had to catch 4 different cable cars to get to the closest station to my host’s place. I had no idea it was peak hour. There were so many more people than during the day. At one of the stations, there was a huge line and massive delay. I couldn’t believe it. Everything took so long ~ it felt like I was lining up for a festival to get into a mosh-pit. All it was doing was making me more stressed. When I finally got to the gate, my card had insufficient funds – I had to run back down to the counter to top up my card and run back up the stairs to go through the gate.
As soon as I got to the last station, I caught a taxi.
Luckily Wifi worked when I arrived ‘home’ so I could call my host and he could let me into the house. As soon as he opened the door, I ran inside, quickly packed my bags, said hello to the dogs and organised an Uber back to the station. My plan was to pay with my credit card but Uber wouldn’t accept card as a method of payment
Panda Tip #21 Uber only accepts cash in Bolivia and for many Colombian drivers
Panda Tip #22 taxis are cheaper than Uber in La Paz
I really had no idea what to do by this point – I didn’t have enough money couldn’t use my card to pay.
Host: “Do you have American dollars?”
Host: “I can exchange my Bolivian money with you.”
The Uber driver arrived on time and could speak English very well. He was originally from Bolivia but lived in the states and came back to Bolivia to sort out some medical things. I explained my whole situation to him and he agreed to get my laundry on the way for extra money. He promised he would get me to the bus station on time (god bless him)…but the traffic was horrendous, especially when we got to the center…
9:30PM Driving through the center, trying to catch my bus
We were really, truly stuck in traffic, moving about 5km per hour every 30 seconds or more. It was horrible! We were stuck in 2 intersections for about 20 minutes. I could barely breathe. I couldn’t help but feel really stressed out. My driver couldn’t help but keep promising me that I would make my bus.
Once we passed those two horrible intersections, we got to the bus station quite quickly, arriving at 9:50. My driver even offered to help me take my things to the bus company and to help me.
I grabbed my things, almost leaving my beanie behind and ran across the station to the bus company, apologising for being late.
Guy: “It’s OK, you still have 10 minutes. Please just go through the door to the bus.”
Me: “I haven’t paid for the tax yet”
Guy: “It’s ok, you can pay on the bus”
Me: “Can I please buy some water first”
Guy: “Of course”
Panda Tip #23 if going by bus, anywhere in Bolivia, you need to pay 2.5 Bolivianos for every single ride/checkpoint
Panda Tip #24 if you run out of time, you can pay the tax on the bus
I went to buy some water and desperately felt like eating something sweet to cope with the stress.
Once I got my chocolate and water, I quickly walked across to the terminal 8, where my bus was – showed my ticket, and was taken to my bus.
When I stored my big backpack and went into the bus, I was really happy with how modern and nice it looked. The seats were comfy too and there was a lady giving out dinner packs to everyone – awesome!
I finally made it after all of that. I seriously thought I wasn’t going to make it!
Thoughts after the storm: I kind of regret for suddenly making this rushed decision which caused me so much unnecessary stress. I don’t think I will ever do it again. I should have just booked flights to Rio de Janeiro a day later ~ it would have given me more time and was also cheaper. But like I said – what was done, was done. All I could do was go with the flow and enjoy it as much as I could (but I had NO idea that things would turn even worse after the bus ride).