Eating and drinking

Though few people come to Bolivia just for the cuisine, there are interesting local specialities worth trying and with a bit of effort you can manage to vary your diet away from the meat, rice and potato orthodoxy. Bolivian cooking can be divided into three distinct regional varieties: the Altiplano; the Valleys; and the Tropics.

The Altiplano

The high plateau produces mostly grains and potatoes.
Quinua
is a grain that thrives in this area. It has an exceptionally high protein content and is one of the staples of the Altiplano diet.
Quinua real
is the finest large-grain variety and well worth trying. It is prepared either in soup or like rice, to accompany stews.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of varieties of potatoes. The use of many types is highly localized. Some of the most commonly used in cooking include
chuño
or
tunta
, different kinds of freeze-dried potatoes, as well as the slightly sweet elongated
oca
.

Bolivian highland cooking is usually very tasty and often spicy. You will be sure to notice the
salteña
, a meat or chicken pastry which is sold absolutely everywhere but is most typical in La Paz.
Salteñas
are eaten only as a mid-morning snack, accompanied by a cold drink, and you won't find them after noon. The trick is to eat them without spilling copious quantities of gravy all over yourself.

Among the most popular highland dishes is
sajta de pollo
, spicy chicken with onion, fresh potatoes and
chuño.
Thimpu
is lamb or mutton in spicy sauce; the broth is served after the main course.
Chairo
, is a soup made of meat, vegetables and
chuño
. Another popular soup, usually served on weekends in Sucre, is the peanut-based and filling
cazuela
.
Fricasé
is also soupy, a traditional hangover remedy made with pork and
chuño
. In Potosí
fritanga
is
fricasé
without the broth.
Plato paceño
, as the name suggests, is a native La Paz dish, made from cheese fried and served with potato, broad beans, corn on the cob. Oruro specialities are mostly different cuts of roast lamb, including
rostro asado
- the head.

A good place to try local dishes, especially
sajta
and
thimpo
is at
Los Caldos
kiosks near Plaza Villaroel in La Paz (but not on your first day at high altitude) .

Other common denominators of the highland diet are various
picantes,
or spicy stews, served with rice and a boiled potato:
picante de pollo
(chicken),
picante de lengua
(ox tongue) and
picante de fideo
(noodles), as well as are
saice
(ground beef stewed with a few vegetables) and
ranga ranga
(tripe).

Near Lake Titicaca fish becomes an increasingly important part of the local diet and trout, though not native, is usually delicious.

Ají
is hot pepper, frequently used in cooking.
Rocoto
is an even hotter variety (with black seeds), sometimes used as a garnish and best avoided by the uninitiated.
Llajua
is a hot pepper sauce present on every Bolivian table. It's potency varies greatly so try a little bit before applying dollops to your food.


The Valleys

The departments of Cochabamba, Chuquisaca and Tarija produce some of Bolivia's finest cooking. Tarija is the wine and
singani
(brandy) capital, while Cochabamba is the agricultural and dairy centre.

Among the typical dishes from Cochabamba, two stand out:
silpancho
is very thin fried breaded meat with eggs, rice and bananas; and
pique a lo macho
, a delicious and massive dish of roast meat, sausage, chips, onion and pepper. The latter is especially popular with Bolivians and travellers alike.
'Macho' is part of the name for a reason, ask for it
'sin picante'
if you don't want it spicy.
Chicharrón
is pork fried in its own fat, in Cochabamba it is served with
quesillo
, or fresh cheese. Sucre is famous for its
chorizos
and also claims to have the best
salteñas
in the country. Tarija, being so close to Argentina, is, of course, a carnivore's paradise.
Parrillada
is a mixed grill, popular in both Tarija and Sucre.


The Tropics

The staple foods produced in the tropics are yucca, rice, bananas, tropical fruits and beef, and dishes here tend to feature these heavily. A favourite dish in the tropics is
locro
, a rice soup made with beef jerky or chicken, bananas, potato and egg. Another is
masaco
, fried jerky and banana. Note that many types of wild meat are served in tourist restaurants and on jungle tours. Bear in mind that turtles whose eggs are eaten are endangered and that other species not yet endangered soon will be if they stay on the tourist menu.

Among the pastries are
cuñapés
, made with yucca flour and cheese;
biscochos
, which are corn biscuits; and also
empanadas
(cheese pasties) and
humintas
(maize pies). The latter two are popular throughout the country and
humintas
come in two varieties:
de horno
(baked) and
de olla
(steamed), both are very good.

Brazil nuts, called
almendras
or
castañas
, are produced in the northern jungle department of Pando and sold throughout the country. They go rancid quickly, so ask to try one before buying at markets.


The several makes of local beer (lager-type) are all reasonable, though trying to pour a beer at altitude without ending up with a glass of froth is an art in itself.
Paceña
is the most popular brand and
Huari
is perhaps the best.
El
Inca
is a dark malt, sweet like a stout.
Singani
, a clear brandy distilled from muscat grapes, is the most popular spirit.
Casa Real
(red and black label) is a popular brand of
singani
and there are many others, produced mostly in Camargo and Tarija.
Chuflay
is
singani
with
7 Up
or other sweet soft drink. The best wines are produced in Tarija and many of them are very recommendable .

Chicha
is a traditional Andean drink made from fermented corn in the valleys around Cochabamba and elsewhere, where it is sold in
chicherías
, which are small places without a sign or a name. They can be found by looking out for a little white flag on a pole in front of the house, and several severely inebriated locals urinating in the street nearby.

The hot maize drink,
api
(with cloves, cinnamon, lemon and sugar), is good for breakfast, especially on the freezing cold Altiplano.
Tostada
is a cold drink made by boiling toasted corn and barley with honey, cinnamon, cloves and fennel. In Tarija it is called
aloja
. In the tropics fruit juices are delicious;
tamarindo
,
carambola
and
guapurú
are particularly good.
Mocochinche
(or
mocochinchi
) is a popular
refresco
in the highlands, made from boiled dried peaches.

Bottled water (many brands with and without gas) is readily available but make sure the seal is unbroken. Tap, stream and well water should never be drunk without first being purified. A local iodine-based water purifying product is
lugol fuerte solución
; also
tintura de iodo
(tincture of iodine), sold in pharmacies. Be sure you know how to use these, so as not to poison yourself.


Eating out

La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba (an especially good restaurant town) and most other major cities offer a wide variety of eating places, some of which are very high standard. In the eastern lowlands there is considerable Brazilian influence, with various
churrasquerías
and buffets; in the south Argentine-style
parrilladas
abound.

The popular travellers' destinations have a profusion of cafés and restaurants catering mainly to the gringo market. A few offer decent international cuisine at reasonable prices, but many seem convinced that tourists eat only mediocre pizza and vegetarian omeletts. There must be a hundred 'Pizzería Italianas' in Bolivia's tourist towns. Good coffee (often Bolivian) is usually possible to find, though it is much less common than instant.

In the
pensiones
and cheaper restaurants a basic set lunch (
almuerzo
- usually finished by 1300) and dinner (
cena
) are normally available for around US$1.50-2.50. Most restaurants do not open very early in the morning but many hotels include breakfast, and breakfast is also served in most markets .

At the lowest end of the price range, every market in Bolivia has a section for prepared foods. You always take a chance eating in a market, but if a place is clean then you might find a tasty nourishing meal for under US$1. Food vendors in the street, however, who have no way to properly wash their hands or utensils, should be avoided.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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