Bolivia is one of the least expensive countries in South America, and considerably cheaper than neighbouring Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Imported goods are expensive, but food, accommodation and transport are all relatively cheap, and travellers on a tight budget should be able to get around on Bs140/$20/£12/€14 per day, staying in basic hotels and eating set meals in local restaurants. For about Bs280 Bs280/$40/£25/€28 per day you can enjoy more comfortable hotels and good food, take taxis when necessary and go on the occasional guided tour. Spend more than Bs490 ($70) per day and you can have a very comfortable trip.
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Things are a bit more expensive in larger cities, especially Santa Cruz, and in isolated regions where goods have to be brought in over long distances. Goods and services aimed specifically at foreign tourists tend to be more expensive, and there is sometimes a tendency to slightly overcharge foreigners – if in doubt, always agree a price in advance before accepting a service. Prices in shops and restaurants tend to be fixed, but there is some room for bargaining in markets, when looking for a hotel room or buying a bus ticket – try asking for a reduction (rebaja). There’s a limit to this, though. Bolivians don’t generally enjoy bargaining for its own sake, and there are few sights more ridiculous than a wealthy gringo haggling vociferously for a tiny discount on an already inexpensive item being sold by a very poor market trader.
Very little provision is made in Bolivia for the disabled. Public transport, hotels and public places such as museums are seldom equipped with ramps, widened doorways or disabled toilets, and pavements, where they exist at all, are often narrow and covered with dangerous potholes and other obstructions.
The electricity supply in most of Bolivia is 220V/50Hz; in La Paz, however, there are both 110V and 220V supplies, often in the same house, so check carefully before plugging in equipment. Plugs are two-pronged with round pins, but US-style flat-pinned plugs can also usually be used.
Most visitors to Bolivia do not need a visa, although the situation does change periodically, so always check with your local embassy or consulate a few weeks before travelling. US citizens require a visa (Bs945/$135); this is available on entry, where it must be paid for in cash, or from a Bolivian embassy or consulate.
On arrival, all travellers are issued with a tourist card (tarjeta de turismo) valid for up to ninety days’ stay for citizens of most EU countries, and up to thirty days for citizens of Australia, Canada and New Zealand; your passport will also be stamped. Make sure you ask for the full ninety days if you need it and are eligible, as border officials sometimes give only thirty days, particularly at remote border crossings. A thirty-day tourist card can be extended to ninety days at the migraciones (immigration offices) in La Paz, Santa Cruz and other major cities; this is free for most nationalities, but costs extra (around Bs175) for Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders; the process usually takes 24 hours.
Border officials may ask for evidence that you have enough money to support yourself during your stay, so be prepared to show a credit card or a wad of travellers’ cheques; keep cash out of sight, as officials have been known to angle for bribes. Tourist cards, as well as entry and exit stamps, are free of charge.
If you want to stay on in Bolivia beyond the ninety-day limit, it’s best to leave the country overland and return the next day, when you’ll be issued with a new tourist card. If you lose your tourist card, go to a migración office to get a new one before you try to leave the country – this involves a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, so it’s best not to lose your card in the first place. If you overstay, you’ll be charged a small fine for each extra day, payable at a migración before you try to leave the country. If you’re leaving Bolivia by a particularly remote border crossing, you may need to get an exit stamp in advance from the migración in the nearest major town. Under-18s travelling to Bolivia without their parents need written parental consent authorized by a Bolivian embassy.
Officially you must carry your passport with you at all times in Bolivia, but away from border areas it’s enough in practice to carry a photocopy of the main page and your tourist card and entry stamps to show police or other officials when necessary.
It’s essential to take out an insurance policy before travelling to cover against theft, loss, illness or injury. A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Bolivia this can mean whitewater rafting, trekking and mountaineering, though probably not kayaking or jeep safaris.
Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, check whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after you return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under £500 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment; in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement (denuncia) from the police.
Like almost everywhere else in the world, Bolivia has seen a huge growth in internet use in recent years and, because few Bolivians have their own computers, this has meant an explosion of internet cafés, especially in places where there are large student populations. Internet cafés tend to charge about Bs3–5 an hour, and sometimes more in remote areas where competition is thin on the ground. The speed of machines and servers usually isn’t very fast, especially outside the main cities.
Some of the better-equipped internet cafés also offer net phone or Skype services, which allow you to make calls via the internet for the same price as if you were just surfing the net – by far the cheapest way of calling home.
Increasing numbers of hotels, cafés, restaurants and bars in the more touristy areas offer free wi-fi access.
In cities and larger towns you’ll find laundries (lavanderías) where you can have your clothes machine-washed for around Bs10-15 per kilo; top end hotels can arrange this for you. Otherwise, most hotels can find someone to wash your clothes by hand if you ask. Some budget hotels have facilities for hand-washing your own clothes.
Living and working in Bolivia
Official requirements to gain residency in Bolivia are complicated and time-consuming, so most travellers who want to stay in the country for longer periods do so informally, leaving Bolivia every ninety days to come back in on a new tourist card.
There are several options available to people looking to work or study in Bolivia. Several cities have language schools where you can study Spanish, Quechua or Aymara, and those with initiative and enthusiasm shouldn’t have much trouble finding voluntary work with one of the large number of NGOs operating in Bolivia. Paid work is more difficult to come by, and getting formal permission to work even more so, but opportunities do exist, particularly for those with valuable skills to offer.
Bolivia is a good place to study Spanish. Bolivian pronunciation is slow and clear, making the language easier to pick up, and tuition costs are lower than in neighbouring countries. Spending one or several weeks on an intensive course is a good way of immersing yourself in Bolivian culture and getting to know a particular city in more detail, and can provide a good reason for living in Bolivia for a while without being a tourist.
La Paz, Sucre and Cochabamba are the most popular places for studying Spanish – language schools are detailed in the listings section for each of these cities in the guide. You’ll also find individual Spanish language teachers offering their services on a one-to-one basis in these cities and in smaller towns around Bolivia. These can be very good, though it’s worth trying a lesson or two before you commit to a long course with a particular teacher. More adventurous linguists can also study Quechua (in Cochabamba) or Aymara (in La Paz).
There are ever-increasing opportunities for volunteering in Bolivia, though most require you to pay for your own food and accommodation and to stay for at least a month. Unless you’re willing to pay the (often high) fees charged by agencies that match volunteers with charities, the best way to find volunteering work is by word of mouth. Ask around in cities like La Paz, Sucre and Cochabamba and you’re likely to find something worthwhile to do if you’re prepared to work for free, especially if you have useful skills to offer. Also try contacting local NGOs – and international ones working in Bolivia – directly. You’ll need a reasonable level of Spanish if you want to do any kind of volunteer work with local communities. A useful website with information on free and low-cost volunteering opportunities throughout South America is wvolunteersouthamerica.net.
One place that does take volunteers on a regular basis is the Parque Machía Inti Wara Yassi animal refuge in Villa Tunari in the Chapare region, east of Cochabamba. Volunteers do everything from maintaining trails and looking after rescued animals to cleaning toilets and showing school children around the park. Conservation-centred tour operator Madidi Travel, on Calle Comercio in Rurrenabaque (t03 8922153, wmadidi-travel.com), also welcomes volunteers to help out with both their Rurrenabaque office and private rainforest reserve; jungle-based volunteers get room and board.
Unless you have arranged something in advance with an international company or non-government organization, your chances of finding paid work in Bolivia are slim. The best bet is teaching English in La Paz, Cochabamba or Santa Cruz, though pay is low unless you get work with the British Council or a similar international agency – this is best arranged in advance. Obviously, work as a teacher is easier to find if you have a formal TEFL qualification. Even if you do find paid employment, getting an official work permit is a costly and long-drawn-out bureaucratic nightmare – contact the migración in La Paz or any other major city for details.
Letters and postcards sent by airmail (por avión) to Europe and North America tend to take between one and two weeks to arrive; the rest of the world outside the Americas and Europe takes longer. Letters cost about Bs10–15 to Europe, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. For a small extra charge, you can send letters certified (certificado), which is more reliable, but even then it’s not a good idea to send anything you can’t afford to lose.
Parcels up to 2kg can be airmailed from major post offices; this costs about Bs100 per kilo to Europe and about half that to North America; the contents must be checked by a customs officer in a post office before being sealed. There’s no point sending anything from small town post offices, as you’ll almost certainly reach the nearest city or large town before your letter or package does. If you have to send anything particularly important or urgent internationally, it’s worth splashing out and using one of the internationally recognized courier services: FedEx and DHL have offices in major cities.
If you wish to receive mail in Bolivia, you can do so through the poste restante service available in most post offices – it’s best to use those in major towns or cities. Have mail sent to “Lista de Correos, Correo Central, the town concerned, Bolivia”, and make sure your surname is written in capitals and as obviously as possible, as your post will be filed under whatever the clerk thinks your surname is; if you suspect something sent to you has gone astray, ask them to check under your first name too. Mail is usually held for about three months, and you’ll need your passport to collect it.
No two maps of Bolivia are identical, and none is absolutely accurate. Most errors are made in the mapping of dirt roads and tracks: some maps mark them incorrectly as proper roads; some miss them out altogether; and many mark roads quite clearly in areas where they have never existed except in the dreams of planners.
It’s worth buying a good map of Bolivia from a specialist map outlet in your home country before you go, as they can be difficult to find in Bolivia itself. That said, you can usually pick up a reasonably good national road map, entitled Bolivia Highlights, from the municipal tourist office in La Paz, and from bookshops and tour agencies in La Paz and other major cities. The best general map of Bolivia is the Travel Map of Bolivia (1:2,200,000), produced by the US company O’Brien Cartographics, which you should be able to find at any good map outlet in your home country. Most good map outlets also sell sectional maps of South America that cover Bolivia reasonably well.
If you’re planning to do any trekking or climbing in the Cordillera Real, O’Brien Cartographics produce an excellent map of that range which you should try to get hold of before you travel. In addition, the Bolivian Instituto Geográfico Militar, or IGM produces maps at a scale of 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 that cover about three-quarters of the country. These are very useful for trekkers or anyone planning to explore more remote areas and can be bought from the Instituto Geográfico Militar in La Paz. They also sell some good smaller-scale maps covering the whole country.
Newspapers are sold in the street and from shops and kiosks in all major towns and cities. In La Paz, the main quality dailies are La Prensa, which has good foreign coverage, the politically conservative El Diario, and the less reliable La Razón. The main provincial cities all have their own newspapers, which have a strongly regional outlook: Los Tiempos in Cochabamba is particularly good. The best of the Santa Cruz papers is El Deber, though its regional outlook is so strong you could be forgiven for thinking La Paz was a minor province of some faraway country, so little attention does it pay to events in the de facto capital. Most Bolivian newspapers now have their own websites. For serious analysis of political, social and economic developments, Bolivians turn to the weekly news magazine Pulso; the fortnightly Juguete Rabioso is also good.
International newspapers and magazines are quite hard to come by, though Time, Newsweek and The Economist are sold in city centres and expensive hotels in La Paz and Santa Cruz.
Radio is the most democratic of Bolivia’s media, and the only one that adequately reflects the country’s cultural diversity, with many of the country’s hundreds of different stations broadcasting in indigenous languages. The leading national news radio station is Radio Fides, which is owned by the Catholic Church and broadcast on different FM frequencies in all the major cities. Other than the internet, carrying a short-wave radio is about the best way of keeping in touch with events back home and in the rest of the world. You can pick up the BBC World Service in English in most of Bolivia (though not in La Paz, where the surrounding mountains block the signal – check wbbc.co.uk/worldservice for frequencies), as well as other international broadcasters.
Bolivians watch a growing amount of television, although many homes are still without a set. There are seven state and numerous private terrestrial channels, mostly serving up an uninspired cocktail of football, news and imported soap operas. Better hotels offer cable or satellite TV, which in bigger cities means up to eighty channels and often include the likes of CNN and BBC World, though in smaller cities local cable networks offer a far more limited selection.
The Bolivian currency is the peso boliviano (Bs), referred to as both the peso and (more commonly) the boliviano. Thanks to the weakness of the Bolivian economy the boliviano remains extremely vulnerable to devaluation, and many businesses in Bolivia effectively operate in US dollars. Tour operators and many hotels quote their prices in US dollars rather than bolivianos, accepting payment in either currency. Otherwise, it’s usual to pay for everything in bolivianos – indeed most places won’t accept anything else.
Notes come in denominations of 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5 bolivianos; coins in denominations of 1 and 2 bolivianos (these look very similar), and of 5, 10, 20 and 50 centavos. At the time of writing the exchange rates were roughly:
£1 = Bs11
$1 = Bs7
€1 = Bs10
You can check current exchange rates in any Bolivian newspaper or online at wxe.com/ucc.
The best way to carry money in Bolivia is to have your funds in several different formats – a credit card (or cards), some travellers’ cheques and some cash dollars hidden away for emergencies – so that if one lets you down you can turn to another. The easiest way to access funds is using plastic. Banks in all major cities and larger towns are connected to the nationwide Enlace network of ATMs, from which you can withdraw cash in US dollars or bolivianos using a credit or debit card – Enlace machines accept both Visa and Mastercard. Other than in the most expensive shops and restaurants (and in some hotels and tour agencies), credit and debit cards can rarely be used to pay for services directly – where they are, Visa is the most widely accepted, followed by Mastercard; American Express cards are rarely used.
Outside cities and larger towns, debit and credit cards and travellers’ cheques are pretty much useless, so it’s important to carry plenty of cash with you when you head to rural areas. US dollars can be changed into bolivianos at banks and by street money-changers almost everywhere in the country, and are a good way of carrying emergency back-up funds – even if there are no official money-changers around, you can usually find someone to change dollars at a reasonable rate by asking around in shops or hotels.
Small change is in chronic short supply in Bolivia and people are often reluctant to accept larger-denomination bills, so it’s best to break them at every opportunity – in big shops, hotels and bus company offices. You should also be wary of forged notes – dollars and bolivianos – particularly if changing money on the streets.
Opening hours and public holidays
Shops, businesses and public offices in Bolivia generally open Monday to Saturday from around 8.30am or 9.30am. They mostly close for a long lunch break between about noon and 2pm (even longer in some regions), and then open again until around 5.30pm to 7pm. Some offices, however, have adopted a newer system, known as hora corrida, whereby they work straight though from 8.30am to 4pm without closing for lunch.
Banks’ opening hours are generally Monday to Friday from 8.30am to noon and 2.30pm to 5pm, and on Saturdays in the morning. Public museums usually open on Sundays for at least half the day, and close instead on Mondays. All these times are approximate, though: Bolivians aren’t noted for their punctuality, and public offices in particular often open later and close earlier than they are supposed to; conversely, private businesses, particularly those connected with tourism, often work longer hours and open on Sundays. If you’re arranging to meet a Bolivian, make it somewhere you don’t mind waiting around, as they’re unlikely to turn up on time. Note that during public holidays and local fiestas pretty much everything closes down.
Bolivia’s phone system is now fairly efficient. The Bolivian national telephone company, ENTEL, has offices in all cities and most towns where you can make local, national and international calls. ENTEL offices are usually open daily from around 8am to 8pm, sometimes longer. Local calls are very cheap, and long-distance national calls are moderately priced, but international calls are relatively expensive, though costs are coming down. You can also use a cardphone, which are found on the streets of most towns. The cost of either method is the same. You can buy a phone card (tarjeta telefonica) at ENTEL offices and in shops and street stalls throughout Bolivia. Phone calls to North America and Europe cost around Bs1 per minute, and a little more to Australia and New Zealand.
You’ll also find a small number of coin-operated phones in most towns. Most departments also have their own regional telephone cooperatives that have their own networks of cardphones. These are sometimes cheaper for local calls, though no good for international or national long-distance calls. Many shops and kiosks also have phones from which you can make short local calls for a small fee.
Mobile phones are widely used in large towns and cities, and coverage is improving in rural areas. If you want to use one while in Bolivia, the easiest option is to bring your own phone from home and buy a Bolivian SIM card (“chip”) from one of the several mobile network operators – such as Viva, Tigo or the ubiquitous ENTEL – which you can then top up with credit. Annoyingly, foreigners can only – officially at least – buy SIM cards from bigger branches of the mobile companies, which tend to be in the larger towns or cities; take your passport. SIMs are often free if you buy credit (from Bs15) at the same time.
Collect call and phone cards If your home phone operator has an arrangement with ENTEL, you can phone home collect using a telephone charge card. This enables you to make calls from most public and private phones in Bolivia by dialling an international operator. The calls are charged to your own account back home. It’s worth having one of these cards, if only for emergencies. To get a card and PIN, and to find out rates, contact your domestic operator before you leave (see Useful websites).
The light in Bolivia is very bright, particularly at high altitudes, so use fast (100 ASA) film and a UV polarizing filter. In the highlands, the best times to take photos are early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the sunlight is not too harsh. Under the forest canopy in the lowlands, on the other hand, light is poor, so you need to use slow film. Taking photos of people without permission can offend, particularly in rural areas. It’s best to ask politely (“Puedo sacar una fotito?” – “Can I take a little photo?”); most people react favourably to this approach, though some may refuse outright or ask for a small fee.
Bolivia is four hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, an hour ahead of US Eastern Standard Time.
Bolivia has no national tourist offices. Although you can sometimes get limited tourist information from some of the country’s embassies, you’ll probably find that tour companies who run trips to Bolivia are a better bet. The internet is another good source of information, and a growing number of websites offer everything on the country from hard facts to trivia and travellers’ tales.
Most major Bolivian cities have a regional tourism office, either run by the city municipality or by the departmental prefecture. Some are fairly helpful, handing out free leaflets and doing their best to answer questions (though rarely in English). Others offer a much more limited service, though you should at least be able to get a plan of the city from them. Local Bolivian tour operators are generally a good source of information, and many are happy to answer queries, often in English, though obviously their main aim is to sell you one of their tours. Finally, the best source of information is often word of mouth from fellow travellers.