This post now with photos!
Coming to Bolivia’s altiplano can be an arduous experience. The altitude in some of its cities can quite literally knock the air out of you – I have never felt so unfit as when we walked up one gently sloping hill in Potosí.
Not only that, but coming to these places during Carnaval can mean a constant barrage of water balloons and spray foam (fun until you realise how cold it can get at night here and how poor hot showers here can be).
Also, as a politically divided country, it can mean there is constant political strife, causing road blockades, meaning you can literally get stuck for days in a city.
Finally, there’s the food itself. Bolivia is, without doubt a poor country, and the altiplano can be a very arid place where few crops grow. Accordingly, the food is simple and usually consists of a few basic ingredients, chicken, llama meat, quinoa, rice and a few vegetables.
You may be reading this wondering why we came to Bolivia, but it is one of the most fascinatingly different places you may ever see in the world, with startlingly contrasting landscapes and amazing indigenous cultures.
Eating here may not be the most refined experience, but it’s good honest food that won’t leave you hungry.
The first thing we noted in the altiplano was that dinner is barely eaten here. Instead it’s common to have a very large 4 course meal for lunch (almuerzo completo) which can be as cheap as 15bs (£1.50) for the whole thing. As part of that you’ll often get a small starter (usually a salad buffet, only for those acclimatised to the hygiene conditions here!) followed by a soup, usually a simple vegetable broth with some quinoa, then a main, meat and carbs finished off with a very small pot of fruit or slice of cake. It’s certainly enough to set you up for the whole day.
Whilst chicken and beef seem to be fairly available in the altiplano, by far the most abundant source of meat here is llama. Llama afficionados look away now! Yes they’re gorgeous and cute and fluffy. They also taste pretty good. The meat is very lean and has a kind of rich slightly gamey taste. We tried it both in milanesa (schnitzel) and fillet form and found it very tasty. Definitely worth a try if you find yourself here.
Another thing we’ve noticed is that the Bolivians seem to have what can only be described as an obsession with all things fried. Fried chicken is particularly popular and can be found in every main city.
We particularly noted this on a quick lunch break in Oruro, whilst watching the carnival (an incredible riot of colours that has to be seen to be believed). We headed to what appeared to be the only restaurant in town (actually not an exaggeration, everyone here eats street food which has varying levels of hygiene). I ordered a dish I was sure would be a treat, rack of lamb. It is in fact the only place in the world that I think would serve this dish deep fried. Yes that’s right, deep fried rack of lamb. Not bad really, but greasy as hell.
When presented with a monotony of plain carbs and meat, in sometimes overwhelming quantities, I need salad. When we arrived in Sucre, we had a KITCHEN hallelujah. The produce in Bolivia after all is gorgeous, you just need the right tools to make something of it. In Sucre we stayed at a beautiful little guesthouse on the hill called Casa al Tronco with the best view in town from the kitchen (highly recommended). Here we decided to make pretty much every meal, and it was a brilliant idea.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, we did eat a couple of good meals that we didn’t prepare ourselves. One particularly good one was in Cochabamba, at a restaurant serving traditional Sucre food, called Sucre Manta. This food had flavour, it also wasn’t touristy and it’s really popular with the locals. One of the best meals we’ve had in Bolivia.
This may sound overwhelming negative but it’s a gringo’s life to eat average meals in Bolivia. There are street stalls aplenty where the food looks good but as hygiene standards here are significantly lower than back in Europe, we have been almost constantly ill so unable to try the more adventurous fare here. Moral of the story, when in Bolivia, get yourself a kitchen!
Top tips for altiplano travel:
1. Cochabamba: Get to the gigantic central market and buy some of the unusual fruits there. Take the teleférico to the Cristo, it’s an amazing view (don’t walk up). Eat at Sucre Manta, it’s amazing.
2. Oruro: Don’t come here unless it’s Carnaval! If you plan to come for carnaval book your accommodation way in advance and for each day of Carnaval bring a bag full of snacks to eat and plenty of money to buy beers from the passing sellers. Try and get a seat in a stand with a private bathroom, seats shouldn’t be more than 250bs for the 2 days.
3. Potosi: Stay in Hostal Eucalyptus, very nice place with a roof terrace with a view and kitchen! If you don’t fancy visiting the mines (which we didn’t) definitely go to the royal mint where they will show you the techniques used to create coins through the ages, this was where the majority of Bolivia’s wealth originally came from.
4. Sucre: As above, stay in Casa al Tronco, it’s up a hill but worth it for the amazing view. The main market is also great for unusual fruit and there are 2 supermarkets (such a treat). Do a trip to the dinosaur tracks nearby the city.
To deal with altitude sickness or soroche as it’s called here, go to the first cafe you see and order mate de coca, this stuff is coca tea, it’s miraculous and will make you feel fantastic.