Buying Fuel in Bolivia

Each country has its own quirks. Mexico required a large deposit to bring a vehicle into the country. Belize has the infamous “Green Shirt Guy” at the border. Honduras has swarms of helpers at the border. Peru only charges tolls for traffic going one direction. For Bolivia, the biggest quirk happens to be the seemingly simple process of buying fuel. It is so odd that we decided it warranted an entire blog post. Here is our experience.

Similar to Ecuador, the Bolivian government subsidizes fuel prices to allow for cheaper transportation for citizens, products, etc. Unlike Ecuador, the subsidized price is not extended to foreigners, which, I suppose, makes sense. This policy has made the process of buying fuel as a foreigner difficult.

The price per liter of diesel for Bolivians costs 3.75 Bol/l which translates to about $2USD per gallon. Pretty sweet. However, the price is 8.88 Bol/l for “extranjeros” or foreigners which translates to about $4USD per gallon. Ouch.

As a foreigner, buying fuel at the foreigner price isn’t as easy as it should be. Technically, a fuel station that doesn’t have a computer system can’t fill at the foreigner price because there is no way to track how many gallons were sold at local prices vs. foreign prices and many times these stations won’t sell to foreigners at all. So, it is possible to fill at the foreigner prices but every station that tried to do so couldn’t figure out the computer system so we were usually sent away.

I’ll just go ahead and say it here; we never paid the foreigner price while we were in Bolivia. How did we manage this? Often times, we pulled up to the station and told them we didn’t want a receipt. In rural areas, the gas station attendant would just fill our tank directly and say nothing about the foreign price. This was best case scenario and we always left a tip for the help. In other cases, mostly near cities, the station attendants would sell fuel at a negotiated price. A negotiated price of 5 or 6 Bol/l was common. In this case, the attendant would, more likely than not, pocket the difference. Whatever happened to the extra money didn’t matter to us as we received a discount on the fuel. The other option is that fuel stations can fill a five gallon jerry can without a license plate number. We knew this before leaving Peru and found a jerry can at the local market for $1.50. It was used for veggie oil, but thats pretty much diesel anyways, right? When we filled the jerry can, the station always sold diesel at the local price. It was a little annoying as we always spilled a little diesel on our hands or feet, but we figured we were saving about $10USD each time we filled the jerry can vs. paying the foreign price.

Before leaving Bolivia, we tried buying fuel at a station near the border and were turned away. While we were filling up our camper with water, a police officer chatted with us and told us that we should park a few blocks away and hire a taxi driver to fill the jerry can for us at the local price. A POLICE OFFICER OFFERED HIS ADVICE AS TO HOW TO BEAT THE SYSTEM! You can’t make this stuff up. We flagged down a taxi driver who was more than happy to fill our jerry can for us. This was a pretty slick way to get fuel as well.

The biggest problem with our jerry can is that it doesn’t have a spout. Our tank opening on the truck is pretty big so we figured we could just pour it right in. The first time we attempted this, half of the fuel ended up spilling all over the ground. We knew we needed a funnel, but didn’t want to go searching through auto stores to fine one. Instead, we found a Coke bottle and cut it at a 45 degree angle. Since the “neck” of the bottle is fairly narrow, the angle was perfect for our tank. The 45 degree angle was important as well since it stuck out away from the truck. In Santa Cruz, a Belgium man gave us a funnel he had been using for gassing up his truck. Our attempt to use it resulted in another disaster so we returned to the trusty Coke bottle instead.

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Bringing a jerry can from the US was certainly something we talked about but decided that it was unnecessary. Our truck holds 35 gallons of diesel which is more than enough to get through some of the most remote stretches of our trip. When we finally realized the full fuel situation in Bolivia, we decided a jerry can was necessary. We didn’t want the can in our truck or camper so we used a tie down to strap the can to our propane tank. Although probably an accident waiting to happen, it worked really well. Only a couple times did we have the jerry can full on the back of the truck as we tried to empty it into our tank as soon as possible so that the extra weight didn’t cause any problems.

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Anyhow, I’m sure there are a million other ways to accomplish the same things we did but this was the way we did it. We love to answer questions so please let us know if you have other questions.

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