Written by Fidgit
Anyone who commutes in Bolivia commits multiple death defying acts a day. Horns are used conversationally, gas pedals are applied until the moment brakes screech. Driving style leaves no mystery as to why every dashboard is a shrine, with emblems to Mother Mary, fuzzy dashboard covers, stuffed animals, etc.
We continue to connect our steps across Bolivia but winter (June – August on the altiplano), water, and health issues caused us to make the decision to stay in the larger cities and shuttle out to the point we last stopped. Walking the day, and then returning to town each evening.
At first we considered attempting to rent a vehicle but a bit of research about frequent police bribery, high taxation rates on foreigners, and driving practices in the cities quickly scratched that idea. There is very little reason I see, as a visitor, to rent a car in Bolivia. If you do, hiring a local driver could save a lot of stress and isn’t all that much more expensive.
In the past month and a half we have become something of experts about transportation in Bolivia. Here is what we have learned:
Buses & flotas- Long distance buses in South America are a far cry from those of North America. Here, for relatively cheap, you can cross countries in comfort. If, as a visitor, you ask about a bus, they are going to know what you mean. Generally as a tourist, this is going to be your travel go to.
A local distinction is that buses are generally the more comfortable form of travel (generally but not necessarily meaning: double-decker, bathroom on board, snacks and drinks, sometimes WiFi, working air vents, and sometimes a USB jack to charge your phone).
These will cost something in the 60 Bolivianos range, depending on where you are going.
“Flotas” are the more worn down buses, usually driven by an individual and their family. We used them when we were heading for points around 100 km out of any large city because they will stop to drop you off at random points as requested while the buses are more intent on their destination. They are dirtier, seats are often broken, temperature is unregulated, and you get a lot more local flavor. There were plenty of times that we were the only gringas on a flota, besides whatever scantly clad white women were in the pirated action movies playing on the fuzzy little TV screen at the front of the bus.
These will cost between 15-30 Bolivianos, depending on where you are going.
Both generally leave from a central “terminal” where, in Bolivia at least, you will be expected to pay 2-3 Bolivianos for “terminal use.” You will also be expected to pay to use the bathroom. These areas are high frequency for theft, so keep an eye and hand on your gear at all times. We found that there were often people OUTSIDE the terminal selling tickets to flotas which were leaving almost immediately, as in, driving out the gate of the terminal and loitering to try to fill up. This avoids the terminal fee and can be the fastest way to get moving as they don’t usually leave the terminal until 20-60 minutes after scheduled departure time. Of course, this is an option only for flexible travelers.
The schedules on these things are flexible, and if the route you are traveling is between tourist destinations, there are generally a number of transports per day. So, if you want scheduling security and comfort for a long trip, you want a bus. If you are looking to get between points quickly and flexibly and to brush elbows with local culture, try a flota.
Minis- These are small passenger vans which will fit 8-12 people in to cover short and mid distances. By subsidizing gas prices for Bolivians, the government has generated a flourishing private business industry. The streets here are packed with them and using them can be a dizzying experience which involves a lot of shouting, jostling, and brazen confidence.
Minis are only for those with nerves of steel. You often have to stand out in the road to flag one down, recognize the cluster of small placards in the window which tell you where they are going, and be willing to hop off into traffic as well. I’m not even going to touch on what the drivers have to do.
Minis should only be attempted if you have a grasp on the language and geography of the region. At the larger drop off points, where there are swarms of these vehicles and a milieu of humans, mini drivers will pay hustlers who stand in the street, or sometimes ride around in a seat by the door, shouting out the window about destinations, getting people in, and collecting fares.
Most have the fares posted in the windows but they are generally between 2-3 Bolivianos within the city and up to 10 if you are going over 40 km outside of the city. When you want to get off just notify the driver or hustler about a block ahead and they will drop you off just about anywhere along the route.
Taxis- These range in quality. The “official” taxis generally cost about twice as much (40 Bolivianos to go half way across La Paz) as the regular taxis (20 Bolivianos). Interestingly, they are not run by meters, and they charge per person. If you are going to take a taxi and have just arrived in a city, say, at the terminal, and have the time and energy, ask at several different taxi windows what the price will be to your destination, this should give you a feeling as to what is a fair price. If they see the chance to overcharge, they will, but if you know the going rates and just pass up the amount, they accept; if you ask the price, it is an invitation to inflate . . .
Hitch-hiking- Most of the vehicles you will see passing in Bolivia are either mining trucks or minis. There are relatively few private vehicles here. If you do happen to hitch one, it is still customary to pay the driver. Consider it pitching in on gas. As a foreign traveler here, you undoubtedly have more money than the driver does; so, don’t scoff, do contribute (depending on the distance, generally around 10 Bolivianos).
Vehicular travel in Bolivia is a death defying act at every turn. Evo Morales (President) has a series of nice new highways being built, largely to access mines. Of the traffic we have seen passing us all day outside of the cities while walking, I’d say 35% are mine trucks, 30% are minis, 25% are buses and flotas, and 10% are private vehicles, but that is just loose hiker math.
Come see for yourself, I dare ya.