Written by Jason Holland
I watched from the second-floor balcony, sipping espresso, as the hustle and bustle of Sucre went on in the city’s main park below. Kids just out of class passed by in packs. Young couples sat close on wrought-iron park benches. Businessmen got their shoes shined. Vendors in indigenous garb sold cut up fruit, nuts, and other snacks. The weather was a crisp mid-60s F (it warmed up later into the 70s F and dipped into the 40s F at night, which is typical), but the sun was shining brightly.
It was a scene I enjoyed in two other Bolivian cities, Cochabamba and Tarija, which offered a blend of historic architecture, a newer construction cityscape, up-to-date utilities you need like high-speed internet, and the like. You don’t hear much about Bolivia in world news, which is a shame because it has a lot to offer: awe-inspiring views of the Andes Mountains, modern conveniences, an up-and-coming wine country, friendly people, a comfortable climate for most of the year, and more.
What surprised me most about Bolivia was the cost of living. Rents starting at $200 and up in good neighborhoods. Utility costs at under $50 for everything. Local restaurants, frequented by office workers and others, offer a menu del día of soup, an entrée, fruit juice, dessert, and coffee for under $2. I had a steak dinner and all-you-can-eat salad and side dishes, with a few glasses of solid local wine (as I found out later, at the best restaurant in the city of Tarija, in the heart of Bolivia’s wine country) for under $15 with tip. And with a dozen eggs for $1.50, a pound of chicken breast for $1.50, and a pound of tomatoes for 50 cents, shopping for home cooking is cheap too. It all adds up to a monthly budget of around $1,000 for a typical retired couple. I met a few retired women who were enjoying retirement at $500 per month.
In Bolivia, you will be somewhat of a pioneer. The expat community is small with many having some previous connection to Bolivia like a spouse or past work with an NGO; but there is a growing population of foreign retirees. And because there is not much tourism, you won’t find many people who speak English. You’ll have to start learning Spanish to get around comfortably, although fluency isn’t required. But the people are welcoming to foreigners, and the country is safe. I felt comfortable walking around every city I visited, day or night. For the affordability alone, it’s worth a closer look.
“There are things that still make me crazy, but that goes away. Bolivia is as amazing as you allow it to be. But you’ll be disappointed unless you’re looking for adventure. You get to have eye-opening experiences, which are a delight. It’s a healthier lifestyle; you eat better, you walk most places. There’s a spirit of joy. People are happy, even if they have very little,” says Kelly Barton, in the city of Cochabamba. “As an expat, you have to be open and willing to change and see things from a different perspective.”
Sucre—The White City
Sucre is technically Bolivia’s “constitutional capital.” But the real seat of government is in La Paz. Sucre certainly doesn’t feel like a capital. It’s more like a medium-sized city that in many ways feels like a small town, because much of the action is clustered in the restored Spanish colonial centro, which is very walkable. The restored buildings are mostly white, with terracotta barrel-tiled roofs. There is the main cathedral, as well as several parish churches. Parks and plazas are clean and well-kept and full of people.
You have the indoor mercado, as well as the outdoor market that covers many blocks on the north side of town (where you can find just about any product, from clothing and shoes to power tools and car parts, or any fresh food imaginable). I lost count of the cafés where skilled baristas churned out gourmet coffee drinks that rivaled any in the U.S.—for just a dollar. The climate is cooler than some locations— high 60s, low 70s F during the day, 40s F at night— thanks to the elevation of 9,200 feet.
Because Sucre, population 300,000, is a jumping off point for tours to places like the famed Uyuni salt flats and trekking journeys into the Andes, there is a small tourism industry here, mainly catering to backpackers from Europe (I met folks from Germany and the Netherlands) and Australia. That means a variety of restaurants, from sushi to Italian to German cuisine, as well as a somewhat international feel.
An interesting thing to note about Sucre is that it’s home to many second or third generation German and Dutch immigrants. That’s the biggest “expat” group, although by now most have fully integrated into the local culture.
“I like the peacefulness here, says Philomena Winstanley. “I enjoy walking around…it’s beautiful. The weather is nice; never very cold or very hot. People are generally very nice. The big thing here is the free time. If I went back to Europe, I would have to go back to teaching fulltime.”
Philomena, 70, of Surrey, England, has called Sucre home for 16 years. For many years, she ran a magazine and used the proceeds of sales to pay for dental and medical care, food, and clothing for local children in need. Currently, to make extra money, she does a bit of freelance writing, teaches English, does translation work, and makes home-made limoncello (the Italian lemon liqueur) from the lemons growing on a tree at her home. She sells it to local restaurants.
Not that she needs much to live well in Sucre. Her monthly expenses, including rent on her two-bedroom home with large courtyard in the heart of the colonial centro, are about $500. Yes, $500. And it’s a good life with friends, parties, dinners out, and treats.
“I have a large courtyard, living room, office, kitchen, storage room, bathroom, and two bedrooms.” Philomena is also able to rent out one of the bedrooms. Her current tenant rents long-term, but she did Airbnb for a while before. “I rent out the bedroom for $100. My total rent is $285. I get $500 from my pension, and I can live on that,” says Philomena. “People tend to want to come here for gatherings because I have this nice patio. In any other country I couldn’t have a house like this. All my friends are younger than me except for one lady. Sucre is like a village really. You walk down the street to the market, and you see people you know. There’s not very much to do in Sucre in the evening. I go out once a week to a restaurant or concert. Otherwise I invite people here.”
One evening I met with Canadian expat D. Trevor Hirsche at the Condor Café, a restaurant that expats I had met cautioned was an expensive place. But with prices like $3 for a big burger and $3 for a locally made craft beer (yes, they have craft beer in Bolivia!), I could see why expats here were able to live on such small budgets. Trevor does contract work for universities, NGOs, and private companies in his field of environmental science, including water quality. He lives in a small traditional Quechua village about 45 minutes by bus outside of town, where he has formed close connections with his neighbors; he’s about to get dual citizenship and speaks Quechua.
“I can do three days’ work and earn what I need for a couple of months. That said, I live mostly like a Bolivian. So that’s not entirely typical,” says Trevor, who loves his village life.
In Philomena’s case her electric bill averages $13. The water bill is $1. And she is able to get enough food at the Mercado for three days for $15. When she has to take longer trips in town, she’ll take a taxi at 75 cents. Sometimes she goes to one of the three larger modern supermarkets in town, which offers a small selection of pricier imported items, including her must-haves like good cheese and bacon, which are about U.S. prices. One of the main drawbacks: The healthcare is lacking, and you have to search for quality doctors, says Philomena, although the dentists are quite good.
Once on the ground you can find rentals for as low as $150 per month. And even though this is a historic city, cellphone coverage is good and high-speed internet reliable.
For finding a place to live, it can be difficult in Sucre, because as with the rest of the country, there’s not really a centralized database of listings. I’ve also heard from expats that real estate agents and offices have limited listings, in most cases. Networking, asking friends, looking at online classifieds and on Facebook, or simply walking the streets in desirable neighborhoods and looking for “for sale” signs are the best ways.
A new construction two-bedroom apartment, outside the historic district, is available for $55,000. In the historic centro, there is a five-bedroom home, two blocks from the main plaza, for $280,000. It would make a great B&B, or you could list some of the bedrooms on Airbnb. See: Remax.bo and Infocasas.com.bo.
There are capable doctors in Bolivia, especially in the larger cities, including specialist doctors. In general, expats do not use the government-run healthcare system, which was recently revamped to serve the developing country’s millions of uninsured residents. The care is very basic, and the facilities crowded. Instead they use private physicians’ offices, clinics, and hospitals. The costs are low including $15 to $30 per doctor visit and a bit more for a specialist. Medications are widely available and cheap, about 30% of U.S. prices. A round of antibiotics, for example, will run you $8. For a healthcare plan to visit private facilities, plan on paying around $100 per couple per month.
But there are still issues. The system to get an appointment, even in private clinics, can be a hassle. First, you have to go early thing in the morning to get a ficha (ticket), which tells you when to come back. Then you might wait several hours to actually to see the doctor. Some doctors do speak English, but the staff members probably won’t. Well-to-do locals and expats often travel to larger cities like La Paz, Santa Cruz, or even to Argentina or the U.S. for serious medical treatment.
Tarija—Small City Life and Wine Country
Bolivia has a wine country. It’s certainly not as well known as that in Chile and Argentina, nevertheless, like those locations, Spanish settlers brought vines from the Old Country. And the epicenter of the wine scene in Bolivia is the mid-sized city of Tarija, population about 500,000.
Wine tasting tours are plentiful and cheap. To visit four local bodegas (wineries) with tastings of wine, cava, and singani, along with appetizers (charcuterie, cheese, olives, etc.), as well as later stops for sunset views and stops at several panoramic overlooks, will run you $20. Bottles at local shops start at $3 for a solid table wine. As locals are quick to point out, local wines, like the locally popular red varietal tannat, are beginning to win awards. There was a recent write-up in Wine Spectator magazine.
But that’s not all Tarija has going for it. The center of town is walkable, with plenty of pleasant flower-filled parks lined by sidewalk cafés and restaurants. With the temperate climate it’s ideal to eat and drink outside; although there can be some cold snaps in winter and heavy rain in the season from September to February. And although it’s a relatively small city, you do have a multiplex theater and several supermarkets.
“I chose Tarija because I wanted a pueblito…I wanted a simple place,” says Marcia Bohannon, 70, of the northeast U.S., who had a long career as a lawyer and corporate executive. “I have found that if you’re coming here only for the cost of living, which is great, you’re probably not going to make the adjustment. You have to be willing to live a different way. I was in business for 40 years, so I didn’t have a lot patience. I’ve learned that here. Also, there is almost no crime here, and no violent crime to speak of.”
Although cost of living was not a factor in her move, she does appreciate the savings. She has a lady help her around the house two mornings a week and a gardener. It’s $150 per month for both. And when she gets a full medical check—EKG, mammogram, bloodwork, and urinalysis at a local private clinic, the cost is just $200.
“When my friends and I go out for a high-end dinner, it’s only $20 each at most,” says Marcia.
Marcia first came to Bolivia in 2002 to pursue her passion for high-altitude backpacking. She says Bolivia chose her on that trip. And when it came time to retire in 2012, she visited several cities before settling on Tarija. She flew first class when moving, in order to get extra checked bags to bring a bunch of stuff. (Note: this is a great strategy when moving abroad as it’s cheaper than shipping.) She also brought down half a shipping container with household goods.
She’s in the best neighborhood in town, living next door to the mayor in a small gated townhouse community. Yet her rent is only $700 per month for a three-bedroom with a large patio. That’s at the high end of the market, says Marcia. No car. Instead she walks or taxis for $1.45 per ride into the heart of town.
“I like my neighborhood because it’s one of the few that’s purely residential. People say it’s lejos, lejos (far, far), but I walk into town,” says Marcia.
Marcia also notes other benefits. She shops at the local mercados and supermarkets, as well as the panaderias (bakeries) and a few specialty shops.
“The concept of going to Walmart and getting everything you need doesn’t exist here,” says Marcia. “I often buy food from street vendors. That’s just part of the rhythm of life here. I do miss New York City at Christmas and good ethnic food, which you can’t get here.”
As with the rest of Bolivia, learning Spanish is a must.
“You learn to communicate quickly the more you push yourself out into the community. Reading in Spanish helps build your vocabulary,” says Marcia. “I have many young friends, which is something I love about Latin culture. They choose to hang out with me. I learn from them, they learn from me. You don’t see that much in the U.S. anymore. A large portion of my friends have traveled. They have a worldview. Many speak English, but we speak Spanish. We often have a pizza night with a group of women.”
When checking out property listings for Tarija, here are some neighborhoods to keep an eye out for: Las Panosas, La Pampa, San Roque, and Villa/Barrio Fatima. Aranjuez, where Marcia lives, is the most exclusive—and expensive—neighborhood in town.
Rentals start at about $300 and go up from there. A luxury three-bedroom apartment, recently built, close to shopping and other amenities, is listed at $550 per month, unfurnished. A two-bedroom apartment in one of the best buildings in town, with views of the river, with 24-hour security, fitness center, sauna, Jacuzzi and other community amenities, is on sale for $105,000. See: Remax.bo.
Cochabamba—The Bustling Metropolis
It took a trip to the three-level penthouse condo of a local expat for me to get a sense of the size and scope of Cochabamba. A skyline of modern condos stretched to the horizon, with homes visible on distant hillsides—the foothills of the Andes, of which snow-capped peaks could be seen. Yet, the climate is mild, averaging in the mid-70s F during the day and dipping into the 50s F at night, sometimes the 40s F in the winter months (which of course is flipped here in the Southern Hemisphere).
It’s a vibrant modern city of 700,000, a place of commerce and industry. To be honest, there’s a lot of traffic, and it’s fairly noisy—but that’s Latin America. You’ll find a busy downtown, as well as well-to-do districts where it’s common to see BMWs and Range Rovers parked outside chic restaurants and shopping malls full of well-dressed families. The big supermarkets have a decent selection of imported items from the U.S. and Europe.
The best neighborhoods are in the center and to the north, including Cala Cala, Tupuraya, Muyurina, and Queru Queru. One popular location is the town of Tiquipaya, which is an outlying district that has a much more rural, village feel thanks to the abundant free space. It’s only 30 cents on a trufi (taxi de ruta fija), which is station wagon or similar car that has a set route. Be warned, they really pack you in there. As a larger city, you’ll find more amenities in Cocha (as expats have nicknamed it) than Sucre and Tarija.
Kelly Barton first came in 1998, with her Bolivian then-husband, from northern Virginia. Then they moved permanently right before the housing crash in the U.S.
She was working as the director of a healthcare services company in the U.S. She liked the job well enough, but the stress of getting to and from work each day got to her. At first it was hard to transfer her skills to a new job but eventually she was able to give lectures on healthcare administration and work with kids with autism. She also volunteers in orphanages. These days she’s plenty busy too with her business.
Kelly is a property manager for residences in 18 U.S. states, along with two business partners. It’s all online, with her 24-hour virtual call center based in Bolivia responding to tenant complaints and other issues by sending local contractors in the U.S. She has 52 employees in various cities in Bolivia. They also set up leases, help people find rentals, and more. It’s made possible by reliable high-speed internet, including fiber optic, which has been rolled out over the last several years. “We’ve never had a day without service. And the electricity is solid,” says Kelly.
Over the years, Kelly has adjusted to a new lifestyle.
“I don’t think life is different here, necessarily. I’m different. More tolerant. More interested in uniqueness and experiences. I should be like an outsider here, but I feel very included…like I belong. The value of a person here and how people treat you has nothing to do with fancy shoes or anything like that,” says Kelly.
As far as costs, Kelly has found life in Cochabamba to be very affordable. She spends about $20 on food each week. She’s a vegetarian for the most part and it’s easy because most veggies are available year-round. It’s $40 for food for the nine rescue dogs she has at her house. Gas for the month is $4. She says the average rent in a fancy high-rise will run $500 per month, unfurnished. A two-bedroom home will be between $200 and $400.
“Our employees’ base salary is $800. Even as a family of four, you couldn’t spend that in a month,” notes Kelly.
Cochabamba has a wide variety of homes and condos/apartments available. Something to keep in mind is that there is a lot of new construction, especially of condos, for $60,000 and up.A two-bedroom apartment for $58,000.A three-bedroom apartment just off Avenida America, one of the city’s main avenues, is available for $85,000. In the building you have a 24-hour concierge, gym, pool, and outdoor terrace with grill. A two-bedroom apartment in the same area is listed at $58,000. See: Remax.bo.
Residence And Tourist Visas In Bolivia
There are visa categories for people doing volunteer work or serving as missionaries, as well as those working in Bolivia. There is no formal retiree visa, as you’ll find in many Latin American countries that are expat hot spots. For those interested in settling in the country you’ll have to apply to what’s known as a Visa de Objecto Determinado, or Specific Purpose Visa. You apply at a consulate in your home country by filling out the online form and providing criminal history, medical check, and proof of assets with bank account statements to show you can support yourself (about $500 per month).Once you’ve received preliminary approval, you then enter Bolivia within 30 days and finish the process at the local immigration office. The term for this temporary residence visa is for one or two years. It’s renewable. But after two years in the country, you can apply for permanent residence.Canadian Janilee Porter, in Sucre, says she paid $290 in fees for her visa. It took a little back and forth as her Spanish isn’t perfect and there always seemed to be another form needed. But the immigration officials were friendly and helpful. “You could get it done in a month,” says Janilee, “but you would need somebody who knows the system to help you.”
One very important consideration before you book tickets for a scouting trip. U.S. citizens must get a special tourist visa from a Bolivian consulate or embassy to enter the country. The cost is $160, and the process takes a couple weeks. You must show your itinerary during your visit (including where you’re staying), a yellow fever vaccination (which costs around $300, and there is a shortage right now. Try your local travel medical clinic or public health department), bank statements showing you have enough funds for the duration of your stay, a photo, etc. You can do the application in person or by mail. See the website of the consulate nearest you for further instructions.
Where to Go From Here
Bolivia is not for everybody. Without a large established expat community as in some other Latin American countries, you’ll have to speak more Spanish and be more immersed in the local culture; for many people that’s ideal, for others a deal-breaker. The healthcare is adequate but leaves something to be desired. And it’s in South America, which can be quite a journey from the U.S. or Canada.
Still, it has a lot going for it: You can live well on a small pension, you’ll enjoy many First-World amenities, the people are friendly, the weather is spot-on most days of the year, and it’s very safe. And for many pioneering expats, that makes it all worth it.