I'll be honest: exploring Bolivia on a budget isn't that difficult. Bolivia is a very affordable destination with lots of experiences to offer travelers: Lake Titicaca, the Isla del Sol, the Uyuni Salt Flats, the colonial architecture of La Paz and Potosí, and more ecological reserves and national parks than you can visit in a single trip.
Bolivia's affordability and natural beauty have made it a favorite holiday destination among budget backpackers, students on their gap year, and adventuresome types of all ages. Even though it's easy to tour Bolivia on a shoestring, a few tips can help you make the most out of your time and avoid paying too much to enjoy all the heart of Latin America has to offer. Here, we at GET.com have put together 5 ways you can save money and time traveling to Bolivia.
1. Getting There: Avianca, Copa Or LATAM?
Getting to Bolivia will probably be the largest single expense of your trip. Avianca, Copa and LATAM (formerly known as LAN) are the biggest airlines with regular flights to La Paz and Santa Cruz. Avianca and Copa are both members of the Star Alliance, which lets you earn miles with United's MileagePlus frequent flyer program.
LATAM is a member of Oneworld, which lets you earn miles with American Airlines' AAdvantage® frequent flyer program (here are 5 benefits of theAAdvantage® program you might want to take a look at). A long flight to Bolivia is the perfect miles-earning opportunity, so don't forget to enter your MileagePlus or AAdvantage® membership number when booking your ticket.
Because flights to high altitude destinations are more expensive, it's sometimes cheaper to fly into Santa Cruz (altitude: 1,365 feet) than La Paz, the highest national capital in the world sitting at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. If you do land in La Paz, be sure to grab a cup of coca tea, pronto, to avoid altitude sickness. You can also buy bottled oxygen at the airport, but coca tea is just as effective and the preferred local cure for soroche (i.e. altitude sickness).
2. Get Your Visa Now Or Later?
Thanks to the sometimes tense relationship between La Paz and Washington, Bolivia charges Americans a fee for tourist visas. Canadians and most other nationalities do not need a visa to visit Bolivia. Lucky Canucks!
Whether you get a visa before you leave the United States or after you arrive in Bolivia, you'll have to pay a $160 fee. To get a tourist visa ahead of time, go to a Bolivian consulate in Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, New York City or Washington, D.C., or download the application form at the Bolivian consulate's website, mail it in and wait.
You'll have to wait anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks for the consulate to process your application, depending on how busy they are. In my experience, it's simpler and easier to get your visa when you arrive in the country.
Each visa lasts for 5 years, so you're free to visit Bolivia again without the hassle, but your visa is only good for 30 days per year. If you want to stay longer, you'll have to head to an immigration office and pay a small fee to get a 60-day extension. If you overstay your visa, you'll have to pay a fee of about 20 bolivianos, or US$3, per day. Depending on how long you want to (over)stay, your visa, you may be better off paying the fine at the border rather than paying for a 60-day extension.
3. Tipping Is (Sometimes) Optional
Americans are famous all over the world for being good tippers, but leaving a tip is not always required in Bolivia. Taxi drivers and family restaurants don't expect tips, but wait staff at hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists generally do.
Restaurants in Bolivia never add a service charge, so if you do feel like tipping, 10% is usually a good place to start. I for one always tipped, despite constant reminders from Bolivians and fellow travelers alike that it wasn't really necessary.
4. Haggle, Haggle, Haggle
We don't do a lot of haggling in America, except at flea markets and yard sales. But a little bit of bargaining is commonplace in Bolivia and it's a good way to practise your language skills. There are a couple of do's and don'ts to bargaining in Bolivia, though.
For example, don't try to haggle at formal establishments like hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. But feel free to negotiate on taxi fares and at open markets. Taxi drivers and street vendors usually quote a higher price when dealing with foreigners, but with a few minutes of haggling, you may get closer to the "local" price.
Check prices with taxi drivers and negotiate before you get in: By stepping into the cab, you've basically agreed to whatever price the driver wants to charge, so make sure you know what you're paying before you get in. Bargaining can get you a better deal and it's fun! Just remember to be respectful, and don't try to bargain with extremely poor or very elderly vendors.
Don't Pay The Sales Tax
Don't feel like haggling but still want to save a little money? There's an easy trick to get a better deal at storefront vendors without haggling.
When a storefront vendor is ringing you up they'll usually ask, "Con factura o sin factura?" ("With an invoice or without?") Always say "sin factura" because that lets the vendor skip paying the sales tax and lower the price you pay without losing any money themselves.
Just in case you didn't know, Bolivia's sales tax is a whopping 13%, so you can get a nice discount without hurting the vendor's bottom line. This form of tax-dodging is pretty common in Bolivia and you won't get in trouble for not paying the sales tax.
5. Avoid Border Crossings During The Holiday Season
This tip won't exactly save you money, but it could save you a lot of time and hassle.
Crossing the border from northern Argentina, my bus was stopped and searched by a squad of about a dozen Bolivian soldiers. At first, I thought they were looking for drugs, but then someone explained they were looking for iPhones. Import taxes are very high in Bolivia, so people usually travel to Argentina to buy electronics and other items that are too expensive at home.
The government generally cracks down on this form of tax-dodging during the holiday season by searching buses crossing the borders and confiscating "duty-free" goods. The entire search-and-seizure process took about 5 hours and left me and many other passengers very frustrated and upset.
As a tourist, you won't be targeted, but just make sure your backpack isn't loaded with too many iPhones and other expensive gadgets that border officials might deem as smuggled contraband.