What makes Bolivia a unique country to travel to?
Bolivia is a constitutional democracy and one of the least-developed countries in South America. Tourist facilities are generally adequate, but vary greatly in quality. La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, while Sucreis the constitutional capital and the seat of the Supreme Court. La Paz is accessible via the international airport in El Alto.
The U.S. Department of State currently classifies Bolivia as a medium to high crime threat country. Street crime, such as pick pocketing, assaults following ATM withdrawals, and theft from parked vehicles, occurs with some frequency in Bolivia. You should secure your belongings in a hotel safe and refrain from wearing expensive jewelry. U.S. citizens have also had backpacks, passports, and other property stolen at bus terminals or while traveling on buses, as well as at internet cafes and in other situations where the U.S. citizen is distracted or leaves property unattended. Theft of cars and car parts, particularly late-model four-wheel-drive vehicles, is common, and some vehicles have been hijacked.
Express Kidnappings: Incidents in which tourists are robbed and forced to withdrawal money from ATMs, known as “express kidnappings”, are common in La Paz. Typically, the victim enters a taxi driven by a criminal, and then an additional person or two gets in the vehicle. The victim is then robbed of his/her belongings and/or driven to an ATM where he/she is forced to provide personal identification numbers for debit and credit card withdrawals. The areas where these crimes are most frequent include Plaza Humbolt (Zona Sur), Plaza Abaroa, Plaza del Estudiante, Plaza Isabel La Católica, and Plaza San Francisco. Avoid becoming a victim of this crime by using only radio taxis and not traveling alone, particularly if you’re under the influence of alcohol or it’s late at night.
Coronilla Hill: We recommend that you avoid the Coronilla Hill, a Cochabamba landmark adjacent to the main bus terminal and near several markets, hostels, and restaurants. The Coronilla Hill has become an increasingly dangerous place for tourists and local citizens alike. The local police, tourist authorities, and press have declared the area off limits and cautioned people to enter the area at their own peril. U.S. citizens have been assaulted in the area. The police have made several sweeps of the area in an attempt to control the situation, but incidents of crime continue. Police reports indicate that thieves in that area have gone from purse snatching and burglary to increasingly violent assaults on passerbys.
Public Transportation: The U.S. Embassy in La Paz continues to receive reports of U.S. citizens traveling by bus from Copacabana to La Paz being held up and robbed of their ATM cards and other valuables. This crime reportedly involves U.S. citizens taking an evening bus from Copacabana. While the bus is scheduled to stop at the La Paz bus terminal, the driver will stop short of that location, typically near the General Cemetery late at night. Disembarking and disoriented passengers then have little option but to hail a waiting taxi. Thieves in cooperation with the taxi driver enter the taxi to blindfold and coerce the U.S. citizen(s) into surrendering cash, cameras, ATM cards, and other valuables. Victims have reported that once the thieves withdrew funds using the ATM cards, they were released without further harm. If you plan to travel from Copacabana, you should try to arrive during daylight hours, verify the final destination, and buy tickets directly at the Copacabana bus terminal rather than from third parties.
Scam Artists: Bolivian police report the presence of organized criminal groups operating in the La Paz area. The techniques employed by these groups vary, but there are a few major patterns, including “false police” - persons using police uniforms, identification, and even buildings modified to resemble police stations, who intercept and rob foreigners. Remember, under Bolivian law, police need a warrant from the “fiscal” (prosecutor) to detain a suspect. Any searches or seizures must occur at a bona fide police station in the presence of the prosecutor. The warrant requirement also applies to suspected drug trafficking cases, although such searches and seizures may occur without a prosecutor present. If you are detained, you should request to see the warrant and insist on immediate contact with the nearest U.S. consular office.
Be cautious of anyone introducing themselves to you as a policeman or even a fellow tourist, especially in popular tourist areas. Be wary of strangers and “false friends.” If you have any doubts about a situation, immediately remove yourself from the scene.
Street Crime: Thefts of bags, wallets, and backpacks are a problem throughout Bolivia, but especially in the tourist areas of downtown La Paz and the Altiplano. Most thefts involve two or three people who spot a potential victim and wait until the bag or backpack is placed on the ground, often at a restaurant, bus terminal, internet café, etc. In other cases, the thief places a disagreeable substance on the clothes or backpack of the intended victim and then offers to assist the victim with the removal of the substance. While the person is distracted, the thief or an accomplice grabs the bag or backpack and flees. If you find yourself in such a situation, you should decline assistance, secure the bag/backpack, and walk briskly from the area.
In order to steal wallets and bags, thieves may spray water on the victim's neck, and while the person is distracted an accomplice takes the wallet or bag. At times, the thief poses as a policeman and requests that the person accompany him to the police station, using a nearby taxi. If this happens to you, say you want to contact the U.S. Embassy; do not enter the taxi. Under no circumstances should you surrender ATM or credit cards, or release a personal identification number.
While most thefts do not involve violence, in some instances the victim has been physically harmed and forcibly searched for hidden valuables. This is particularly true in “choke and rob” assaults where the victims report being choked from behind until they lost consciousness and later awoke to find all of their possessions gone. Again, avoid being alone on the streets, especially at night and in isolated areas.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, you may be breaking local law, too.
While you are traveling in another country, you are subject to the local laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own. In some places, you may be taken in for questioning if you do not have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings and driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. There are also some things that might be legal in Bolivia, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods or engage in child pornography. While you are overseas, U.S. laws don’t apply. If you do something illegal in the host country, your U.S. passport won’t help. It is very important to know what is legal and what is not legal where you are going. If you violate Bolivian laws, even unknowingly, Bolivian authorities may expel, arrest and/or imprison you. Under Bolivian law, suspects can be detained in prision for up to 18 months without formal charges while the investigation is conducted. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Bolivia are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. It is not unusual for legal cases in Bolivia to drag on for years, with numerous delays and costly set-backs along the way.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Throughout the country, both personal hygiene and sanitary practices in food handling are far below U.S. standards. Food and beverage precautions are essential. Medical care in large cities is adequate for most purposes but of varying quality. Ambulance services are limited to non-existent. Medical facilities are generally not adequate to handle serious medical conditions. Pharmacies are located throughout Bolivia and prescription and over-the-counter medications are widely available. Western Bolivia, dominated by the Andes and high plains (Altiplano), is largely insect-free. However, altitude sickness (see below) is a major problem. Eastern Bolivia is tropical, and visitors to that area are subject to related illnesses. Insect precautions are recommended.
Travelers to Bolivia should consult with a Travel Clinic well in advance of departure for further information on recommended vaccinations.
Dengue: Dengue is endemic throughout eastern Bolivia, including in the city of Santa Cruz. Since January 2007, there have been several thousand cases, representing a significantly increased incidence and part of a region-wide trend.
Rabies: Bolivia is a high risk area for rabies. Dog and bat bites and scratches should be taken seriously and post-exposure prophylaxis sought.
Yellow Fever: Yellow fever is present in subtropical Bolivia. Yellow fever vaccination certification is required for entry visa applications, and may be required prior to boarding by airlines flying into/transiting Bolivia, as well as at entry points to Bolivia. Please refer to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) information on Yellow Fever.
High Altitude Health Risks: The altitude of La Paz ranges from 10,600 feet to over 13,000 feet (3,400 to 4,000 meters) above sea level. Much of Western Bolivia is at the same altitude or higher, including Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Uyuni, and the cities of Oruro and Potosi. The altitude alone poses a serious risk of illness, hospitalization and even death, even for those in excellent health.
Prior to departing the U.S. for high-altitude locations (over 10,000 feet above sea level), you should discuss the trip with your healthcare provider and request information on specific recommendations concerning medication and lifestyle tips at high altitudes. Coca-leaf tea is a popular beverage and folk remedy for altitude sickness in Bolivia. However, possession of this tea, which is sold in bags in most Bolivian grocery stores, is illegal in the United States. "Sorojchi pills" sold in local pharmacies, contain high amounts of caffeine and are not usually recommended.
The State Department cautions travelers planning to visit La Paz to consider the following risks and advice:
Sickle cell anemia or sickle cell trait: persons with sickle cell trait may have a crisis at elevations of more than 8,000 feet. U.S. citizens with this condition have required urgent medical evacuation from La Paz to the United States.
Heart disease: Any person who has heart disease, or known risk factors for heart disease, should consult their doctor about their risks of ascending to high altitude, and whether any testing of their heart would be in order. Even U.S. citizens who adjust well initially to the altitude in La Paz have subsequently suffered heart attacks and been hospitalized.
Lung disease: Anyone with emphysema should consult closely with their doctor and seriously reconsider coming to La Paz or other, high-altitude areas. Anyone with asthma should consult their doctor; mild asthma may be manageable at high altitude, but it is important to remember that emergency care and intensive respiratory care are very limited even in the city of La Paz and are absent outside the city. U.S. citizens with respiratory ailments have previously been medically evacuated from La Paz to other countries to receive medical treatment.
Pregnancy: Given potential complications from altitude sickness, pregnant women should consult their doctor before travel to La Paz and other high-altitude areas of Bolivia. There is an increased risk of miscarriages and other pregnancy-related complications at high altitudes.
Everyone, even healthy and fit persons, will feel symptoms of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) upon arrival at high altitude. Most people will have increased respiration and increased heart rate. Many will have headaches, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, minor gastric and intestinal upsets, and mood changes. Try to limit physical activity for the first 36 to 48 hours after arrival, and avoid alcohol and smoking for at least one week after arrival.
Safety and Security
Protests, strikes, and other civic actions are common and disrupt transportation on a local and national level. While protest actions generally begin peacefully, they have the potential to become violent. The police have used tear gas to break up protests. In addition to rallies and street demonstrations, protesters sometimes block roads and have reacted with force when travelers attempt to pass through or go around roadblocks. You should avoid roadblocks and demonstrations. Demonstrations protesting government or private company policies occur frequently, even in otherwise peaceful times.
If you plan to travel to or from Bolivia, you should take into consideration the possibility of disruptions to air service in and out of La Paz and other airports due to protests. Monitor Bolivian media reports and the U.S. Embassy website for updates. The U.S. Embassy strongly recommends that U.S. citizens avoid areas where roadblocks or public demonstrations are occurring or planned. Political rallies should similarly be avoided in light of press reports of violence at some rallies in various parts of Bolivia.
Roadblocks: Roadblocks are common in Bolivia. If you find yourself at a roadblock, you should not attempt to run through it, as this may aggravate the situation and lead to physical harm. Instead, you should consider taking alternative, safe routes, or returning to where the travel started. If you plan to take a road trip, be sure to monitor news reports and contact the American Citizen Services Unit of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz at (591-2) 216-8246 or the U.S. Consular Agencies in Cochabamba at (591-4) 411-6313 and/or Santa Cruz at (591-3) 351-3477 for updates. Given that roadblocks may occur without warning and have stranded travelers for several days, you should take extra food, water, and warm clothing.
The U.S. Embassy also advises U.S. citizens to maintain at least two weeks’ supply of drinking water and canned food in case roadblocks affect supplies. For more information on emergency preparedness, please consult the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) web site.
The countrywide emergency number for the police, including highway patrol, is 110. The corresponding number for the fire department is 119.
The National Tourism Police has offices in La Paz and Cochabamba, providing free assistance to tourists. In the city of Santa Cruz, Interpol will provide these same services to tourists. These services include English-speaking officials who may assist tourists in filing police reports of lost/stolen documents or other valuables. The La Paz office is open 24 hours a day and is located at Plaza del Stadium, Edificio Olympia, Planta Baja, Miraflores, telephone number 800-14-0081. The Cochabamba office is located at Plaza 14 de Septiembre, Edificio Prefectura, tel. (591-4) 450-3880; it is open from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. seven days a week.
Chapare and Yungas Regions: In the Chapare region between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba and the Yungas region northeast of La Paz, violence and civil unrest, primarily associated with anti-narcotics activities, periodically create a risk for travelers. This region is also prone to dangerous flooding due to heavy rains from December to February.
Confrontations between area residents and government authorities over coca eradication have resulted in the use of tear gas and stronger force by government authorities to quell disturbances. Pro-coca groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S. government or private interests. If you plan to travel to the Chapare or Yungas regions, we encourage you to check with the Embassy's Consular Section prior to travel. Violence has also erupted between squatters unlawfully invading private land and security forces attempting to remove them.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Bolivia is provided for general reference only and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. If you plan on driving in Bolivia, despite the hazards described below, you should obtain an international driver’s license through your local automobile club before coming to Bolivia.
Road conditions in Bolivia are hazardous. Although La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba are connected by improved highways, the vast majority of roads in Bolivia are unpaved. Few highways have shoulders, fencing or barriers, and highway markings are minimal. Yielding for pedestrians in the cities is not the norm. For trips outside the major cities, especially in mountainous areas, we highly recommend using a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Travel during the rainy season (November through March) is difficult, as most routes have potholes, and roads and bridges may be washed out. Added dangers are the absence of formal training for most drivers, poor maintenance and overloaded vehicles, lack of lights on some vehicles at night, and intoxicated or overly tired drivers, including commercial bus and truck drivers.
The majority of intercity travel in Bolivia is by bus, with varying levels of safety and service. Bus accidents, at times attributed to drunk drivers or mechanical failures, have caused scores of deaths and severe injuries. In recent years, there have been major bus crashes on the highway between La Paz and Oruro, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Oruro and Cochabamba and on the Yungas road. The old Yungas road is considered one of the most dangerous routes in the world.
Public Transportation: From a crime perspective, public transportation is relatively safe, and violent assaults are rare. However, petty theft of unattended backpacks and other personal items does occur. For safety purposes, the Embassy advises you to use radio taxis whenever possible. U.S. citizens taking unlicensed taxis have reported being robbed and assaulted.
In Case of Accident: Drivers of vehicles involved in traffic accidents are expected to remain at the scene until the local police arrive. Any attempt to leave the scene violates Bolivian law. The Embassy believes any attempt to flee the scene of an accident would place the driver and passengers at greater risk of harm than remaining at the scene until the arrival of local police.