Getting around in Bolivia – where the journey can be as wild as the destination

Bus at the Death Road - the most dangerous road in the world, North Yungas, Bolivia. - stock photo
Fortunately bus rides on notoriously dangerous roads are not the only way to get around in Bolivia © Anton Petrus / Getty Images

You know that old saying that it’s not about the destination but rather the journey? Well, there are few places on earth where the journeys are quite so epic as in Bolivia, which packs a continent’s worth of topography – soaring mountains, upland plateaus, and lowland jungles – into a relatively small package. 

To get from one place to the next often involves traveling up or down – sometimes thousands of meters at a jaunt – on buses that snake along winding highways. It’s the preferred mode of transportation for most Bolivians and an exhilarating experience. But it’s not for everyone, and there are alternatives. Planes, trains, and even aerial cable cars can smooth things over for the faint of heart. Here’s how to get around Bolivia. 

Introducing Bolivia

Watch the landscape change out of your bus window

Bus travel is, by far, the most common way of getting from point A to point B in Bolivia. As a bonus, you’ll get to meet other travelers and witness out your window the enormous diversity of the country's shape-shifting landscapes. That said, bus travel is not for the meek, particularly if you’re beginning or ending in La Paz, which lies at nearly 4000m (13,123ft) above sea level. Expect vast changes in altitude, unexplained stops and curvy roads with no guardrails. Also, be sure to guard your valuables at all times; theft can be an issue both in terminals and on the buses themselves. 

When traveling in the wet season (November to April) or headed to the Amazon Basin, it’s always a good idea to ask about road conditions in advance. For more comfort, no matter the conditions, it really is worth paying a bit extra for a cama (reclining seat) or semicama (partially reclining seat). And keep in mind some terminology: flotas are long-distance buses, buses are large regional buses, and micros are minibuses. 

Some of the more respected bus lines in Bolivia include Todo Turismo, Trans Salvador, and Trans Copacabana. TicketsBolivia and EnBus are good English-language sites to compare prices and book trips. Many tourists departing La Paz for Peru choose to simplify their journey by traveling with Bolivia Hop, a private company that offers a variety of multi-day hop-on, hop-off bus trips past Lake Titicaca to either Lima or Cusco (for Machu Picchu).


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Two parrots fly next to each other through dense jungle
It's a 24-hour-long bus ride to the Amazon Basin, so you might prefer to get there by plane © Jamie Lamb - elusive-images.co.uk / Getty Images

Save some stress and catch a plane

Traveling by air is certainly the fastest and most pain-free way of zipping around this mountainous nation. The main hubs are Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz and El Alto International Airport high above La Paz (so high, in fact, that there are oxygen tanks waiting in the arrivals area for those who experience altitude sickness!). 

If you’re headed to the Amazon Basin – and can’t stomach the thought of a 24-hour bus ride – both hubs have trips to Trinidad and Cobija, though the more touristed city of Rurrenabaque is only reached via La Paz. Secondary cities such as Sucre, Tarija, and Cochabamba are all well connected with each other, while the latter is the only airport with connections to Uyuni (popular for its nearby salt flats).

Boliviana de Aviación (BoA) is the flag carrier airline of Bolivia and is wholly owned by the government. It has the widest network of flights to all corners of the country. Amaszonas is BoA’s main competitor and often the only option for northern destinations in the Amazon Basin. EcoJet, meanwhile, is the low-cost alternative, with a limited network serviced by just three jets. Flights on all three airlines are generally quite affordable, though schedules can change with little notice and cancellations are frequent. During the summer wet season, air travel may be the only way to reach many destinations, particularly in the north.

Rail lines stretch off straight into the distance across white salt flats surrounded by red-brown mountains
There are scenic train routes, but some aren't all that easy to access © Lensw0rId / Shutterstock

Ride the rails on a scenic train

As is the case in much of Latin America, train travel is extremely piecemeal throughout Bolivia. There is one popular tourist train that departs El Alto (above La Paz) for the ruins of Tiwanaku, ending at Guaqui on Lake Titicaca before returning in the evening. Another passenger train goes from Oruro to Uyuni, though you’ll likely have to arrive at either end by bus or plane, making it somewhat impractical. You can check the latest routes and schedules with Ferroviaria Andina

A separate service operates in eastern Bolivia, with passenger trains from Santa Cruz east to Quijarro and south to Yacuiba. Check the latest schedules on these routes with Ferroviaria Oriental.

Brave the Bolivian streets in a car

Due to the nature of Bolivia’s complicated road network, few international visitors attempt to rent a car. That said, a car can be useful for quick trips in and around Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, or Sucre, where the streets are less hectic. It’s also common to rent motorbikes (or moto-taxis) for day trips in hotter lowland cities. Cars are not recommended for travel in the Amazon Basin unless you’re proficient in Spanish and capable of managing an array of challenging conditions, including flash floods, muddy roads, and bathtub-sized potholes. 

Many travelers to La Paz choose to rent a car with a driver who will be familiar with the curving roads that snake up to the high mountain passes or down to the Yungas cloud forests. International agencies with a presence in La Paz, as well as Santa Cruz, include Hertz and Europcar.

Or flag down a taxi or trufi

Taxis are available in most larger cities and are relatively inexpensive. One of the easiest and safest ways for tourists to use them is through a taxi app like Uber, though this is only available in major cities such as La Paz and Santa Cruz. Note that many taxis are actually trufis (collective taxis) that run on fixed routes and pick up other passengers along the way.

Accessible transportation and accommodations are found in La Paz

Bolivia is, sadly, ill equipped for travelers with disabilities, largely due to its outdated infrastructure. The one glaring exception is Mi Teléferico in La Paz, which is the first public transport system in the nation to address the needs of people with disabilities. La Paz also has the largest share of hotels with wheelchair-accessible rooms, including Atix and Hotel Camino Real in the calmer Zona Sur sector. For more information, check out Lonely Planet’s accessible travel online resources.

A cable car rises above a city densely packed with buildings
Mi Teleférico sails over the city of La Paz and is fully accessible to travelers with disabilities © saiko3p / Getty Images

Why Mi Teleférico is my favorite way to travel in Bolivia

There are few cities in the world where I would ride public transportation just for the heck of it. La Paz is one of them. That’s because it’s home to the longest aerial cable car system in the world: Mi Teleférico. These colorful capsules soar over the city like some futuristic vision, connecting not only the ritzy Calacoto neighborhood with the historic Casco Viejo, but also the largely Indigenous metropolis of El Alto some 500m (1640ft) above.

From this vantage point, peering out the window of a cable car, you can finally come to grips with the improbable setting of Bolivia’s cloud-hugging capital, which lies within a deep earthen bowl high in the Andes. All along the horizon are 6000m (19,685ft) peaks. And spread below are the haphazard homes and beanstalk-like buildings of some two million people. The view – like the altitude here – is quite literally breathtaking.

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