Traveling in Bolivia- La Paz (part 1)

Exploring La Paz, the chaotic and amazing capital of Bolivia

September 14, 2018

With long time desire to explore the South American country with rich indigenous culture and biodiversity of landscapes, I finally embarked on a short six-day holiday (much vacation needed after one year without traveling) from my home in Chile. Due to limited time I decided to visit La Paz (administrative capital of Bolivia, Sucre is the official capital) and nearby cities: Copacabana, isla del sol, and Coroico.

My travel itinerary:

Day 1: Santiago – La Paz (3hrs flight)
Day 2: La Paz – Copacabana (4hrs bus)
Day 3: Copacabana – Isla del Sol (2hrs+ boat)
Day 4: Isla del Sol – Copacabana – La Paz (whole day journey)
Day 5: Coroico (mountain biking Death Road/ Camino de las Yungas, favourite part of my trip!) If I had more time I definitely would have spent 2 nights here relaxing in the jungle
Day 6: La Paz (visit Valle de las Animas, Valle de la Luna, mercados)
Day 7: return to Santiago

Having lived in large cosmopolitan cities all my life, the opposite rural life brings me joy in discovering new things and going back to the basics (while enjoying good food which is very important part of life).

Within a short three-hour flight I arrived from Santiago to La Paz (3640m). To avoid any altitude sickness I walked slowly around town, especially in the uphill streets. The city is not just surrounded by mountains, itself IS the mountains, with brick-built houses everywhere and various teleferico lines to facilitate transportation in the high elevation. The view of Illimani mountain (6438m) is always present.

Most of the women are dressed in their traditional clothing with a bowler hat. The pollera (layered skirt) is a symbol of pride for the indigenous people, who live mostly in La Paz and the Altiplano/ Bolivian Plateau.

In the five days encounters I had with the locals, I have to say Bolivians are one of the nicest people in the world. Honest, warm, polite, and ingénue. Never did I feel unwelcome, scammed (always learn the prices and negotiations), or unsafe as a tourist in the country. I speak Spanish fluently and met the friendliest people here, with the bike guide I met we would occasionally joke about the political tensions between Bolivia and Chile. Bolivians can be formal, curious, funny, and they have a strong identity closely tied to indigenous Aymara culture.

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Condensed city of La Paz at 3500m

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preservation of their traditional pollera by women in the Altiplano de Bolivia
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dinner at a restaurant with polleras in the ceiling!
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first night’s dinner in centre of La Paz
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teleferico with amazing views of the whole city

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There are various types of cuisine you can find in the city, honestly, I am not fond of the Bolivian food which is heavy in meat and carbs. On the last night on this trip, my Australian friend Bridget booked us an unique gastronomic experience at the fine dining restaurant Gustu, which serves modern interpretation of Bolivian food with local and indigenous ingredients.

Gustu (means flavour in Quechua language) restaurant is a venture by Claus Meyer (co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen). The interior decoration is filled with explosion of colour and textures. A daring move to place colonial cuisine for national pride, “aquí sólo se usan productos plantados, crecidos y procesados por manos bolivianas en territorio boliviano”. I love their pride and celebration for local produce. “We always grew up thinking that everything good came from outside of Bolivia,” said the young head chef Marsia Taha. “Now we’re looking at what we have here.”

We had the complete 20-course tasting menu (extremely filling) and the wine/drinks pairing (total USD125 per person). Our lovely waitress Wei explained every dish with great details and told us that they often go out looking for new organic ingredients around La Paz and in the jungles. Each plate is a celebration of Bolivian culture that I had little knowledge of.

Dining at Gustu was a sensational challenge and appreciation of gastronomic innovation. I loved some of the courses and tasted some bizarre new flavours.

entrance of restaurant Gustu (photographed by Tim Foolery), Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants
colourful decor inside Gustu inspired by Bolivian indigenous culture
Gustu carries Bolivian wines from small producers and biodynamic wineries (from Tarija, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz)
the kitchen staff with young talents lead by head chef Marcia Taha
Gustu’s decor with textiles from the Altiplano. The lamps symbolize cholita’s polleras.
crunchy starter made from a local potato with a coca-infused butter
trout from Titicaca with fried cochayuyu and some delicious sauce
art of various maiz (corn) and tamales
colours of different quinoa 
one of the many Bolivian wines we tried at dinner in Gustu
delicious ostrich meat with crispy potatoes

Gustu’s founder talks of “discovery” has given way to a high-flavored celebration of Bolivia’s heritage, “you have access to a large diversity of products, unknown to foodies. Bolivia may have the most interesting and unexplored biodiversity in the world,” Claus Meyer said in an interview.

Although it was a short trip with some insight into Bolivia, it is definitely worth exploring, it is a vast country of multicolor and natural wonders.

Upon returning home, my wanderlust is ever more burning to go discover faraway lands.

 

To understand more about Bolivia and its culture, here are some good readings:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/la-paz-bolivia-aymara-indigenous-traditions-reawaken-180956143/

Continue reading Bolivia travel part 2: Copacabana

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