Car ownership is comparatively uncommon in Bolivia, with private vehicles generally being reserved for transportistas and the economic elite. Nevertheless, if I did happen to earn enough money to buy a car here, I probably wouldn’t want to drive it anyway.
Traffic in La Paz is notoriously bad. So bad that the government spent over US$500 million building a cable car transportation system to alleviate the issue. But it’s not the constant gridlock that puts me off, it’s the local’s reckless and chaotic driving style. Nationwide there are some 40,000 traffic accidents each year from only 500,000 registered vehicles, a statistic that is all too evident in La Paz where most cars bare visible scars from previous collisions.
A lot of people say Bolivians are bad drivers but I actually think they are pretty skilled, at least in terms of reflexes. It’s normal to see manic drivers weaving through tiny gaps in traffic, narrowly avoiding a crash without even breaking a sweat.
A lack of law
The real problem is that road rules are generally ignored. Red lights are frequently run, indicators are never used, horns are used for overtaking, buses pull out in front of oncoming traffic, seat belts are never worn and speed limits are largely ignored. Driving in central La Paz is certainly not for the faint of heart.
The documentary series Don’t Drive Here did an interesting episode on La Paz.
A status symbol
Despite the stresses of driving in La Paz, the wealthy relish in the opportunity. Driving a decent car is like wearing a gold Rolex – it shows you have serious money. Much like in America, Bolivians tend to favor large cars. Hummers, 4WD’s and over sized pickup trucks are the height of fashion here.
Furthermore, the cost of a new car in Bolivia is significantly more than the west due to high import taxes. Prices vary between models but tend to be at least 30% more than the USA. Combine this with Bolivia’s depressingly low average salaries and it’s easy to see why a flashy car is the ultimate status symbol.
Used cars and maintenance
Second hand cars are also very expensive compared to the west. Because developed countries have an abundance of cars, they tend to lose their value fairly quickly. Whereas in the developing world, car ownership is quite low so they devalue much more slowly. I’ve seen second hand cars here advertised for $5000 when they couldn’t be worth more than $2000 back home.
Maintenance costs vary drastically depending on the work required. While labor might only cost a few bucks an hour, parts can be very expensive because they are scarce, imported and subject to high taxes. Furthermore, Bolivian mechanics are not known for their honesty and see foreigners as wealthy and gullible. I’ve met a few gringos who have forked out thousands of dollars for extremely dubious repair work.
In La Paz there are plenty of mechanics offering their services in Alto San Pedro, on and around Avenida Laendeta.
On top of everything else, car theft is a massive problem in Bolivia, not surprising given a flashy car can be worth more than an apartment. Parking on the street overnight is asking for trouble so every sensible car owner has access to a garage, insurance and an obnoxiously loud car alarm.
Speaking of car alarms, every Bolivian car owner seems to have the exact same alarm which is ear-splittingly loud. Naturally, they are all sensitive enough to be set off by a passing pedestrians, creating a symphony of obnoxious beeps for hours on end.
Immobilizers and steering wheel locks are effective in preventing theft but don’t stop thieves from stripping cars for parts. One time a friend parked his car on the street during a party and came back to find his hubcaps missing. I’ve also heard stories of engine parts, headlights, electronics and even steering wheels disappearing in the dead of night.
A fun thing Bolivians do is modify cheap cars as if they were high performance street racers. For example, it’s perfectly normal to see a shitty family sedan with racing stripes, fake exhaust pipes and a rear spoiler. Run down old rust buckets are covered in racing decals, often strategically placed on the front windscreen to block the driver’s view.
Other cars feature huge rally style speedometers even though they would struggle to reach 100 kph. The most hardcore enthusiasts install bright neon lights under the chassis, bringing their Fast and the Furious fantasies into reality… kind of.