When we trundled into La Paz from Uyuni, spent and exhausted from the nightmare bus that rattled till my teeth shook and my organs liquefied, the Co-pilot and I checked ourselves into Hotel Europa. Once we’d scrubbed 3 days of grime off we felt recuperated and launched ourselves out into the streets of La Paz to do some exploring.
At an elevation of 3660m above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. The city is set in a crater-like basin, with the town centre at the base and suburban housing densely snakes up steep streets packed all the way to the rim where craggy, snow capped mountains stand sentinel over the city. At these altitudes, the city is exposed to harsh elements so unlike many cities where highest peaks and vantage points are premium real estate, La Paz is the opposite. The businesses and the affluent reside in the foothills, in the base of the basin where it is most protected from the weather and the city’s poor catch ricketty old buses that ferry them up vertical slopes to the peaks.
We’d slowly acclimatised to the high altitude conditions when we travelled across the Andes and the salt flats of Uyuni, reaching altitudes of 5000m above sea level, so thankfully I was no longer suffering those skull-crushing headaches and debilitating bouts of nausea. Keen to explore the sights of La Paz, the Co-pilot and I bounded out of our plush hotel, full of energy. About 2 minutes later, as I was climbing a small set of 10 or 15 steps, I had to stop mid way to heave great lungfuls of air and lean on the banister to relieve the lactic acid that was coursing through my legs. We might have been spared the full effects of altitude sickness, but at this altitude we were still hypoxic, and our bodies were starved of oxygen – hence the lactic acid build up.The Bolivians are fully acclimatised to the altitude, speed past us with a sprightly spring to their steps – and they know they have this advantage. The country’s largest sporting complex is the Estadio Hernando Siles Zuazo stadium and at 3637m above sea level, it’s one of the highest stadiums in the world. Needless to say, at these oxygen deprived heights, most international football games played in the stadium are won by the homeside. At these heights even the superb skills of the Brazilians and Argentines are no match! In fact the disadvantage was so apparent that in 2007 FIFA declared no World Cup qualifiers would be played above 2500m.
All the effervescent energy we had a few minutes ago was gone, I felt as though I’d just run a marathon and I couldn’t tell how much of the effects were due to the altitude and how much was poor fitness. We dragged our lead feet across to the main street, Av Villazon where a street fair was in progress and people were milling and nodding their heads to infectious tunes. I followed my nose to a roast pork vendor and was captivated by the sight of a whole roasted pig with a mouthwatering blanket of crackling. Without hesitation ordered a crispy pork sandwich, smothered in pickled onions and carrots, and hot salsa. And for only 6 bolivianos (Bs), or about $1AUD it was a great sign of good, delectable meals to come.
Keen to follow up our tasty street snack with more savoury morsels, the Co-pilot and I hightailed it to the Paceña La Salteña, an award winning salteñeria, and from all our research was the place to sample the city’s best salteñas. Salteñas are Bolivia’s answer to baked empanadas and after our delicious encounter with empanadas in Salta, we had to try these. We ordered 2 salteñas each of the beef, egg, chicken and the vegetarian versions, each coming with a spoon and hot green chilli. Unfortunately, the salteñas fell short of our expectations. Compared to the light, fluffy empanadas we had in Salta, salteñas have a dense, thick, sweet, doughy shell that overwhelmed the flavours hiding within. We also noticed that the salteñas we saw being sold on street stalls had about a dozen condiments, so we were a bit disappointed with just the chilli. The accompanying juice we ordered wasn’t fresh juice as we’d hoped but also sweetened – a syrupy, cordial like drink. The sugary sweet meal came to $36 Bs (About $6AUD). Too bad the Co-pilot and I aren’t fans of sweets.
We took a gentle but taxing stroll around La Paz to take in the sights and the Co-pilot was spellbound by the majestic Illimani mountains imposing its 6438m presence over La Paz. The Co-pilot has always been seduced by mountains and the desire to climb and conquer them. Me, less so. I’m very happy on the ground and I don’t look at sheer vertical slopes and feel any urges to scamper up them. Still, the Co-pilot badgers me with half leading questions like: “It’s amazing! Don’t you want to climb that with me?” No, I don’t. Partly because I’m sure I wouldn’t make it past base camp, partly because I’d demand someone carry me all the way up and down.
We continue our walking tour of La Paz and marvel at the city’s design where the suburban housing which seemed impossibly densely packed and appeared to occupy every square inch of free space all the way to the rim of the basin.
On closer inspection, we noticed some areas of housing that looked like they were built on the edge of deep ravines. The area of jagged exposed rock looked like the ground has collapsed and created a sinkhole. When I take into account the nearby mountains and volcanoes – all signs of tectonic plate activity, I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable living on these slopes.
Another thing that struck us whilst we wandered around town was the prevalence of traditionally dressed Bolivian women called cholas. The widely recognised traditional garb consists of a blouse, a dress with many layers of petticoats, called a pollera, a shawl and a carefully balanced bowler hat. They all wear their hair long, parted in the middle and weaved into two long plaits. We learnt that the bowler hat was adopted from the British and the rest of the traditional dress was imposed on the indigenous Bolivian women by the Spanish conquistadors, but surprisingly when the conquistadors left, the women proudly chose to maintain the tradition. Objectively speaking, as far as traditional outfits go, it’s not a particularly flattering one, and as most of the locals we saw were a little on the well-fed side, the effect was like watching hordes of slow-moving, waddling creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miyazaki film. We took this sneaky photo below of the back of these Bolivian ladies because they don’t like having their photo taken. Even when they’re feeling jovial and friendly, the minute you point a camera in their direction, the smiles shutter down instantly, faces darken and they might even turn their backs to you. I’m not sure whether they think their soul is being captured or why this is, but they just don’t like photos.
When the lactic acid burning and the shortness of breath became overwhelming we stopped for a break in a park and watched families congregate, their children laughing and running about chasing pigeons. Then we noticed many of the kids were plunging their faces whole-heartedly into colourful sweet jelly and ice cream treats. I want one!
We hunted down the vendor on the side of the park and on closer inspection, we realised it wasn’t ice cream – but just cream. A towering amount of whipped cream! Good grief, no wonder every one looks a bit rotund. One of the ladies was vigorously whipping the cream by hand in a bucket and the vendors giggled at us as we inspected the treat – but once my camera appeared, like clockwork, so did the scowls on their faces.
I ended up buying a diet Coke and almost spat it out after one taste. We were sure that the aspartame content was made higher in these Bolivian diet Cokes to cater for the voracious sweet tooth in the local population. The people here seem to favour a diet of sugar and fatty fast foods as there were sugary treats, fried chicken, burgers and processed food around every corner. We wondered whether they still harbour that traditional philosophy that weight is a symbol of wealth and means so the heavier they appear they wealthier they are – or if it was just poor diet education. Either way, an inordinate number of the indigenous locals we saw were short, squat, round and inched the streets of La Paz slowly. Surprisingly then, according to Forbes, Bolivia is ranked only number 31 on the list of the world’s fattest nations – Australia and New Zealand were considered fatter, but perhaps if they polled only the indigenous population in Bolivia, we might get a different result. That or I’ve got it all wrong and those Bolivian ladies are actually slim but wear 50 layers of petticoats that give their waistlines girth and weigh them down. It’s a mystery.
Unperturbed we continued our walking tour onto the witch’s markets where all manner of odd witch craft materials – pagan charms, talismans, powders and potions galore. Amongst the oddities were dried llama fetuses – these are supposed to bring good luck if placed under the foundations of your house.
Whilst perusing the market oddities I heard and felt a spatter on my arm and looked down to see a grey-green splodge of what looked like bird poo. After only a peripheral glance, without hesitation I started running madly down the street, ushering the bewildered Co-pilot along with my soiled arm extended out as far as possible from my body. You see, we’d heard about clever pickpocket scams where tourists get squirted with some homemade substance made to look like bird poo and when the hapless tourist is trying to clean the offending ick off, the pickpockets descend to claim their victim. After our brazen robbery in Uyuni, we were certainly still on high alert. Was I an unlucky bird poo target or the pick pocket victim that got away? I don’t know as I cleaned up the mess hurriedly on the run as there was no way I was staying in the middle of that crowded marketplace whilst I inspected my arm.
Despite the many parillas we visited in Argentina, the Co-pilot hadn’t satisfied his meat cravings yet, so for dinner we went to El Arriero, a reputable Argentine-style parilla in La Paz. True to form, the Co-pilot chose the bife de chorizo ($75 Bs), the most popular cut at parillas, to enable him to compare the restaurant with the ones we’d sampled in Argentina. We’d asked for the bife de chorizo to be medium rare (“jugoso” or literally “juicy”) but it arrived too rare – the opposite problem to what we experienced in Buenos Aires where they’d routinely overcook it. I ordered the lomito de cerdo ($45 Bs), the tender pork baby back ribs which were simply seasoned, tender, tasty and generous. They complimentary side dishes included fries, beans, salsa and an odd rice dish that looked like creamed rice with a strong feta-like cheese and the odd bean throughout it. Neither the Co-pilot nor I were fans. We thought the food was tasty but nothing special. The atmosphere in the restaurant was also a bit too reserved, quiet and empty for our liking. The only people in there were tourists and wealthy locals. And judging by the prices in the menu I can see that the prices would probably be prohibitive to most of La Paz’s residents. In total, the meal including drinks cost us $140 Bs or about $24 AUD.
The next day we explored the black markets, where like all black markets around the world all manner of counterfeit goods were on sale. But indicative of the local living standards and aspirational desires, the counterfeit goods were all either FMCG products like shampoo, deodorants, or cheap electronics. The adjoining wet markets had more interesting things, at least I found them interesting. The Co-pilot I suspect was ogling the Illimani mountains in the distance. Enormous bags of puffed corn lined the street – some in round puffball shapes, some in tubes, some even coated in chocolate powder. We learnt later that the Bolivians either have them as snacks or add them to soups. There were spice vendors, and a cheese vendor smelling a type of smelly local cheese that had a texture like feta and smelt like regurgitated old socks. We also spotted some Bolivian ladies at the markets that were sporting different types of hats – cloth and straw varieties. Apparently the hats are regional, the cloth and straw hats indicate that the lady is from the highland valleys.
As it was near the black markets, for lunch the Co-pilot and I headed over to Tambo Colonial, a plush restaurant inside Hotel Rosario. A “tambo” represented a place of exchange for the Bolivians – a type of marketplace. The restaurant was cosy with antique furnishings and wood everywhere, fitting, given its colonial theme. To start we both ordered the salad ($20 Bs), and shared the quinoa and vegetable soup to start ($29 Bs). The soup was a clear, simple and subtly flavoured broth. The quinoa seemed less “processed” than the quinoa I’ve had in Sydney, as the large cuboid grains still had yellow husks on. For our mains, I couldn’t go past the llama medallions in aromatic sauce ($57 Bs). The llama was very tender and strangely enough both looked and tasted much like veal. The meat even had that pale, washed out, “white meat” appearance that veal has. The herby rosemary, dill and thyme sauce lifted and enhanced the light flavour of the llama and was very tasty if a bit salty. We both gave llama meat the thumbs up. The Co-pilot ordered the sauteed trout from Lake Titicaca topped with golden Beni almonds ($57 Bs). The trout was tender and moist, the almond taste mild and overpowered by a stronger garlic flavour, but the Co-pilot still enjoyed it. It was an expensive meal by La Paz standards, with the final bill coming to about $210 Bs or $35 AUD, but we liked the meal, the hotel surroundings and the lively market neighbourhood so much that we decided to move from Hotel Europa to Hotel Rosario for the rest of our stay.
Before dinner, we decided to get a sunset cocktail and check out the city’s skyline and the best vantage point in town appeared to be at the Hotel Radisson Plaza. How surprised were we then, when we realised the top level of the Radisson is a dine in restaurant only. We lurked around watching the city lights come alive and taking photos until the restaurant staff directed us to the bar in the ground floor lobby for our cocktail. I don’t think we were the only ones who thought this was a confusing and wasted cocktail bar opportunity, we overheard a few other tourists asking for a cocktail menu as we headed down the lifts.
We decided to cut our losses and head to Pronto Dalicatessan, a meditteranean fusion restaurant with tributes to Salvador Dali at every turn. It came highly recommended by Lonely Planet, blogs and was and still is the top rated restaurant in La Paz according to Trip Advisor. So we went with high expectations of being blown away with surreal surroundings, surreal concoctions and flavour combinations. The interior designer’s love of Dali is apparent with his prints and eerie twisted wire reconstructions of each print showcased around the dining room.
The menu was equally confusing and mind boggling as there was no English version. This was very surprising given the clientele the restaurant is aimed at and because even more casual restaurants we’d been to had English translations on their menu. Relying on the Co-pilot’s rusty grasp of Spanish and Italian, we blundered through the menu and ordered a number of things, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
We started with pisco sour cocktails ($25 Bs each), which sadly were very weak and not authentic – even the bitters element was missing. Next the Dali salad ($29 Bs) arrived but it too was disappointing – the salad had too many ingredients: baby capsicum, walnuts, tomatoes, palm hearts, sultanas, sundried tomatoes, pickled red peppers and lettuce. It was as though someone picked random ingredients out of a hat when compiling this salad and far from impressing me with the confronting combination of ingredients, it was just strange and confusing like Dali’s artwork. The French onion soup ($25 Bs) that arrived next definitely got points for visual impressiveness, but once we dug past the grilled cheese top to the onion soup in the clay bowl we were very disappointed to find it didn’t taste very strongly of onion at all. For our mains I ordered the chef’s signature dish, the capelleti alla cacciatora ($57 Bs), or hunter’s capellini pasta rich with a few different mushrooms in a creamy sauce. In short, I didn’t like it. The shiitake flavour in the pasta was too strong, the cream to heavy and there was strange sand-like crunch sprinkled all over the pasta. The Co-pilot ordered the beef medallions in red wine ($65 Bs) and found the beef too tough and the red wine sauce too sweet. It was an experience that was less surreal, challenging and confronting and more just disappointing. Perhaps the kitchen had an off night – or perhaps, in Sydney we’re blessed with excellent quality affordable fare and I’m just used to expecting better standards from the top restaurant. The total meal including drinks came to $240 Bs or about $40 AUD. Although this is relatively cheap by Australian standards, this launched another passionate discussion between us as for half the amount of our bill we could have walked into any Chinatown restaurant in Sydney and been totally blown away by the delicious, satisfying food.
So far the dining experience has been “breathtaking” from a lung busting perspective, but it wasn’t doing much for my senses. It was a disappointing note to end the night on, but the Co-pilot and I knew our trip to Bolivia wasn’t for the cuisine so our expectations weren’t that high to begin with.
We were here for an adventure and amazing experiences and the next post on our South American trip details one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had: how I learned to ride a bicycle on Death Road.
Paceña La Salteña
20 de Octubre 2379, along B. Salinas Street and R. Gutierrez Street.
Tel: 244-1993; open 8:30 am – 2pm.
Churrasqueria El Arriero
Casa Argentina, Av. 6 de Agosto, No. 2535
Tel: 243-1155 or 243-5060; open for lunch and dinner
Hotel Rosario, Illampu 704
Tel: 245-1658; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Sopocachi, Calle Jáuregui 2248
Tel: 244-1369; open Mon – Sat, 7pm – midnight