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.