Despite being among the poorest countries in the region, Bolivia has far lower levels of theft and violent crime than in neighbouring Peru and Brazil, though in recent years crime levels have risen. This is to the dismay of most ordinary Bolivians, who are shocked and outraged by stories of theft or assault, and in general the threat of crime is no greater in Bolivian cities than in North America or Europe.
The difference is that whereas back home you blend in and can spot potential danger signs much more easily, in Bolivia you stand out like a sore thumb – an extremely wealthy sore thumb, moreover, at least in the eyes of most Bolivians. There’s no need to be paranoid, though: the vast majority of crime against tourists is opportunistic theft, and violence is rare. By using common sense, keeping alert and taking some simple precautions, you can greatly reduce the chances of becoming a victim and help ensure you join the vast majority of foreign visitors who visit the country without experiencing any trouble at all.
Petty theft is the most common crime that tourists face, and more often than not it’s simply the result of carelessness. If you really don’t want to lose something, don’t bring it with you in the first place: wearing jewellery or expensive watches is asking for trouble.
It’s important to make sure you have adequate travel insurance, and check what the insurance company’s requirements are in the event that you need to make a claim – almost all will need a police report of any theft. To reduce the problems of a potential theft, make a careful note of airline ticket numbers, hotline phone numbers if you need to cancel a credit card, travellers’ cheque numbers (always keep the receipt separately) and insurance details; in addition, copy the important pages of your passport and travel documents (or scan them and save them on a USB stick or email them to yourself) and keep all these details separate from your valuables. You should also keep an emergency stash of cash hidden somewhere about your person. If you’re staying in Bolivia for a while, consider registering with your embassy: this can save lots of time if you have to replace a lost or stolen passport.
Always carry your valuables – passport, money, travellers’ cheques, credit cards, airline tickets – out of sight and under your clothing next to your skin; and keep them on you at all times. Money belts are good for this, but you can also get secure holders that hang under your shirt or from a loop on your belt under your trousers; a false pocket sewn inside your clothing, a leg pouch or a belt with a secret zip for cash are even more difficult for thieves to find. It’s also a good idea to keep your petty cash separate from your main stash of valuables, so your hidden money belt is not revealed every time you spend a few bolivianos.
Better hotels will have a safe (caja fuerte) at reception where you can deposit your valuables if you trust the staff – this is usually safe, though it’s better to leave stuff in a tamper-proof holder or a signed and sealed envelope, get an itemized receipt for what you leave, and count cash carefully before and after. Never leave cameras or other valuables lying around in your hotel room, and be cautious if sharing a room with people you don’t know well - other travellers can be thieves too. Officially, you’re supposed to carry your passport with you at all times, but if asked by the police for ID it’s usually sufficient to show them a photocopy of your passport and explain that the original is in your hotel.
You are at your most vulnerable, and have the most to lose, when you’re on the move or arriving in a new town and have all your luggage with you. Bus stations are a favourite hunting ground of thieves the world over, and Bolivia is no exception: try not to arrive after dark, keep a close eye and hand on your bags, and consider taking a taxi from the bus terminal to your hotel as a security precaution. As well as transport terminals, markets, city centres, fiestas and other crowded public places where tourists congregate are favoured by pickpockets and thieves. If you’re carrying a daypack or small bag, keep it in front of you where you can see it to avoid having it slashed; when you stop and sit down, loop a strap around your leg to make it more difficult for someone to grab.
Mugging and violent robbery are much less common, but do occur, usually at night, so try to avoid having to walk down empty streets in the early hours, particularly on your own. ATMs are an obvious target for robbers, so don’t use them at night, if possible. If the robbers are armed, it’s better not to resist.
Some travellers have been targeted for what’s known as express kidnapping. This involves armed men, sometimes disguised as police, entering the taxi or minibus the victims are travelling in (usually with the complicity of the driver) and taking them to a secret location where they are forced to reveal their ATM credit card PIN and are held for several days while the account is drained. In two instances the kidnapped travellers were murdered, though most of the gang responsible have since been arrested. Most cases occurred on the La Paz–Copacabana route. As such, it’s best to stick to larger buses with plenty of other travellers on board when travelling on that route, and to be particularly careful when arriving after dark in the cemetery district of La Paz.
Though usually safer than walking, taxis carry an element of risk. If travelling alone, don’t sit in the front seat, lock passenger doors to stop people jumping in beside you, and be wary of cabs driving away with your bags – if your luggage is in the boot, wait for the driver to get out first. Radio taxis called by phone are safer than unmarked cabs, and you can always refuse to share a cab with strangers if it makes you uncomfortable.
Robbery is rare in rural areas, though campsites are sometimes targeted on some of the more popular trekking routes – keep all your possessions inside your tent at night, avoid camping near villages where possible, and always get local advice before setting off.
As well as opportunistic thefts, there are several scams used by teams of professional thieves that you should be aware of. One classic technique is distraction: your bag or clothing is mysteriously sprayed with mustard or the like, a friendly passer-by points this out and helps you clean it – while their accomplice picks your pocket or makes off with your coat or bag.
Another involves something valuable – cash, a credit card – being dropped at your feet. A passer-by spots it and asks you to check your wallet to see if it is yours, or offers to share it with you. The story ends with your own money disappearing by sleight of hand, or you being accused of theft, so walk away as quickly as possible and ignore anything dropped at your feet.
A third scam, usually used at bus terminals, involves thieves posing as plainclothes police officers, complete with fake documents, asking to see your money to check for counterfeit notes or something similar. Often, an accomplice (usually a taxi driver) will already have engaged you in conversation and will vouch for this being normal procedure. It isn’t. If approached by people claiming to be undercover police, don’t get in a car with them or show them your documents or valuables, and insist on the presence of a uniformed officer – you can call one yourself on
With any luck, most of your contact with the police will be at frontiers and road checkpoints. Sometimes, particularly near borders and in remote regions, you may have to register with them, so carry your passport with you at all times (though a photocopy may be enough if you’re not travelling far). Generally the police rarely trouble tourists, but in any dealings with them it’s important to be polite and respectful, as they can make problems for you if you’re not. Anyone claiming to be an undercover policeman is probably a thief or confidence trickster (see A traveller’s first-aid kit); don’t get in a car with them or show them your documents or valuables, and insist on the presence of a uniformed officer.
If you are the victim of theft, you’ll probably need to go to the police to make a report (denuncia) and get a written report for insurance purposes – this is rarely a problem, though it may take some time. In La Paz you should go to the tourist police if you are the victim of any crime – their office (open 24hr;
t022225016) is at Edificio Olimpia 1314, Plaza Tejada Sorzano, opposite the stadium in Miraflores.
Occasionally, the police may search your bags. If they do, watch carefully, and ideally get a witness to watch with you, to make sure nothing is planted or stolen – a rare but not impossible occurrence. Possession of (let alone trafficking in) drugs is a serious offence in Bolivia, usually leading to a long jail sentence. There are a fair number of foreigners languishing in Bolivian jails on drugs charges, and many wait a long time before they come to trial. It’s not unusual to be offered an opportunity to bribe a policeman (or any other official, for that matter), even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Often they’re just trying it on, and there’s no need to pay. But in some circumstances it can work to the advantage of both parties. In South America bribery is an age-old custom, and paying a bribe is certainly preferable to going to jail. Finally, bear in mind that all police are armed, and may well shoot you if you run away.
Political unrest is a constant in Bolivia, and demonstrations are a regular event in La Paz and the other major cities. Though usually peaceful and interesting to watch, these sometimes turn violent, so keep your distance and make sure you can get out of the area fast if things turn nasty.
Road blockades are also a feature of Bolivian political life, particularly in the Altiplano, where radical Aymara peasants often block the roads between La Paz and Peru. Generally, this is an inconvenience that travellers have to put up with, and you should follow events in the media if you’re worried you may get cut off. If you get caught up in the blockades, keep your head down and get out of the area, and don’t try running the blockades unless you really have to. Tempers can run high, with blockade-breaking buses sometimes getting stoned or torched.
The election of the coca-growers leader, Evo Morales, as president in 2006 did much to defuse the sometimes violent confrontation between the security forces and peasants in the Chapare in Cochabamba department, Bolivia’s main cocaine-producing region. But away from the towns on the main road from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz this is still a dangerous area. Be wary of going off the beaten track in this region, as you may be mistaken for a drug trafficker or undercover drug-enforcement agent.