Ever had a llama tenderloin? Here’s your chance, maybe with a glass of Tarija wine. Bolivia's food is as diverse as its population and you'll find new delicacies to sample in every town.
Markets are a good place to start, though the steaming pots of unfamiliar concoctions might test virgin tastebuds. Freshly-blended fruit juices will no doubt become a daily habit, while high-altitude Yungas coffee is now available in a number of new cafes popping up around Bolivia.
The restaurant scene is thriving in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and – more than anywhere else – La Paz where you can sample contemporary takes on traditional drinks and dishes. No matter where you find yourself – be it the tropics or the high Andes – you’re bound to find colorful street snacks and elaborate meals making good use of Bolivia’s vast larder. Here's a guide to some of Bolivia’s best food experiences.
Snack on Salteñas
These ubiquitous yellow-orange turnovers are a staple mid-morning snack found across Bolivia. Smaller, stouter and sweeter than traditional empanadas, they often pair a protein (beef, pork or chicken) with olives, raisins and potatoes. The juiciness of the filling comes from added gelatin, and many connoisseurs add the Bolivian salsa llajua for an added kick. Expect a tasty film on your fingers and a warm glow in your belly.
Where to try it: Salteñeria El Hornito in Potosí.
Spice up tea time with a cuñapé or sonso de yuca
Take tea time to the next level with afternoon treats like cuñapés. These cheesy yuca bread rolls can be found in many Bolivian cities, but are most common in the east, where they are sometimes known as chipá (typically near the border with Paraguay).
Cuñapés can become quite addictive, so if you develop a liking for them, you’ll also want to try a sonso de yuca, which is a cheesy cassava bread that’s often grilled on a big bamboo skewer over smoldering charcoal.
Where to try it: El Secreto de Mama in Riberalta.
Taste the rainbow of Bolivian fruit juices
Bolivia packs a continent’s worth of topography into a relatively small package, which means you can find a massive array of fruits you may have never tried before. Fresh juices are one of the best ways to sample them, with common options including chirimoya (a custard apple), tumbo (the banana passionfruit) and tuna (which comes from the prickly pear cactus).
In the Amazon basin, you can also find plenty of asaí (the antioxidant-rich palm berry better known abroad as acai), which is used to make smoothies or bowls topped with fruits and grains.
Where to try it: In regional markets such as Santa Cruz’s Mercado Abasto.
Try K'alaphurka, the stone-heated soup
Where else can you sit back and watch as a server drops a hot volcanic rock into the middle of your soup? Such are the joys of eating k'alaphurka, one of the most famous dishes in the southern city of Potosí. Made from a base of corn flour, this stone-heated soup also includes potatoes, dried charque meat, ground ají chili peppers and chachacoma leaves – all served in a large earthen bowl (for obvious reasons!).
Where to try it: Kalaphurka Doña Mecha in Potosí.
Swirl wine or sip the brandy in Tarija
Some of the world’s highest-altitude vineyards lie near the town of Tarija, which has seen major investments over the last decade in both wineries and more sophisticated, textured wines. Tannat is the star grape here, and producers such as Campos de Solana and Aranjuez have gone head-to-head with winemakers from this red varietal’s homeland, France, in international competitions.
Meanwhile, the Muscat of Alexandria grape, which dominates Bolivian vineyards, goes into the pisco-like spirit singani, an eau-de-vie that’s mixed with ginger ale or lemon soda for the popular cocktail chuflay.
Where to try it: Beyond Tarija, the best place for singani or wine is Gustu in La Paz.
Try the meal that fueled the Incas
The hearty Aymara dish of charquekan, common in southwestern Bolivia, is made by rehydrating dried llama meat. This creates a stringy, salty protein that is then draped over colorful native potatoes (or large corn kernels) and served with cheese and boiled eggs.
Where to try it: Charquekan Orureño ‘El Puente’ in Oruro.
Taste the bitter kick of coca leaves
Coca leaves are sacred to many Indigenous groups in the Andes of South America, where they are used for various ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Despite their infamy abroad as the base ingredient for cocaine, as well as the original Coca-Cola, they are a staple across Bolivia, flavoring everything from mildly stimulating liqueurs to bitter IPAs.
Hotels in destinations such as the Salar de Uyuni or Lake Titicaca often serve guests an infusion of dried coca leaves, called mate de coca, which is the most natural way to combat the effects of altitude.
Where to try it: Hotels in southwestern Bolivia or on trekking tours in the Andes.
Fill up on a pique a lo macho
This hangover killer is a heaping mess of beef, sausage, boiled eggs, gravy, peppers and onions – all served over french fries. Most Bolivians wouldn’t order a pique a lo macho for one. It is – like the similarly carb-heavy plate silpancho (schnitzel-style meat over a fried egg, rice and potatoes) – typically shared among groups of friends.
Where to try it: Miraflores Restaurant in Cochabamba.
Warm up on a cold altiplano morning with api de maíz morado
This hot drink made with ground purple corn, cinnamon, sugar and cloves is a popular breakfast item in the altiplano. Thick and hearty, it’s often accompanied by fried donut-like pastries called buñuelos. Consume the two together, and you could probably skip lunch.
Where to try it: The markets of La Paz, Oruro, Potosí and Cochabamba.
Vegetarians and vegans
Vegetarian options are on the rise in Bolivia, but meat still dominates most menus, particularly in the countryside where some chefs will be unfamiliar with vegetarian or vegan diets. Many Bolivian dishes are naturally vegan, including the meatless version of sopa de maní (a protein-packed soup made of ground peanuts and noodles) or humitas (ground corn steamed inside corn leaves, similar to a Mexican tamale).
It’s also common to find vegetarian plates based around yuca, potatoes or the supergrain quinoa. Both vegans and vegetarians will find the most options in La Paz, where the plant-based fine dining restaurant Ali Pacha has been instrumental in creating innovative meatless versions of many traditional dishes.
Foods worth trying
Sopa la Poderosa A "powerful soup" from Tarija made with vegetables, rice... and bull's penis.
Anticuchos Grilled cow's heart on skewers, served at markets or street stalls – look for them in the streets of La Paz.
Chuño This traditional altiplano staple is made by laying potatoes out overnight to freeze, allowing them to thaw the next day and repeating the process over several days. The potatoes are then crushed underfoot to remove the skin and the liquid. The technique was developed by the Incas some 800 years ago; the freeze-dried potatoes could then be transported by llama caravans like modern-day packets of chips on a bus. If you are in the highlands in June you may see potatoes being left out to freeze; the technique is still common in rural areas close to Oruro.
A year in food
During Easter week, Bolivians eat sopa de te’qo (vegetable soup) and biscocho de Semana Santa (round, flat biscuits).
In the first week of August, Villa Tunari in the Chapare region of the Amazon Basin celebrates Amazonian fish dishes in the Feria Regional del Pescado.
Bolivians celebrate Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) with a family feast. Traditionally, the meal includes picana, a stew made with chicken, beef, lamb, vegetables and potatoes, and lechón al horno (roast pork). On Christmas morning, a popular breakfast is buñuelos con chocolate (a sweet, soft doughnut with chocolate dipping sauce).