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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Bolivia

Historic Diet

Bolivian Food - Empanadas

Being a fairly mountainous country and having much of the lands of present day Bolivia sitting at elevation, the plants and animals that can survive the region are quite limited. The most notable foods that are found and thrive in these mountains are potatoes, which are native to the Andes Mountains, quinoa, a hearty grain, beans, and a few fruits.

These fruits include many that remain common in Bolivia and the Andes Mountains today, but few are well known outside this region. These fruits include dragon fruit, papaya, gooseberries, prickly pear, lucuma, camu camu, cocona, guanabana, pepino, and others, although some of these only grown at lower elevations in Bolivia.

The early people also used the native animals as food sources. Being a landlocked country, this was primarily limited to mammals and birds, but some places, like the Lake Titicaca region, had a reliance on seafood. Pike and catfish are among the more common freshwater fish found in Bolivia. Partridges and small mammals like rabbits were also used as food sources.

Culinary Influences

Bolivian Food - Market in Sucre
Market in Sucre

As people arrived to the lands that Bolivia now occupies, new foods arrived. These plants came with the winds, waters, animals, and with these early settlers. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and others. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including Bolivia, although few of them can grow at elevation.

With a vast array of foods available, these early settlers used plants and animals to form their diet, including both the plants native to the region as well as those later introduced. However, as most of the people lived at elevation in Bolivia, and few plants can grow here, the diet of the people was more limited than it was at lower elevations. In the mountains the diet remained much as it had for centuries, based on potatoes, quinoa, and beans, but the addition of corn was quickly adopted. At lower elevations fruits were more common and the diversity of foods was much greater. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

The Europeans arrived and settled the region in the 1400-1500s and most of them demanded the same foods they ate in Europe. This led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Some dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these dishes required ingredients that weren't present in Bolivia so these settlers found local foods to use as substitutes, while at other times they introduced new plants and animals to the region.

Much of this European influence came from Spain as the region became a Spanish colony and most settlers were from Spain. This led to the introduction of Spanish-styled soups, stews, desserts, and other dishes. Even today the heavy Spanish influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in Bolivia use local ingredients so they are quite different from Spanish cuisine.

The Europeans also introduced many new plants and animals to the region. Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced, a few of the most commonly consumed of these are wheat, rice, pigs, chicken, and cattle. Others were also introduced and are now common in Bolivia, such as onions, cilantro, black pepper, limes, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

Even today the base of the people's diet is a combination of local ingredients and European-introduced foods. The people maintain a plant-based diet with potatoes, beans, and corn at the core, but rice is now very common and most meats consumed were introduced by the Europeans, including pork, chicken, and beef.

Since the late 1800s the diet has changed little, but due to technological improvements some important changes have occurred. Better transportation and storage techniques have allowed for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, although few people can afford these. More importantly for the Bolivians, better preservation methods have increased the shelf life of foods and have given the people foods that are not in season. Despite the technological changes, few people have truly altered their diets in Bolivia.

There is a very slowly growing trend in La Paz of foreign foods as ethnic restaurants exist, but few are popular and rarely do they offer authentic ethnic food.

When & Where to Eat

Most Bolivians start the day with a small breakfast or just a hot beverage like coffee or tea to get them started. If they do eat it tends to be a small pastry or cereal and when they eat depends on when they have to start their day. This is usually eaten in the home, but as coffee shops and bakeries are opening up, especially in large cities, breakfast is more commonly taken on the way to work among a small minority.

Due to the small breakfast many people snack throughout the day and this begins at about 10:30; often times the people have a saltena at this time, which is a type of empanada. This tends to be a break that remains at work or in the home, depending on the day of the week.

Lunch, known in Bolivia as almuerzo, is usually the largest and most important meal of the day. Most places close at about noon so workers can go home, eat and perhaps take a short nap (or siesta) prior to returning to work at about 3:00 pm. During this meal soup is common as are many of the staple foods in Bolivia: rice, potatoes, beans, and a meat. Dessert is also commonly served with lunch. In the larger cities, like La Paz, fewer people are going home during the lunch break, but even here a long lunch is still very common.

Shortly after their siesta and return to work, a tea break is commonly taken at about 4:00-5:00 pm. Like breakfast this is usually served with a pastry and many times tea is replaced by coffee or mate. Again this usually takes place in the workplace or home, but there are a growing number of coffee houses serving people at this time.

Dinner, or cena, is usually late and tends to be much smaller than lunch. This meal is usually eaten at 8:00-9:00 pm. Dinner is typically served in the home with family, but can also be a good time to have a large gathering to celebrate or for a business meal. If this meal is at home with family the amount of food served tends to remain small in comparison to lunch, but for large gatherings and business dinners it tends to take place in a restaurant and the amount of food will likely surpass that of lunch.

Staple Foods

Beans: beans are served with numerous dishes as a side
Corn (maize): corn is used to make a number of dishes
Potatoes: a common side dish; in Bolivia potatoes and rice are often served together
Rice: a common side dish that replaces quinoa; in Bolivia rice and potatoes are often served together

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Empanada/Saltenas: these meat and vegetable filled dough pockets can range in spiciness and ingredients

Dining Etiquette

If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Bolivian's home be sure to come with a gift, such as wine or chocolates. Also dress nicely if you are meeting locals in their home or are meeting business acquaintances. If you are simply eating at a restaurant with friends the dress is a bit more casual, but should still be nice clothing.

Most dining with Bolivians will take place in restaurants, but no matter the location, be sure to arrive about 15-30 minutes late. Try to get there on the later side if eating at a home and on the earlier side if meeting business associates. Getting invited to a local's home is rather rare and when it does happen it tends to be quite informal and is often centered on the churrasco or asado (barbeque).

Before even sitting down you'll likely be offered a drink, which you should take directly from the tray or let them put it on the table as handing food or drinks from hand to hand is considered bad luck. As you begin socializing avoid sensitive subjects like religion, politics, money, or even business, even if you're dining with business associates (let your host bring up business prior to discussing this). When you are directed to the table, let your host seat you as they may have a seat for you. Stand beside your chair until your host sits then join everyone else as they sit.

The host will often begin the drinking with a toast, generally just the word "salud" and he or she will serve you, as a guest, first, but don't eat until your host indicates you may begin with the words "buen provecho." If you are drinking and wine is the beverage of choice, try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules when pouring, two of the most important being that you should only pour wine with your right hand and always make sure when you pour it, the bottle is facing forward.

More informal settings, like churrasco are served buffet style, but meals are often plated for you, both in homes and in restaurants. Before eating or drinking, place your napkin in your lap, keep your hands on the table by resting your wrists on the table, and never place your elbows on the table. Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits and pizza among others.

You should try everything offered to you and you're expected to finish everything on your plate (except at a restaurant where you can leave food behind) so hopefully the food served is to your liking. If you enjoy something compliment the host on it and you will be quickly offered more. If you are offered additional food, initially turn it down then accept it after your host insists. Like drinks, if you are asked to pass anything at the table, be sure to place it on the table, not in the person's hand.

Once everyone is done eating expect at least a half hour of conversation either at the table or elsewhere. Your host will dictate the location, but don't get up or excuse yourself until your host does and invites you to do the same. The end of the meal may again be accompanied by a beverage.

If you're eating at a restaurant the host (or you if with other foreigners) will call the server over by slightly raising his or her hand and making a pinching sign with the index finger and thumb. The host is expected to pay for everyone present and to get a bill at a restaurant you must directly ask for it. If you're not the host offer to pay none-the-less and, when turned down, graciously accept and offer to pay the tip, which will often be accepted. Tipping in Bolivia is about 10-15% and the tip should be left sticking out from under your glass or plate.

Celebrations & Events

The holiday most closely associated with particular foods in Bolivia is also one of the most important in the country, Christmas. Many Bolivians attend midnight mass on Christmas then return home to eat in the early morning hours. This typically consists of a beef, chicken, and corn soup called picana, as well fruits, salad, and roasted meat. The morning of Christmas is then usually celebrated with hot chocolate and pastries called bunelos.

The following week is New Year's Eve and, like in many countries, this is celebrated with a champagne toast, although for some people there is also much drinking prior to this point. In more traditional families, going out to celebrate is rare as many people stay in with family, who share a meal at midnight. Also at midnight there is a tradition that everyone should eat 12 grapes.


Throughout the country, Bolivia today has all the world's most famous drinks, including tea, coffee, soft drinks, and juices. The juices are the best of the local non-alcoholic drinks as fresh squeezed juice is common in Bolivia, but often times milk or water are also added to these drinks. For a more authentic local taste of Bolivia head to the Andes Mountains and try the indigenous drinks made from corn and often served hot (although during warm days they can also be served chilled). Api blanco is a drink made from white corn, milk, sugar, and cinnamon, while api morado is made from purple corn, pineapple, orange juice, and cinnamon. On cold days these are easy to find at bus stations and other public areas where they are sold on the street. Another drink found in South America and Bolivia is mate, which is made from the yerba mate plant in much the same way tea is made. Drinking this indigenous beverage is also a ritual as it must be drank from a certain container (usually a gourd) and using a certain straw.

Nearly every type of alcoholic beverage is available in Bolivia but they are best known for the indigenous chicha and their wines above all else. Chicha is a fermented drink made from corn, which was invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals. Today the drink has lost much of its popularity, but is still common in some areas. Bolivia also produces wines in the southern part of the country, but these wines have not yet made an impact on the world market, although they are readily available throughout Bolivia. Beer is another common alcoholic drink and among the local favorites is Singani.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Bolivia, but in limited mountainous areas it might be. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: April, 2013