Bolivia is like a global open-air food market. It’s literally a paradise of street food and drink, with Bolivian ladies bringing their cooking kit directly on the sidewalk, virtually everywhere. The choice is wide and home cooked; from soups to proper meat and rice mains to juices and smoothies made on the spot.
The cuisine of Bolivia is rich, especially in calories. With most delicacies fried, oily, meaty or starchy, the street food paradise can turn into hell for vegetarians, vegans or gluten-intolerant travellers.
Therefore, we won’t talk in this guide about traditional Bolivian food. We won’t mention the roasted guinea pigs, affectionately called “cuy“. We won’t name the “pollo a la broaster“, the roasted chicken you can find even in the remotest of places. Don’t insist, we won’t discuss even the pros and cons of serving 3 different kinds of meat in one meal.
You will find here only vegetarian options.
A note on Bolivian street food
The cuisine Bolivia originates in the recipes brought by the Spanish colons, made with local ingredients (corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans) and Indigenous traditions. Like everywhere in South America, European immigrants of the late XIXth century brought their own interpretations.
The food of Bolivia is therefore not unique. It’s also a large country of varied climates and populations (mainly Aymara and Quechua) with different cuisines. For example, in the cold and sometimes harsh climate of the Altiplano (highlands), people use a lot of spices; whereas dishes of the lowlands and of the Amazon involve more fruits and vegetables, which grow better there.
Bolivians eat their food usually very spicy. So at every restaurant, market eatery or street food stall, you will find two common Bolivian sauces readily available:
- Ají: a green sauce made of “ají” hot peppers, tomatoes, onions and coriander. In Chile, they add lemon juice to it and give it the fancy name of Ají Chileno.
- Llajwa: a red sauce made of Andean hot chilli peppers called “locotos” and tomatoes, prepared on a traditional grinding stone.
Did you know?
Beef jerky originates from Ch’arki (in Quechua), a dried salted speciality from the Andes made from alpaca and llama meat. The Incas used to freeze dry their produces at night in their cold mountains in order to keep them. Ch’arki and other non-perishables were then distributed for travellers in roadside inns (tampu) all around the empire.
Vegetarian Bolivian food
As you can guess from the introduction, vegetarian food is not exactly in abundance in Bolivia. It’s not difficult to survive as a vegetarian though, as Bolivians are happy to substitute meat with a fried egg, or with a piece of fresh cheese. I have to say, the simplest dishes, like the fried egg sandwich, never tasted so good as in Bolivia!
When booking a tour you need to tell them that you are vegetarian, as sometimes they forget to ask. “Soy vegetariano” (male) or “Soy vegetariana” (female) is the sentence you need to use. In most gringo restaurants (we mean, the eateries that target foreigner visitors), vegetarian meals are available most of the time.
Many Bolivians eat all their meals on the street, because it’s so cheap and more convenient than cooking themselves. It’s a completely usual sight to see a man in a suit and a man in dirty handwork clothes sitting next to each other at a stall on a busy roadside.
We loved its informality and often ate lunch at street carts too. We found it a great way to discover a slice of Bolivia – many comfort food – for a picayune amount of money.
When we talk about street food, we’re not talking here about a shop with a window on the street. Not even of a food truck parked on a square.
It’s literally a food cart. Imagine the following: right on the sidewalk, women set up their little stall with pots and buckets; a gas bottle for cooking; and little stools for their customers to sit on. They’re literally bringing a whole kitchen set on the pavement!
At breakfast and lunch time all the little stools at every cart are taken. This type of meals is very popular! Some street vendors even sell their food directly from a wheelbarrow (we wish we had taken a photo of that).
Market eateries (“comedores”) are also a good option; a space divided into small boxes with tables and benches, that are run by different cooking ladies.
Both at street food and market comedores it happens often that they “make” a vegetarian dish for you by taking out the meat from the soup. Although it’s not exactly a vegetarian option, sometimes you just don’t have other options if you still want to eat.
A note on Bolivian drinks
Besides food, there’s a lot of drinks on offer at the food carts too.
Juices and smoothies are made on the spot and are served in glasses. When someone wants to get the drink on the go, the seller pours it into a small plastic bag and ties a straw to it. Very smart! You can find juices and smoothies made of almost anything and more; including many fruits we never heard of before, like tumbo (banana passion fruit), acerola, kinoto or tamarillo (tree tomato). They are available any time of the day, so a great choice for breakfast in Bolivia.
Read more: Fruits we found in Peru and Bolivia
The main drink besides juice is tea, that is here usually called mate. Indeed, you will hardly find any coffee here. There are many herbs growing either in the lowlands or on the Altiplano, that people drink all day long as infusion. Some of them are even very good for the stomach or against altitude sickness. The most common are coca, yerba buena (a kind of mint), melissa, muña (another kind of mint)…
Read more: Another kind of mate, Argentine yerba mate
Mocochinchi is a fruit beverage made of dried peaches, sugar and cinnamon. It is a relative of the Chilean “mote con huesillo“.
If you want to go one step further, have a go at Singani; this is the national liquor, made of grapes from the highlands. The name is Indigenous Aymara, but the drink itself is not; grapevines were first introduced to South America by the Spanish colons. It can be mixed with ginger ale and served on the rocks to make a Chuflay.
Our favourite Bolivian street food (and one drink)
Papa rellena, the perfect comfort food
Introducing my all-time Bolivian favourite food. Mashed potato filled with a hard boiled egg or cheese and fried as a ball – sort of a croquette. Extra good for us that there are these 2 vegetarian options as standard versions on the market.
Cost: 3-4 BOB (0.4-0.6 EUR) each.
This is another of those specialities that you can find all over South America. They’re quite simply the “empanadas” that people eat so much in Argentina, Chile and Brazil; a closed triangle shaped pastry filled with various ingredients, traditionally minced meat. They’re a big hit in Bolivia too, where they’re usually spicier and juicier than in the neighbouring countries.
In fact, even the names aren’t Bolivian. Salteña means “from the town of Salta, Argentina” and is the oven baked version. Tucumana is “from the town of Tucuman, Argentina” and is prepared fried.
Peanut pasta (fideos de maní)
It’s surprising how much South Americans use peanut to cook with. In Jujuy we saw peanut soup (that is unfortunately with meat most of the time). We tried peanut juice (jugo de maní) in Jujuy, which was very nice. In La Paz we bumped into this peanut pasta that was vegetarian and simple, and deliciously filling.
Cost: 3.5 BOB (0.5 EUR).
Read more: La Paz, that large outdoor market of a city
These soft and crispy bites are the best snack for little hungers, or just for pleasure. It’s made of yuca (cassava) flour and filled with cheese. While the recipe is famous all throughout South America, it comes in different shapes and names: pão de queijo (Brazil), chipa (Paraguay and Argentina), pan de yuca (Colombia and Ecuador).
Another Bolivian food tradition made with yuca (cassava) flour and cheese, it’s fried with eggs and butter on a hotplate. Similar to cuñapé, grab a bag of this sweet from a bakery or a street food cart and munch away!
Api (that’s the drink)
It’s a sort of warm corn drink. It comes in purple or white (api morado and api blanco) and it’s common to order a mix of both. The purple type tastes like fruit soup made of cherry. Typical breakfast drink, it comes in a “meal deal” with buñuelos (doughnuts, like Hungarian lángos… if that rings a bell).
Cost: 3 BOB (0.4 EUR) with buñuelos.
It’s a mix of corn flour and corn, slowly cooked in the oven, steamed or boiled in water. You buy it warm and wrapped in the corn husks. It takes time to prepare but is easy to cook, that’s why there are sellers literally at every street corner.
The recipe for humintas goes back to pre-Hispanic times and has spread to all neighbouring countries. Each country has its own variation of that food, but Bolivian humintas are sweet and never savoury, with cheese, cinnamon, raisins and sometimes sugar. In Chile and Peru, you find it everywhere as “humita” without the -n- and as the meat variation tamal. If you’re vegetarian, make sure you ask without meat (“sin carne”).
Hamburger with egg, a typical Bolivian breakfast
A very simple and therefore great street food! Instead of meat there’s a fried egg in the burger, with tomato, onion and mayo. It’s cooked in front of you in a little booth, or in the market comedor. Although it’s most commonly served as breakfast, we found it at any time of the day.
Cost: 5 BOB (0.7 EUR).
Vegetarian locro soup
Locro is a soup popular across Spanish-speaking South America, and it usually contains meat. The main vegetable it is made with, however, differs from country to country. In Argentina for example, the food is cooked with beans, while the Bolivian version is with pumpkin. Great comfort food to try.
Our Couchsurfing host in Sucre prepared this vegetarian version for us: it contained pumpkin, potato and surprisingly tasty cheese.
Read more: Sucre, the white town of Bolivia
My very favourite soup from the land of quinoa! It’s a simple vegetable soup with finely cut pepper, potato, onion and quinoa instead of the usual pasta in the soup. I had it in a restaurant in Potosí. Yes, we also went to restaurants sometimes. Decadence!
Vegan Bolivian food
As you could imagine, there’s not many vegan-friendly food in Bolivia. Luckily, there are some typical Bolivian dishes, which happen to be vegan and are nice for a good Bolivian breakfast –although I’m afraid it’s not because of a thought about the environmental impact.
In our list above, you can already find some pretty decent vegan options, such as the quinoa soup, the locro (if you leave out the cheese) and humintas. At the market comedores (canteens), a bun with avocado and tomato is an option available most of the time. Maybe it doesn’t sound too exciting, but it’s a very local food!
Apart from that, having a nice bag of juice (or rather: in your own cup) is always an option. We are big fans of trying out as many new foods and drinks as we can, and Bolivia is a heaven for that, with so many intriguing varieties of fruits we had never seen! Interestingly, there are some warm juices too, such as liñaza made of linseed.
A note on sustainability
You’ve seen it on our photos, Bolivia has a real problem with plastic. Whatever food or drink you take away comes in a plastic bag. This includes salads. And soups. Even drinks.
Even that peanut pasta served on a plate sits on a plastic cover so that the seller can just quickly clean for the next customer.
How many times did the overuse of plastic in Bolivia appalled and upset us! It affects street food in particular, so budget travellers must be especially careful.
What can you do?
- If you can, have your meals at markets rather than on the street.
- The main thing is to be prepared and always carry your re-usables at all times.
- If you order a drink, ask it to be poured in your travel cup. Same with soups.
- If you buy small bites eg. buñuelos or cuñapé, always use the same plastic bag for take away.
But be quick! Sellers are used to their serving routine and think of grabbing a plastic bag even before you open your mouth. Make sure you stress that together with your order. Even better: show your cup or bag so they understand what you mean.