Equally as interesting and steeped in tradition as Bolivia’s food are the drinks widely consumed in the country. From comforting cereal-based hot drinks to healthy herbal teas to gullet-scorching alcohol, Bolivia’s beverages are often both delicious and eye opening.
Shaped by Bolivia’s culture and circumstances, many of the traditional drinks are beneficial for life on the altiplano, while the economic potential of the coffee and wine production in the country’s lower regions is not being left unexplored. The majority of traditional Bolivian drinks are derived from maize. ‘Chicha’, the most popular and alcoholic of these, is made from fermented corn, and was considered sacred by the Incas. Its variations include ‘chicha de mani’, made using peanuts. ‘Tojori’, similarly, is made of mashed white corn, sugar, and cinnamon. A non-intoxicating drink of indigenous origins is the Quechua-named ‘apí’, commonly drunk hot with breakfast. Its purple corn flour base lends it a highly distinctive, if slightly alarming, violet shade but the taste, derived from lemon, cinnamon, and cloves is soothing yet vibrant. These rich, carbohydrate-based drinks with an equal kick of protein are ideal for providing energy and warmth to those living and working in the cold heights of Bolivia’s altiplano. Likewise, coca leaves, commonly consumed as a drink in the form of ‘mate de coca’, have many proven health benefits, keeping blood-glucose and body heat at a reasonable level and alleviating the symptoms of altitude sickness. Bolivia’s liquors also testify to the harshness of the climate. Singani, at 80% alcohol proof, is made from muscatel grapes and their skins, grown in the Chuquisaca region of Bolivia, while ‘aguardiente’ derived its name from the Spanish for ‘fire water’. Though better-known Latin American cocktails such as ‘caipariñas’, ‘cuba-libres’ and ‘mojitos’ are made and drunk throughout Bolivia, the country has some alcoholic concoctions of its own to offer. A ‘yungueño’ is comprised of singani, orange juice, sugar and shaved ice, while ordering a ‘chuflay’ will bring a blend of singani, ginger ale or 7-UP and lemon. Despite these enticing mixes, it is Bolivia’s beer that accounts for the largest part of the country’s alcohol sales. With a wide variety of Bolivian-brewed beers available, including ‘Paceña’, ‘Taquiña’ and ‘Huari’, most people have a firm favourite among them. Paceña makes its claim to fame by being the world’s highest-brewed beer, produced in La Paz using fresh Andean water since 1886. Though unable to compete with the exports of its neighbours Chile and Argentina, the wine produced in Bolivia’s Tarija region is beginning to achieve the attention of the international wine market. The valleys of Tarija, where wine has been produced since the early 16th Century, hold the highest vineyards in the world at 1 700 m above sea level. According to wine producers in the area, the effect of the altitude on the grapes improves their taste, while the climate ensures that they mature effectively. The limited production capacity of Bolivia’s wine industry forces the wine companies based in Tarija, including Kohlberg, Casa Real, Concepción and Aranjuez, to compete on the international market on the basis of quality rather than quantity. As the biggest employer in the region and a potential source of tourism, however, Tarija’s wine industry is highly important. Another Bolivian drink with an important economic role is coffee. Again, limitations on the quantity of coffee produced in the Yungas region require greater emphasis on quality if Bolivian coffee is to make an impact on the international market. Bolivian coffee is also enhanced by the altitude at which the beans are grown, with larger, sweeter beans being produced. Much coffee grown in Bolivia is organically cultivated and handpicked, and thus appeals to more upmarket speciality coffee buyers. The United Nations, interested in coffee’s potential as an alternative to coca crops, is supporting the expansion of the coffee production industry in the Yungas, Bolivia’s principal coffee producing area. Bolivia produces and consumes an absolute multitude of different types of drinks. While competing on the international market with their coffee and wine, Bolivians maintain unique traditional drinks as everyday culinary fixtures. Despite the influx of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages from other countries, Bolivians still favour nationally brewed beer and traditional liquors, and Bolivian cocktails can be found on the drinks menu in almost any bar.