You won’t find much in the way of sophisticated cuisine in Bolivia, though options are improving all the time. Moreover, in most places it’s easy to get a decent and filling meal, and there are some interesting national and local specialities. The style of food varies considerably between Bolivia’s three main geographical regions: the Altiplano, the highland valleys and the tropical lowlands. Though the differences are fading, each region has comidas típicas (traditional dishes), which include some of the highlights of Bolivian cuisine.
All larger towns in Bolivia have a fair selection of restaurants (spelt the same way as in English, without the extra “e” at the end used in most Spanish-speaking countries). Almost all offer a set lunch, or almuerzo, consisting of a substantial soup (sopa) and a main course (segundo), usually made up of rice, potatoes, some form of meat or chicken, and a little bit of salad. Sometimes all this will be preceded by a small savoury appetizer and followed by a sweet dessert. Coffee, teas or a soft drink may also be included. Usually costing between Bs15–25, these set lunches are enormously filling and great value for money. Many restaurants also offer a similarly economical set dinner (cena) in the evening. In addition, most have a range of a la carte main dishes (platos extras) available throughout the day – these are usually substantial meat dishes like steak, and rarely cost more than Bs40. In smaller towns the choice is much more limited, and often the simple set almuerzo and cena will be the only meal on offer.
Ordinary restaurants rarely offer much in the way of vegetarian food; in out-of-the-way places, vegetarians may find themselves eating rather a lot of egg-based dishes. The situation changes a great deal in popular travellers’ haunts, where international food is more and more common, and salads and vegetarian dishes are widely available. Although as a landlocked country Bolivia is obviously not the place to come for seafood, fish features regularly on menus. Lago Titicaca produces an abundant harvest of succulent trucha (trout) and pejerrey (kingfish), while native fish are abundant in the rivers of the lowlands: the tastiest is the juicy white fish known as surubí.
Most cities have at least one Chinese restaurant (or chifa), and pizzerias are also fairly widespread. Also reliable are Bolivia’s cheap spit-roast chicken restaurants known as pollos spiedo, pollos broaster or pollos a la brasa.
Few restaurants open much before 8am for breakfast (desayuno) – Bolivians tend either to make do with a hot drink and a bread roll or, if they want something more substantial, to head to the market for soup or rice and meat. In touristy places, though, you’ll find continental and American breakfasts, along with fruit juices and travellers’ favourites like banana pancakes.
In smarter restaurants, you may find yourself paying Bs50 or more for a main course, but for this you should expect a pretty good meal, and even in the best restaurants in La Paz or Santa Cruz few dishes cost more than about Bs70. Tipping is not generally expected, but is always welcome. No additional tax is charged on meals, but there is often a cover charge in restaurants with live music performances, known as peñas.
Wherever you are in Bolivia, the cheapest place to eat is invariably the market. Here you’ll find rows of stalls selling juices, soups, snacks and meals that can satisfy most appetites for less than Bs10. Markets, which open for business much earlier than most restaurants and cafés, are also often the best places to try out regional specialities. From around 6am you can find stalls selling coffee and tea with bread, sandwiches and pastries, and – more popular with the locals – api, a hot, sweet, thick maize drink flavoured with cloves and cinnamon and served with deep-fried pancakes known as buñuelos. Markets are also the place to go to stock up for a trek, a picnic, or if you just feel the urge to prepare your own food.
The standard of hygiene at market stalls is often not the highest, however, and you should probably avoid eating at them until your stomach has adjusted to local bacteria. In general, food cooked in front of your eyes is probably safe; food that’s been left sitting around for a while may not be.
The most popular snack throughout Bolivia is the salteña, a pasty filled with a spicy, juicy stew of meat or chicken with chopped vegetables, olives and hard-boiled egg. Named after the city of Salta in Argentina, salteñas are sold from street stalls and eaten in the mid-morning accompanied by a cold drink and a spoonful or two of chilli sauce if desired. The best salteñas are found in Sucre, where they’re also sold in specialist cafés called salteñerias, which open only in the mid-morning and serve nothing else. Salteñas potosinas, made in Potosí, are less juicy (making them easier to eat in the mines) and are more likely to be meat-free.
Similar to salteñas, but deep-fried and with a higher potato content, are tucumanas, also named after a city (Tucumán) in Argentina. Also commonly available are empanadas, simpler pasties filled with meat, chicken or cheese and either baked or fried. Another snack typical of Santa Cruz is the cuñape, a tasty pastry made from cheese and yuca flour. Familiar international snacks are also common in Bolivia, including hamburgers (hamburguesas) and hot dogs (choripan).
In the Altiplano, traditional Aymara cuisine is dominated by the potato, often served alongside rice as one of two or three different carbohydrates on the same plate. The Andes are the original home of the potato, and over two hundred different varieties are grown in Bolivia. As well as being boiled, baked, mashed and fried, they are also freeze-dried using ancient techniques involving repeated exposure to sunshine and frost. Known as chuño and tunta, these dehydrated potatoes have an unusual texture and a distinctive, nutty flavour that takes some getting used to. They’re often boiled and served instead of (or as well as) fresh potatoes, but they’re best appreciated in the many different soups that are a feature of Altiplano cuisine. These are thick, hearty affairs laden with potatoes, vegetables and whatever meat is to hand – one of the most typical and widely available is chairo, typical of La Paz. Another standard soup ingredient is quinoa, a native Andean grain that has a distinctively nutty flavour and a remarkably high nutritional value.
The most common meat in the Altiplano is mutton, closely followed by llama, which is lean and tasty. Llama meat is often eaten in a dried form known as charque (the origin of the English word jerky). Other Altiplano mainstays include sajta, a spicy dish of chicken cooked with dried yellow chilli, potatoes, tunta, onions and parsley; and the plato paceño, a mixed plate of meat, cheese, potatoes, broad beans and maize which is typical of La Paz. If you like your food with a kick, all these dishes can be doused in llajua – a hot sauce made from tomatoes, small chilli peppers (locotos) and herbs.
The comida típica of the valley regions around Sucre, Cochabamba and Tarija shares many ingredients with the traditional cuisines of the Altiplano, but combines them with a wider range of fresh fruit and vegetables and tends to be spicier. Maize features strongly, either ground into a flour and used as the basis for thick soups known as laguas, or boiled on the cob and served with fresh white cheese – a classic combination known as choclo con queso. Meat and chicken are often cooked in spicy sauces known as picantes. Pork also features strongly: deliciously deepfried as chicharrón, roasted as lechón or made into chorizos chuquisaceños (spicy sausages originating from Sucre). A popular valley mainstay served throughout Bolivia is pique a lo macho, a massive plate of chopped beef and sausage, potatoes (or chips), onions, tomatoes and chillies.
In the tropical lowlands of the Amazon and Santa Cruz, plantain and yucca (similar to a yam) generally take the place of potatoes alongside rice as the mainstay sources of carbohydrate. One classic breakfast staple is masaco: mashed plantain or yucca mixed with shredded charque and fried. The lowlands are cattle-ranching regions, so good-quality, relatively inexpensive beef features strongly. This is usually barbecued or fried as steak, or cooked on skewers in massive kebabs (pacumutus). Another classic lowland dish is locro de gallina, a rich chicken soup. Game or bushmeat is also common in the lowlands: jochi (agouti), tatú (armadillo), saino (peccary) and venado (venison) all frequently appear on menus, though for conservation reasons it is better not to eat them.
Known as refrescos, fizzy drinks are found all over Bolivia, including international brands like Coca-Cola and a wide range of nationally produced beverages. Bottled processed fruit juice from the Cochabamba region, sold under the name “Jugos del Valle”, is a good alternative. The word refresco is also used to denote home-made soft drinks, usually fruit-based, served from street stalls. Mineral water, both sparkling (agua mineral con gas) and still (sin gas), is fairly widely available, as is less expensive purified water labelled “Naturagua” – a good thing, as it’s best not to drink the tap water. Make sure the seals on all bottles are intact when you buy them.
The delicious variety of tropical fruits grown in Bolivia is available as juices (jugos) from market stalls, and freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice is also sold on the streets from handcarts. Tea (té) and coffee (café) are available almost everywhere, though the latter is rarely prepared to the strength favoured by most Europeans, and sometimes comes with sugar already added – a shame, as Bolivia produces some excellent coffee. Café con leche is a big glass of hot milk flavoured with coffee. Many Bolivians prefer herbal teas, known as mates; mate de coca is the best known. Hot chocolate is usually very good too.
Locally produced alcoholic drinks are widely available, and drinking is a serious pastime. Drinking with locals can be great fun, but shouldn’t be entered into lightly, as slipping away after a couple is easier said than done. Remember, too, that until you become acclimatized, high altitude magnifies both the effects of alcohol and the resulting hangover.
Beer (cerveza) is available in shops, restaurants and bars almost everywhere, and Bolivians consume it in large quantities, especially at fiestas. All the major cities have their own breweries, producing German lager-style beers of reasonable quality with a strength of around five percent. Most beer still comes in returnable bottles, though cans are becoming more widespread; a large 750ml bottle costs about Bs15. Paceña, produced in La Paz, is the most popular and widely available, followed by Huari, made by the same company but with a slightly saltier taste. Taquiña from Cochabamba is also good, while Potosina, from Potosí, has a stronger malt flavour; Ducal from Santa Cruz and Sureña from Sucre are less well thought of. Most breweries also produce a dark, rather sweet, stout-like beer known as malta. On some beer labels you’ll see the word tropicalizada – this means it has been produced in the highlands but is more highly pressurized for consumption at lower altitudes where the air pressure is higher: if opened at altitude it will spray all over the place. More expensive imported beers are available only in larger cities.
Although not widely consumed, Bolivia also produces a growing variety of wines (vinos). Production is centred in the Tarija valley, home to the highest vineyards in the world, and quality is improving all the time – the best labels are Concepción, Kohlberg and Aranjuez. Imported wines from Chile and Argentina are also widely available and often cheaper, as they’re frequently smuggled across the border to avoid tax and duty.
When Bolivians really want to get drunk they turn to spirits, in particular a white grape brandy called singani, produced in the Tarija valley. The more expensive high-grade singanis are very good, but most are pretty rough. It’s usually drunk mixed with Sprite or Seven-Up, a fast-acting combination known as Chufflay. Those who can’t afford singani (which includes most campesinos and miners) turn to virtually pure industrial alcohol potable, sold in large metal cans. Consumed at rural fiestas and used to make offerings to mountain spirits and other supernatural beings, this is fearsome stuff, and you drink it at your peril.
No visit to the Cochabamba is complete without a taste of chicha Cochabambina, a thick, mildly alcoholic beer made of fermented maize which is available throughout the region wherever you see a white flag or bunch of flowers raised on a pole outside a house. Considered sacred by the Incas, its tart, yeasty flavour is definitely an acquired taste, and it can play havoc with the digestion.