Cochabamba, the gastronomic capital of Bolivia?
After our rafting adventures, we flew from Rurrenabaque back to La Paz. From there, we took an awful night bus to Cochabamba. Night buses in Bolivia are disaster affairs. Okay, most buses in Bolivia are terrible but night buses are a special type of horror because the seats do not recline to beds, there is usually no bathroom and the roads in the country completely suck. This makes for little sleep with a full bladder on a bumpy road. Not very pleasant, I’m afraid. It made us long for the days of the Argentinian fancy bus with reclining seats and free booze. Luckily Cochabamba was worth suffering for.
Not many tourists stop in this modern city-the fourth largest in Bolivia. I’m not really sure why. Sucre and La Paz seem to get all the glory. Cochabamba is known as the gastronomic capital of Bolivia so for us it was a mandatory stop. They say the people here eat breakfast around 8, indulge in a mid-morning snack at 10 am, lunch around 1, have a late afternoon snack around 5 and then dinner around 8. My kind of people!
The city is very pleasant. Nothing about it is overly extraordinary but it has a general good feel which surprised us. This is the city of the eternal spring (as it is aptly dubbed). Every day has blue skies with little to no humidity and the temperature around 24 C (75 F). Due to this climate, the surrounding area is known for its extensive agriculture which also helped develop the cities reputation for food. The plazas in the center of town are well manicured and filled with palm trees and places to people watch.
The city boasts some elegant colonial architecture. But best of all I loved that the sidewalks are very un-Bolivian, meaning that you can actually walk with not only one or two people next to each other but maybe even as many as 6 in some places! (the sidewalks in Bolivia’s other cities are so narrow, you can barely walk down by yourself-I’m looking at you Sucre & La Paz!!).
The largest market in South America-La Cancha (and considering the size of most markets on this continent, that is saying a lot!) is here in Cochabamba and you can indeed get lost for hours among the fruit, vegetable, potato and even live chicken & dog (!) vendors. We discovered some good market eats but not at this large one. There is another smaller market just off the main plaza which we thought had better food.
Here you can eat like a king for 6 Bolivianos (less than a dollar) without sacrificing quality. I had my best sopa de mani (peanut soup) here and for the uninitiated, it should never, ever have floating peanuts in it (the peanuts should be ground up fine to almost a powder to better incorporate the peanut flavor) and also the sopa de quinoa was the best I had (and trust me, I had more sopa de quinoas than I care to admit in Bolivia).
So what did we do in Cochabamba? Well, one day we took a day excursion to the nearby mountains for a little hiking to the Cerro Tunari. Here, we climbed our highest summit to date at 5,030 m (16,500 ft). It was difficult breathing because of the altitude but the surrounding scenery was spectacular, so it was worth the (literal) huff and puff. Some of our most difficult hiking ever!
The remainder of our time in the city was spent walking and eating. The food in Cochabamba was delicious but I think it could make one very fat if they lived here. It’s all heavy stuff. Fried and full of carbs. Dieters need not apply.
Chicharrones (pork ribs seasoned and then fried in its own fat) are said to be born here in Cochabamba (even though you see them all over Bolivia) so I wasted no time in tracking down the best place to try them. For over 50 years, Doña Pola (AV. AMÉRICA # 275 ESQ. VILLARROEL) has been cranking out these tasty morsels.
It’s open only on weekends, packed with locals drinking chicha, a fermented corn beverage for which Cochabamba is also famed for and downing huge plates of crispy, fried pork served along with mote and potatoes. Heavenly.
Happily, this place lived up to the hype, I couldn’t get enough of that pig. The only consolation I had after finishing my heaping plate was that they had a ‘to-go’ version! On our way out we bought a bag of salty, fried corn (cancha salada) and little bits of fried pork in it for the bus ride the next day. This corn snack is one of my favorites in Bolivia. It’s NOT corn nuts like we have in the US. It’s like the un-popped corn kernels but larger and softer inside (crunchy outside).
We wasted no time in tracking down more traditional Cochabamba eats like silpancho which is breaded veal cutlet served atop rice AND potatoes (which is the Bolivian standard) then topped with finely chopped onions, tomato and locoto (Bolivia’s hot pepper) with an egg on top of it all. Somehow, although rather pedestrian in creativity, the dish worked. Having the fresh salad on top provided great texture and flavor to the fried meat. The egg yolk worked to enrich it all. Even the picky French boyfriend liked it.
Lapping is another typical plate, which I surprisingly enjoyed. It consists of marinated flank steak served with fava beans, choclo (Bolivian corn-much larger kernels with a mild sweetness), fresh cheese, vinegar spiked onions and tomatoes and of course, potatoes. This dish was not greasy like some of the other famous Cochabamba foods. The flavors worked well together-the acidity of the vinegar, sharpness of the onions balanced by the saltiness of the cheese and richness of the steak. The mild beans and corn with their soft flavors rounded it all out nicely.
Pique macho-this dish is found all over Bolivia in many forms. It’s a giant plate filled with meat (sometimes steak, sometimes hot dogs or a combination of the two. If it’s fancy it has sausage (chorizo) instead of hot dogs. Then they pile fries on top and garnish it with tomatoes, onions and locoto. Sometimes to add even more cholestrol they put hard boiled eggs on top too, as if the dish suffered from a lack of protein.To be perfectly honest, it’s not my favorite nor was it Laurent’s. But I had to try this Cochabamba version. Maybe if I was drunk it would have been a bigger hit.
Another classic Cochabamba dish is planchita. This is a huge dish meant to be shared (I hope!) consisting of chicken, steak, chorizo, eggs, fried onions & peppers and potatoes. Hmmm….I’m sensing a theme here. Grease, protein, carbs and more grease or was that more carbs? I think it would be best as drunk food but since we were starving, we ate almost the whole thing.
Okay, so the gastronomy here in Cochabamba is not on the level of say Paris or New York and seems more of a drunkards or stoners munchie heaven but it was fun trying all the dishes anyway and honestly, I still dream about those chicharrones! If you are in Cochabamba, run over to Doña Pola!
We ended up staying in Cochabamba for over a week-much longer than we planned! At the end of our time there we decided to try something different (surprise, surprise right?) They have this ferrobus that leaves from the main market on certain days of the week.
What exactly is a ferrobus you might ask? Well, it’s half bus, half train. Picture an old ’57 Dodge school bus (from the USA) on a narrow-gauge railway packed with locals who are going from village to village and there you have a ferrobus.
Getting tickets for this thing was an adventure in itself and not surprisingly, we were the only tourists on this hybrid transport. Everyone was pretty surprised to see two gringos getting on board. We got plenty of stares of disbelief and some giggles and gold-toothed smiles from the old cholitas.
The last stop was in Aquile where we spent the night. The church there was memorable and very modern for Bolivian standards. The food was nothing special-typical Bolivian fare of rice, potatoes and meat. We loved the desert landscape surrounding the area and the people in town were friendly to us gringos.
We returned the next day and although the city didn’t completely wow me with its gourmet creations, we found a special place in our hearts for Cochabamba. The food was certainly plentiful, at times delicious and there were some unique dishes to try. The city has a quiet magic all of its own and I highly recommend a visit there.
If you are going to be in Cochabamba and would like to take this unique transport to discover some of the surrounding area then pay attention! The ferrobus leaves from the train station in the La Cancha market (Tarata between Barrientos & F. Velarde) going to Aiquile every Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday at 8 am and returns the day after between 4 and 5 pm (give or take some time-after all, this is Bolivia). Buy your ticket the day before in the station (good luck-we had to ask a million people but it’s worth it in the end). For more information click here.