Bolivia – My Unexpected Favourite in South America

Travelling around South America for a month, we encountered all types of travellers. Some were only visiting Peru, others had been in the continent for 6 months. But the one most frequently asked question was: What has been your favourite so far?

As much as Machu Picchu of Peru will impress almost anyone, and there’s no doubt Lima has now become my favourite food city in the world, I never hesitated to answer this question: my personal number one was easily La Paz, Bolivia.

Here are some of my highlights from La Paz and Bolivia in general:

1. The Death Road

Over the course of the month, we went from coastal towns like Valparaiso (Chile) at close to 0m above sea level, to hot springs in Bolivia which reached as high as 4800m above sea level. Moving across the continent through these altitudes was one of the coolest experiences, but not as cool as travelling from an altitude of 4600m to 1200m within 3-4 hours, via 56km of downhill mountain biking on The Death Road in La Paz!

We started wrapped up in sweaters and down jackets at 0 degrees celsius and ended up in swim suits at over 25 degrees. We raced down steep bumpy gravel roads only 3.5m wide next to cliffs (hence “The Death Road”), across mini rivers and under waterfalls. At one point I got caught in a steep slope piled up with huge chunks of rocks and fell off my bike. But it was so much fun and unquestionably the best, coolest and most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

2. La Paz’s Unique Landscape

I vividly remember waking up on the Bolivia Hop evening bus (from Copacabana to La Paz) to see infinite lights dotted in the horizon. It was almost a magical sight that I couldn’t possibly take any photos of that would do it justice.

La Paz is situated 3800-4000m above sea level (source: my Snapchat filters) and is the highest capital city in the world. The landscape is hilly and the roads are super windy. Our tour guide explains that people build houses anywhere there’s space to do so – that’s why you can hardly see the end of these buildings/houses. With such a landscape, their teleferico (cable cars) was not made as a tourist attraction, but a convenient mode of transportation, just like a subway.

3. Food I’ve Never Heard of Before

Before travelling, the only thing I knew about food in South America was ceviche and anticuchos (ox heart) – all Peruvian. I (ignorantly) didn’t expect anything food-wise from Bolivia. On my first day, as the unusual, unique and beautiful landscape was putting me in awe, my tour guide then tells me how much Bolivians love to eat. I was falling HARD for this place.

After some research, we huffed and puffed through the hilly streets of La Paz (it was tough with the altitude), and munched through choripans, tacumanas, buñuelos, sandwich de cholas… I, too, was confused by how much I was able to consume in half a day. But the food was so different from what I knew; there is so much variety, and that’s why I loved this place so much.

With all these choices, there is just one thing you cannot miss when in Bolivia: salteñas! These are sort of like baked empanadas; the pastry is thick, crusty and slightly sweet, stuffed with a savoury pie-like filling. It’s one thing I constantly keep craving, yet still have not found outside of South America today.

4. Gustu – #14 on Latam’s 50 Best Restaurants

The street food in La Paz was amazing, but I had not imagined that there would be a restaurant in La Paz so sophisticated, meticulous and impressive like Gustu. Initially opened by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, Gustu is situated in a beautiful house, serves precise dishes with ingredients sourced only from Bolivia, and is currently ranked #14 on Latam’s 50 Best Restaurants.

I had to start off by trying a Singani (Bolivian spirit) cocktail. In retrospect, cocktails and a wine pairing 5-course tasting menu might have been too much – it did result in a spontaneous decision to book a flight to Chile… – but both the cocktails and the wine were faultless. Going with the Classico 5-Course tasting menu, we sampled a wide variety of local ingredients, incorporated in a creative twist to traditional Bolivian dishes. But we were actually most impressed with the pairing with Bolivian wines (we had moscato, chardonnay, rosé, malbec and singani). Not only were they all delicious in their own right, they also worked extremely well with each course. Absolutely unmissable!

5. Salar de Uyuni – Salt Flats Tour

Joining a salt flats tour when in Bolivia, is undebatably mandatory. We went on a 3D/2N tour from Uyuni (Bolivia) to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) – and I highly recommend taking this route to end in Chile. We travelled on a 4WD across salt flats, mountains and deserts, saw geysers, hot springs and alpacas. Although we slept in -20 degrees with no heater or hot water, and I always recount the story of my toes hurting me to tears as I waited in line on frosted ground wearing only knitted trainers at the Bolivia-Chile border at 4,448m above sea level… I never fail to end by saying that it was an unreal experience worth every second of freezing.

Have you been to Bolivia? Share your experience!

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