New Years Eve is celebrated differently depending on where you are in the country.
In the highlands it tends to be a lot more of a family affair. Families celebrate together in their homes, enjoying a few drinks and a lot of food. Some young adults go out dancing and drinking, but not until at least 1am.
In the lowlands the attitude is a lot more western. People tend to celebrate with their friends in wild and extended fiestas.
We spent New Years in Samaipata, a small touristy town about three hours drive away from the biggest lowland city of Santa Cruz. Ten of thousands of Cruceños (people from Santa Cruz) descend upon the normally sleepy town which creates a festive atmosphere.
In true Latino style, most people didn’t go out until after 11pm. Fireworks were the midnight attraction in the main plaza, and were let off extremely liberally and precariously close to passers-by. The wealthy Cruceños who hired out cabañas (holiday homes) in the surrounding hills had the most impressive displays. They try to outdo each other by letting off huge industrial strength fireworks that can be seen and heard for miles around. The rest of the night people celebrate in their Cabañas or privately run dance parties around town.
A lot of people were still partying in the plaza at 10am when I woke up the next morning. By afternoon it was absolutely packed with revelers. I’m not sure if these people had taken it relatively easy on New Years Eve to save themselves for New Years Day, or if they had just continued partying right through the night. Bolivian’s are pretty serious drinkers so I wouldn’t be surprised. There were also a few younger Cruceños suspiciously getting in and out of their luxury cars to indulge in illicit substances. We even saw the middle aged owner of our hotel staggering around, barely able to keep himself upright. The main plaza remained a buzz with activity right into the night.
On January 2nd it bucketed down rain for hours on end, bad enough for landslides to block off the road to Santa Cruz. It must have been pretty serious because it took almost three days for the road to open again. Workers refused to clear the road until it stopped raining for fear of another landslide. They had a point, as one of their bulldozers was later washed off the edge of a cliff during the cleanup. A lot of people were desperate to get home and took transport to the landslide, crossed it on foot and took another taxi waiting on the other side. We were told that some people died trying to do this but the stories later turned out to be untrue. We tried our luck to return to La Paz by a different route but all the buses were full.
The road finally opened again on Sunday night. Tens of thousands of Cruceños had to get back to work on Monday so the normal 3 hour journey to Santa Cruz took 9 hours, almost all of which was spent waiting in a queue with the engines off.
Samaipata is a great place to spend time over New Years Eve if you are looking for somewhere lively. If you want something more peaceful than one of the many Cabañas surrounding the town are a good option. The downside is it’s so popular that accommodation becomes scarce and expensive. All the best places (mid to high range) book out months in advance, so try to book ahead. Internets bookings are non existent so you will need to phone and probably make a bank deposit (spanish required). If you want to avoid the noise and parties it’s best to stay a few blocks away from the main plaza.
Getting a budget room last minute is not impossible however. We managed to find a bed by simply turning up on the 30th and looking around. New Years Eve prices (and some surrounding days depending on the policy of the hotel) are typically 3-5 times higher than normal. We paid around US$30 per night during 31st-2nd and US$11 for the other nights for very basic backpacker style accommodation.