Breathtaking dining in La Paz, Bolivia

by Forager on June 12, 2010

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.

Roast pork sandwich

Roast pork sandwich amidst a carnival atmosphere

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.

Saltenas

La Paz's best saltenas from La Saltena

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.

Illimani mountains looming over La Paz

Illimani mountains looming over La Paz

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.

Dense La Paz housing

Dense La Paz housing climbing into the clouds

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.

High altitude housing

High altitude housing

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.

Bolivian traditional dress

Bolivian traditional dress

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!

La Paz park

Families congregating in the park

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.

Bolivians love cream

The Bolivians love cream

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.

Witch's markets

The witch's markets

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.

El Arriero

Sampling the parilla fare at El Arriero

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.

Black marketsPerusing the black markets
La Paz market fare

La Paz fresh market produce

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.

Tambo Colonial

Tambo Colonial (clockwise from top right): llama medallions, quinoa soup and trout with almonds

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.

La Paz by night

Watching the city come alive at night

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.

Pronto Dalicatessan

A tribute to Salvador Dali at Pronto Dalicatessan

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.

Food at Pronto Dalicatessan

Pronto Dalicatessan (clockwise from top left): Dali salad; French onion soup; capelleta pasta and beef medallions in red wine

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.

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Addresses:

Paceña La Salteña

20 de Octubre 2379, along B. Salinas Street and R. Gutierrez Street.

Tel: 244-1993; open 8:30 am – 2pm.

Paceña La Salteña website


Churrasqueria El Arriero

Casa Argentina, Av. 6 de Agosto, No. 2535

Tel: 243-1155 or 243-5060; open for lunch and dinner

.

Tambo Colonial

Hotel Rosario, Illampu 704

Tel: 245-1658; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Tambo Colonial website

.

Pronto Dalicatessan

Sopocachi, Calle Jáuregui 2248

Tel: 244-1369; open Mon – Sat, 7pm – midnight

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella June 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Love that photo of the two women in Bolivian dress. So this is a country where roundness is celebrated? Haha that’s an option! And that mountain of pure whipped cream? I like cream but not that much! 😮
.-= Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella´s last blog ..A Magical Food and Fun Filled Day in Vienna, Austria =-.

2 Maria June 15, 2010 at 5:19 am

Stunning photos! I’ve always wanted to visit South America! The food looks so interesting!
.-= Maria´s last blog ..Jugemu/Shimbashi, Neutral Bay =-.

3 Jen June 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Wow, another amazing post! The shawls on the Bolivian women look pretty, did you buy any? The cream to jelly ratio is hilarious! LOL!
.-= Jen´s last blog ..WIN pasta making classes at Alio Restaurant! =-.

4 Gourmantic June 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm

That’s a French Onion Soup unlike any other!

I love how the women selling ice cream look like they either work in a lab or a hospital. Either way, I’d want one of those ice creams!
.-= Gourmantic´s last blog ..Vivid Sydney: The Rocks Fire Water Show =-.

5 Simon @ the heart of food June 15, 2010 at 6:02 pm

What’s there not to love about a cheap, pork sandwich, such that that was.

Dali recreations were interesting.

6 Maria@TheGourmetChallenge June 15, 2010 at 9:43 pm

wow, what an absolute bevy of food! You must have been like a school kid in a candy shop!! I’m like you, would uc prefer keeping my feet as close to sea level as possible. Im scared of heights so just looking at that mountain would make my head spin!
.-= Maria@TheGourmetChallenge´s last blog ..Old Town Kopitiam Mamak =-.

7 Joe Zachs June 16, 2010 at 3:07 am

Anyone will fall for those cream

8 Bonnibella June 16, 2010 at 6:50 am

Amazing how with all the lights twinkling at night it looks like it could be any Metropolitan city. I’m glad you weren’t a victim of pickpocketing.
.-= Bonnibella´s last blog ..Wine, Cheese Platter and Charcuterie for Masquerade Party =-.

9 OohLookBel June 16, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Heehee, I’d run a mile if I saw bird poo, too! The mountains behind the markets look amazing, as does the photo of La Paz by night. btw, Your travel experiences make such fun reading :)
.-= OohLookBel´s last blog ..Delicious Pear Pancakes =-.

10 Adrian @ Food Rehab June 18, 2010 at 4:40 pm

geeze, all that food and check out that view. Amazing, glad you had a great time!
.-= Adrian @ Food Rehab´s last blog ..Tasmania: Jackman and McRoss Bakery + Bakers Delight Giveaway! =-.

11 Tangled Noodle June 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Such a fantastic post – I’m almost out of breath myself, with all the marvelous detail you’ve shared. I’m particularly amazed by the housing density on the hillside and am very curious (and hungry) about saltenas. Though your Bolivian adventure does not rank high in culinary experience, everything else seems to have been wonderful. 😎
.-= Tangled Noodle´s last blog ..Fork in the Road: North Platte Noodles =-.

12 Forager June 27, 2010 at 12:46 am

Hey Lorraine – The Bolivians are definitely the champions of roundness!

Hey Maria – It was a very interesting and memorable trip – foodwise not the best trip but the other sights and experiences make up for it.

Hey Jen – Did end up buying some llama and alpaca shawls for novelty value, but not the traditional ones sadly.

Hey Gourmantic – I know! They’re like the Clinique ladies – just because they wear a lab coat doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing! And that amount of cream just says it all.

Hey Simon – Yeah the Dali restaurant was strange and surreal. The owner clearly had a lot of passion for the artist to dedicate a shrine to him..

Hey Maria – you and me alike. Not a fan of heights and the thought of climbing great heights and getting altitude sickness for it really doesn’t hold much appeal!

Hey Joe – The Bolivians sure did.

Hey Bonnibella – Me too. Sneaky pickpockets!

Hey Belle – Thanks! I do seem to get myself into unusual situations, running at the sight of bird poo.. Who else has a dumb story like that?

Hey Adrian – We sure did eat well (like the Bolivians I suspect!)

Hey Tangled Noodle – Spot on – not one for the culinary radar but a great adventure holiday for sure.

13 mademoiselle délicieuse June 27, 2010 at 9:28 am

Incredibly amused by your description of the cheese smelling like “regurgitated old socks” as a friend of mine always describes blue vein cheese as having an odour like smelly feet!

Too bad the food isn’t anything to speak of, and what’s with the last set of four photos featuring large – what I assume is – corn chips with Swiss cheese-like holes punched through them?
.-= mademoiselle délicieuse´s last blog ..Epicure Recipe Card 37- Smoked Trout Brandade =-.

14 Sara (Belly Rumbles) June 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm

What an amazing trip. I am really enjoying your posts. Shame about the Dali restaurant, but all in all what a fantastic food journey.
.-= Sara (Belly Rumbles)´s last blog ..Tokonoma =-.

15 Forager July 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Hey mademoiselle delicieuse – smelly feet cheese has a name – I think it’s limburger! I’ve read articles that say the same bacteria that colonise that cheese are responsible for smelly foot odour. Mmm!

Hey Sara – Agreed, the food of Bolivia wasn’t much to speak of, but an interesting and memorable experience nonetheless!

16 colibri August 12, 2010 at 6:13 am

It seems a shame that you like many others stayed only in the upper part of the city of La Paz and did not go down to the Zona Sur where you would have found a large selction of both international and local restaurants catering to the clients from the other side of Bolivia that it is not shown in the press or TV documentaries. It is romantic to think that Bolivia is dominated by “cholitas” and “black markets” and humble houses perched on the side of the hill when in fact there are also many “mansions” which would be envied outside of Bolivia and a large comunity of wealthy people which also includes indigenous indians. I hope one day that someone will give a balance account of these two sides of La Paz.

17 Forager August 12, 2010 at 11:08 am

Hey Colibri – We didn’t have a great deal of time in Bolivia, perhaps only a week so we made a conscious decision much like most other time poor travellers to spend it in the upper part of the city. It’s the face of La Paz that we wanted to see. Time permitting we would have loved to go and explore Zona Sur and given your explanation sounds like it might have been more satisfying as well. There’s always next time though since the Co-pilot wants to go back and climb that 6000m mountain off La Paz.

18 colibri August 13, 2010 at 2:00 am

Glad you are gonna come back. After 5 years in Europe heading back ourselves. Let’us know when you are in town and we will show you the hot spots!!!!!

19 Forager August 13, 2010 at 9:14 am

Hey Colibri – That sounds wonderful! Always so much more satisfying to get the local in the know’s perspective! There’s a half baked plan to visit Sth America again soon, particularly for Carnivale in Brazil so swinging by La Paz to climb that mountain & explore La Paz again beforehand sounds like a brilliant plan. Thanks for reading & I hope to get in touch sooner than later! :)

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