Bargains and Beauty in Bolivia

southern Bolivia tour

For those who want to get straight to the superlatives, Bolivia is still the cheapest country to visit in South America—if you’re staying long enough to offset the exorbitant visa fee for some nationalities.

Bolivia is my last stop in updating the upcoming 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, out the first week of January. I’m not going to do a full-blown “Travel prices in…” post here because after a few days on my own in Sucre and Potosi, I joined up with an organized tour that went off the grid for five days. That was in the area around the alien Salar de Uyuni salt flat and in the little-visited region between there and Chile.

Bolivia travel
But to give you an idea of prices, I’ve put some examples below for illustration. Here’s the catch though: like a few other countries in South America, Bolivia makes itself feel better by following a tit-for-tat policy on visa fees. If the USA charges Bolivians $135 to apply for a visa, with all the security checks and interviews that entails, then by God Bolivia is going to charge Americans the same, even though there are no background check expenses. The money is just pocketed, amounting to a tourist tax. So factor that into your budget if you’re from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and some others. Check your own state department website.

I have been seeing loads of backpackers here, especially from the countries that don’t have to pay a high fee to visit. So the infrastructure for budget travelers is good, with plenty of cheap hotels, backpacker tour companies arranging adventure excursions, and restaurants/bars aimed at travelers. You might not want to make this your first stop though: La Paz is the highest capital in the world and Potosi is more than 12,000 feet. Brutal if you’re coming from sea level.

Sample travel prices in Bolivia, converted from Bolivianas to U.S. dollars:

My private room was $8.50 in Sucre (at Wasi Masi, booked through Hostelbookers). It had Wi-Fi, a private hot water bath, a desk, comfy bed, and breakfast. There was a TV/reading room as well, with a huge book exchange.

In Potosi there are only three hotels that charge more than $50 a night and in Uyuni, launching point for the salt flat, it’s hard to find a place that charges more than $40. Dorm beds in Bolivia are frequently $4 or less and many places have kitchens.

You can go online at an internet cafe for two or three hours for $1. A dollar will get you a 10-minute call home as well if you don’t use Skype.

The regular bus I took from Sucre to Potosi (three hours) was around $2.50 and had assigned seats. Had I been able to get a nicer first class one, that would have been around $5.

llama

Laundry washed and dried is a dollar a kilo.

Set menu lunches are frequently $2 or less at simple restaurants, with $1 ones found in local markets.

Indulging your sweet tooth is cheap here. Two scoops on a cone at a good ice cream shop is 65 cents. Many ice cream novelties in a convenience store are less than 50 cents. Bolivia makes great quality chocolates for half what you’d pay in Bariloche and a fifth of what you would pay in Switzerland.

An empanada or some variation on the street is usually 50 cents or less. Packets of peanuts and bags of popcorn are 30 cents.

travel prices

Drinking here is less of a bargain. Typical bar prices are $1.50 to $3 for a beer of 300ml to a liter. Cocktails are $2 to $4. Wine from Chile or Argentina is about 1/3 less in the supermarket than you would pay in the U.S., but has less of a mark-up in restaurants. The sign above is for typical take-out prices, with $1 equal to 7 bolivianos.

Museum admissions seldom, top $1 unless there’s a guided tour included and many are free.

Comments
  1. Wade K.

    I’d definitely consider Sucre, Cochabamba, or Tarija for retirement if Evo Morales didn’t make Americans jump through hoops to spend more than 90 days a year there.

    • Wade K.

      Dang it, this Bolivia post has been gnawing at me since you posted it! I’ve been planning to retire in Mexico in 2 years, but think I’m going to, at least for a few years, split my time between Bolivia and Peru, with a trip or two to Salta, Argentina. Who knows, may end up there permanently. Thanks Tim, great blog!

  2. Girts

    La Paz is more expensive than Peru i was shocked cause i was expecting everything to cost less…La Paz – eat out – meat soup in a market 25 bol = 4.40$ thats not cheap,(in Peru, menu. in a market 1.5$) the same handcrafts in Peru cheaper by 30% , and since i went from La Paz – Oruro – Uyuni i did not experience the cheapness of Bolivia , in fact in my mind right now Bolivia is not cheap at all… but Chile of course is a different story it’s like you suddenly cross a border to Europe! :D

    • Wade K.

      Currently 6.9B’s to the Dollar. Just a rough calculation but that’s closer to $3.50 or so. Not interested in La Paz to live but if Peru is that much cheaper I’ll look at Arequipa. Very interested in Huanchaco too. And if the whole area get’s too expensive will probably head to Guatemala.

      • Wade K.

        Just checked recent posts on the Thorn Tree. They are saying Peru and Bolivia are the cheapest in South America with Bolivia the cheapest.

        • Wade K.

          Was just reading about piezas in Tarija, rooms for rent averaging $70 to $100 a month with shared or private bath. Have read of similar rooms in Cochabamba. That Tarija blog post said they were confident a single person can live on $600 or less in Tarija, and I’ve read that Tarija is more expensive than Sucre due to it’s recent growth with the natural gas development in the department.

          • Tim Leffel

            Bolivia’s a bargain place to live, but as with Peru, they don’t make it easy to put down roots there if you’re not married to a local. It’s much easier in Ecuador, which is not much more in terms of daily expenses.

    • Tim Leffel

      In my travels to Peru and Bolivia, I’ve found handicraft prices uniformly less in Bolivia unless you’re terribly bad at bargaining. If you’re buying really nice stuff though, like baby alpaca sweaters or scarves, better to get them in Peru.

  3. Wade K.

    For me it’s ultimately about the place, not the country, since that’s where I’ll be living. Sucre, Tarija, Cochabamba in Bolivia. Huanchaco and Arequipa, Peru. Salta, Argentina and a few outlying towns. Cuenca and Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. Tarija especially appeals because there’s a shuttle service to Salta. But then Cochabamba has a 16 screen theater situated in a large entertainment and dining complex. That’s the irony of Bolivia, the continent’s poorest country with pockets of excellent livability. There’s even a small town a long way from anywhere, Samaipata, that’s a popular excellent expat and backpacker hangout, that now has 3G cell service.

  4. Solavei

    That lion is a work of art!

  5. Jeffe

    Was in Bolivia and Colombia a few weeks in Feb 2013
    Did not care for la paz/el alto. Simply put ugly. Graffiti everywhere.
    Cochabamba on the other hand is ideal for me. Weather, low prices, and lets not forget the most important ingredient, it’s people. Bolivians I encountered were very pleasant.I felt safe the entire 3 weeks there. Have ad great food coffee and salsa lessons very cheap. The Colombiais way to expensive and aggressive for me.

  6. Raquel

    Hi there. I’m a 38 year old female who is the daughter of a Bolivian woman who has since become a U.S. Citizen but who is working on being a duo citizen. Mom is retiring soon and is wanting to buy a house in Cocha and to retire there. Since I am not married and have no kids, I was thinking of making the move as well. I gotta say, I have worked as a licensed esthetician in Beverly Hills and have done well as an independent contractor but I’m not so sure whether I would be able to find a job in my field there. My Spanish is not perfect which is a concern for me. I wanted to ask what other choices would an ‘American’ like me have as far a work. I thought about being an English tutor but I’m not sure whether I can survive with the pay. Also, I practice Hinduism and wasn’t sure whether there were any temples there. I did find a Hare Krishna Temple in Tiquipaya which is nice but I haven’t found one in Cochabamba.

    Anyway, if anyone can help me out I would be very grateful.

    Thank you for reading this. :))

    Raquel

  7. melissa

    Hey Raquel…I am moving to Bolivia soon also, I have an online job working for OpenEnglish, the pay is terrible for american standards, but you would be making about the same as a Doctor in Bolivia….check it out.

    • Raquel

      Hi Melissa, can you please send me a link?

      Thank you.

      Raquel.

  8. Harry

    Actually tourist visa fees only apply to Americans out the OECD countries which is due to bad relations as a result of America’s war on drugs. Israelis now pay a tourist visa fee because Morales isn’t happy with their conflict with Palestine. It has been very easy and cheap for me to receive residency here. Probably more difficult for Americans though :( I’ve written a bunch of info about the process on my blog, http://gringoinbolivia.wordpress.com/

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks Harry and I’ll check out your blog. I think it goes beyond the war on drugs (even though Bolivia is now the world’s #1 supplier of cocaine by most estimates). Any country that was aligned with Chavez has made it very tough for the Yanks, with not coincidentally similar results in their economy. No biggie though for potential expats. There are plenty of other options in the region.

  9. Martin

    It is utter nonsense that it’s more costly and difficult for US citizens to get residency in Bolivia and 90 days/year apply to all tourists, the only difference some (eg European) are visa except and it has nothing to do with any of the things stated above, it’s simply rule of reciprocity
    Getting residency is neither expensive nor difficult, there are no requirements really besides declaration that you want to live here, the only country like this in whole continent, no proof of income, no investment, nada
    The process itself is time consuming and frustrating though
    As for the prices Bolivia is currently not that cheap, it’s a dollarized country with quasi currency (not exchanble on forex) pegged at 6.9 to 1$
    With a strong dollar right now countries like Peru are the same or in fact less expensive
    Wine is way cheaper and better in Argentina, that is probably the best value right now if you do not plan to invest any money and be ready to live when shit hit the fan
    Investment wise Bolivia is probably the best value right now together with Peru, skipping real estate bubble cities like Santa Cruz
    With commodities boom I forecast Tarija prices may easy double in next 5 years, but it’s not really a place for speculation, but I’m just saying it’s easy to get your money back if you change your mind
    It’s a difficult country to live with people’s attitude and lack of any customers rights and pretty much awful healthcare, but that’s really not do much different that most of the continent
    I suggest coming and checking out for yourself and definitely rent first for minimum a year before committing to anything

    • Harry

      Actually, it is more expensive for Americans to acquire a residency visa as they must enter Bolivia on an Objeto Determinado which costs around $150 before applying for residency. Group 1 countries, which essentially includes the rest of the first world, no longer need the OD.

      Americans paying money to enter Bolivia is technically a reciprocity fee, but it’s also politically motivated. Pretty much all of Europe charge Bolivians to enter their countries but Europeans are able to enter Bolivia for free. There’s no reciprocity here because they have good relations (and Bolivia really needs their tourist dollar).

      Also, there are much more requirements than just a declaration that you want to live there. Applicants must show evidence of their activities in Bolivia, be it for work, study, family or medical reasons. They must also do a long series of police background checks and health checks. I agree though that it’s comparatively easy and pretty cheap. The whole thing can be done for a couple of hundred dollars if you don’t hire a lawyer.

      I’ve written an updated article on the process for those who are interested. https://gringoinbolivia.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/visa-requests-november-2014-and-beyond/

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