Food in Bolivia isn’t the best, but there are lots of really good value options that means you can eat well for hardly anything. Having said that, there are risks when it comes to health and sanitation, so just go with your gut as to whether you trust a place (generally cafes are better than markets, but markets can be ok if the food looks well cooked… go for places with fast turnover e.g. lots of customers. as the food’s probably not been sitting round too long). Here’s my round up of the Bolivian favourites:
1. Almuerzos (or menu del dias)
The main meal in Bolivia is lunch, and this is the best time to get your offers. Most cafes will offer an ‘almuerzo’ which is a set lunch, consisting of a soup (usually quinoa and veg, or peanut which is surprisingly nice!), a main meal, and a juice or dessert. They’re usually priced between 1 and 2 pounds, so they’re a great deal. You get more local cafe-style ones, or touristy ones, but they’re usually super filling. Mains will be something like a milanesa (breaded meat) with rice and potatoes, or fish, or chicken. Usually you’ll get corn juice, but sometimes you might get desserts like fruit with cream or bananas with chocolate sauce.
2. Pollo picante
A classic market or cafe meal, this consists of a piece of chicken with a spicy sauce, lots of red onion, with potatoes, rice and salad. Both rice/pasta and potatoes accompany everything in Bolivia (sometimes a few different kinds of potatoes, including weird purple ones!) and a small salad – but beware, as they may be washed in tap water, and thus should be avoided!! On a side note, definitely check out food markets in Bolivia, as they are truly mental. Piles of cow snouts, whole gutted animals hanging up, huge piles of cheeses and unusual fruits.. it’s worth a gander.
Bolivia’s answer to the empanada, Saltenas are a weirdly sweet pastry packaging, filled with chicken, meat, eggs, cheese, and veg. Sam loves them but I find them eerily sweet for a savoury snack. You’re told to eat them with a spoon (at least in fancy Sucre) as the fillings are so hot, and admittedly it does run all down your hands, so a spoon would be helpful. Kind of weird, kind of nice. Worth a punt.
4. Papa rellenas
Fried mash potato balls stuffed with various things, from egg, to very white cheese, to meat. These are pretty delicious, and come with a curry-like chutney to go on top, which is pretty divine. Gotta make sure they’re hot when you cut through though, so the inside is melty! You also get the AMAZING local sauce – ‘llajhua’ with rellenas (and most other dishes) which is a flavourful, chile/coriander blend. Douse it on everything!
5. Chorizo (esp. Sucre)
They’re pretty proud of their chorizo in Sucre. It’s a hotter, sweeter, spicier sausage than what’s found elsewhere, and they do this pretty cool thing when they prepare it, of toasting the bun, then dipping it in the lovely chorizo-ey oil, so the whole bun tastes of the sausage.. with a load of salad thrown in for good measure. The best company is ‘7 Lunares’ and boy do they taste good.
Bolivia is a country that aspartame, or sugar-free alternatives, has failed to reach. You’d think the country was sponsored by Coca-Cola’s full-sugar division. There are fizzy drinks EVERYWHERE, and they are – without fail – full fat Coke, Fanta and Sprite. They drink more coke than water, I swear. Also in this category, is the omnipresent jelly and whipped cream cups that are sold by chullitas (indigenous ladies) everywhere; milk-fruit juice blends in every cafe and market (with added sugar, obvy!); sweet doughs favoured in saltenas and pizza bases; fake-tasting ice-cream (including bubble gum flavour, which is weirdly addictive!), bunuelas (syrupy donut fritters) and more… I’m a real sweet tooth person, but I found it all too much in Bolivia. Take it in moderation!
7. Singani (or Chuflay cocktail)
Throat-burning grape brandy, Singani is known in local folklore as the spirit that doesn’t give you a hangover. And I’d say that’s actually weirdly true! Most locals hate the stuff, but we got a bit hooked on it (as Chuflay cocktails, of Singani and Sprite or Ginger, are on Happy Hours everywhere) – but sometimes we’d just mix it with Fanta instead. A bit grosser than Pisco, but dirt cheap, it was our go-to spirit a lot in Sucre (when we weren’t vomming from food poisoning, that is!)
This is pretty localised to Lake Titicaca, but there’s a TON of trout here. With every kind of sauce, cooked every way, imaginable. I tried it as part of a cheap set lunch on Isla Del Sol (on the lake) and it was delicious. It was filleted and well presented, so not the horrific fish-face-nightmare I was fearing, and simply seasoned with salt, pepper and lime. But you can get it with anything on… worth a try, as it’s super cheap and very fresh. (NB – outside of this, there’s a ton of fish in Bolivia but approach with caution as it’s a land-locked country with minimal refrigeration! We met a traveller who had food poisoning for a MONTH after bad fish. Yikes!)
9. (Very white) cheesy things
They really love a very particular white cheese in Bolivia – I believe it’s from an animal other than a cow. It tastes delicious (think mature very white hard-pressed goats cheese), and they put it in papa rellenas, soups, or cheese-filled rolls called cunapes. It tastes great, but I believe contributed to one of our sick phases, as it’s probably pasteurised differently (and is bought from the market). By all means, try it, but in moderation!
10. Cheap, boney cuts of meat
Generally, a classic meal – if it’s not specific like pollo picante or a milanesa – will entail rice, potatoes, and a big chunk of meat. Usually beef, it will be a huge t-bone style cut, which sometimes works in your favour and sometimes doesn’t. The amount of times Sam’s had to cut off bits of actual meat (away from the gristle and fat) to share the ‘good meat’ off our two bones… Sometimes you just get a huge bit of marrow! It’s pot luck, and if you’re not fussy it’s fine. But as a lean-meat lover, it didn’t always work out great for me!
11. Pique Macho
Bolivia’s answer to Chile’s ‘Churillana’, Pique Macho is basically a pile of chips, with meat, egg, peppers, and gravy. It’s also got a load of sliced jalapeno peppers on the top, hence the ‘macho’ because you apparently need to be macho to finish it… *feminist scorn*
This is a weird alien-looking fruit that tastes like cake. Green and spiky on the outside, creamy and custard-like on the inside (with huge pips), it’s a bizarre fruit unique to Bolivia. It’s really sweet and desert-like, but I was put off by the gooey fleshy inner (and also the fact I was really sick after eating one… probably unrelated, but associations stick!)
A sweet purple corn-based drink that’s either served cold with fruit (like chopped up apple) or hot with syrupy donut fritters. Surprisingly refreshing!
GENERAL NOTES: during your time in Bolivia, food-wise you are likely to do one or many of the following:
– crave spice and/or more flavour
– really truly doubt the sanitation and/or level of how ‘cooked’ something is that you eat
– eat a lot of things that you’re not entirely sure what they are (especially meat)
– eat a lot of lukewarm (not hot) food
– save money on a ‘bargain’ meal that costs you more in the long-run (in terms of your health)
– gain a warm affection for something weird that becomes your comfort food (like bubblegum icecream!)