Leaving Brasil and entering a country I was completely unfamiliar with was daunting. Even speaking near fluent Spanish (in Spain), it was bewildering to note how many new words I’d need to learn here. It makes even reading a menu an impossibility as every dish has a local name so I could only recognise a couple of the ingredients if that.
The richness of the culture here and the existence of so many indigenous languages from Quechua to Aymara to Guaraní mean that Spanish here contains many words that even Spaniards would struggle with. The pro minorities government fronted by Evo Morales requires that in many schools in Bolivia several local languages are learned so English is often taught to only the most basic level if at all.
Certainly in Santa Cruz it’s a must to know some Spanish before you come.
Luckily we happened to be staying with the family of a dear friend from Madrid, originally from Bolivia. So we had the fortune, not only of being taken to restaurants locals would eat at, but also the luxury of being able to ask if there was something we wanted to understand. Here are some of the best eating experiences we’ve had in Santa Cruz and around.
1. Casa de Camba:
Ok it’s a bit cheesy; the big ranch style restaurant, the embarrassing photos they make you take with the hats on, you will feel an ultimate gringo. But this is where the family brought us when we’d just got off the plane and it’s a great starting point. The food is certainly more expensive than some places you can find in Santa Cruz, but it’s really good. We got the parilla, basically a massive steaming grill full of a variety of meats from delicious steaks to chorizo sausages to morcilla to kidneys to tripe and it cooks at your table. It also comes with sides like yucca (a potato like vegetable) and creamy rice mixed with cheese. We also tried the refreshing chicha (ground corn drink flavoured with cinnamon). Go with an empty stomach!
2. El Aljibe (3 blocks from the main square):
Taking a stroll around the centre of the city, we found a gorgeous little traditional place which looks half restaurant, half museum. It’s a perfectly preserved little house that looks like it would have a century ago. It had a beautiful little courtyard with a fountain. So although it’s also not the cheapest in Santa Cruz, it’s the surroundings you’re paying for. It’s also a good place to try local traditional dishes, we had pastel de gallina, a flaky pastry filled with chicken and sweet raisins (almost like eating pastilla in Morocco).
We also tried majao de pato which is a thick hearty rice dish fortified with small pieces of duck meat and broth.
3. Las Cabañas:
This is definitely off the beaten track for tourists but it’s an incredible place for a meal. The area used to be a national park (until it was flooded and had to be relocated) but it retains its beauty. It’s filled with traditional buildings with straw thatched roofs, each of them open air restaurants that cook everything over open fires in their little outdoor kitchens. Here we tried lots of amazing traditional foods. From the fascinating giant corn (‘choclo’) served with local cheese, which unlike our regular corn is less sweet and much more hearty and filling.
I had a traditional ‘llocro de gallina’, basically a huge bowl of chicken soup with rice added which was comforting and delicious.
We also tried ‘pique a lo macho’, a big pile of grilled beef strips, sausage pieces, chips and chopped tomato and onion. It’s not sophisticated stuff but it’s bloody great.
4. Santiago de Chiquitos, Hostal Churapa:
With a few days in Santa Cruz under our belts (literally), we wanted to get out to the countryside and see the local scenery. On a great recommendation, we boarded a bus to Roboré then got a taxi to Santiago de Chiquitos. We stayed in a gorgeous hostal run by 2 biologists who are passionate about the local fauna, they also speak English and bent over backwards to help us which was wonderful. On a rainy day in the hostal we were treated to the traditional Bolivian set lunch. We started with ‘sopa de maní’ a real Bolivian staple which is a hearty soup made of peanuts and beef stock, usually with peas and pieces of beef in, a real staple of Bolivian food and for good reason.
After a hard day of walking, this was very gratefully received. The second plate, a fairly simple dish of grilled chicken with rice and salad.
The set menu is a must have because it’s a good amount of food for not a lot of money. For all this it was only 25 Bolivianos (about £2.50)
It’s not been an easy start but Bolivia is set to be delicious.
Other foodie things of note in Eastern Bolivia:
The closeness to both Brasil and Argentina here means you can easily find delicacies from both countries here. Pão de queijo (cheese bread balls) can also be found here under the guise of cuñapé. Make sure you try all of these, we had a large variety for breakfast every day, the best breakfast you could have.
You can also find empanadas here and alfajores (biscuits filled with dulce de leche) from Argentina.
Also make the most of having good meat here, in the altiplano the main source of meat is llama.