Your adventure to Bolivia begins with a landing at the airport in El Alto.  A whopping 14,000 ft/4267 m above sea level. Even if you cross at a border town, the altitude is 12,500 ft/3810 m. It's quite convenient, if you don't mind traveling by bus to enter Bolivia from Peru after your visit to the Floating Reed Islands on Lake Titicaca. After you catch your breath, the first thing US citizens do is get the visa.  The only currency accepted is Bolivianos.  But no worries if you don't have any, they'll allow you to walk to the currency exchange in the airport. Last time I checked it was $160 USD for 10 year visa.  (Check with the Bolivian embassy regarding visas as the rules have changed several times over the last few years. Here's a link to info about tourist visas for Bolivia)

Get to La Paz city center by taxi or ask your hotel to have a driver meet you at the airport. With your head reeling from the high-altitude you need to prepare for a cross-cultural metropolis of hotels, restaurants, markets. And traffic.  The most organized chaos we have ever witnessed.  The rules are simple.  If you can find passage through the maze of cars and people, you better take it.  Sidewalks not exempt in some cases where a traffic snarl is just too tangled to unwind. 

DO NOT rent a car.  Not even New York City taxi drivers could handle this mess.  And you don't want to risk a run-in with the local police. The margin of space between passing vehicles is equivalent to the amount of space between the ancient Inca stone masonry. Not even a credit card could slip between. If you dare to ride shotgun, be prepared to fold the side mirror on a moment's notice.  Unless you want to retrieve it from the street. 

Book a hotel in the city center.  Near the Cathedral.  So you can walk everywhere.  It will be faster than driving.  The new cable cars are not designed as a tourist attraction.  They are for workers trying to get between El Alto and La Paz.  

The best reasons to go to Bolivia lie outside the city of La Paz.  Limited infrastructure, rugged countryside, small villages. And trash.  Although rubbish is not a reason to visit Bolivia, you have to be prepared for it.  You see waste in the most undeveloped places.  Empty plastic beverage bottles are the most bountiful.  Like many people who grew up in the 70s, with "Keep America Beautiful" embedded in my core,  I have an ingrained aversion to careless (or intentional) littering.  I couldn't get over the feral landscapes, wild rivers and remote desolate spaces marred by the plastic droppings of modern civilization. But the Bolivians seem to accept it. Trash receptacles are not common & the few I saw were spilling over with litter and clearly not maintained.  It's best to put any sensitivity you have to treading over rubbish in a special place.  And leave it there.

Steps to prepare for travel in Bolivia:

  • choose a reliable operator with reliable vehicles - less than 4% of roads in Bolivia are paved
  • bus travel is common.  But be prepared for delays and breakdowns.  Buses drive over dirt roads and through rivers.
  • guide service might be the single most important decision you make.  Get full time service & make sure your guide is trained to handle car problems, health problems and logistic snafus.
  • it is customary for most Salt Flat tours to NOT include a guide. When we arrived at mud pits with our drivers AND guide, we noticed a Korean guy following us around.  Our guide was explaining things and showing us special spots, not obvious to visitors.  The guy did not know that his tour did not include a guide.  That's why those tours are so cheap. There's only a local driver, who does not speak English.  
  • schedule extra layover time for flights, trains and buses and for transitions between modes of transportation
  • be prepared for activities at high altitude 

Here's a link to Bolivia Travel Part II, where I review specific destinations and activities.