Bolivia is the most underrated country in South America.

Whilst playing backseat to countries like Peru and Argentina in tourism for decades, some of the best things to do in the continent are rooted deeply in the extreme diversity, history, and affordability Bolivia has to offer.

And whilst Brazil might be famous for the amazon, Peru for the Inca Trail, and Chile for Patagonia, It is Bolivia that retains some of the most phenominal sights like it’s own portion of the Amazon, the most dangerous road in the world, the largest salt lake in the world, the Atacama desert, and some of the most unique scenery known to man.

If you are looking for an adventure that offers both extreme value-for-money and adventure you’ll never forget, Bolivia should be your next destination!

Please comment on this post if you have more advice to share about Bolivia, or if you’re looking to meet up with fellow travellers!!

Accommodation

There is an extremely wide variety of accommodation options in Bolivia, from your $500 a night rooms at the La Casono Hotel‘s or Hotel Europa‘s of the world all the way down to some pretty nifty $15 hostel options right in the middle of town.

I recommend you book your hotel in advance just to be sure you get the best available room in this country which is still trying to cater for the massive increase in tourism of late.

To find the best rates for hotels in La Paz, click here. 

For hotels in Rurrenabaque, click here. 

For Uyuni, click here. 

For Potosi, click here. 

Quick Facts

  1. Taxi’s are cheap as chips – most rides around a city will cost between 10 and 20 Bolivianos (USD$1.5-3).
  2. Traffic is manic, everywhere – Unlike the Asian passive-aggressive methods or getting around, Bolivians like to express their distain with prolonged honking and a total lack of respect for lane markings or traffic lights.
  3. It’s generally warm to hot – don’t bother with anything more than a shirt and shorts, but do remember your sunscreen in the afternoon!
  4. Wifi is available, but sketchy – in your nicer hotels, the wifi is outstanding, but anywhere else you will struggle for consistent connection.
  5. The food is cheaper than ever – street dishes are insanely tasty and will cost you anywhere from USD$1-3. Even the nice restaurants max out at USD$7-8.
  6. The people are extremely friendly – Everyone is happy to help, but keep your belongings under close watch.
  7. ATMs are abundant – Check this article out to avoid fees!
  8. The local currency is called Bolivianos and is worth about USD$15 for every 100Bolivianos.
  9. Most countries dont need a visa. Although Americans do. Check this link for the details.
  10. The Ladies dressed traditionally wearing bowler hats are called Cholitas.  They are a dying breed and should be treated with a great deal of respect.
  11. You can barter in this country. In fact, it’s expected.
  12. Leave a small tip at restaurants and for tour guides.

When you think of Bolivia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Cocaine? Uyuni Salt Flats? The Amazon?

True, Bolivia is pretty well known for all of these things, but it’s largest city, La Paz, the highest altitude capital in the world, is actually one of the coolest places you can go in South America.

It.Is.Huge.

And although it actually only plays home to around 2 million people in total, you’d swear it was more populated than Rio or Mexico City simply but looking at it from one of the many observation points around town.

You see, La Paz is split into 2 sections:

There are those that live in the original city built at the bottom of the valley, and those who live on the plateau on the outer rim, El Alto.

But wherever you go, and contrary to so many dodgy tour guides, you’ll get a feeling of warmth, smiles, and general helpfulness from the locals.

1.     You absolutely MUST take a tour down Death Road

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or you prefer to keep it safe, you MUST build up the courage to hop on a tour down Death Road.

Named so by The Inter-American Development Bank to reflect the hundreds of people who have died driving off the cliff over the decades, the road is now most commonly used by the number of tour companies who offer full-day experiences from the top to the bottom, winding around sheer cliffs at up to 60km/hour if you so dare.

There are a wide range of companies that offer this tour, but there are only a few that are trusted by the wider tourist community.

With prices varying from USD$25 up to USD$75 depending on the company and bike you go with, its highly recommended to err on the side of caution and book with a reputable company like Gravity Assist of Barracuda who have the best bikes and biggest workshops in South America to make sure you get home safe.

At the end of it, you’ll be presented with a ‘I survived Death Road shirt’, and you’ll march proudly back into La Paz having completed it’s coolest experience on offer.

All companies provide all transfers, hot showers, protective gear, bikes, a free shirt, DVD, and food.

Just go with your gut when making your choice.

2.  Cholita Wrestling is only fun when you add alcohol

If you read the lonely planet guide, you’ll be advised to book a ticket to Cholita Wrestling.

It looks like a whole bunch of fun, right? After all, who wouldn’t want to see a bunch of ladies beating each other up?

Unfortunately, the whole experience was a little tiresome to say the least.

Although it will only set you back about USD$12 for a ticket that includes transfers, snacks, and a souvenir, it’s the general quality of the product that will have you looking around at your mates wondering who’s turn it is to buy the beers.

The bus transfer is tediously slow, where if you’re unlucky enough to be the first on the bus, you’ll wait a good hour and a half while the driver picks the whole town up on the way.

And when you eventually arrive, you’ll realize that this traditional blood sport has been watered down to a very amateurish, local recreation center-hosted, D-grade WWE battle where the script is the same for each fight:

Fat, older lady initially has the upper hand against the younger agile lady, but then the underdog eventually gains her confidence and overcomes her hardships to win, whilst all along the referee was comically jumping out the way and waving his finger.

To be frank, I guess it’s something you need to do whilst in La Paz. But don’t come with high expectations and don’t forget the beers to lighten the mood a little.

3. For the best view of the city, take the cable car!

For a city that doesn’t seem to have had any public investment for decades, there is one piece of infrastructure that puts most of the rest of the world to shame:

The cable cars.

Connecting the city below with the upper plateau, these state-of-the-art cars and terminals are both super cheap (USD$0.20 a ride), super quiet, and extremely convenient when trying to beat the traffic, get the best view of the city, or simply get from one city to the next.

The yellow cable car will give you the best views, whilst the green will take you to a modern part of town you would swear was a suburb in the USA.

4.     Street food here is top notch and super cheap

What you’ll quickly realize about La Paz is that every consumer good has its own street. There is a street full of stores for fruit, one for sewing equipment, one for wall plaster, one for car parts, fake football shirts, hairdressers, tour guides, alcohol, and so on.

But everywhere you will find street food vendors. You wont find a supermarket in this city, but you will find top notch snacks, fruit juices, and meat/rice dishes for less than it would cost to get on the bus.

5.     The walking tour will be the best you’ve ever taken

The Red Cap tour, which starts outside the San Pedro Prison in the middle of the city (read the book ‘Marching Powder’) daily at 11am and 3pm, is an absolute must if you want an informed intro to this bustling, vibrant city.

You’ll learn of the history of the Prison, the culture of protests, the plight of Presidents, the best places to find food, the culture of the Cholita, and the history of the witch’s markets.

Before you know it, you’ll be considering buying yourself a Llama fetus for good luck.

If you’re traveling through Bolivia, chances are you’ve noticed a little town south of La Paz called Potosi popping up on a few reviews and pages in your Lonely Planet guide.

But I guess you’ve never heard of it, right?

It’s no Uyuni Salt Flats or Lake Titicaca, and it’s definitely not an intrepid trip down the Amazon River into Madidi National Park.

But would you believe me if I told you it was the largest, richest city in South America just 400 years ago?

That’s right, before Rio and Buenos Aires were established, and standing over the mighty Cusco and Lima, Potosi was the crown jewel of the Spanish Conquest into Inca Land.

Why?

One reason and one reason only.

A 600m tall lonely mountain that produced so much silver it funded the whole Spanish Empire. Without this mine, the nation of Spain might not exist today!

The History

From the mid 1500s to the 1800s, the Spanish exploited the riches of the mountain along with over 8 million slaves (4 million of which died for the cause), enjoying the spoils that came along with the rich veins (The Hobbit-style) of silver that ran through it.

And for hundreds of years, the Spanish would build an empire on the back of this mountain, establishing a city that swelled to 200,000 people at its peak, bringing more and more slaves and carving out more and more of the mountain.

The average miner only lasted 3 years down in the shafts, with many not seeing daylight for more than 4 months at a time.

The Peril

These days, Silicosis and Asbestosis contraction gives any miner a lifespan of just 12 years from starting in the mine, with the family of the miner receiving a USD$30/month pension thereafter for their troubles.

And with the extraction rate down to less than 1 gram of silver per tonne of rock, neither the Spanish nor any international company for that matter have anything to do with the city, leaving the locals to perilously pick through the scraps of what is left throughout the 2000-odd kilometers of tunnels that remain (can you imagine?).

Like many post-colonial cities, the best days are surely past for Potosi.

The mine, which has never actually seen a professional mining engineer onsite, remains in the hands of some 33 co-operative local owners who each run their own autonomous operations from their own shafts and processing plants dotted around the mountainsides.

To buy into the mine as an owner, you must have at least 4 years experience (on $5USD/day) working in the mine shafts, and then you must stump up between USD$1000-5000 for your share depending on the size of the shaft you buy.

Something isn’t adding up there right?

However, although there are obvious cultural and historical reasons why a young Bolivian would want to start working in the mine, why anyone would choose to do so of their own free will escapes me.

Still, to this day, 3 of the 2000 Bolivians working in the mine die each month from mining accidents.

If that happened in the western world, the business wouldn’t last a day longer!

And as stated before, if you don’t die from a mining accident, statistics say you’ll be dead by your 12th anniversary working there.

So it’s because of these stories that I felt compelled to check it all out for myself.

The Tour

Although there are mixed reviews and opinions on the altruism and sustainability of the tours provided by the locals, I thought it was imperative to take the risk and see for myself what really goes on inside the Potosi Silver Mine.

And contrary to the stories of exploitation, I was lucky enough to be shown around by an extremely articulate, compassionate, and intelligent ex-miner named Johnny, who after 3 years in the mine, and 12 years watching his Dad working down-shaft, knew his only way out was to improve his english, invest in safety equipment, and start showing the rest of the world the plight of his comrades.

Pickup

Johnny will pick you up from your hotel at either 10am or 2pm before taking you to his office where he’ll fit you out with protective clothes and shoes from top to bottom, and surgical masks to keep the dust out.

Miners Markets

As is custom, he’ll then take you for a drive down to the miner’s market where all the miners’ families work and trade goods for a living.

You can buy anything from fresh fruit smoothies for USD$0.80 to sticks of dynamite for USD$3 each.

Needless to say I purchased one of both.

As a token of gratitude for letting you into their workplace, it is custom to purchase a small bag of perishable goods, including coca leaves and lollies, to hand out to the miners and their children (that’s right) as you walk through the mine.

Trust me, for USD$2, you’ll feel like Santa at the end of it.

But it’s only when you get right up to the mine that you start to realize the plight these mining families survive through.

The Mountain

The mountain is dotted with crude, 100-year old processing items interspersed between shanty huts that the miners and their families live in.

There are no safety check-points, no security officers, and certainly no one coordinating the various dynamite blasts that go off between the shafts.

It’s all just one big pile of rubble with holes carved out of the side of it.

Fun Times

So remember how I purchased that stick of dynamite for myself?

Well it wasn’t as a souvenir!

Johnny agreed to let me set it off on the side of the mountain. So that’s exactly what we did!

And soon after feeling the wave of power that emitted from the single stick 40 meters away, we marched off to the safest of the mine shafts (the old state-owned one) to venture in.

But before entering, we were greeted by a miner finishing his shift.

With one eye pointing one way and the other pointing another way, a definite sway, and a stench of kerosene that preceded his direction by at least 5 meters, the man attempted to shake my hand.

More intoxicated than an 18 year old on a bender, this man typified the worker that gets it all done down there.

So aware of their plight, these men start each day drinking and offering to the mine god (Diablo) a 250ml bottle of 96% alcohol over a period of 20 minutes before entering the shaft.

And throughout the day, the same occurs underground.

No wonder the man stunk of petrol.

The Shaft

And after a 10 minute procession of hand shakes and marriage proposals, we finally got the chance to enter the shaft.

If you’ve ever been in a Western mine, you’re picturing a nice large shaft big enough for trucks to drive down, with wall lighting, ventilation, road signs, and safety lines. If this is what you have in your head, you are sorely mistaken.

Resembling more of a cave than a mineshaft, we crawled and stepped from one rock to the next. In one second we would be on our haunches, and the next in a cavern you could swing your arms in.

The walls, dotted with holes for dynamite sticks, were as crudely carved as they would have been 400 years ago when rock was first broken here.

And although my mind was forever aware of the fact I could be breathing in toxic fibres, I was compelled to venture further and deeper into the mountain.

Johnny led us the whole way, bragging that he could find his way out of this labyrinth even without a torch or lamp; an impossible task only realized when the perfect darkness of the underground was revealed upon switching all of our headlamps off.

And once the air started to get thick and the shafts all started to look the same, we turned around and made our way back. We passed over the single piece of timber used as a bridge, a statue of the devil worshipped every morning, and garbage that had been left there for generations.

Finally, upon our ascent into fresh air, we rubbed our eyes at sunset to a view of children returning home from school and greeting their parents somewhere up the mountain.

The Bottom Line

For less than USD$20, you can join one of these tours with a man like Johnny from your hotel in Potosi.

And although the guide books might scare you off, I highly recommend pushing your boundaries to witness a real example of a life much harder than yours. 

When you get to La Paz, you’ll quite quickly realize that this is a city that loves their tourists.

In a good way!

There are tour agents everywhere, all whom want to entice you into their door and book you on the next group tour to Uyuni Salt Flats, Death Road, Titicaca, Moon Valley, or in this case, a jungle tour to Madidi National Park.

Now, I know you’ve probably already done a LOT of research on this, and I’m guessing you’re still a little unsure as to which company to book with, who you can trust, what you should pay, and when you should actually book in order to get the best deal possible.

After all, there are a lot of forum posts out there warning potential Tarzans and Janes about the stark disparity between the top-ranked providers and the cheapest options out there.

Let me put this one on the table straight away. If money isn’t an object to you, then you’ve probably already heard of the most expensive option, Madidi EcoLodge, and I would highly recommend trusting them to give you the most comfortable, high quality service on the market.

You can’t go wrong. 

It’s like being on a luxury African Safari, but at a fraction of the cost!

But I’m guessing you’re reading this because paying over USD$300 a night to sleep in the jungle just doesn’t fit your budget and you’re now shuffling through all the other options to make the best value-for-money choice.

When to Book

You’re a traveler who likes to be prepared and know where they are going at least a few weeks in advance.

You’ve got this urge to just get on a website, book in your dates, whip that credit card out, and receive that joyous confirmation email 2 minutes later.

I get it.

But if you’re looking for the best deal, there’s also a lot to be said for getting to La Paz and shopping around face-to face.

It’s the only way to get the best deal at the end of the day, and as you’ll realize, nearly every single tour company is situated on the same street in the middle of town (Sagarnaga), so it’s a piece of cake.

In fact, I finalized my Jungle Tour booking at 6:15pm the night before I flew to Rurrenabaque, the local town that services the National Park.

And although I would recommend leaving it to 15 minutes before closing, it’s certainly normal and possible to confirm your tour choice within 48 hours of commencement.

Read More: The Top Things To Do In La Paz, Bolivia

In La Paz, as with many tourist cities, the later you leave it, the bigger discount you can command to fill up their seats.

Now, if you’ve already done your research and you’re deadest on a company and date, by all means, book it online. Just don’t expect to get the best deal going around for that certainty.

Where to Book

As I said, La Paz is one of those cities that likes to bunch all of the same stores together. So if you’re looking for a quick and convenient transaction, head down to Sagarnaga Street, which runs off San Francisco Cathedral in the main tourist district.

I’m not here representing any one company, so my advice to you is to go from shop to shop, taking a pamphlet and getting the price written down.

Now, as I said before, most of these agents represent just a handful of legitimate providers.

The rest are unfortunately operating illegally on the park, providing substandard food and accommodation, and acting more like transport companies than wildlife guides.

The only three providers that have convinced me of their quality based on my on-the-ground research of their facilities in Rurrenabaque and Madidi are:

  1. Madidi Jungle Ecolodge
  2. Mashaquipe
  3. San Miguel Del Bala

So before you hand your credit card over, I highly recommend you confirm the tour provider with the agent first.

How Much to Pay

This is where it gets tricky.

You’re going to notice 3 price brackets when you get on the ground.

There are the tour companies that will compete around the 700-800 Bolivianos range. And for a 3 day tour, including lodging, transfers, food, and guides, this should ring alarm bells straight away.

Then there are the providers who price themselves at around 1,350 Bolivianos for the tour. These guys are most probably selling you a Mashaquipe or San Miguel Del Bala tour.

If you can lock your prices in for anything lower than that, then you’ve done well.

Finally, your Madidi EcoLodge reps will come in around the 2,000 Bolivianos price range.

Again, if you’re looking for the top of the pile service and amenities, you can book direct through http://www.madidijungle.com/

Now, when you’re booking your tour, the agent will ask you whether you already have flights.

I highly recommend you lock your flights in before booking your tour. There will always be a tour, but in a 12-seater plane, you may find yourself with a tour but no way to get there!

Getting There & Back

There’s one logical way to get to Madidi National Park, and one soul-crushing way.

The logical choice nearly all tourists take is a flight with Amaszonas from La Paz International to the local town of Rurrenabaque.

They offer a number of flights daily, some of which are timed to fit in perfectly with your Jungle Tour timetable.

Ideally, you would book at 7:10am flight out of La Paz, landing you in Rurrenabaque at 7:40am just in time for your tour operator to pick you up, sign you in, and get you on your way for the 9:30am start time.

3 days later, you’d have the 5:00pm flight booked, which you could hop straight on after arriving back in Rurrenabaque at 3:00pm.

That’s best case.

Unfortunately, this is the Bolivia, and this is the Jungle.

Because of the constantly changing weather in Rurrenabaque, your flight is just as likely to be delayed as it is to be on time.

For example, due to fog and engine maintenance, both of my flights for delayed for 3 hours.

But don’t worry, you’ve got 2 choices:

Give yourself an extra day in Rurrenabaque to cover any risk of lost time, or sit back, relax, and know the tour operators are all waiting for you at the airport and will adjust your tour accordingly.

Either way, return flights should cost you around USD$200 total.

And then there’s the illogical way, a 31 hour bus from La Paz Bus Terminal into the jungle.

Don’t bother. For the money saved, it will kill your buzz heading into an experience you really want to be up and about for.

What’s Involved

Now that you’ve got your flights and tour booking strategy sorted, its time to get the low down on what exactly you’ll be getting up to on this 3-day adventure into the wild.

Now, I need to start with a disclaimer.

Whilst this is the jungle, and whilst you will definitely be encountering as many (or more) mosquitoes on your journey, this is no Africa.

With the thick jungle lack of safari trucks, your wildlife count will be nowhere near that of a Serengeti Plains tour in Tanzania.

This tour is all about the Amazon, the people that live there, their symbiotic relationship with the environment around them, and of course, a chance to encounter some of the shiest animals in the world.

Day 1

After arriving at Rurrenabaque airport (literally a building smaller than your house) in the morning, you’ll be picked up by your operator and driven 5 minutes into town.

You’ll notice the place features 3 types of stores:

  1. Tour operator office
  2. Cheap clothes
  3. Cheap food

Once at the office, you’ll be signed up, and within 15 minutes, whisked off to the river where a motorized canoe with seating will be waiting for you.

Then it’s a relaxing 2-3 hour ride up river where you’ll switch between dozing and taking in the intensely beautiful aquatic scenery of the Amazon.

Half way through the ride, your driver will stop off at what you’ll excitingly think is your stop, but its just the spot where you’ll need to pay an additional cash payment of 80 Bolivianos per person as a park entry fee. (Don’t worry, it’s legit).

A local community visit will probably be your first major stop. It will be a chance to see how the local families live and peruse through some trinkets you may or may not be interested in purchasing.

Just one more hour in the boat and you’ll find yourself at your lodge.

Built on what is probably the land of a local who is also a part owner in the tour operator company, you’ll be greeted with some fresh juice, shown to your cabin, given a wholesome local rice, meat, and fruit-based lunch, then introduced to your guide.

Hopefully, your guide will prove to be the most fascinating and knowledgeable man about his own land over the next 2 and a half days.

He’ll go out of his way to make you comfortable, surprise you will his knowledge of local flora, his resistance to mosquitoes, and his ability to track and identify monkey, pecari, and bird species whilst you are making a ruckus trying to keep up behind him.

Your first afternoon will include a 3-4 hour hike through the jungle and hopefully it will be full of highlights.

Once you get back, it will be dinner time, featuring a buffet of local carbs and meats.

You’ll then have the choice to take a one-hour night hike if you have the energy. You’ll be on the hunt for nocturnal monkeys, armadillos, jaguars, tarantulas, and tapir.

Day 2

Day 2 will have you wake up early for another 4 hour hike. This time it will be all about tracking howler monkeys, capuchins, and Pecari.

I was lucky enough to encounter them all!

After lunch, you’ll be ferried off to a campsite 30 minutes downstream.

Here, you’ll sleep under a mosquito net on a wooden platform, enjoy the marvellous food from the camp cook, and spend the afternoon chasing Macaws.

Day 3

The morning will be all about the Red & Green Macaws too. But this time you’ll trek to all the way up to the top of a cliff where you’ll be right on top of their nests, watching them fly in and out at eye level!

From here,  you’ll head back to camp, pack your things, and hike back to the river where you’ll be tasked with building your own raft (with help, of course) to float back down to the lodge on.

Because the current is so fast here, not only will you be safe to swim without fear of caiman, anaconda, or piranha attack, but you’ll also float all the way back without even needing to paddle.

Back in the lodge, you’ll be fed another hearty lunch before preparing to head back to Rurrenabaque at 2pm.

The downstream ride will have you back at around 3:30pm, just in time for your flight home if you so choose.

Otherwise, I highly recommend spending the night in Rurrenabaque where you can support the local town by trying some great cheap food and smoothies, and perusing the all the local shops.

Pampas Tour

Many people combine the Jungle Tour with the Pampas Tour. This will have you head straight from the jungle to the pampas, where you’ll be focusing on encountering pink dolphins, anacondas, capybaras, piranhas, and caiman.

You’ll spend most of your time in more of a safari-like situation, but this time you’ll be based mainly in the boat for the time.

Adding this on is totally possible with your agent and is a good way to get a total jungle experience if the waterways of the Amazon take your fancy.

If you’re in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, or heck, even Peru, then I implore you to make sure the Uyuni Salt Flats in southern Bolivia is on your itinerary.

I know what you’re thinking, “Salt flats? Really? The place where all the clichéd photos of people fighting toy dinosaurs are taken?”

Well, my response to that is, “HELL YEA!”

It’s extremely tough to describe the breadth and otherworldliness of this place.

It’s impossible to imagine driving across a dried up 300km-wide lake for hours on end without seeing anything but mirage after mirage of distant mountains.

It feels like a mix between a brand new Toyota Landcruiser TV commercial and the movie, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Getting There

It’s most likely that you are coming from La Paz, where a 3-day round-trip will be your most efficient way to get in and out.

Like any tour in Bolivia, I recommend waiting until you arrive in La Paz, then heading down to the Tour Office street called ‘Calle Sagarnaga’, which runs along the San Francisco Church.

There, you will find a myriad of tour agents selling you the same 3-day tour, with which you can have fun playing The Price Is Right for an hour or so before making your mind up.

The tour will send you on a night bus from La Paz to Uyuni, a fairly meager town that really just hangs out for the Dakar Rally to sweep through each year.

In the morning, you’ll be shuffled into one of many 1990s Landcruisers where your driver will first take you out to the local town that services the salt flats.

This town, Colchani, exists for two reasons:

  1. To harvest and package salt for Bolivian consumption; and
  2. To sell you hand-made clothes and las-minute photo props for your trip to the salt flats.

Whatever your penchant, it’s a nice little 30 minute stop to wake you up.

On the Salt Flats

Once you’re done with Colchani, you’ll be ushered back into your Landcruiser and you’re 1.5hour journey out into the middle of the salt flats will commence.

To this day I still cant find the perfect word to describe the experience.

In one minute, you’re looking out the window at the vastness of white along the horizon, the next you’re peering into the mirages that make the distant mountains look as if they are floating, and the next, your dozing off to sleep as the sun beams down on you.

And then eventually you’ll come to and notice a large cactus-covered rock in the not-too-distant distance.

At least, it will feel not-too-distant…

But with no reference point to give you scale, you’ll soon realize that the rock is still at least 30 minutes drive away.

Though at that point, you can sleep no longer.

To your left you’ll see a gang of motorcyclists scooting across the planes, and to your right will be another landcruiser charging ahead with you.

Eventually, Fish Island will approach to a scaleable point and you’ll start to get a level of context the huge ocean you just drove across.

Yes, this huge cactus-covered rock was once an island millions of years ago.

But although Fish Island really is a cool and unexpected feature of the salt flats, we all know you’ve come here for one thing: to take ridiculously hilarious photos of you punching toys, sitting inside your own shoes, and touching the sky.

You’ll be driven out to the most nondescript point in the middle of the flats that you wonder how the hell the driver decided to stop.

But that’s the point. The less features there are to provide a reference of scale, the better your photos will look.

Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of time to perfect this impossible art, even if it does make you look like an absolute idiot to those you are watching from afar.

Sunset Reflections

And after a couple of hours, sunset will start to approach and your driver will have you join him for one last stop in the middle of nowhere.

It’s not lake. In fact, it’s barely an inch deep, but this mass of water will provide the perfect setting for your final photos, with the most beautiful reflections against the sunset I have ever witnessed.

Just don’t forget your jumper out here, it starts to get really cold at this time.

Return

 

And once the sun sets, it will be time to have you whisked off away from the flats and onto your night bus or towards your Uyuni hotel, whichever your tour includes.

If you only have a weekend in La Paz before moving on, I implore you to head down to Sagarnaga road in the middle of downtown and book yourself a day tour cycling down Death Road.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Death Road? There’s a reason it’s not called winding gravel road through the mountains, I ‘aint going anywhere near that place!”

And you’d be right.

Pin Me To Pinterest!

There is a reason it’s called Death Road. For centuries, it claimed countless lives as the only treacherous passage through the mountains north of La Paz.

A snaking, bumpy, unsealed road that stands between you and 50 meters of sheer cliffs the whole way down, it has seen many buses and cars overshoot a turn and plunge to oblivion in the cloudy mist.

Read More: Why You MUST Visit The Uyuni Salt Flats In 2016

These days, with a new sealed highway offering a safer, faster alternative, only local vehicles use the Death Road now, leaving the rest of it to the hordes of cycle tours that make their way down the 32km stretch every morning.

And yes, people do still die on this road.

Every few kilometers your guide will stop, let the group catch up, and pay homage to the Israeli, Italian, German, or even local guide that lost the battle with the most dangerous road in the world taking a corner too quickly, a selfie too frivolously, or an overtaking too widely.

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The truth is, if you take it easy, use quality equipment, and concentrate around the bends, there should be no reason whatsoever that you would come close to a perilous demise.

But still, like many adventure sports, every year sees its handful of accidents and overzealous participants continue to sustain the validity of the moniker.

Where to Buy

When you get to La Paz, you’ll realize that every tour company on the street is offering a Death Road experience.

And the difference in prices will shock you.

From the foremost provider, Gravity Assisted, which has the largest bike workshop in South America and dominates all google searches, to the local one-man operation you’ll notice some things are different and some are the same.

The Same

  1. The route – at the end of the day, there is only one Death Road, so every company will start from the same muster point and take you down the same road. Some go a little further, but they add no value.
  2. Free T-shirt – it doesn’t matter which company you go for, each will provide their own customised ‘I survived Death Road’ Tee.
  3. Transfers – Every company will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back after 6pm
  4. Snacks – whilst the contents may differ, you’ll be given an adequate snack just before starting the Death Road section of the cycle
  5. Lunch & Shower – although different companies may take you to different locations, even the cheapest option (I took both) will have you sat down for lunch in a Caroica hotel with a pool, shower, and wholesome buffet lunch
  6. The DVD – at the end of the tour, each company will take you back to the office to pick up a copy of the photos and videos of the day for you to use

The difference

  1. Maintenance – It’s one of those things you don’t notice until your brakes wear down halfway through a turn. And this is where you need to weigh up the assurances of the big companies with their strict maintenance policies against the smaller ones that generally have a ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’ approach.
  2. The bikes – Be assured, the companies like Gravity Asssisted and Barracuda spend much more on their bikes, renewing them regularly. But that’s not to say the smaller companies don’t have adequate equipment for a safe and comfortale ride down. It will be up to you to decide whether double suspension and hydraulic brakes is a bit of overkill for a bike ride.
  3. The DVD – The big companies do a better job of putting together a package with better quality cameras, but you’ll find your own pics along the way will be the ones you cherish most.
  4. The equipment – With the big companies, your gear will be fresh. You’ll look like a pro. But all in all, every company offers the same protective gear. All of it is adequate to protect from a slip over the handlebars. The cheaper ones just look a little more tattered.

The Price

This is where you notice the biggest difference, all before you hop on the bike.

As explained, every company offers the mandatory experience with extras. But each company offers you to choose your level of bike from a standard suspension mountain bike all the way up to something that looks more like a monster truck. All of them come with fat wheels for extra traction.

Price structure: 

Small company

Spring Suspension                                         320 Bolivianos

Front Hydraulic Suspension                     450 Bolivianos

Front & Rear Hydraulic Suspension       550 Bolivianos

Big Company

Spring Suspension                                         550 Bolivianos

Front Hydraulic Suspension                     650 Bolivianos

Front & Rear Hydraulic Suspension      800 Bolivianos

How it works

Depending on where your hotel is, you’ll be picked up between 7:30am and 8:30am, and join the rest of the tourists in the mini-van for the 1.5hr journey out of La Paz towards the muster point.

You’ll head north through the valley, hugging the mountainside, passing villages and various police checkpoints.

Eventually, the van will reach a large gravel carpark where the rest of the tour companies are setting up.

You’ll be given your protective equipment, assigned a bike, and given a few minutes to ride around and get your bike legs ready.

Then you’ll be off, down a 22km stretch of newly-sealed road, dodging cars and trucks on a continuous downhill slide where you’ll never pedal and always have your fingers gingerly waiting on the brakes.

It’s a massive rush and reminds me of the skeleton competitors in the Olympics.

After about an hour of fun, you’ll get to a little checkpoint where your guide, who has been leading the whole way, will inform you that because of the extremely unsafe topography of the next 8km of road ahead, the police force everyone to get back in the vans (who follow behind you the whole way) and get shuttled to the start of Death Road.

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And that’s where you will go. A little old lady will pull up a barrier and let the van into a fairly misty and nondescript off-road. And whilst you take 10 to have a snack and head to the toilet, you’ll pay your 25 Boliviano (yea, that’s extra) local fee.

From there, Death Road starts.

The road is now a mixture of gravel and cobblestone, and it’s time to focus.

From a width of 3 metres to 5 metres along the way, all straddled by sheer cliff drops and thick fog, if you fall over, its doubtful people will see where.

The road is also made slipperier by the many small waterfalls that feature along the way.

Despite all this, 99.99% of the thousands of tourists that take to this historically significant path reach the bottom totally unscathed.

The only difference here is that the consequences for being a little too confident can be, well, deathly.

For 32km, you’ll tackle the rather ‘off-road’ quality, dodging large stones and potholes, whilst keeping an eye on the distance for tricky turns and oncoming traffic.

Your guide will make sure to stop every 10 minutes or so, giving you a chance to take photos or telling you about the unfortunate ending of a tourists in years gone by.

3 hours later and the path will start to flatten. You’ll need to pedal just a little to continue, but not for long.

Eventually, you’ll come to the first crossroad of the road, where your guide will either end the tour and pack you into the mini-van or take you a few kilometres further until you reach the town of Caroica where you can grab a beer and celebrate your triumphs!

Either way, by 1pm you’ll have arrived at your lunch stop where you can gorge on the buffet, take a dip in the pool, and then have a nice warm shower.

Unless you’ve decided to join the optional ziplining tour, the van will commence it’s 3 hour return to La Paz at around 3pm.

You’ll make your way back up the mountain via another road, passing the initial muster point, and then back down the mountain to La Paz.