How it Feels to Be a Tourist Cow in Bolivia
“The tourist is like a cow. You milk it until it’s dry!”
When Yasha stayed in Nepal in the 80s, the then Nepalese king was famously quoted as having given this advice to his citizens. It could apply equally to some policies enforced by Bolivia’s Evo Morales. As overlanders we felt particularly ‘milked’ by tourist prices more often than we liked.
You can spend hours to buy the most expensive diesel in South America
Bolivia is a ‘socialist country’ and its fuel is government subsidised. To ‘milk’ tourists there’s a second, much higher price, enforced upon foreign registered vehicles. In a typical ‘socialist manner’ a relatively complicated system has been set up to control the enforcement of this tourist price.
Locals pay roughly BOB3.74 per litre of diesel (the price is somewhere around BOB3.50 for all fuel types). As a foreigner you are expected to pay BOB8.88 (that’s over US$1.28) for a litre of diesel. Each sale of fuel has to be logged into a computer with the corresponding vehicle number plate and the driver’s ID card number – only then is the pump activated. To monitor the correct process every fuel station is surveyed by a system of CCTV cameras. (Don’t ask who’s actually checking thousands of hours of video recordings from the country’s gas stations.)
Local vehicles are in a central database so their typical records (combination registration and driver) appear at the press of a button, but foreign vehicles need to be entered manually. This causes the first issue: many stations simply refuse to sell fuel to foreigners. It’s too complicated and time consuming. In Santa Cruz we were rejected by six stations until we finally had our tank filled.
When we finally had our tank filled I didn’t pay 8.88/litre but only BOB6. As closely monitored as the system might appear there are ways around it to foster corruption. Some vendors have a set of local registration details they enter into the system, pump your fuel for the local price and pocket the difference.
Then it comes to paying. Since the diesel is so expensive, you pay nearly 1,000 Bolivianos for a little over 100 litres. But as a foreigner you can never pay with a credit card – cash only. Now combine this with rather measly withdrawal limits on ATM machines. Some machines don’t accept foreign cards at all, most only dispense BOB500 per withdrawal – if they haven’t run out of money (which also seems to happen frequently). Small towns usually don’t have more than two or three ATMs open to foreigners – some have none. So to pay for your 100 litres you first have to run around to get at least two ATM withdrawals.
This is all based on the assumption that the local station has any fuel. Sometimes you come to one with a sign ‘no hay diesel’ and you’re told mañana (tomorrow), or you drive past one marked on your GPS map, which since has closed down. The distance between gas stations in Bolivia can be easily 300-400 kilometres, which makes you more desperate to fill in cities which have a choice of fuel stations.
They ask over $8 to (not) get into a museum
Don’t feel milked if you are asked to pay BOB35 to enter a museum. This is the lower end of the foreigner price scale! It can go up to BOB65 or more… Locals usually pay 10 or 15 for the same – and they can read all signage explaining the exhibits.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind paying such entrance fees for a nicely set up museum where I can learn something about the country’s history or culture. But for that I need at least some ‘broken English’ explanations. To charge me (again) triple the local price and then leave me wandering around aimlessly because you haven’t bothered to translate any of your signs? Sorry – I’m not satisfied!
All of the above only applies if you can actually get into the museum. After frustrating experiences with our first few visits (where we didn’t understand the context of signs) we narrowed our list of ‘must see’ places down. And we didn’t get into any of them!
Sucre has a ‘Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore’ which supposedly has an excellent collection of traditional Bolivian masks. It’s housed in the former National Bank along Calle España, near the central plaza – a building famous for its outstanding colonial architecture. We had walked past it on numerous occasions to get to other places (Yasha had to visit her dentist many times and the best ATM in town was just up the road), but never with spare time to visit.
In the end we decided to stay an extra day in Sucre to fit in a visit to this museum. We arrived in the middle of the advertised morning opening hours (taken from the tourist map) and found the door firmly locked. No sign of opening hours – nothing! We were confused. Yasha wanted to return in the afternoon, I decided instead to knock on the door. After a considerable wait a security guard appeared and apologised that the museum was closed for refurbishment… Not since yesterday, no for three months already, and it would take until December.
If there would have been a sign advising the public (us & others) about this closure, chances are we would have seen it when we had walked past the door many times before. But no, nothing! We actually made a senseless trip from the outskirts of the city into the centre only for this museum visit. Sorry – I was not happy about this!
Earlier on we had already experienced the lack of signage in Bolivia. To get into the Missions of the Chiquitos , our first museum experiences in Bolivia, was already a challenge. Some, like Santa Ana, had only a local caretaker. You literally had to go door knocking around town to find the person with the key. The other, bigger ones, had some set opening hours which the locals knew about. So you had to ask around until a) somebody knew the opening hours, or b) told you about an unlocked side entrance.
Then there is the idea that tourist attractions should stay closed on Sundays. I mean, after all, it’s the only day of the week when almost everybody has a day off work. Surely the same should apply to people working in tourist facilities. Oops, somehow we forgot in our ‘socialist haze’ that Sunday is probably also the only day working people can visit tourist attractions or museums. This happened to us with ‘Casa de la Moneda’ (where the Spaniards had collected and minted all the silver) in the mining town of Potosi.
Pollution in the narrow streets of Potosi was so terrible that for us that Sunday, with less traffic, was the only day we wanted to venture into the city to see some sights. Well that didn’t work out. The ‘Moneda’ was closed, as were the UNESCO World Heritage listed churches. On Monday, the day of pollution, we left – sights unseen…
You milk the cow – until it has enough and runs away
By the time we left Potosi we had, more or less, already reached the decision that we would leave Bolivia early – much earlier than planned. Our visa had allowed us until Christmas to explore the country and considering our normal travel pace, we could have made use of the remaining time.
But somehow, all the little niggles had built up to push us to the decision to leave. There were other things too. Like I found shopping often rather expensive. Supermarkets had a lot of imported stuff, often with outrageously expensive prices. Even in local shops some things, which we usually buy, cost a lot more than I had expected.
I remember in San Ignacio, our first larger town in Bolivia, where we were searching for yoghurt. A local woman sent us the ‘Agencia Pil’, distributor of the only company in Bolivia who makes butter and other milk products. We paid nearly BOB100 for 2 packs of butter, 2 bottles of yoghurt, and a plastic bag of milk.
Alternatively you can go shopping at markets. Usually they are cheaper (as we have found before ), but whenever we found a market in Bolivia it was the wrong time of the day. Most stalls were closed, the fruit and vegetables on the remaining few stalls were of dubious quality. I don’t think we ever bought any apples where at least one was not rotten. Three apples for 10 BOBs, throw away one because it’s all brown, makes each apple $0.70 – that’s not cheap!
And in any case: local markets seem to be in the centre of large cities, often right next to the bus station. That makes it convenient for the small vendors to get their wares there. But all streets are choked with traffic and no room to park Berta. So it takes a real effort for us to get to a market – and then find you should have come after dark (the worst time of day for us).
This is us. For backpackers Bolivia might be a cheap destination.
We travel overland in our own vehicle. Our chosen truck is not the smallest but offers us all the comfort we wish for. And we pay for this comfort as our diesel consumption is a fair bit higher than it would be with a smaller vehicle. As soon as we cover any distance fuel is certainly our biggest expense. So when we have to pay triple the local price it really hurts.
Bus fares in Bolivia are the lowest of any South American destination. Prices are kept low so that locals can afford them. Fuel for locals is cheap and buses are often fairly old. The driver doesn’t earn that much either, so it’s cheap, as a backpacker, to get from A to B.
Since Berta has kitchen, bathroom, and a comfortable bed, we don’t need accommodation. We sleep much better in our own bed than we would in any hotel. If we’re lucky we even find a place much quieter than any hotel can be. Hostel and hotel room prices seem to be much lower in Bolivia than in neighbouring countries – to us this possible saving is of no significance.
Local food at street stalls and restaurants seems to be cheap too. The one day we really wanted to eat out in Sucre we walked until we almost collapsed. We don’t eat meat, which reduced the choice drastically, and I’m unfortunately allergic to garlic. We walked several blocks to find an advertised vegetarian restaurant, only to learn that their day’s menu contained garlic in almost every part of it. Okay, all the way back to the central plaza in search of an alternative option. After an experience like this you’re not keen for a repeat in the near future…
In a way I’m still surprised that we didn’t stay longer in Bolivia, but somehow it wasn’t right for us. In Santa Cruz province some other overlanders had told us about a local Bolivian wine, which was drinkable and available in most shops between BOB20 and 24 (that’s roughly CLP2,000). Well, let me tell you: the last couple of weeks I’ve enjoyed wonderful Chilean wine (from Concha Y Toro) for less than CLP1,350!
The Bolivian plonk only gave me headache – like so many things in that country.