Why you should care
This list of vetted vendors lets you stuff your face without fear.
There’s a booming food scene in La Paz with new, upscale restaurants opening all the time. But the soul of Bolivian food remains on the street. Spend any time in the city, and you’ll see locals queuing at market stalls, food carts and stands at all hours. With their long lines and mouthwatering aromas — not to mention the dirt-cheap prices — there’s little room to wonder why Bolivia is the only country in Latin America where McDonald’s flopped, packed up and left.
Street food is a constant temptation for foreign tourists, but many cut a wide berth for fear of getting sick. There is a way to get a taste of authentic Bolivia without your trip turning into a series of trips to the bathroom. The organization Suma Phayata Street Food features five — and soon to be more — street food vendors who offer up a clean and safe crawl of La Paz food stalls.
It was actually Claus Meyer, the world-famous Danish chef and entrepreneur, who came up with the idea for Suma Phayata (“well cooked” in Aymara). He started making frequent trips to La Paz when he opened his acclaimed restaurant, Gustu, there a few years ago. However, in his quest to “try everything in sight … he was always getting sick,” explains Sumaya Prado, head of public relations for Gustu.
Meyer had already established a nonprofit organization called Melting Pot that runs a program training underprivileged Bolivians to work in the restaurant industry. At his suggestion, it launched the Suma Phayata initiative in 2012 in an attempt to create safe eating options for tourists and to ensure that even in the face of increasingly sophisticated food offerings, Bolivia’s traditional street food not only survives but thrives.
The project vets vendors for their cultural relevance and food quality, plus trains them in hygiene, safe handling techniques and customer service (not all foreigners get the whole gruff-market-lady thing). “Usually tourists are afraid to eat on the street,” says Sofia Condori, a member of Suma Phayata who sells tucumanas, or fried empanadas. “At my stand, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
The project, which provides vendors with plaques to identify them, has also resulted in tons of exposure. “I have been on television,” says Crecencia “Cristina” Zurita, who’s been making traditional chola sandwiches, made with pork leg, for 57 years, adding that she is so sought after that other nearby vendors “try to pass themselves off as me, but I’m the one with the plaque.”
The project has identified 50 more potential vendors to train but is struggling to raise the needed funds.
Tourists can get a map of where to find the vendors, which are spread out across the city, at Gustu and many area hotels and restaurants.
A note to those who think offal is awful: The heart is a muscle, so it has the consistency (and taste) of a firm steak.
Start the day with Condori’s tucumanas in the Zona Sur neighborhood. For about $1.50 a piece, you can choose from fillings of mixed shellfish, shrimp and cheese, chicken, beef or ham and cheese, and a variety of sauces including hot and avocado. At many stands, tucumanas are premade — it’s anybody’s guess how — and warmed under heat lamps. Condori makes them to order. The result: a perfect balance of crust and chewiness, with a piping hot, juicy filling.
Not far off is the well-known spot in La Florida neighborhood where more than a dozen stalls sell chola sandwiches — but only Zurita has the seal of approval. When the sun sets in La Paz and the temperature drops, head over to Calle Tumusla, where Miriam Iturralde makes ranga, a spicy beef tripe soup she’s been hawking for some 40 years. For a late-night snack on the way home from the bar, hit up Julia Rita Cori in Las Velas. Cori sells succulent anticuchos, or beef heart skewers, until sunrise. (A note to those who think offal is awful: The heart is a muscle, so it has the consistency, and taste, of a firm steak.) And Elvira Goitia is constantly selling choripan (sausage sandwiches) — handmade with lamb, beef and llama meat and a top-secret spice blend — at Mercado Lanza in the heart of downtown La Paz.
Just as satisfying as eating the delicious food from any of these stands? Seeing the relationship that locals have with these vendors and the food itself. As Yuri Botello and his adult son settle up their bill with Doña Elvira, they thank her effusively while patting their full bellies. Botello tells me he and his son have been coming here together for 25 years, adding, “If you come to La Paz and haven’t eaten at Doña Elvira’s, you don’t know this city.”