Getting around Bolivia: Transportation Tips
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Bolivia’s topography, size and lack of basic infrastructure means that getting around is often a challenge. The majority of Bolivia’s road network is unpaved, and most main roads are in a poor condition. However, travelling through the country’s varied and stunning landscapes is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Bolivia, and the pleasure of many places lies as much in the getting there as in the destination itself.
Most Bolivians travel by bus, as these go pretty much everywhere and are extremely good value. When there are no buses, they often travel on camiones (lorries), which are slower, much less comfortable and only slightly cheaper, but often go to places no other transport reaches. The much-reduced train network covers only a small fraction of the country, but offers a generally more comfortable and sedate (though not necessarily faster or more reliable) service. In parts of the Amazon lowlands river boats are still the main means of getting around.
Though few Bolivians can afford it, air travel is a great way of saving a day or two of arduous cross-country travel, and most of the major cities are served by regular internal flights. The approximate journey times and frequencies of all services are given in each chapter, but these should be treated with caution to say the least: the idea of a fixed timetable would strike most Bolivians as rather ridiculous. Buying or hiring a car is a possibility, but given the state of the roads in many areas and the long distances between towns, it’s an adventurous way to travel and doesn’t guarantee you’ll reach your destination any faster.
Bolivia’s buses (also known as flotas) are run by a variety of private companies and ply all the main routes in the country, moving passengers at low cost over great distances despite often appalling road conditions. Cities and larger towns have bus terminals – known as terminales terrestres or terminales de buses – from which buses to most (but often not all) destinations leave. Departing passengers usually have to pay a small fee (Bs1–3) for the use of the terminal.
The terminals often have some kind of information office, but even so the number of different companies operating the same route can make it difficult at times to work out departure times and frequencies. If in doubt, taxi drivers usually have a good grasp of the timing of buses to different destinations and where they depart from. For less frequently used routes it’s worth buying a ticket in advance, but there’s no need on busier routes. Buses on many longer-distance routes travel only at night so Bolivian travellers can visit other cities without paying for accommodation.
The major long-distance intercity routes are served by more modern and comfortable buses, often equipped with reclining seats and TVs. Some routes are also served by comparatively luxurious overnight sleeper-buses (bus-camas), which have extra leg-room and seats that recline horizontally. These cost about fifty percent more, but are well worth it. Most buses, however, are much older and in poor condition. Breakdowns are frequent, but fortunately many drivers are masters of mechanical improvisation. Other than sleeper-buses and some smarter long-distance services, Bolivian buses stop anywhere for anyone, even if they’re only travelling a few kilometres, until every available crack of space has been filled.
Because of the poor condition of most roads and many vehicles, you should always be prepared for major delays; in the rainy season, buses can arrive days rather than hours late. Most buses stop for regular meal breaks, and food and drink sellers offer their wares at the roadside at every opportunity, but it’s worth carrying some food and drink with you. When travelling in the highlands or overnight, you should have warm clothing and a blanket or sleeping bag to hand, as it can get bitterly cold, and heated buses are virtually unheard of. If you can, avoid sitting at the back of the bus, as on bumpy roads this is where you’ll get bounced around the most.
Flying in Bolivia is a good way of avoiding exhausting overland journeys and saving time; it’s also relatively inexpensive, with most internal flights costing Bs350–700 ($50–100), and offers splendid bird’s-eye views of the high Andes or the endless green expanse of the Amazon. La Paz, Santa Cruz, Sucre and Cochabamba are all connected by daily flights, and there are also frequent services to Tarija, Trinidad and a number of remote towns in the Amazon and the Eastern Lowlands.
The main carrier is currently the state-owned Boliviana de Aviacion (wboa.bo). A smaller operator, Amaszonas (wamaszonas.com), operates flights from La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz to the main towns in the Bolivian Amazon.
The Bolivian air force also operates passenger services under its commercial arm, Transportes Aereo Militar (TAM; wtam.bo). TAM is often somewhat cheaper than the other airlines, and flies to some out-of-the-way places not served by the others, as well as between most of the main cities. The busier routes should be booked at least several days in advance, and it’s important to reconfirm a couple of days before departure, as overbooking is not uncommon. Flights are often cancelled or delayed, and sometimes even leave earlier than scheduled, especially in the Amazon, where the weather can be a problem. Baggage allowance on internal flights is usually 15kg, with an additional charge payable on any excess.
Some particularly remote regions, such as the Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado, are also served by light aircraft, such as five-seater Cessnas, which are an expensive but exciting way to travel.
Taxis can be found anywhere at any time in almost any town and offer a cheap and safe way to get around. In Bolivia, anyone can turn their car into a taxi just by sticking a sign in the window, and many people in cities work as part-time taxi drivers to supplement their incomes. There are also radio-taxis, which are marked as such and can be called by phone; they tend to cost a little more and, in theory at least, are a safer way to travel.
Fares tend to be fixed in each city or town. A trip within any city centre will rarely cost more than Bs15, though there’s a tendency to overcharge foreigners, so it’s best to agree a price before you set off. Often, fares are charged per passenger rather than for the vehicle as a whole, and it’s not unusual to share a taxi with strangers heading in the same general direction. You can also hire taxis by the day; with a little bargaining this can actually be an inexpensive way of seeing a lot in a short time.
Moto-taxis are motorcycles used as taxis, and are most frequently found in remote cities and towns in the lowlands. In cities like Trinidad, they’re by far the most common form of transport. Travelling this way is cheap, fast and only slightly frightening.
Micros are small minibuses that have almost completely replaced larger buses as the main form of urban public transport in Bolivia. A trip in a micro costs a couple of bolivianos or less, and they run with great frequency along fixed routes with their major destinations written on placards on the windscreen and shouted out by the driver’s assistant. With extra seats fitted in their already small interiors, they’re pretty cramped; if you need extra leg room, try to sit in the front seat next to the driver. Large estate cars – referred to as trufis or colectivos – are sometimes used in place of micros.
The heavy-goods lorries (camiones) are the other mainstay of Bolivian land transport, and sometimes the only option in remote or little-visited regions. Most carry passengers to supplement their income from carrying goods. Lorries are, however, more uncomfortable, slower and generally more dangerous than buses, and stop more frequently. Still, travelling by lorry is a quintessential Bolivian experience.; passengers usually sit in the cab alongside the driver, or on the back.
The best place to find a lorry is around any town’s market areas or at the police checkpoints (trancas) at the edge of town; most also stop for passengers who flag them down at the side of the road. This is the closest you’ll get to hitching in Bolivia, and you will always be expected to pay something for the ride; private cars are few and far between outside towns and rarely pick up hitchers, and in any case hitching a lift in them is risky. For shorter journeys in remote areas, smaller pick-up trucks, known as camionetas, also carry passengers.
Once a proud symbol of the country’s tin-fuelled march to modernity, Bolivia’s railway network, like the mining industry that spawned it, is now a shadow of its former self. The Ferrocarril Andino (or Occidental) (wwww.fca.com.bo) runs passenger trains from Oruro south across the Altiplano via Uyuni and Tupiza to Villazón on the Argentine border. From Uyuni, another line, served by a weekly passenger train, runs southeast to Calama in Chile. The scenery on both these Altiplano routes is magnificent. The company also runs a slow if picturesque service between Sucre and Potosí.
The Ferrocarril Oriental (wferroviariaoriental.com) has two lines from Santa Cruz: one east to the Brazilian border at Quijarro; the other south to Yacuiba in the Chaco on the Argentine border. The former is known as the “Train of Death”, not because it’s dangerous but because it’s such a boring ride.
Although Bolivia is a landlocked country, there are still several regions – particularly Lago Titicaca and the Amazon – where water is still the best way if getting around. Several high-end tour agencies run hydrofoil and catamaran cruises on Lago Titicaca, and smaller passenger launches run between Copacabana and the Isla del Sol.
River boats were for a long time the only means of transport in the Bolivian Amazon, but their use has declined rapidly with the expansion of the road network in the region. There are still plenty of river trips you can make, though, and travelling by boat is the ideal way to experience the rainforest. There are two main forms of river transport. Dugout canoes powered by outboard motors are the only real way to get deep enough into the jungle to see the wildlife. Tour agencies use these to take groups into protected areas like the Parque Nacional Madidi and irregular passenger services operate along some rivers. Alternatively, you can hire a canoe and its boatman for a few days – this means searching around the riverbank and negotiating, and the high fuel consumption of outboard motors means it won’t be cheap.
The second (and much more economic) form of river transport are the larger cargo boats that ply the two main water routes not yet supplanted by roads: the Río Mamoré, between Trinidad and Guayaramerin on the Brazilian frontier, and the Río Ichilo, between Trinidad and Puerto Villaroel in the Chapare. Though generally far from comfortable, these slow-moving vessels allow passengers to hitch hammocks above the deck for a small fee and are a great way to see the Amazon if you’re not in a hurry.
If you’re short on time or want to get to some really out-of-the-way destinations, renting a car is a possibility, but few travellers ever do. It’s usually easier and not much more expensive to hire a taxi to drive you around for a day or longer.
Outside towns, most roads are unpaved and in very poor condition, so four-wheel drive (4WD) is essential. Petrol (gasoline) stations are few and far between and breakdown services even scarcer, so you should fill your tank whenever you can, carry extra fuel, and take food, drink and warm clothing in case you get stuck. Always carry your passport, driving licence and the vehicle’s registration documents, as police checks are frequent, and any infringement will usually result in an on-the-spot fine, whether official or not. Small tolls are also charged on most roads. Speed limits are irregularly posted, but the speed is usually dictated by the state of the road. Most Bolivians regularly ignore traffic lights and don’t indicate when turning, and some drive at night without lights. Vehicles drive on the right, though this rule is obviated on some mountain roads when the vehicle going uphill drives on the right and has priority.
Virtually none of the major international car rental companies is represented in Bolivia, but you’ll find local rental companies in all the major cities. Rental costs vary but are generally a bit less than in Europe and the US at around Bs210–350 ($30–50) per day; 4WDs cost about double. You’ll need to be over 25, and leave a major credit card or large cash deposit as security; most rental agencies can arrange insurance, though you should read the small print carefully first.
In several lowland towns, such as Trinidad, Guayaramerin and Riberalta, it’s also possible to hire mopeds and motorbikes by the hour (Bs20-40) or by the day, leaving your passport as a deposit – a good way of heading off into the back country for a day.
Outside La Paz, bicycles are rarely available to rent, and those that are aren’t usually suitable for extended riding. For proper touring, you’ll need to bring your own bike from home; airlines are usually happy to carry them if they’re packed in bike boxes with the pedals removed. Given the state of the roads, a mountain bike is better than a conventional touring bike. Bring a comprehensive tool kit and a selection of essential spare parts.
The roads of the Bolivian Andes are ideal for downhill mountain biking, and the country is home to some of the world’s best downhill rides. Several agencies in La Paz lead guided mountain bike trips (see Information and tours) and biking “the world’s most dangerous road”, in Coroico, is a popular activity (see The world’s most dangerous road).
Although relatively expensive, organized tours offer a quick and effortless way to see some of Bolivia’s popular attractions; they’re also a good way of visiting remote sites that are otherwise difficult to reach. In addition, many adventure tour companies both in Bolivia and abroad offer excellent and increasingly exciting itineraries, ranging from mountain climbing, trekking, mountain biking and wildlife safaris to less strenuous city tours and countryside excursions. Tours tend to cost around Bs350–490 ($50–70) per person per day, depending on the nature of the trip, the degree of comfort and the number of people going along.
Most tour agencies are based in La Paz, where you can arrange almost any trip in the country, but for the more popular wilderness excursions it’s easier and cheaper to arrange things with local operators: in Uyuni for the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, for example, and in Rurrenabaque for the Pampas del Yacuma and Parque Nacional Madidi. Relevant agencies are listed in the guide under each destination.
Unless it’s small enough to keep with you inside the bus, your luggage will be put on the roof, at the back or in a locked compartment underneath the vehicle. This is usually pretty safe, but it’s still worth keeping an eye out at each stop to make sure your bag isn’t carried off, whether by accident or design.
With better-organized companies you may be given a ticket with which to reclaim your luggage at the end of the journey. Some travellers like to chain their bags to the roof, and you shouldn’t be shy about climbing up to check yours if you’re feeling nervous about its security. Even if it’s under a tarpaulin on the roof or in a luggage compartment, it’s a good idea to cover your luggage with a nylon sack (which you can pick up in any market) to protect it from the elements and the prying fingers of other travellers.