Money & costs
Overall, prices are slightly lower here than in neighboring countries. The biggest cost in any trip to Bolivia will be transportation, especially getting to the country (and, to a lesser extent, getting around, as the distances involved are great).
While ultrabudget travelers can get by on less than US$15 per day, most people will spend between US$25 and US$50. Visitors who want to enjoy the best Bolivia has to offer can easily travel comfortably for US$150 a day (this would include hire of private transportation).
Avoid over-bargaining with local people for goods and services just for the sake of it. While Bolivians themselves might bargain among their friends at markets, bargaining is not a common cultural practice. In any case, be realistic about how much you are actually saving. A few bolivianos can be worth a great deal more to the locals than for you. If you feel uncomfortable about pricing issues, ask locals for a ball-park idea of what you can expect to pay for something, including taxis. Always agree on food, accommodations and transportation prices beforehand to avoid any unpleasant situations.
Despite its rich resources, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Estimates in 2004 put 64% of the population below the poverty line. The average annual earnings is around US$900 and GDP per capita is around US$2900 (2005 estimate). Current inflation is around 5%.
Bolivia’s main exports include gas and zinc. The country’s agricultural products include soybeans (also a major export), coffee, sugar, cotton, corn and timber. Coca, sunflower seed (for oil) and organic chocolate are also growing industries.
There is widespread underemployment; a large percentage of the underemployed supplement their income by participating in coca-production, mainly in the Yungas, and in the informal street-market economy.
Striking and protests to demand higher salaries and improved conditions and political change are a way of life here, although in more recent years, even some locals have felt that this has been more damaging than constructive to the economy.
The government remains heavily dependent on foreign aid. In December 2005, the G8 announced a US$2 billion debt-forgiveness plan.
Sizeable towns have cajero automaticos (ATMs) – usually Banco Nacional de Bolivia, Banco Mercantil and Banco de Santa Cruz. They dispense bolivianos in 50 and 100 notes (sometimes US dollars as well) on Visa, Plus and Cirrus cards, but in the past, many Europeans have reported trouble using their cards. In smaller towns, the local bank Prodem is a good option for cash advances on Visa and MasterCard (3% to 5% commission charged) and many are meant to be open on Saturday mornings; the hours and machines are often unreliable.
Visitors fare best with US dollars (travelers have reported that it’s difficult to change euros). Currency may be exchanged at casas de cambio (exchange bureaux) and at some banks in larger cities. You can often change money in travel agencies and sometimes stores selling touristy items. Cambistas (street moneychangers) operate in most cities but only change cash dollars, paying roughly the same as casas de cambio. They’re convenient after hours, but guard against rip-offs and counterfeit notes. The rate for cash doesn’t vary much from place to place, and there is no black-market rate. Currencies of neighboring countries may be exchanged in border areas and at casas de cambio in La Paz. Beware, too, mangled notes: unless both halves of a repaired banknote bear identical serial numbers, the note is worthless.
The fastest way to have money transferred from abroad is with Western Union (www.westernunion.com). A newer, alternative option is through Money Gram (www.moneygram.com), which has offices in all major cities – watch the hefty fees, though. Your bank can also wire money to a cooperating Bolivian bank; it may take a couple of business days.
Changing traveler’s checks in smaller towns is often impossible. You’ll usually be charged a commission of up to 5% (slightly lower in La Paz). American Express is the most widely accepted brand, though with persistence you should be able to change other major brands.