Overland miles: 12772 Bus hours: 367.5 Empanadar 80
La Paz, the legislative (but not constitutional, capital city fans) seat of remote, land-locked Bolivia, is in more ways than one a feast for the senses and a test of the heart. A Rush and A Push and This Land is Ours, sang the Smiths; they might have been writing about Bolivia, one of the most multi-ethnic (Evo Morales is the first president to be elected from the country’s indigenous majority) and mercurial (his 2005 election followed 180 years of almost constant political coups) countries in South America. Often believed to be the highest city in the world, La Paz actually stands in 8th place, at 3, 640m – making it a mere pretender to a throne that belongs to the well-named shanty-tropolis of El Alto, teetering on the cliff edges of the Choqueyapu canyon in which La Paz was founded.
But sudden changes in altitude are not the only natural rush to greet visitors to La Paz. Plenty of keen mountain-bikers, sporting T-shirts from previous Lonely Planet approved adventures and nervously twiddling their party hostel wristbands, plunge headlong down the route between La Cumbre (‘mountaintop’) and Coroico, aka Death Road, The World’s Most Dangerous Road (TM). Whilst the road is now closed to most traffic, bikers still flirt outrageously with death on the 64km route, wheeling along a gravel track as narrow as Nigel Farage’s mind, navigating blind corners and avoiding 200 metre sheer drops at every turn. Then they get a well-deserved meal – and another T-shirt for their collection.
If this activity or the many trails that can be hiked through the accompanying countryside sounds like too much nature for a city break, you could always choose to throw yourself off the the ‘five star’ Hotel Presidente, and rappel down 17 heart stopping stories (50 metres) with abseiling experts Urban Rush, whilst trying to take in spectacular views of the city centre below. Or of course you could just dodge the rampant onslaught of traffic ploughing through the canyon: a risk to life so great that friendly zebra mascots now patrol all the main crossings in Bolivian cities.
Naturally, your intrepid correspondents assiduously avoided any of these lunatic activities. Instead we tackled another sensory overload: a foodie tour of the city. This might sound a little lame in comparison, but trust us when we say we took our tastebuds on a roller-coaster ride of Bolivian flavours, for your delectation.
As the evening sun bathed La Paz’s smoggy streets in a hazy glow, we a met with our guide Maya and an Australian couple in front of the imposing colonial church of San Fransisco, beside Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, now covering the river which divided old and new La Paz. The church, replete with an ornate golden reredos topped off with mirrors (said to be installed by the conquistadores as a ruse to convince the indigenous Andeans that by looking at them their souls would be captured and only released to Heaven after a lifetime of religious devotion), is a useful symbol for the complex amalgamation of faiths, customs and cuisines forged in La Paz during the years of Spanish rule.
Whilst we waited for a lass from Leeds to join the group, Maya wandered across the plaza to a nearby food stand to purchase Sonsos. These doughy snacks are something like arepas in appearance, except that they are made from casava (yuca plant) rather than maize. The yuca is mixed with either cheese or, slightly surprisingly, beef jerky, for a saltier, richer tang. We had been holding off from eating much during the day in anticipation for the tour, and fell upon the divided sonsos greedily, until Maya had to remind us that there were to be five more stops on this tour, and it was definitely a gastrothon rather than a sprint.
It was a short walk from the Plaza to our second stopping point and for us food market lovers one of the most exciting parts of our tour: Mercado Montes – a retina-detaching multi-storey car park of a market whose design appeared to have hailed from some drug induced architectural low-point in the 1970s, despite actually being buit in its current form about four years ago. (The story goes that it was a pet project of the former Mayor of La Paz, and when the architects’ union had gone on strike during the project, he decided to railroad the build through without his designers, resulting not surprisingly in the dog’s dinner of a public edifice that serves as the city’s main indoor food market today.)
At the hospitable Helen’s cafeteria Mya encouraged us to get our chops round the South American staple of humitas – mushed corn, both oven-baked and steamed in its leaves, with flour, anise, sugar and salt. We also sampled steaming cheese empanadas (which I will talk more about when we get to Peru I swear), topped with powdered sugar in the traditional Bolivian way and buñuelos, which are fried and equally sugary donuts also popular in Colombia (these ones were also smothered in honey). All that sweet, fatty goodness was washed down with tojori – a corn-based soup with cloves, anise and honey, and api morado – another addictive corn drink (in this version purple corn is dehydrated prior to being boiled and blended with cloves, cinnamon and more sugar).
If you hadn’t guessed, Bolivians just love making snacks and drinks from their number one crop, maiz, and as they’ve usually had two lunches earlier in the day (consuming one for breakfast), often plump for modest api-and-empanada/buñuelo combnations at food market stands instead of tackling another main course at dinner. Of course, corn can only provide so much nutritious value on its own, and for this reason the residents of La Paz also intersperse chugging api or tojori drinks with delicious jugos, such as the ones we tried at Emily and Diana’s juice stand next door. Our guide asked us to taste a wide selection of colourful local fruit including tuna (which thankfully did not taste at all fishy, but a bit like a kiwi with bigger seeds, the acidic tumbo (which was probably the most aquired taste and consequently our least favourite), garambola (starfruit), and of course the mighty maracuya (passionfruit) – a great addition to any mixed juice creation because of its rich, sweet-sharp tropical flavour.
From the market we headed up towards what is commonly known as Gringolandia for its heavy concentration of foreigner-friendly restaurants and themed pubs, stopping off at the traditional family restaurant Alaya on the way. There, in splendid isolation apart from one couple clutching the biggest stuffed teddy we have even seen, we ordered a few local beers (Bolivia takes pride in brewing distinctive largers in every main town) and and investigated popular pork dishes. Lechon al horno is slow-baked with aji (chilli pepper) and seasoning, fritanga is a rich, tender pork curry, and llajua is served in a spicy sauce. All of the dishes come with the regulation 10 kg of boiled potatoes and a wedge of – surprise – corn on the cob – enough to fill a hungry family for a leisurely Sunday lunch. We did our best to nibble politely round the edges of these immense dishes.
By this point your correspondents were still in the match but a little on the ropes to be honest. We needed a time out and we got one in the unlikely form of Oliver’s – an English pub as proudly unreformed as they get. As the most exotic dish on the menu was fish and chips, this seemed at first like an odd choice. But, as Red Cap Tours know the owners well and always end their city walking tours there, it was an easy central option to try our hand at making Singani Sours. I poured a pretty mean cocktail if I say so myself.
To prepare my Singani Sour I mixed large measure of Casa Real Singani (a fermented gape liquor in the same family as its Peruvian sister Pisco), another measure of lime juice, four spoons of white sugar, egg white and ice, then shook it like a Polaroid picture.
After that alcoholic interlude, it was time for, well a two course meal. We were warned that this tour wasn’t for the faint hearted or weak stomached, and indeed that this stop often finished off more more lilly livered participants. But this didn’t daunt us: we had been in training for this since July: they could bring it on. We ploughed through the filling and flavoursome Sopa de mani (peanut soup with noodles), before going head to head with the big beast of the night, Pique macho – two groaning plates piled high with beef, chicken, sausage, chips, eggs, cheese, tomatoes, peppers, onions. A classic pub grub dish, perfect for sharing after a round of Singani Sours, it was a royal shame that Oliver’s didn’t think it worthy of their own gringo-conscious menu, and that these dishes were only ever prepared for food tourists.
Finally, reeling and slightly woozy but refusing to quit, we staggered on to our fifth and final stop: Hamilton’s. I won’t try to pretend this was any more authentic a dining experience than the motley collection of English, Irish and Dutch establishments that formed Gringolandia – it was after all a six month old Australian-owned wine bar in Sopopachi, the La Paz equivalent of Notting Hill. But at this point in the night we couldn’t have tackled another Bolivian belt-snapper or downed more fizzy lager. Instead we feasted on a modest but pungent tabla of cured lama sausage – similar to deer meat – pastrami, goat’s cheese, guyere, mango chutney, and mermelada de locoto (spicy jam). We washed it down with two pretty decent Bolivian wines: a light Kholberg oporto (port – a favourite tipple of Bolivianos) and a La Concepcion reserve merlot from the wine-producing city of Tarija, plus a leathery La Chamiza malbec from Argentina.
The other members of our tour, looking pretty shell-shocked, made their excuses and left the table after tasting the wine. We had nowhere to be in a rush, so ordered another couple of glasses and set about polishing off the rest of the cheeseboard. So we hadn’t tackled the legendary Death Road or abseiled down an incredibly tall hotel in La Paz, but so what? We had plunged head-first into a world of culinary goodness and survived five rounds against some of Bolivia’s most fearsome dishes along the way. Print that on your T-shirt.