Bolivia is a country famous for potatoes and salt: what’s not to love? Oh, and coca (okay, it’s probably better known for its coca). It’s not so famous for its cuisine or the quality of its football, on a continent famous for both. Neither of us had Bolivia on our travel radar until the athlete of the two us won tickets to South America – but I’m so glad we went.
The flight ascent (La Paz has the highest international airport in the world), into Bolivia is gob-smacking. It’s not just (just!), the sheer majesty and starkness of the Cordillera Real de los Andes mountain range, but that even the most desolate plateaus are dotted with small houses – in some parts I imagine this is what Kansas would look like if it were 5000 metres above sea level. Flying into the airport the plane skims the clay-brown city of El Alto (once merely a higher up suburb of La Paz), and as it lands the altitude pressure seems to reach into your skull and squeeze a bit. This was a sensation we would have more than once on our trip (most notably post a night out on the town, that started with a French brass ensemble and singani – a Bolivian brandy – and ended being kept awake all morning by a brass marching band that kicked off the Boliva National Day celebrations right outside our hotel window – and kept kicking all day).
I have only a few superpowers but one is surely finding the restaurant in the middle of nowhere and within two minutes of researching our trip to Bolivia I’d found Gustu (owned by Noma’s Claus Meyer), to book in La Paz. It was just a happy coincidence that Gus the bartender used to live and work down the road from us in Sydney, so after a spectacular meal that included one of the most utterly delicious potatoes – with a potato flavour so bright it was neon – I’ve ever eaten (a tiny, blue/purple skinned Pinta Boca), he showed us behind the scenes. We saw sketched recipes in progress, boxes of freeze-dried ‘chuño’ potatoes, punnets and punnets of dried raisin-like chillies and a tiny but perfectly-interesting cellar. A week later we returned to shoehorn in another meal before bolting for the plane, and pick up two superlative bottles of Bolivian gin ‘Republica’ and several bottles of wine (including the lovely saddly 2007 Sausini Cabernet Sauvignon). Interestingly, Gus told us that Bolivian wine ages quite rapidly because of the altitude. I read that as encouragement to drink them quickly (it’s going to be a good Christmas!).
If Gustu was all about the Noma approach to Bolivian produce, eating next to traditionally-dressed Aymara women as well as garishly-dressed coca lords, our other eating highlight was a different world altogether. In mining town Potosi we slurped kala purka, a glorious, rich and rib-sticking soup, thick with white corn and studded with crunchy pork crackling – a chunk of hot volcanic rock setting it into a bubbling frenzy. Far from a tourist-trap or gimmicky restaurant we ate alongside impassive miners with rough faces and hands, in the shadow of a mountain that is on the verge of collapsing on the town.
Now, I’m pretty certain that the coca leaf sweets I may or may not have brought back don’t have any effect of any interesting kind – on the other hand, I bought what I thought was a quinoa toffee in the supermarket before a long drive, but what I discovered was actually quinoa soap when I munched into it. I ate almost a whole bag of coca leaf sweets trying to get the taste out of my mouth, but didn’t notice any euphoria as I gently blew bubbles breathing. Such are the pitfalls of adventurous eating, on occasion!