Stay Safe in Bolivia: Crime, Scams & Protests

Although Bolivia has one of the lowest crime rates in South America, there are a few crime hotspots and scams. Here's what you need to look out for.

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Street vendors in La Paz, Bolivia Photo © iStock/Starcevic

Petty & Violent Crime

Petty crime, like pickpocketing and theft, is common – so be aware of your surroundings at all times. This is especially true in the locations popular with visitors: La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Copacabana, and Oruro – particularly during festival times.

Thefts at ATMs are also becoming increasingly common, with many of them resulting in assaults. Avoid withdrawing cash especially at night and in secluded or isolated locations.

More violent crimes in Bolivia include express kidnappings, which typically involve criminals targeting a foreigner, taking them hostage and driving from ATM to ATM forcing them to withdraw money.

The areas where kidnappings are most likely to occur in La Paz include Plaza Abaroa, Plaza Humbolt (Zona Sur), Plaza Isabel La Católica, Plaza del Estudiante, Plaza San Francisco, and the Altiplano, as well as the downtown area of the city.

The typical scenario involves the unsuspecting victim boarding a taxi in which the driver is an accomplice. The criminals then also hop in the taxi and proceed to rob, assault and hold the victim hostage. For this reason, it's recommended that you always use reputable cab companies.

Tourists are advised to avoid the Coronilla Hill in Cochabamba, located near the main bus terminal. This area has become a haven for drug addicts and alcoholics and is dangerous for both foreigners and locals.

A strong police presence has yet to deter the criminal activity, so you're best to steer clear. Additionally, the tourist site of Rurrenabaque has become a popular site for thieves to target lone travelers taking motorbike taxis, so be particularly diligent when visiting this area.

Cameras and binoculars are favorites of thieves in the Chapare and the Yungas areas, so hold on to them tightly. Car jackings are also on the rise in these 2 locations.

Drug Crime in Bolivia

There is an ongoing drug problem in Bolivia, particularly since it happens to be the third largest cocaine producer in the world.

As a consequence, there are strict laws and penalties for anyone guilty of trafficking or possessing an illegal substance. Offenders could face a minimum prison sentence of eight years.

Dangers After Dark

As with many travel destinations, certain areas pose a greater threat of crime than others, as do certain times of day. Bolivia is a country where traveling after dark is particularly dangerous so caution should be exercised to avoid potential safety issues.

Bolivia's vibrant and colorful culture provides a pretty exciting nightlife. But as much fun as you may be having, keep in mind that there are laws in place prohibiting alcohol service after 4 am.

You'll certainly find a number of speakeasies that don't honor this law, but there are strict penalties enforced on anyone caught at one of these establishments. The risk multiplies when drugs are present, so don't party too much or you may find yourself facing criminal charges.

Cocaine bars can be found in La Paz and they generally target foreigners. Cocaine consumption and trafficking are illegal in Bolivia which can lead to you seeing the inside of a jail cell for a very long time.

Travel to and within Copacabana is advised to be done during daylight hours. Bus travel from Copacabana to La Paz overnight is especially dangerous and should be avoided.

While it is supposed to be a non-stop trip to the La Paz bus terminal, shady bus drivers are often in cahoots with criminal taxi drivers, and purposely stop short of the destination, ejecting the confused passengers and leaving them with no choice but to hail taxis. Once inside the taxis, victims are robbed of their valuables.

Scams to Watch Out for in Bolivia

Cunning criminals have developed successful scams in an attempt to steal from unsuspecting tourists in Bolivia. Here are three of the more popular ones to watch out for:

1. The "Spilled Substance" Scam

This is a pretty simple, straightforward petty theft scam. A stranger will "accidently" spill something on you (mustard, sauce, etc.) and then another person will come along and offer to help you clean up. While doing so, they will also relieve you of your valuables. If someone drops something on you, handle the clean-up yourself.

2. The "False Police" Scam

This con involves criminals posing as police officers, complete with uniforms, realistic-looking identification and even false building fronts that appear to be police stations. These phoney "officers" target foreigners and "arrest" them, often for supposed drug trafficking, and demand payment of a fine on the spot or that you hand over your identification (which they will quickly make off with).

If you are ever approached by an officer and aren't sure whether they are legitimate, demand to see a warrant and contact your Embassy immediately. Bus terminals and other busy tourist areas are popular spots for this scam.

3. The "False Tourist" Scam

In this scam, a friendly fellow "tourist" will approach you and try to befriend you. He or she may suggest you go with them to a friend's home. Don't go - if you do, you will likely be kidnapped and robbed.

Another variation involves some phony police officers (in cahoots with the "tourist") accusing your new-found friend of drug possession. They will take both of you to the "station" where all of your belongings will be confiscated.

If you meet someone on the street in Bolivia, no matter how nice they seem, be polite but keep going. It's not worth the risk.

You should also note that counterfeit banknotes are often circulated so you're advised to only exchange money at reputable places.

Tour Safety in Bolivia

Many of the tours in Bolivia such as 4WD'ing to Salar de Uyuni, day trips by bike outside of La Paz and others have become popular with tourists, which supports the local economy. However, not all operators have your safety as their priority so it pays to ask around and do your research before booking.

Some operators offer tours of local prisons. These are highly illegal not to mention dangerous. It is strongly advised to avoid these lest you wish to end up with the ultimate experience behind bars.

The Political Climate in Bolivia

Though financially one of the poorest in the world, Bolivia is one of the richest in terms of natural resources. There is also a generally optimistic attitude among the people, however, protests and demonstrations are commonplace throughout the country.

While these gatherings are generally peaceful, they can (and often do) turn violent quickly so you should do your best to avoid them.

Road blockades are often put up – do not attempt to cross one and get yourself out of the area as quickly as possible.

You may find yourself on the receiving end of a rock thrown by a protester. Police and government authorities can and will use force to disband protests, including tear gas. 

If you decide to join in, do so at your own risk (and without insurance cover).

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11 Comments

  • Blue Wolf said

    Then not going to Bolivia is the best solution.

  • Archie22is said

    @Blue Wolf I am going :-p

    I think avoiding the cities and exploring the rest of the countryside is not such a bad idea. I have learned that unless you're looking at the USA or Europe (some parts), most cities have nothing to offer really – it's the rest of the country outside the cities that will melt your heart.

  • Wilson said

    Blue Wolf, Bolivia is an amazing country and is seriously worth going. I havd had three 3 month trips there throughout my life, 9 months in total, and I have never had a problem there.

  • inLaPaz said

    This is clearly written by someone that has never been to Bolivia as there are so many factually incorrect statements or just stupid statements. (ive lived here 14 years so know alot more than who ever wrote this)

    for example "Bus travel from Copacabana to La Paz overnight is especially dangerous and should be avoided." - there is no bus travel at night from Copa to La Paz as the ferries across the Tiquina straits stop / arent allowed during the dark so you cant get across to be able to drive there.
    Yes you can travel leaving about 5/6pm but it is not especially dangerous because of the time what so ever.

    Then the "The areas where kidnappings are most likely to occur in La Paz include Plaza Abaroa, Plaza Humbolt (Zona Sur), Plaza Isabel La Católica, Plaza del Estudiante, Plaza San Francisco, and the Altiplano, as well as the downtown area of the city." - nonsense. You have just listed Plazas. They arent likely places for kidnappings all and the you add onto that list "downtown" which is basically all central la paz and "the altiplano" which is the name for the entire upper plain that sweeps from Copacabana right down to Potosi - its like 20% of the country!

    I could go on but cant be bothered. nonsense

  • Lynda Britton said

    I think the key phrase here is "Bolivia has one of the lowest crime rates in S. America". Come on why does this article even relate to Bolivia?

  • Soy_Paceño said

    I have lived in Bolivia for nearly a decade and not once me or my family neither friends have been assaulted. A peaceful country. The author needs to experience Bolivia more before copy pasting internet news. Every city town country in the world has it's share of crime. But don't exaggerate it. Total rubbish!!!

  • John said

    The people who aren't being honest are the ones who are saying they have lived here for 10 years and never had a problem. Really ? Probably because you don't live there and never have. I too experienced problems there. Nothing I couldn't handle, but still to pretend like this country isn't unsafe is proposterous.

  • Jin said

    Wait wait wait, kidnappings in Plaza HumbolDt?? That is where I live more than 30 years and never heard of a crime. Actually is a nice meeting point where you can get flowers and paintings from locals. Do you want to make money doing articles with wrong information? too bad, you should get a talent.

  • Ethan Carty said

    Don't waste your time arguing in the comments guys. And to the guys saying that u lived the for 10 years or 30 years why would you be reading this?

  • Daniel Deilgat said

    Bolivia has a low crime rate because crime fighting statistics are deficient.

    This said, Bolivia is a rich country in natural resources, most people are kind and friendly, much better than Chicago for example, but crime has different dynamics there, people steal because they are poor as oppose to North American criminals that steal and kill because they want to get richer.

    Traveling to Bolivia is not like traveling to a resort in the Caribbeans. While Mexico is a little more westernized than Bolivia, crime has a different sophistication and is often much more dangerous.

    What makes it less appealing and worthy of more considerations, to travel to Bolivia is the fact that the legal system lacks the sophistication of better established countries.

    If you decide to go to Bolivia, you will have a great trip, but like travels to any other country, learn the risks and the rewards first.

    Your camera is probably not safe in your own home just as well as in Bolivia so don't fret too much about it.


  • Kookoo said

    Honestly the people in the comments are overexaggerating about how safe bolivia is. Yall talking about "nothing's ever happened to me here". Lol I've been in Michoacan for months and I have not once ever been assaulted. Does that mean I'm going to underestimate michoacan?? Fuck no! Lol I bet 90% of the commentors are tourists or people who live in the rich rich area of bolivia

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