Expat Stories: Came to Bolivia as a University Exchange Student, Married a Bolivian and Started a Business in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

by Paul Rachner - From Washington, USA
(Santa Cruz, Bolivia)

1. How did you first hear about Bolivia and/or become interested in Bolivia as a possible place to live?

I studied Spanish & Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. I had to do a semester abroad, and had a friend who had backpacked extensively between Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. He liked Bolivia the most, and said it was the cheapest. Since I was on a budget (had only the summer to work and save for my semester abroad), Bolivia seemed like a great choice.

2. Where are you from originally and why are/were you considering living overseas when you first took Bolivia into account as an option?

I’m from Woodinville, WA just 20 minutes north of Seattle. (The second part of the question I think I covered in #1)

3. Which languages do you speak? If you do not speak Spanish, has this made adjusting to, and living in Bolivia more difficult for you?

I speak English and Spanish (and a little Portuguese).

4. Did you come here as an individual, couple or family?


5. Are you planning to live in Bolivia short-term or long term?

I’ve been here for 11 years now, but plan on relocating to Panama shortly with my Bolivian family. Initially, it was just supposed to be for the semester in 2003. Actually, my semester in Bolivia was interrupted by the “Guerra del Gas”, and my home university had me sent out of the country. It was upon returning after things simmered down here that I met the woman who is now my wife. I extended my stay by a few months to be with her, returning to the U.S. to finish my last semester and get my degrees, and then returned to marry a few months later.

6. Do you work or plan to work or start your own business in Bolivia?

I initially worked as a teacher after returning to Bolivia. I taught Math and Science to middle school kids at a bilingual school for almost five years. After my third year in that job, my wife and I started a pizza business (Sahara Pizza). Now we have a few stores in Santa Cruz.

7. Is Bolivia the only country to which you contemplated moving, or did you consider other choices? If so, why did you ultimately choose Bolivia?

Originally, before meeting my wife, my plan was to move to Guadalajara, Mexico where I had also done a semester abroad, and to look for work there after finishing college. I still like Mexico more than Bolivia, and we even considered relocating there. If we’ve stayed in Bolivia for this long, it’s been because of the business we started, and the fact that when I got married, my wife had steady employment, and I also landed a reasonable paying job.

8. What steps did you take to research about Bolivia to prepare yourself prior to arriving?

From talking to my friend (mentioned in question #1), buying a LONELY PLANET guide, and looking online (although information found on the internet was very limited in 2002/2003).

9. What do you miss most about your home country?

Besides the obvious being family and friends, decent coffee to go I am a Seattle native after all, the beautiful scenery of the Pacific Northwest (Santa Cruz is not too scenic unless you get out a ways), and being able to do simple things like getting my drivers license renewed or voting with relative ease and simplicity, and not wasting the better part of a day or three.

10. What do you like/love/appreciate most about Bolivia?

People are generally very friendly (unless they are behind the wheel), Pique Macho, salteñas, still pretty cheap cost of living, and—although in the big scheme of things, it’s not probably not a good thing—you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want here.

11. Did you relocate on your own, or do you work for a company that relocated you to Bolivia?

Initially came as an exchange student through UNM.

12. If your plan is/was to retire in Bolivia permanently, how did you prepare financially, and in other ways to make that possible?


13. For those of you who have lived in Bolivia for at least 6 months, now that you are here, what have you learned about Bolivia that you did not know before?

The media is ridiculously non-objective and sensationalistic, the political and justice systems are just atrociously depressingly broken, Santa Cruz economically is a boom town, and even with more than eight million inhabitants, you always seem to run into someone you know, no matter what part of the country you’re in.

14. Is there anything about Bolivia that turned out to be very unexpected to you?

I think I knew what I was getting into. Even living here in October of 2003, I wasn’t surprised by seeing a president get run out of office, and out of the country. If I had to pick something though, I would say I was not expecting Santa Cruz to be so dangerous. When I first came here, Bolivia was statistically the safest country in South America I’m pretty sure. I highly doubt that that is true anymore.

15. What special skills or attitudes do you think a person or family needs in order to ensure their stay in Bolivia is enjoyable/successful?

Be friendly, and people will generally be friendly back. Be patient, and don’t expect things to work the way they do back home, wherever that may be. Be careful in any of the larger cities, street crime is pretty bad here. At least learn some basic Spanish. If you want to start a successful business, find a niche. There are a lot of things that people would like and buy if they could only get them.

16. Is there any reason you would NOT recommend Bolivia as a place to live, work or retire?

The political situation to me seems very scary. Also, the delinquency is pretty alarming. I have been held up at gun point, my wife has been robbed and physically assaulted twice, I have a friend who was shot while being mugged out jogging, my sister-in-law was physically assaulted when 8-months pregnant... I could go on and on. I can honestly say I do not know anyone who has not been directly affected by violent crime. I have lived in Albuquerque, NM and Guadalajara, and could not say that at all about those places.

In terms of working here, unless you are being transferred by your company, wages here are very low, and most businesses are not very good at paying on time.

If you are retiring here, well, I’m probably not the best person to give an opinion on that. All I can say is that I can imagine that when there are shortages on things like gas and gasoline, it must be a lot harder for an older person to deal with obtaining those things than for someone who is younger and can move around a lot more quickly and independently.

17. What is the most negative aspect about living in Bolivia in your opinion?

The corruption and crime, oh, and the beer here is too expensive.

18. What are some of the most positive aspects about living in Bolivia in your opinion?

The importance of family values here is taken very seriously. The cost of living is still reasonable low. There is abundant natural beauty here. The strong presence of traditional cultural influences (mainly folkloric music and dances) is pretty cool.

19. Have you faced any unexpected difficulties while living here? Were you able to overcome those obstacles? Are they serious enough to cause you to want to leave?

Yes, sort of, and yes.

20. If your children moved overseas with you, how did you prepare them for the differences in lifestyle or culture shock?

My children were born here.

21. For future potential expatriates who are considering living in Bolivia, what advice would you give them (how to prepare, what to bring or not bring, etc.)?

Get your visa situation squared away before coming here. If you plan on staying here, you have to get your “objeto determinado” done OUTSIDE of Bolivia.

22. What are some of the things that were most difficult for you to accept or adjust to in Bolivia?

Again, the crime rate in SCZ. Also, it’s pretty dirty in SCZ, and the weather is something I’ve never been able to get used to.

23. Prior to moving here, what aspects of living in Bolivia would you have liked to know more about or have more assistance with? Is there anything anyone could have done, or informed you about that would have made your choice to move to Bolivia, the relocation process itself, or your initial adjustment period easier, less stressful, less frightening?

Don’t think I can add anything here. If anything, the first years here were easier. Now that I’ve been here for a while, I think it’s gotten harder/less pleasant for me. I think some of that has to do with the frustrations of trying to run a business with all the senseless beaurocracy and institutional corruption, also with the fact that I’m raising kids here now.

24. Hindsight is 20/20. If you could go back in time to the months before you moved to Bolivia, is there were anything you would do differently to prepare for living in Bolivia?


25. Just for statistical purposes, had you heard of BoliviaBella.com or Expat Services prior to moving to Bolivia? If so, which parts of our website were most helpful to you? What information would you like to see added for future potential expats?

Prior to moving here, no. To be honest, I’ve never been very connected to the expat groups.

Sahara Pizza now has several locations in Santa Cruz
Find them on Facebook

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Comments for Expat Stories: Came to Bolivia as a University Exchange Student, Married a Bolivian and Started a Business in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

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Aug 10, 2014
by: Paul

Hi Marjorie, I'm glad our pizza makes your living here that much more pleasant :)

Aug 10, 2014
Moved from USA to Santa Cruz, Bolivia
by: Marjorie Mindel

I've been in Bolivia for over 30 years, all but 2 of them in Santa Cruz. Among all the ups and downs of life here, I definitely classify Sahara Pizza as one of the ups! Thanks for bringing down a franchise with such a great menu. My younger sister lives around Puyallup. I'll see if she's ever had Sahara Pizza's great food.

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