The fourth biggest city in Bolivia (with roughly half a million inhabitants) Cochabamba shares the basic design of Bolivian cities: a tiny downtown surrounded by endless shantytowns. However, its peculiarities make it well worth a visit: the main city in the Bolivian Valleys has the best climate and food in the country. Rich in extremes, Bolivia has few mild areas; in Cochabamba the proximity to the equator and the Amazonian Basin is balanced by the height since the city is well above the 2500m above the sea level. It is higher even than Santa Fe in New Mexico. Yet, most Bolivians refer to it as being "deep down in the valleys."
As in La Paz, the main avenue is nicknamed "El Prado," despite its official name being Avenida Ballivian. It runs from the Rocha River to the Plaza Colon. In this short avenue (just a few blocks long) is concentrated most of the town’s commercial life and the best restaurants. At its southern end, Plaza Colon and its surroundings are less colonial in style than their parallels in other Bolivian cities; its green splendor through fresh air into a visit to the country. Nearby, "Dumbo" may be infringing copyrights, but it is among the best restaurants in the country.
Five blocks to the south from Plaza Colon is another important plaza, Plaza 14 de Setiembre, which apparently was the town’s main plaza in the far past, before El Prado became the place to be seen. At its southern corner is the cathedral and at its kitty corner – across the plaza – is another interesting church called Compañia de Jesus.
Further south is the Avenida de las Heroinas, where many cheap restaurants offer some of the best Bolivian food. Following it eastwards, the cable car reaching the Cristo de la Concordia is reached. If walking the streets did not cause any symptoms of altitude sickness (80% of the people feel perfectly well at this altitude) then the hill may be climbed by foot.
At the southern edge of the downtown, there are two points of interest. Next to the San Sebastian Hill and the main bus terminal is an amazing food market. Being in such a central location in Bolivia, Cochabamba displays products from the various climates zones. Tropical fruits fight for space among the Altiplano’s potatoes and altitude fruits from the valleys. Beef from Santa Cruz is shown next to guinea pigs from the Altiplano. Nowhere in the country is this richness equaled. East of it is the northern shore of the Alalay Lake. Despite being undeveloped, the novelty of seeing a major Bolivian city next to a lake makes the visit well-worth.
If following the lakeshore to the south the shantytowns would be reached. I visited them extensively with my hosts and did not feel threatened at any moment, though unless in an official business there is nothing to do there.
Despite its humble size, there is no need to explore the town by foot. An extensive network of buses exists, but the excellent local taxis – charging less than half a dollar within downtown – are a better option.