SAFETY ADVISORY: Bolivia as at 29/04/13

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America.

Although it is rich in mineral and energy resources (it is has the second largest reserve of natural gas in South America), there are disputes over how best to exploit these.

Incidents of political and social unrest have been reported in the past year. In March, a general strike was held in Oruro, south of La Paz, following a decision by the local assembly to rename the regional airport after current president Evo Morales. The protests brought parts of the city to a standstill and blocked some of the main roads in the region.

INSI is issuing the following safety advisory for journalists travelling in Bolivia.

Overall crime and safety situation

Crime threats

Most major cities in Bolivia have medium threat ratings for crime, while Santa Cruz remains high on the threat rating scale. Violent crimes, such as assault and robberies, against foreigners are statistically low but do occur. Generally foreigners can walk the streets in most areas of major cities without becoming a victim of crime if they take reasonable precautions.

The following crimes are the most common:

Vehicle theft ia a significant and pervasive problem throughout Bolivia. Unattended vehicles are broken into, and the computer modules, spare tyres, stereos, headrests and other items of value are often stolen. Such crimes are no longer exclusive to business and shopping districts; they also occur in residential areas. Carjacking and vehicle theft remain the most common crimes in Santa Cruz.

Street crime is common, particularly in markets and commercial districts of major cities. Pick-pocketing, purse snatching, the slashing of bags and clothes pockets, and the theft of jewellry and mobile phones are reported almost daily by tourists and visitors. In La Paz, the area near the San Francisco church is particularly affected by this activity. Other areas in La Paz such as the black market, markets on Sagarnaga Street and Sopocachi Street, and municipal bus stations/terminals are notorious for this. Thieves typically operate in groups of two or more. Usually, one or two members of the group will create a distraction (i.e. an argument, a staged fight, a blocked passage on a sidewalk, a cut to the face with a razor, or an unknown liquid thrown on the victim) and other members of the team rob the victim. This modus operandi has also been very successful at the airports in La Paz and Santa Cruz.

Road safety

Road conditions are hazardous outside the major cities. Of the 42,815km of roads in Bolivia, less than five percent are paved. Of the remainder, one-third are topped with gravel, and the rest (approximately 60 percent of all the roads in country) are poorly maintained dirt. Many winding stretches of road through mountainous areas are poorly lighted, lack guard rails, traffic signs and designated traffic lanes.

Additionally, the general disregard for traffic laws combined with the dangerous road conditions makes driving particularly dangerous. Accidents involving pedestrians are common in both urban and rural areas especially since motorists have little regard for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycle/moped drivers. Drunk driving is not uncommon.

Roads can be hazardous during the rainy season (December to March) when rock slides and road and bridge washouts are common. The mountainous areas pose even greater challenges to road travel with weather conditions varying from blizzards to heavy rain storms, and narrow, unpaved roads blocked by rock and mud slides.

The North Yungas road, which runs from La Paz northeast toward Coroico and Caranavi, has been dubbed "The World’s Most Dangerous Road" and has become a hub for thrill-seeking mountain cyclists. The road has claimed its share of vehicle accidents and fatalities to live up to its reputation. Roads north of La Paz and passing through Guanay, Mapiri, Consata, Apolo, and Sorata are also dangerous due to landslides and narrow roadways traversing sheer cliffs. Many of the roads in the Beni province have no bridges over rivers and streams.

Consider that most roads are rarely patrolled by police, are lightly travelled and there are many isolated stretches between villages, so it could be difficult to find help if there is a breakdown or an accident.

Public transport is poor, except along the more frequently travelled routes where roads have been upgraded and maintained (i.e. La Paz to Cochabamba, Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, and La Paz to Oruro). The bus service along these routes is generally safe. Urban bus transportation is considered risky for foreigners, with frequent incidents of theft and robbery reported. INSI advises against taking the bus unless in pressing circumstances.

Taxis are generally poorly maintained and operated by drivers working part-time. It is recommended to take radio taxis within larger cities.

Travel along less used routes is considered dangerous due to poor roads, reckless drivers, and poorly maintained buses and trucks. INSI advises thorough planning if required to do these journeys.

Civil unrest

Demonstrations, roadblocks, protests, and other forms of civil unrest are common. Generally these have been non-violent and directed against the Government of Bolivia (GOB) and foreigners have only had to deal with disruption to transport. Some common areas for civil disturbances in La Paz include:

•  The Prado area

•  Student plaza

•  Main highway toll booth area in El Alto

•  Plaza San Francisco

•  Plaza Murillo

•  Bridge of the Americas

•  Plaza Bolivia (across from the Radisson Hotel)

•  Plaza Garita de Lima

•  Sopocachi (road blockages)

•  Obrajes (road blockages, marches)


Traditional kidnapping for ransom is not a problem in Boliva, however reports of 'express kidnappings' are common. In some cases, a victim using an ATM machine (usually at night) is forced into a nearby vehicle at knife or gunpoint and driven to various ATMS to exhaust the maximum withdrawals. In other cases, victims leaving clubs, bars or restaurants are driven to remote locations by taxi drivers and robbed or taken to various ATMs.

'Express kidnappings' are on the rise. INSI's advice is to use only radio taxis hailed from a reputable source.

Security forces and police

Bolivian security forces have limited resources, particularly outside major cities. In many cases, officers assigned to the smaller villages and towns do not have a vehicle to respond to traffic accidents or criminal activity. Even when such resources are available, response is extremely slow. Foreigners are advised to cooperate with the police if stopped or questioned. If you are involved in a traffic accident or become a victim of crime you may be required to accompany the investigating officer to the local police station to file a complaint or respond to questions. Should a police report be required for an insurance claim, a nominal fee will be charged. The police emergency telephone number is 911 and/or 110.

Medical emergencies

The altitude of Bolivia could pose a risk to those suffering from respiratory or circulatory conditions (La Paz is approximately 12,000 feet above sea level and the airport in El Alto is approximately 13,400 feet above sea level). Altitude sickness is also common. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness and exhaustion.

Those with severe anemia (especially sickle cell anemia or sickle cell trait) should not visit La Paz. Those with mild to moderate heart or lung disease should consult with their physicians before visiting La Paz.

Adapting to the altitude normally requires only a few days. Travellers should limit their physical activity for 48 to 72 hours after arrival in La Paz and avoid alcohol and tobacco for at least a week after arrival.

Local hospitals and clinics

Medical care in large cities is adequate for most purposes but of varying quality. Medical facilities, even in La Paz, are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions, such as cardiac problems. INSI advises journalists to look up available medical facilities before travelling.

Note: The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and safety advice. They are meant to assist the international traveller in being prepared to work in Bolivia and are not meant to be negative in nature. If they cause offence to anyone, sincerest apologies are offered in advance. INSI holds no responsibility for any ensuing problems as a result of this advice.

Adapted from source: BSG LLC


Photo: Aymaras Indigenous collect their harvest of oats in Huarina on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Monday, April 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)