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Dining at Gustu (La Paz)

There were two critical things that were high on my to-do list for Bolivia.  The first was to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road on mountain bikes and the second was to dine at Gustu, arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

Gustu opened in 2012 and is founded on the philosophy that food can help change the world.  It isn’t just a great restaurant but it is also a cooking school with most of the students coming from under privileged areas of Bolivia.  The head chef, Kamilla Seidler, is originally from Copenhagen, and moved to La Paz to work with Claus Meyer on his innovative project to improve the world through food education and training.  She was recently named Best Female Chef by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Exterior of Gustu – arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

We hadn’t eaten much by the time we arrived at Gustu.  The high altitude and low oxygen levels were wreaking havoc with our bodies.  The altitude sickness medicine really wasn’t helpful for us – or if it was, I’d hate to see how bad it would be without the meds!  I wasn’t really hungry, but I hadn’t eaten but a few bites for a couple days now.  We forced ourselves up and out – we weren’t going to miss out on this great opportunity.  I really just wanted to sit in bed and count the minutes until we left La Paz and returned to sea-level Lima.

The interior of the restaurant reminded me of many other restaurant spaces we’ve visited.  Not all that avant garde or exciting, but it was indeed a change from where we’d been dining up to this point.

The colorful interior of Gustu.

We were the only ones in the restaurant when we arrived for our 19h00 reservations and by the time we left at 21h00 there were only three tables occupied.  Perhaps it was a slow night, or a people were just choosing to dine really late.

We were given several menus, including the drink list, an appetizer listing and one for the main meal.  We knew that we’d be doing the tasting menu – which would allow us to experience the best the restaurant had to offer.  Unlike most tasting menus we enjoy, we chose not to add on the wine / cocktails pairing.  I wasn’t at all sure that my system could handle all the food and booze.  I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing.


Main Courses

The Dessert Menu

Tasting Menu Pricing

Once we made our high level menu selection, the restaurant kicked into gear.  It sure wasn’t like it was an autopilot, but everything moved so perfect and smooth.  The servers didn’t do a great job of properly explaining each course – mostly a function of a language barrier.  My Spanish skills are limited as was our server’s English.  At a couple points, our main server didn’t deliver the course, and her replacement server seemed very nervous and unsure of himself.  Our server stayed back near the kitchen and watched him deliver and provide service.  It was clear she was observing and coaching his service – it would have been nice if she had ensured all the details were relayed to us.

The menus and napkins were perfectly branded.

The Singani Sour was our only proper alcohol cocktail during our visit. The altitude really wreaked havoc on our stomachs.

Our non-alcoholic cocktails, paired with each course.

Amuse Bouche

Beet baguette and coca bread, with a quinoa tofu spread and coca butter.

Garden Tomatoes with Parmesan Cream and Llajua Granite.

Poached Paiche with Watermelon, Yogurt and Orange Glased Carrots

Grilled Goat Cheese, Plumb Sorbet and Roasted Nuts

Our meal was very good.  We were happy to have flavorful food in our bellies.   The tomatoes were by far my favorite course.  Tomatoes are my favorite fruit, in general, but these were remarkably flavorful and left me wanting much more.

Gustu was a really great experience not only for the food, but to support such an amazing mission.  Helping people pull themselves out of poverty by offering a proper training program and support so they can thrive in the restaurant industry is truly a noble cause.  Several of this program’s alumni have moved on and started their own restaurants in and around La Paz.  Such a great program.

Have you eaten at Gustu?  What was your favorite course? Did you struggle with the lack of oxygen like we did too?

Thoughts on La Paz

La Paz was never on my short list of vacation destinations. For this trip, it made sense. I did a lot less research on this city than I should have. The altitude and pollution impacted me more than I thought they would. I struggled with catching my breath after walking just a few hundred meters. For a good portion of my time in La Paz I just wanted to leave. That being said, I wasn’t a complete sad sack the whole time. For the little bit of time that we weren’t sick, we did enjoy ourselves.

After we checked into our hotel, we wandered around and visited the Iglesia de San Francisco and walked over to the Plaza Murillo which is home to the Presidential Palace. The Plaza was surprisingly busy with so many people playing with and feeding the pigeons.

Plaza Murillo full of families feeding the pigeons and enjoying the sun.

We were hungry but found most places were closed on Sunday. We did stumble across a little cafe just a few blocks from our hotel which was owned and operated by a well traveled Bolivian man. He had even worked in world glass restaurants in the US with chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next fame.

The tile work in the cafe was stunning.

A simple cubano sandwich with chips and a beer was a wonderful way to relax.

This small coffee shop had a great Cuban sandwich and reasonably priced beers, and was housed in a beautiful building. We spent a couple hours chatting with the owner – great conversations about travel, food, politics and corruption (both US and other countries). After our time here, I was very excited to see other parts of La Paz and meet other Bolivians.

The next day Mike was feeling under the weather, so we took it slow and joined a cable car tour. La Paz is built in the bowl, so public transit can be a bit difficult – you can’t really build subways like you would in a flatter city, or even a hilly city, the logistics are reversed. The buses must traverse very steep inclines with limited oxygen too. The city decided to build an aerial cable car system, called Mi Teleférico, that connects La Paz with El Alto and various points in between. We stumbled across this tour company as we were checking out Calle Jaen.

Calle Jaen is worth a visit as it is a beautiful old cobblestone Street surrounded by brightly colored buildings. These buildings are home to museums, art galleries and a tour shop.

Jaen Street (Calle Jaén) in La Paz is a charming little street full of colorful buildings housing small shops, museums and tour offices.

The tour we took was lead by a woman who was of Spanish decent, but her family had been in La Paz for hundreds of years. She studied in the US and her English was perfect. Our tour had four other people on it, all members of the same family.

The tour connected all three cable car lines, but also required us to take the small local mini buses as well. The views were amazing and our guide was quite knowledgeable about current political events as well as the long and storied history of Bolivia.

A view from our Cable Car Tour of La Paz.

The buildings scaling the hills of La Paz leading up to El Alto.

Mountains in the distance over La Paz.

One story that was brought up many times as we wandered through Bolivia was the unfortunate fact that Bolivia is now a land locked country. Bolivia use to have a coastline, but lost it in the late 1800s in a war with both Chile and Peru. The Bolivian government was pushing international courts to return the captured land back to them. The Bolivians that we talked to were all confident that their request filed in International Court would be successful. The Peruvians we spoke with were equally confident that Bolivia would NOT be successful.

You will see we didn’t do a lot while in La Paz, we were sidelined by the altitude. We knew we needed to be out and active when we were feeling up to it, so we tried to hit it hard when we could. Our stomachs were in awful shape. We spent so much time just in our hotel.

Is La Paz on your short list? What would you recommend to others who plan on visiting? Biking the World’s Deadliest Road is high on my recommendation list, plus dining at Gustu (read about that soon). What did we miss out on?

Casa de Piedra Hotel Boutique (La Paz)

Like in Arequipa, Peru, we wanted to stay in a local hotel – not a western chain.  Our research led us to the Casa Piedra Hotel Boutique in La Paz.  We would be spending three nights in this hotel, which was just a 3 minute walk to the Plaza San Francisco and the neighboring church.  The hotel was about 25 minutes from the main airport in El Alto.  The hotel didn’t have an elevator, so you had to schlep your luggage up the stairs from street level to the lobby.  The restaurant is on the street level and our room was on the main floor with the reception area.

After we landed, we headed straight to the hotel, arriving at reception around 14h45.  When we approached reception, we were greeted by name (again).  Either we stick out like sore thumbs, or we were the last ones expected to check in that day.  In any event, we were given our keys (actual metal keys) and shown to our room, which was just off the main stairs.

We booked a double room with two twin beds.  We will book two beds if we think it is important to do so culturally (not necessarily the case here) or if the king beds don’t look like actual king sized beds.  We’ve gotten burned many times when booking a king bed and getting stuck with a double.  I need room and space when sleeping. Little did we know that the beds would be perfect for us on this stay – La Paz was rough on us.

Our room had a private bathroom, which was elevated from the rest of the room (likely, the bathroom was added as an after thought and it needed to be elevated to accommodate the plumbing requirements).  The beds were small (narrow), but pretty comfortable.

View of our double room in La Paz.

View of our double room in La Paz.

View of our room from the nearly unusable lofted space.

View of our room from the nearly unusable lofted space.

A view back to the main door of our room.

A view back to the main door of our room.

Our room had a lofted space with a small dining table and two chairs.  The room had great ceiling height, but in the lofted space you were so crowded, it was virtually unusable.

Our tiny lofted space had a table and chairs - also it has a ceiling that was so low, it was nearly unusable.

Our tiny lofted space had a table and chairs – also it has a ceiling that was so low, it was nearly unusable.

Our room also had a small desk, which under normal circumstances would have been great to write post cards, or do a little work, if needed.  We used the desk only to store our hats and nothing else.

The small desk in our rustic room.

The small desk in our rustic room.

The room itself was perfectly comfortable.  The door wasn’t all that secure – it never came open, but if someone wanted to get into our room, it wouldn’t be difficult and it likely would go unnoticed by everyone on property.  I just made sure I kept all my valuables with me at all times.  The bathroom (I failed to take pictures of the bathroom for some reason) had pretty respectable water pressure and access to hot water.

I thought the building itself was a charmer – a lovely old colonial building that has rustic, but not overly so.  The floors creaked as you walked across the room or down the hall, but not so much that it bothered you while you were sleeping or relaxing in your room.

We had dinner one night in the hotel and the food was mediocre at best.  We were feeling the affects of the altitude at this point.  We were short of breath and were really feeling some GI distress.  I didn’t realize that altitude would wreak havoc on your stomach as much as it did to us in La Paz.  That’s another issue I had with the hotel (and it is likely an issue with many older hotels in La Paz) – you couldn’t flush your toilet paper, you had to put the soiled TP in the waste bin next to the toilet.  In general, that wouldn’t be a big problem – we’d just make sure that we used the facilities while out and about or before the room was serviced.  Unfortunately, with our upset stomachs, we spent a lot of time trapped in the room and the waste bin filled up quicker than it normally would.  I tried a couple times to get the bin emptied, to no avail.  Gross, I know.  We had upset stomachs and the room didn’t smell as fresh as it should have.

In general, the hotel worked out fine for us and I would likely return, if I needed to be back in La Paz again. That being said, I really don’t think I’ll ever be going back to La Paz again.  The altitude sickness really soured me on the City.

Where did you stay on your visit to La Paz?  Do you prefer to stay at traditional western chain hotels, or more locally owned and operated properties?  What do you think about the inability to flush the toilet paper?

Inca Travel – Introduction

We decided that our big trip this year would be to Peru and Bolivia.  Neither of us had visited these two countries before.  I had never been to South America, unless you count Trinidad, which surprisingly stirs quite the reaction when I ask is it part of North America or South America?

We wanted to visit Machu Picchu and we’d read some pretty great things about the Lima food scene.  MS wanted to visit Bolivia, wanting to experience the world’s highest capital city – La Paz – and visit Lake Titicaca.  La Paz is also home to a restaurant by the creative geniuses who gave us Noma in Copenhagen.

A beautiful day at Machu Picchu

A beautiful day at Machu Picchu

We selected Memorial Day weekend for our visit, so I could parlay the holiday into not using a vacation day.  Since I don’t get much vacation, I always try to throw a vacation around a pre-existing holiday weekend.  Memorial Day weekend is also our wedding anniversary, so I expect this weekend to be one where we are often traveling.

Making my way down the World's Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Making my way down the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Our trip to Peru and Bolivia was full of some ups and downs.  We had some great food, stayed in some wonderful hotels, saw some amazing sites and we also had pretty severe issues with altitude sickness, food poisoning, awful airline seats and copious amounts of bureaucratic red tape.  I’ll be sharing with you all the highlights of our trip, including:

Have you traveled to Peru or Bolivia?  What surprised you about the visit?  Did you love Machu Picchu?  How many tasting menus did you enjoy?