You may not have heard of it, but Cochabamba is Bolivia’s capital – of food, that is. The locals (awesomely known as ‘Cochabambinos’) give a masterclass in indulgence, and make it the perfect destination to go and eat your weight in platefuls of delicious food. Not only this, but as the home of a large and vibrant university population, Cochabamba is one of the best places in Bolivia to hit the town and stay up partying until the early hours.
But Cochabamba isn’t just for those wanting to eat and drink excessively: despite not being known as a place of particular cultural interest, the city does have some unique, and visit worthy historic buildings. Plus, if you’ve got a few weeks to kill, Cochabamba definitely has enough to keep you going: get to know the locals by swapping languages at one of the Parlana language exchange events, enjoy the bustle and comprehensively bizarre collection of items to buy in the market, climb a local 5,000m mountain to work off the calories, or even go dinosaur hunting in nearby Parque Toro Toro.
Time spent here, soaking up the leisurely atmosphere and year-round balmy climate in one of Bolivia’s most modern cities, will be time you won’t regret.
Places to Stay in Cochabamba
No one is under any doubt about the best hostel to stay in Cochabamba: the Running Chaski will have you spending a lot more time in the city than originally intended. These guys have thought of EVERYTHING: phone chargers inside lockers, substantial (free) breakfasts, a television room, kitchen and dining area, courtyard and even a garden. Staff are super friendly and knowledgeable about local – and more distant – attractions too.
Cabana Las Lilas
If you’re looking to relax and enjoy the warm weather, check out this place. Although it’s 20 minutes by local bus from the centre, it has a beautiful, spacious garden and swimming pool, making it a chilled haven outside of the city.
Things to Do in Cochabamba
- Admire the views from El Cristo de la Concordia
Top of most visitors’ itineraries is a trip up the teleférico (cable car) to the base of the enormous Cristo statue. Bolivia boasts that theirs is a grand 44cm higher than the more famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and although being less spectacular than its rival, the 360 degree views of Cochabamba sprawling below make this worth a visit.
- Marvel at the enormous La Cancha market
Bolivian markets need to be seen to be believed. Covering a huge area a few blocks south of the Cathedral, La Cancha is a perfect introduction to their eclectic nature. Start along Avenida Aroma and browse stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, artisanal goods, electrical items, textiles and anything else that you may need. It’s worth passing an hour of so getting lost in its winding depths, or eating from one of the (hygienically-questionable) food stalls.
- Submerge yourself in history
One of Cochabamba’s more interesting historical buildings, the Palacio Portales was the extravagant masterpiece of tin baron Simón Patiño. Completed in 1927, the grounds and house show over-the-top European-influenced grandeur and ridiculous displays of wealth. For a different experience, take a guide tour around el Convento de Santa Teresa, a beautiful, decaying building with outstanding views across the city from its roof.
- Learn Spanish
Bolivia is one of the cheapest places in the continent for learning Spanish, and where better than in the chilled, sunny city of Cochabamba? A number of language schools offer affordable lessons to get you started communicating with the locals. Even better, Cochabamba has the most vibrant wing of Bolivia’s Parlana Language Exchange community – a weekly meetup for anyone looking to learn and practise a new language, all in a friendly, pub setting.
- Party until dawn
If you’ve joined Parlana for one of their language exchange nights, chances are you’ll have been introduced to some of Cochabamba finest drinking establishments. Na Cunna Irish Pub – yup, there’s always an Irish pub – has a range of live music every weekend, or check out any of the trendy bars around Avenida España between Colombia and Ecuador. From here, move onto one of the clubs, such as Pimienta, Mandarina Lounge or those on Avenida Uyuni.
- Climb a 5,000m mountain
Mountain and landscape lovers will enjoy a day trip into the Cordillera Tunari, where they can climb Cerro Tunari, central Bolivia’s highest mountain. At 5,035m above sea level and with some occasional technical sections, you’ll need a guide to climb this lung-busting mountain. But for the views of the Cochabamba valley, and potentially even the snow-topped giants of the Cordillera Real beyond La Paz, it’s worth the exertion.
- Hunt dinosaurs in Parque Toro Toro
Tourists often visit Cochabamba on their way to Parque Toro Toro, one of Bolivia’s most geologically fascinating national parks. Think jagged, multi-coloured peaks, extraordinary canyons with thermal waters at the bottom, and the main attraction: dinosaur footprints surviving from between 65 and 145 million years ago. Buses leave daily at 6pm from the corner of Avendias República and Barrientos to travel the six hour journey to Toro Toro village: just look out for the bus decorated with dinosaurs!
Places to Eat
- Mercado 25 de Mayo
Feeling brave? Eat lunch with the hordes of hungry locals in the smaller market on Calle 25 de Mayo. Sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the Cochabambinos and get a feast of local fare (try picante de pollo, chicken in a spicy sauce) for around 10bs. For a quick snack, don’t miss out on the delectable papas rellenas (mashed potato balls stuffed with cheese or minced meat) or salteñas (pastries filled with chicken, beef or vegetables) from one of the street vendors.
- Casa de Campo
Casa de Campo is a locals’ favourite, and rightly so. Portions are enormous and quite pricey (note: they’re intended to be shared) but this is one of the best places to experience a hearty, Cochabamban meal. The atmosphere is inviting and lively, and a game of Cacho (the traditional Bolivian dice game) is not uncommon while you wait for your meal.
One of the few decent restaurants serving non-Bolivian food, Casablanca is a mellow, chic little hangout, attracting a good mix of foreigners and locals. With jazz-inspired murals on the walls, laid-back music and a generally easy-going attitude, all topped off with tasty food and a range of drinks, Casablanca is an ideal location for a coffee, dinner or to slowly pass an evening.
For a true Cochabamba experience, look no further than Ajonjoli. Representing everything that makes dining in this city incredible, this buffet restaurant allows diners to pile their plates high – and pay per kilo of food! With a delicious range of meat, fish, vegetables and salads, this should suit everyone’s taste buds. Just don’t get carried away – you’ll regret it when that plate hits the scales!
You can fly to Cochabamba from La Paz, Santa Cruz and Sucre, all at roughly 30 minutes flying time each. Buses leave for each of these destinations every night and take between 10-12 hours. Bear in mind that buses in Bolivia range from mildly comfortable to downright dangerous, so paying extra for one of the more reputable companies – El Dorado or Trans Copacabana – is recommended.
Where to Head Next?
- Villa Tunari – A beautiful town located on the outskirts of the Amazon, Villa Tunari is semi-tropical paradise offering crystal blue natural swimming holes, river tours into the jungle, or the chance to make friends with the resident monkeys of the Parque Machía. Take a trufi from the corner of Avenidas Ouendo and República to arrive here. From Villa Tunari, the more adventurous backpacker should head to Puerto Villarroel and investigate travelling by cargo boat upriver to the lazy, tropical city of Trinidad.
- Sucre – Encounter colonial charm and plentiful hiking in Bolivia’s capital, Sucre. Bear in mind that this is another city where you’ll probably end up spending far more time than you intended.
- La Paz – Experience life at the lung-destroying altitude of 3,400m in the world’s highest administrative capital, La Paz. Here, find even higher mountains (we’re talking 6,000m titans), death-inducing roads (the infamous Death Road) and a taste of Bolivian life at its most energetic and craziest.
About the writer and photorgapher: Steph Dyson is a former English teacher in Manchester in the UK, who left the classroom in 2014 to travel, volunteer and live in South America. Since then, she has worked with rural libraries in Sucre, Bolivia, taught English and helped run a campsite in La Paz, Bolivia and delivered workshops to young people in orphanages and albergues in Cusco, Peru. Join her as she gives tips on how to Travel Adventurously and Volunteer Meaningfully at Worldly Adventurer.