Everything you need to know about teaching English in Bolivia

 

Bolivia has been described as being akin to a beggar sitting on top of a pile of gold and teachers of English who choose to teach in Bolivia will experience a nation on the verge of getting up off that pile and possibly reaping its rewards. Bolivia often feels otherworldly and this article looks at what it is like teaching English in this often overlooked South American country.

Bolivia flag

Where is Bolivia?

Bolivia is a landlocked country in central South America with 5 countries tightly pressed up against its borders: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Peru. It was recently discovered that approx half the planet’s lithium deposits are locked away under Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats and should the country decide to mine then it would catapult it to beyond its wildest, richest dreams. For now though, it remains poor but does have many options for teaching English in its cities and the experience of working here is priceless.

We found Bolivia to be the most affordable country when we backpacked South America last year in the summer holidays – Ecuador coming a close second – but it wasn’t only the low cost of living which had us raising our thumbs to Bolivia. 

The country is incredibly diverse in terms of its flora and fauna, as too are its microclimates and the uniquely different characteristics of its cities. As an example, the average August temperature in Santa Cruz (de la Sierra) is a balmy 28°C, whereas in La Paz it hovers at around 17°C only. 

Teacher’s salaries do reflect this low cost of living and the absolute maximum that we have heard any teacher earning here is just touching US$2,000 per month, working for a private international school. In reality though, as a teacher starting out, you should expect a more realistic ballpark figure of between US$500 – US$600 per month. 

At the time of writing this article, US$1 will give you 7 Bolivian Bolivianos and for the grand total of 12 Bolivianos, you can enjoy a fried trout meal on the shores of Lake Titicaca: the highest navigable lake in the world. Incidentally, if you do make it up to the lake – bordering Peru – then we do recommend the 15km (or so) walk to where you can pay a guide to row you across the crystal clear lake to Isla de la Luna, where you can spend the night on the island the Incas believed was the birthplace of the sun. Be mindful though of the altitude and expect to feel lightheaded throughout your visit there.

Teaching in La Paz

La Paz is a good 6 or 7 hour’s rickety bus ride from Lake Titicaca and is very often the first city backpackers arrive to – coming from either Chile or Peru. It rests chaotically in a mountainous bowl and at an altitude of 3,640m above sea level takes some getting used to. As with all the cities on this list, work is there to be found and your students will more than likely be business professionals, so teaching hours will be adjusted around their work schedules. Be extra vigilant walking home late at night as robberies are not unheard of.

View of La Paz

A college degree isn’t mandatory for teaching English in Bolivia, but you must hold an internationally recognized TEFL certificate, issued by a reputable TEFL school. 

Your TEFL certificate will be required by the language schools you apply to as part of the application process as being unqualified just isn’t an option, and besides, it’s also required for the work visa process. We do understand that we are biased regarding the Online versus Onsite TEFL certification debate, but we have never heard of any school quizzing an applicant whether their TEFL certificate was earned online or onsite so we will leave it up to you to decide whether you prefer the affordability and flexibility of online study or whether you want to pay US$4,000+ for the full package onsite course experience. 

tefl online pro also run a combined international TEFL certification course btw if you feel that you would like to have the experience of having teaching practice hours as part of your TEFL training. 

Incidentally, what we felt we would love if we taught in Bolivia would be the location as being a crossroads between north and south South America, and also the unique experience of teaching in this country, which at times feels like it’s on another planet.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra main square church

Teaching in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has been in the international media recently as a result of its ambitious plans to be the financial center of central South America, although when we visited again since the last time we were there 10 years ago, the city was almost exactly the same and had retained its small town feel, despite being the largest city in the country. The only thing missing was the sloth lingering in the trees of the central square, which is there no longer. If you love a tropical climate and a super laidback vibe, this is the city for you to teach in.

Whilst finding teaching work isn’t a big hassle, getting legal to work can be – just as it can be in Brazil, as described in our Brazil article – and this hassle involves the procedure for when first entering the country, and then the bureaucratic hoops which both you and the school need to jump through once the wheels have been set in motion. 

Anyone wanting to teach English legally in Bolivia must enter the country on a Specific Purpose Visa. Easy right? Well, yes and no. It’s a little like a catch 22 situation. Most schools in Bolivia like to recruit from within the country; meaning they prefer to see you in person before offering you work. 

The issue with this is that to obtain the Specific Purpose Visa, you need a letter of invitation from the language school. Some of the larger schools will recruit from abroad, but before agreeing to sign up with one particular school, we recommend that you heavily research the school and working conditions. 

The Specific Purpose Visa is valid for 30 days upon entry into Bolivia and then you have within these 30 days to file all the necessary work permit papers. The way we found out some teachers get around this red tape is by entering Bolivia on a standard 30-day Tourist Visa, securing work within their allotted 30 days and then leaving across the border to Chile, where they apply for the Specific Purpose Visa at the Bolivian Consulate in Arica. US citizens though must apply for any type of Bolivian visa from their home state, so if you are coming from the USA then you will unfortunately need to arrange work in advance and apply directly for the Specific Purpose Visa before arrival. If you are from the UK however, you can just dandy yourself over to South America and everything’s chill. The third option for teaching English in Bolivia is working illegally, but we never recommend this option. 

Please remember that at tefl online pro we assist our graduates with ongoing job support, help and advice, so if you are thinking of making the move to Bolivia and need guidance then feel free to reach out and contact us.

Teaching in El Alto

El Alto, stretched out like a burgeoning waistline after a hearty lunch on the Altiplano highlands is Bolivia’s second largest city and developing fast. Home to South America’s highest airport, it used to be known as a brief stopping off point for the essential journey to La Paz, but has since begun raising its 4,000m above sea level nose up at its former older brother and is fast making a name for itself as a city to rival La Paz. There is as much work here as there is in the former and the wages and working conditions are identical.

Cable car over city of El Alto

Bolivia has had a long run of back luck in its history and is understandably jaded from these numerous experiences. 

The Spanish were among the first to invade and loot its precious metals mines, then Bolivia lost its access to the sea, and then more recently it has been international companies who have seen an easy target in this small South American country with a poor infrastructure and huge reserves of mineral deposits. 

The recent discovery of the world’s single largest concentration of lithium, under the surface of the Uyuni salt flats, has again thrown Bolivia into the spotlight, but this time the country is being coy: playing its cards close to its chest. International companies are falling over themselves to get a piece of the lithium mining action, but the current President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is having none of it. 

The discovery of this treasure under the moon-like landscape of the salt flats has presented a political quagmire for the Bolivian government and they see three possible options: 1. Allow the international companies in to mine the lithium and risk being taken advantage of again. 2. Mine this vast recourse themselves with the limited technology they can muster up themselves. 3. Leave the lithium alone and preserve the natural beauty of the salt lake. 

Perhaps the biggest concern though should be given over to how Bolivia would deal with becoming one of the world’s wealthiest nations overnight and perhaps this is also one of the major reservations for the president. Should the lithium mining proceed, then Bolivia might just be the new China for teaching English abroad as a foreign language. 

Cochabamba city view

Teaching in Cochabamba

Cochabamba is a rough and ready city, bang smack in the middle of Bolivia and has the reputation of being the party city of Bolivia. Grouped together with La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is a city in Bolivia where finding teaching work is somewhat of a doddle and its central location makes for a good base in the country. This is a beautiful city, with amazing views and the best viewpoint has to be from El Cristo de La Concordia, which looks out over the city in much the same way as Rio’s Christ statue does.

Besides teaching for language schools, we also recommend picking up private students when living and teaching in Bolivia as these pay on average US$10 – US$15 per hour. 

Teachers first arriving will inevitably need to begin teaching for a language school, but once you have developed contacts, you should definitely look to widening the net by teaching private students in addition to your own classes. 

We also recommend learning some Spanish before making the trip over because even though your students will speak some English, hardly anyone else does. Bolivian Spanish has its roots in Andalusian Spanish, but it also uses a lot of vocabulary and phrases which are not spoken anywhere else so prepare yourself for this upon arrival. On the other hand, Bolivians are regarded as having one of the clearest and most neutral of Spanish accents in Latin America, so this is a great country to start out in if you are concerned about understanding the locals. 

Teaching in Sucre

Sucre – termed ‘The White City’ because of its white buildings – is the constitutional capital of Bolivia and a beautiful city boasting charming, colonial architecture and immaculately manicured parks. We found Sucre to be the most expat-friendly of all the cities we visited in Bolivia and perhaps its relatively low altitude at 2,800m above sea level contributes to the general vibe of the city in that it doesn’t get too ridiculously hot or cold and this makes for a very pleasant living experience in a city with a healthy teaching industry. 

Church in Sucre, Bolivia

Read more Teaching English Abroad Country Specifics articles on the tefl online pro Blog

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