Bhutan Basics: The tourist visa, and other, myths

Tourist "Tax"

The government proclaims a commitment to attracting "high-dollar, low-impact" guests, rather than hordes of backpackers. Instead of restricting the number of visitors, Bhutan keeps the traveler numbers low by imposing a tourist tariff, which is $250 a day at this writing. Often confusingly called the tourist "tax," this is not just an entry fee. The daily tariff is the minimum amount you will need to spend on your trip to enter Bhutan, including tax, visa, lodging, food, guide, and travel within the country, everything but alcohol, souvenirs, and tips. You can't spend less than that rate per person, but you can spend far more, if you opt for fancier accommodations. Tour operators have factored this tariff into their packages, and will also help you arrange visas. But beware that some tour operators may skimp, for the less of your tariff that gets used for lodging, the more they get to keep.

Trekking and Top Sights

Mountain climbing is not allowed in Bhutan; the last King deemed it off-limits for environmental reasons. But trekking is a favorite activity, and it's available in all varieties, from the moderate afternoon stroll to the intense 25-day Snowman Trek for the buffest, altitude-proof among us. Prefer culture? There are tours built around Bhutan's colorful tsechus or festivals, which take place in different districts at all times of the year. A typical visit, if there is such a thing, involves a day in Paro, where you'll land and be taken to the National Museum, the sacred monastery Taktsang, and the district Dzong; a day in Thimphu, the capital city, where guides like for you to shop and a long meandering drive east to the rich agricultural district of Bumthang, usually the furthest point all but the most seasoned Bhutan-philes go. Be sure to stop along the way in the magnificent town of Trongsa, to see the world-class museum that opened in celebration of the coronation of Bhutan's new King in 2008.

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