La Paz, Bolivia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/10/24
Personal Experiences from La Paz, Bolivia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Many other expat experiences in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
California. It's expensive to fly back and the flight times are difficult because they leave at 3am. Most people transit through Bogota.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Almost all of the diplomatic housing is very large. We have a three story house, with four bedrooms and seven(!) bathrooms. The diplomatic community lives in Zona Sur, the lowest elevation area. Commuting time is 20 -40 minutes depending on traffic. Some people also commute by cable car, which is fun and relaxing, though rarely saves time unless traffic is really bad.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are cheap. There is an amazing variety of fruits, including some I had never seen before. Fruits and veggies need to be washed with bleach. You can find a fair number of speciality items - e.g. Mexican food, asian sauces, etc., but you have to pay more for those.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You don't have to bring much, but we brought a lot of specialty foods for baking, hot sauces, and snacks for kids' lunches.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
I've been pleasantly surprised with the restaurant options, particularly in Zona Sur. The local cuisine is tasty and there are some great restaurants like Gustu and Manqa that do elevated versions of it. There's also a delivery app - PedidosYa - that is easy to use. A few Asian options but not a ton. Pizza is mostly mediocre but we found one place with great pizza. Very few American fast food chains - there's Burger King, Hard Rock, and one or two others, but there are local equivalents.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The only problem we had was with tiny ants during the dry season.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help here is affordable and there are a lot of great people, but don't expect to find someone who speaks English. In addition to a maid/nanny we also have a gardener and physical trainer.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are several clubs that members of the diplomatic community join with good gyms - the Tennis Club and the German club are the most popular. The US Embassy also has a great gym.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants and larger stores, but you still need lots of cash. ATMs are common and have yet to have problems.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You definitely need at least basic Spanish for daily life. In La Paz there are many people for whom Spanish is a second language, and Aymara or another indigenous language is actually their first. Language classes/tutors are cheap.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, the city is built on the side of mountains and the sidewalks are narrow and full of obstacles. Walking around downtown sometimes feels like parkour. Also, this is the highest altitude capital city in the world and people with certain kinds of issues (e.g. heart problems) may suffer here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Lots of options for transportation. There's an amazing cable car system that is cheap and clean. Taxis are cheap and plentiful and multiple apps that work here.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
There are weird import laws that make bringing a car complicated. You can't bring a car that's more than a year old, but if you bring a car over $26k you have to pay a significant tax. You'll want 4WD here, especially if you plan on exploring. For these reasons many people bring cheaper 4WD cars like Subaru Foresters (and there are Subaru dealerships here). Gas engines are less efficient at this altitude so you do want something with a decent amount of pick-up.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The internet is workable for watching movies and teleworking, but isn't amazing. It's not that expensive - I think we spend less than $50/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use Google Fi
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most expats who work telecommute. Given that we're close to US time zones it makes it easier. Hard to find local jobs and salaries are meager.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty of volunteer opportunities I am told.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Like most South American countries people dress pretty formally.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
This is one of the safest capital cities in Latin America. I have yet to hear of someone from our mission getting mugged. There are occasional reports of car-break ins. Like any big city, there are neighborhoods to avoid, especially at night.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The downtown is at about 12,000 feet and most of the diplomatic community housing is 11,000 - 11,500 feet. This makes it the highest altitude post in the world. Most people adapt to the altitude after a few weeks, but a few people never adapt. Some people that mostly adapt still suffer from difficulty sleeping or digestion issues. Humidifiers can help a bit with the sleeping issues. I have two family members with asthma, and my 70-year old mom also arrived with us, and all of us have managed to mostly adapt.
The other challenge is food safety. It is easy to get stomach bugs for a variety of reasons including lack of oversight and poor water quality in the tap. But if you take the necessary precautions which include 1) washing all fruits and veggies in bleach, 2) not eating off the street, 3) not eating salads unless at home, and 4) only eating from reputable restaurants, your stomache should settle and it should be manageable. I have a weak stomach but after a month of adjustment, and taking probiotics every day, it's not too bad. Though I still have a lot of gas due of the altitude.
The medical care here is ok for routine stuff - we've found some good doctors and there are a couple of decent hospitals. For complicated procedures you should probably go elsewhere. It can sometimes be challenging to medevac people quickly given the limited number of flights to the US and Europe and bureaucratic red tape with getting permission for special flights.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Most of the year the air quality is good and you can see far into the distance. Two people in my family have asthma issues so I watch it like a hawk. Late in the dry season (around October) there can be forest fires and there were a few days that were quite bad. For that reason you should purchase air purifiers if you are sensitive. The good news is that there are few natural allergens like tree pollen given the dry landscape. Plenty of cars kick out nasty fumes going uphill, so you may also cough a bit if you decide to walk or run along a trafficked road. Due to the weird aerodynamics at high-altitude, these particulates don't seem to travel up into the air above the city though.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don't think so, beyond what was mentioned above.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Sleep issues can sometimes affect peoples' mental health. There's not a ton to do in Zona Sur, so people who don't venture out sometimes go a little stir crazy. That being said morale currently seems decent at my mission. I think some challenges that people had before also had to do with COVID lockdowns and personnel issues that no longer apply.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I love the weather. So many beautiful clear days. It's never too hot, and rarely is it so cold that you need more than a sweater or light jacket, unless you're out late at night in El Alto. The air is very dry most of the year though. I recommend putting a humidifier in bedrooms, which will help a lot with sleep.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most people send their kids to "Calvert", the American school, including us. A few diplomats send their kid to the French or German schools which are also o.k.
Good things about Calvert: Nice facilities and teacher to student ratio, decent after-school activities, many of the teachers seem caring. My son is in middle school and very short and he has yet to get bullied. The school director and principals are American and seem o.k.
Less good things: School quality has gone down a bit since COVID we have been told. They lost a lot of American teachers, and international students, so the staff and students are almost all Bolivian (which isn't entirely a bad thing - it also makes it a more culturally immersive experience). Like most elite private schools in south america, there are issues with bullying, particularly on social media - and it's worse for the girls. The level of instruction is about on par with what you'd get in a public school in the US. We've been a bit underwhelmed with the level of math and reading. I think some of that is that a lot of the Bolivian students fell behind during COVID (esp. since schools here were closed for two years!) and are still catching up.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Don't know, but I'm sure nannies are cheap
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Decent after school activities at Calvert. Other than that most people rely on the clubs for other activities, like swim lessons. We have a private piano teacher that comes to our house for a reasonable price.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
International community is fairly small. Morale among expats varies - some love it, and some not so much. Morale at my mission has been improving as we move away from COVID and other issues.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are CLO activities, school events, and lots of cultural events in the diplomatic community. The tennis club is amazing but costs around $500/month. The German Club and golf clubs are about half that cost and are nice.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think this post is good for adventurous people who get out and explore this beautiful country, or people who are entertained by what they have going on at home. People with kids seem the most content, perhaps.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
If you speak good Spanish it's not too hard to make local friends. I'm not aware of major racial prejudice here.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
The country is fairly tolerant of LGBT, but I'm not an expert. Legally they LGBT Bolivians have decent rights - it's usually one of the few bright spots on the annual human rights report.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
This country is fairly tolerant when it comes to religion and race. Gender norms are not quite as progressive as in the U.S. or Europe, but there are lots of influential women in government and business.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
1) The mountain landscapes are amazing. La Paz is unlike any other city I've ever seen - it's like someone decided to build their capital city on the top of the alps.
2) If you're into high-altitude mountaineering, this might be the best post in the world. There are multiple 6000-meter peaks close by, a couple of which you could climb in a day.
3) There are ample weekend trip options. This is one of the rare places in the world where you could be in the jungle or be in a glacier in 2-3 hours. But you have to be patient as the roads aren't always great and getting out of El Alto traffic can be a pain
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
- Visiting Lake Titicaca
- climbing mountains
- Going down to jungle towns like Corioco.
- Taking cheap domestic flights to Cochabamba, Sucre, Tarija. All the other cities are lower in elevation and some have quite a bit of charm (more than La paz).
- Cheap direct flight to Cusco
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Souvenir shopping is decent. You can find alpaca wool products, some affordable local paintings, wood products, indigenous crafts. And it's all affordable.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
La Paz has an amazing landscape and proximity to beautiful natural places that have few tourists. It is cheap as heck. The locals are polite, crime is not bad, and the pace of life here is reasonable. In some ways La Paz feels like going back in time in South America.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That it was a nice place to live and that most people adjust to the altitude.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, moisturizer, humidifier, air purifier, and 4WD.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Top Gear did a special where they drove across Bolivia in cheap used cars that is fun to watch - and available on youtube.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Reading some of the reviews here on Talesmag you'd think this place was hellhole - which it definitely is not. So far, this has been one of the better posts in my career. But you have to be adventurous. If you sit on your butt you'll get bored.