Bolivia Is the Underdog of Latin American Cuisine and We’re Rooting for It
Bolivia’s cuisine is like a beautiful person who doesn’t know they’re beautiful.
Argentina has asado, Brazil has churrascaria, and Bolivia’s food…is not discussed all that much. But those who do journey to the underrated country find that it’s just like its food: humble, pure, and full of personality. From comfort food to five-star cuisine, the food in Bolivia packs a punch—usually in the most unassuming establishments—that could rival its more popular neighbors. Here are 10 dishes we tried on our most recent trip to La Paz that are uniquely Bolivian and will make you want to go there, like, yesterday.
Sopa de Mani (Peanut Soup)
Maybe it’s the modest name that makes this traditional soup so surprising—“peanut soup” doesn’t exactly sound life-changing. In reality, it’s the best thing we ate in Bolivia , and our only regret is not licking the bowl. The peanut-infused broth is rich and creamy, anchored by a hunk of meat on the bone, plus pasta (surprise!) that’s fried for extra flavor, and it’s topped with potato chips for a satisfyingly salty crunch.
Try it here: Sillpichs , Calle Socabaya
Bolivia’s answer to the empanada, these beef and potato stuffed pastry pockets are eaten as a savory breakfast snack—and we’re upset no one has ever told us was an option, by the way. You can find them all over La Paz, but the ones sold by street vendors are generally just as delicious as those in restaurants. Get going early, though; they notoriously disappear by afternoon.
Try it here: Paceña de Salteña , Calle Loayza 233
Yes, we ate a llama and we feel guilty about it, okay? But let’s look at the facts: There are more than 3 million llamas in Bolivia, so it’s not surprising that their meat is consumed just as cows are in the U.S. In fact, the Andean specialty appears on almost every Bolivian menu, sometimes in sophisticated recipes like llama carpaccio . The verdict: It’s tasty, but it can be chewy because the meat is so lean. Ours was served with another traditional food, pink quinoa, and maybe the best avocado we’ve ever had.
Try it here: La Suisse , Av. Muñoz Reyes 1710
The taste of chocolate in Bolivia might surprise you. Visitors who come from sea level tend to think it’s less sweet than chocolate back home, an effect caused by the high altitude decreasing your sense of taste. We’ve personally never had a chocolate bar we didn’t like. El Ceibo, which claims to be the only chocolate brand completely produced by the cocoa producers themselves from tree to consumer, makes their bars with organic cocoa beans (you’ll notice that everything in Bolivia seems to be organic). Try the Andean Royal Quinoa & Uyuni Salt bar; the salt in it comes from Bolivia’s famous salt flats, Salar de Uyuni .
Try it here: Any convenience store on Avenida 16 de Julio
Everjean (CC BY 2.0)/Flickr
Pasankalla (Puffed Cereal)
Think Kellogg’s Corn Pops or Honey Smacks, but lighter and way less processed, and you’re on track to this puffed cereal, glazed in sugar and sold in street markets in La Paz. Eat it like cereal or from the bag like popcorn, and watch the chaotic bustle of the markets unfold. Varieties include sugar or cocoa-coated quinoa, corn, and even pasta.
Try it here: Mercado Rodriguez, Zoilo Flores; Calle Sagarnaga
Locals come to the farmers’ market in La Paz to order bowls of fresh fruit, including the tropical cherimoya (that’s the custard apple in English) covered in flavored yogurts. Even more interesting than the crazy fruit is the communal experience of eating it on benches in the market, where many families congregate for an after-school snack. Payment isn’t required until you return the bowl, an honor system we can’t imagine anywhere else.
Try it here: Mercado Camacho, Av. Camacho
Fish From Lake Titicaca
Anyone who tells you not to eat fish from Bolivia because it’s landlocked has not been to La Paz’s pescaderias . Fresh from Lake Titicaca, they’re fried to order and served with potato stew and plantains. Try the tiny ispi fish, which you pop into your mouth whole, like sardines. If the idea of eating an entire fish, head and all, freaks you out, try the larger ones and have a local teach you how to avoid the tiny bones.
Try it here: El Palacio del Pescado at Calle Valentin Navarro and Calle Santos Prada
Heidi De Koninck/Shutterstock
Much of our time in Bolivia was spent eating the healthiest of foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, vegan meals with organic ingredients. We got a gloriously diet-killing moment with chicharr ó n , a specialty of Cochabamba. Slow roasted pork belly, usually heavily seasoned, is fried in its own fat and served with chu ñ os (potatoes) and mote , that huge Andean corn. It’s worth all the calories.
Try it here: Chicharroneria Las Rieles, Av. 6 de Agosto
Any local will tell you that a steaming cup of mate de coca is the secret to fighting off altitude sickness. The leaves are left fully intact in the tea so that you can chew them; they have a very distinct herbal, almost minty flavor. You might not need reminding that coca is the same plant that cocaine is derived from—but it’s completely legal in Bolivia and neighboring South American countries. Just note that it’s illegal to bring the leaves back into the U.S. and that you could technically test positive for cocaine on a drug test. If you like tea but are scared of getting fired, try sultana , made with dried cherries and sticks of cinnamon.
Try it here: Bolivia Green Kitchen , Calle Sagarnaga 321
And finally, this is our unabashed ode to the potato, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Bolivia. You’ll find them dehydrated and sold by Cholitas (indigenous women) in street markets, and starring on tasting menus at five-star restaurants—how versatile! What chameleons! Try them at Ali Pacha, a fine dining vegan restaurant off Plaza Murillo, which highlights a different traditional Bolivian food in each of their five or seven courses. Our potato course was more exciting than we ever thought potatoes could be, with sweet potato spice dusted over more native potatoes in no less than three preparations. Tell us that’s not the true unsung hero of all Bolivia’s foods.