Bolivia—named for Simon Bolívar, liberator of much of South America—is poor, mountainous, and landlocked. Over 60 percent of Bolivia’s people are indigenous, mostly Quechua or Aymara; the rest are of European and mixed ancestry. Many are subsistence farmers on the altiplano (pronounced ahl-tee-PLAH-noh). La Paz, with 1.5 million people, sprawls between snowy peaks near Lake Titicaca. The waters of Lake Titicaca help warm the air, otherwise La Paz, the world’s highest capital city at 3,600 meters (11,800 feet), would not be habitable. Bolivia has a second capital at Sucre, named after its first president, where the Supreme Court resides.
Interesting facts about Bolivia
- The average woman in Bolivia, Indonesia, and Guatemala is short enough to be considered a dwarf (4’10 or under).
- There’s a hotel in Bolivia made almost entirely of salt, complete with salt beds and chairs.
- There’s a limestone cliff with more than 5,000 dinosaur footprints in Bolivia, with many dating back 68 million years.
- One of Bolivia’s oldest silver mines has claimed the lives of an estimated 8 million people in the past 500 years. – It is known as the “Mountain that eats men” and is still mined with pick and shovel today.
- More than 60% of Bolivia’s citizens are indigenous, predominantly Quechua and Aymara.
- “Tinku” is a ritualized fighting festival in Bolivia where people beat each other for 2 or 3 days straight.
6. Bolivia was not always a landlocked country. Its coastal territory was lost to Chile after the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century.
7. While most of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil (60%), it’s also in Peru (13%), Colombia (10%), Venezuela, –Ecuador, Bolivia and three countries.
8. Bolivia has averaged more than one coup per year (more than 190) since its 1825 independence.
9. At 10,582 sq km in size and about 100km across, Bolviia’s Salar de Uyuni– the world’s largest salt flat – is roughly the size of Jamaica.
10. At 3,650m (11,975ft) above sea level, La Paz is the highest (unofficial) capital city in the world. The constitutional capital is Sucre but the working capital (seat of government) is in La Paz.
11. The Camino de las Yungas road, 56km (35 miles) northeast of La Paz, was once known as the “world’s most dangerous road” or “death road” before it was paved and widened in the early 21st century. There were an estimated 200 to 300 fatalities every year on this stretch of road less than 50 miles long.
12. Dead animals including dried llama fetuses are sold on the streets of Bolivia to citizens so they can offer them up to Pachamama (Mother Nature) in return for blessings.
Climate and weather in Bolivia vary greatly across the country’s many regions, from the Andes to the Amazon. When speaking of weather, Bolivians typically refer only to two seasons (the rainy season and dry season) as usually there is no gradual entry into either winter or summer.
Changes in temperatures and the weather in Bolivia are typically as brusque as the changes in topography from one region to the next. Throughout the country, temperatures depend primarily on elevation.
Tropical Lowlands: To the East (from Pando, down through Beni and Santa Cruz to parts of northern Tarija) the climate is usually very hot, humid and often rainy between late September and May. December and January are the hottest months of the year. Summer days are humid and sticky. Nights are warm and musky, often filled with a moist fruity aroma as winds carry the scent of the tropical jungle into the cities.
More than any other month, August tends to be especially windy. Because this is also the month for chaqueos (“slash and burn” land-clearing techniques used in northern Bolivia to clear forested areas), the August winds blowing in a southerly direction often fill cities like Santa Cruz with smoke. At times it is so thick that visibility is near zero and driving becomes very difficult. Many people suffer from respiratory problems. (Photo below: Burning the Amazon).
Between May and July strong, intensely cold winds from Argentina bring bracingly cold weather to otherwise tropical Bolivia. Called sures or surazos (southerlies) by locals, these southern winds cause sudden temperature drops of anywhere from 10-40ºF overnight. These are often accompanied by rain, making for very chilly weather. Because in this region the climate is typically humid, it may feel colder than it actually is and people complain of feeling “chilled to the bone” although temps don’t dip below freezing (32ºF).
Northwest Valleys: The country’s northwest valley region (called Los Yungas, or the jungle, north of La Paz going toward Pando) is surprisingly hot and humid, considering the altitude. It is the cloudiest, rainiest and most humid region of Bolivia. In this region the climate and local weather are similar to that of the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz with even more precipitation per year. Temperatures drop as the elevation increases. At altitudes higher than 2000 meters above sea level it sometimes snows and at 4600 meters the mountains are permanently capped by snow. Above 5500 meters the climate is similar to that of polar regions and there are some glaciers present. (Photo: Road from La Paz to Caranavi, deep in the Yungas. Statistically, it had been declared the most dangerous road in the world and is sometimes referred to as the Road of Death).
Central Valleys: The central valleys – Cochabamba, parts of Chuquisaca Province and western Tarija – are temperate to cool. Temperatures are pleasant during the day, varying between 60-80ºF but it can get very cold at night, dropping to 30-40ºF. This region, although elevated (averaging 1200-1500 meters above sea level, or about as high as Denver, Colorado), is also rather humid. Bolivia’s valleys are very fertile and covered in dense forest. The rainy season is long and sustained. It is always a good idea to dress in layers in this region as the climate changes quickly. During the day one can feel quite warm, but by the late afternoon a sweater or jacket is often necessary. During the winter a heavy coat, gloves and a hat are advisable, although it doesn’t get as cold as the winters in North America and Northern Europe. It rarely snows here.
On the shores of Lake Titicaca, and higher (Potosí), temperatures can reach a balmy 80ºF at midday, but normally by early afternoon a sweater is necessary and the nights are cold. Because of the altitude, the sun feels especially strong here, and sunscreen should be worn throughout the entire day. On the Altiplano the winds are cold and harsh and moisturizer or sunscreen (and chapstick) are important to prevent both sunburn and windburn. (Note: In the Salar de Uyuni visitors frequently get sunburned. The sun reflects very strongly off the stark whiteness of the expansive salt beds, not unlike the type of sunburn people get in very cold, snowy regions). Again, it is advisable to dress in layers.
Special Note on La Paz: Visitors should be aware that the altitude drops more than 3000 feet between the northern and southern parts of the city and temperatures downtown can vary greatly from the southern residential areas because of this. The southern area of the city (Zona Sur) is usually quite a bit warmer.
Road Conditions: Travelers should be aware and keep informed of road conditions throughout the year, especially during the rainy season when some roads become inaccessible, landslides are more frequent, and rivers swell, sometimes flowing over bridges, making crossing impossible.
Reversed Seasons in Bolivia: Travelers arriving from the Northern Hemisphere should keep in mind that in the Southern Hemisphere seasons (and climate) are reversed, or the opposite of those in the North, with the hottest months (our summer) being November to February and the coldest months (our winter) being May to July.
Despite being among the poorest countries in the region, Bolivia has far lower levels of theft and violent crime than in neighboring 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; 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 jewelry or an expensive watch is asking for trouble.
Travelers need a passport valid at least half a year with at least 2 free pages in the visa section when entering Bolivia.
The maximum stay in Bolivia on a tourist visa is 90 days per year. You cannot extend your tourist visa once you enter Bolivia.
Local tourism’s low season takes place during the wet season, from December to February, even if a growing number of tourists from neighboring countries (Chile, Argentina and Brazil) offset this tendency.
The peak time for tourist affluence takes place during the dry season, from April to October.
In a nutshell, if you decide to go to Bolivia between December and February (or even up until March), you will be able to enjoy the low tourist season (even so, tourism in Bolivia is not all that developed) and milder temperatures at night, which is definitely an advantage at a high altitude. On the other hand, there will be more rainfall. If you wish to go on some treks, we would not recommend this time of year.