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Bolivia: Transportation
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Services > Transportation


Inadequate and costly transportation, a result of the country's rugged terrain and scattered population, persisted as a major obstacle to faster growth and development in the late 1980s. Bolivia's access to foreign markets has been hampered since the loss of its Pacific Ocean ports in the War of the Pacific (1879- 80). The country's various geographical obstacles and inadequate transportation infrastructure also have hindered economic activity, especially after the latter shifted from the highlands to the lowlands. Although the infrastructure has grown significantly since the 1952 Revolution, an adequate network of integrated transportation systems was still distant in the late 1980s, as was the large external financing it would require.

Bolivia's road system accounted for the overwhelming share of domestic transportation. In 1988 the nation had over 41,000 kilometers of roads, 3 percent of which were paved, 16 percent generally gravel, and 81 percent dirt. La Paz's steep and narrow streets were primarily cobblestone. The National Road Service (Servicio Nacional de Caminos -- Senac), established in 1964 when there were only 3,000 kilometers of roads, supervised road construction and maintenance. Observers criticized Senac for haphazard road development and substandard road maintenance, especially along the backbone of the paved system, the 560- kilometer Cochabamba-Santa Cruz highway to repave this highway, the main access to the agricultural frontier. In addition, the winding mountain roads were poorly maintained and lacked such safety features as guard rails. Mountain and lowland roads were often impassable during the rainy season. Many blamed the rapid deterioration of roads on too-heavy, poorly maintained trucks and buses. Government policies were aimed at enlarging and improving the network of roads in the lowlands, particularly the Chapare, and connecting La Paz with Santos, Brazil, by paved road.

At least 110,000 vehicles were registered in the late 1980s, including about 71,000 automobiles or light vehicles, 30,000 heavy trucks, and 9,000 buses. In addition, the government reported about 50,000 motorbikes, 18,000 jeeps, 27,000 vans, and 37,000 light or flatbed trucks. Flotas (large buses) operated primarily in rural areas, and micros (small buses) operated throughout the country; taxis existed in larger cities. Many Indians in the highlands, however, still used llamas as a main means of transporting loads, such as market produce.

The most important transport system for external trade, excluding gas and oil pipelines, was the railroad. The country's rail system grew in stride with the tin industry, and the first railroad from Oruro to Antofagasta, Chile, opened in the 1880s the first Atlantic-Pacific railroad in South America. The Bolivian government also contemplated another transoceanic railroad linking Santa Cruz to Cochabamba and thus integrating its Andean and lowland railroads.

Air travel was common in Bolivia because of the great physical barriers that partitioned the country. The government's Administration of Airports and Aerial Navigation Auxiliary Services (Administración de Aeropuertos y Servicios Auxiliares de la Navegación Aérea -- AASANA) managed the country's thirty-two official airports, only six of which had paved runways. Bolivia had two international airports: Kennedy International Airport outside La Paz (the highest commercial airport in the world) and Viru-Viru in Santa Cruz. There were also an estimated 800 unofficial airstrips, particularly in the lowlands. Many of these were clandestine airstrips used in narcotics trafficking.

Most air activity consisted of domestic and international travel and freight, such as beef exports. The frequent need to rely on air transportation for both domestic and international freight explained the high cost of transportation in general. Lloyd Bolivian Airline (Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano -- LAB), owned both by the government and by private interests, was the country's main airline and carried over 70 percent of all domestic passengers -- over 1 million passengers a year -- in the 1980s. LAB serviced most Bolivian cities, most major Latin American cities, and many other international destinations. Argentine, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Paraguayan, United States, and West German airlines maintained flights to and from Bolivia. Military Air Transports (Transportes Aéreos Militares -- TAM) also served as a carrier for about 50,000 domestic passengers a year in Trinidad, Riberalta, and Guayaramerín oversaw the 360 craft that used the nation's rivers. Most vessels were under fifty tons. In 1988 Bolivia signed an agreement -- also approved by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay -- that guaranteed the free passage of ships on the Paraná and Paraguay rivers.

In the late 1980s, Bolivia used the ports and warehousing facilities at Arica and Antofagasta in Chile, Matarani and Ilo in Peru, and Santos in Brazil as its major outlets to the sea. In addition, Bolivia was granted free port facilities in Rosario, Argentina; Nueva Palmira, Uruguay; and Belém, Brazil. Nevertheless, Bolivia continued to negotiate with its neighbors about access to its former seaports, long a matter of national pride for the country.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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