Going it alone in Tarija
In need of a change from the hustle and bustle of La Paz, I decided to venture down south solo. This was my first time travelling alone in a new country and I wasn’t certain how comfortable I would feel or how I would be treated. I had got used to the warm and friendly community spirit my friends had created in La Paz and was sad to leave it. I was excited, however, about my forthcoming adventure.
My destination was Tarija and I had two options on modes of transport: either a 24-hour bus ride or an hour-and-a-half flight. I opted for the latter without hesitation. Aviation is a wonderful invention, an expensive way to travel but the quickest and most comfortable.
I arrived in Tarija late afternoon. The air was warm and I felt like my summer holiday had just started. I went straight to my hotel - Hotel Los Ceibos, on Avenida Las Americas and Madrid. My room was large and bright and I had a balcony overlooking the hotel pool. The balcony door however didn’t lock which I found slightly disconcerting. I kept having visions of a masked man climbing through my window in the night. A daft thought, maybe, but when you’re alone with your thoughts in a strange place, your imagination runs wild.
The next day I went along to VTB Tours inside the Hostal Carmen along Calle Ingavi. The two main tours they offered were a day-trip around the villages to the north of Tarija, and a tour round some of the ‘bodegas’ (wineries) to the south.
The ‘bodegas’ are closed on a Sunday so I opted to do the tour of the northern region. There weren’t any other travellers around wanting to do this trip with me so I booked the trip on my own. It was more expensive but turned out well. I had a guide with a car for a day all to myself. My guide was an American lady who has lived in Bolivia for 14 years. I couldn’t believe my luck, an English speaker! This wasn’t good for my Spanish but it was a relief to be able to fully communicate with someone and learn about the area.
Our tour started at the Mirador San Juan, a pretty park near the airport. There was a fantastic 360-degree view from the top, which enabled me to get my bearings, and see which places I was going to be visiting that day. Next stop was the San Jacinto reservoir just a few kilometres outside Tarija. It’s a large expanse of water with restaurants along the edge and popular Sunday outing for the locals.
We then moved on to the village of San Lorenzo, a peaceful and slow-paced village with a nice plaza at the centre with palm trees. There is a statue there of Colonel José Eustaquio Mendez, a famous guerrilla leader in the battle of La Tablada which liberated Tarija from Spanish control in 1817. The Tarijeños then enjoyed several years of independence; they neither belonged to Argentina nor Bolivia.
Mendez’s house is down one of the streets leading off the plaza. It is now owned by the University and has been turned into a museum. There are two main rooms on the ground floor, containing paintings and cabinets displaying artefacts such as swords, locks and keys.
Upstairs is a single room, Mendez’s bedroom and outside is a walled garden full of trees. There is a beautiful mural on the back wall depicting the key events in Mendez’s life.
Lunch was at one of the small restaurants off the plaza that appeared to have no name, but my guide recommended it. On the menu that day was ‘Picante’, a piece of chicken in a red spicy sauce accompanied by potatoes, rice, peas and chopped onion and tomato. It was a delicious combination and although called ‘Picante’ it wasn’t too hot. To drink we had a local speciality called ‘Aloja’. This is made with toasted corn and barley, boiling water, dried quince and a clove. It came in an old soft drinks bottle and looked like muddy water. The smell of it left much to be desired but the taste wasn’t bad.
Fed and watered we were ready for the afternoon. We stopped off at a village called Laja where we saw a stunning view of the mountains. It was almost Mediterranean; we could have been in Provence or Spain. Children were playing along the path and a goat was happily chewing at a bush. The air was still and the sound of the river was so relaxing. I could have stayed there all afternoon.
As we passed back through San Lorenzo, we stopped and bought some ‘Empanada Blanceada’ - a speciality of the region. They are empanada with a frosted egg white topping and filled with ‘Callote’ jam, a stringy squash that is used in sweet recipes rather than savoury. It is a perfect pudding or snack for those that don’t like their sweet things too sweet.
The next village on our journey was Tomatitas. Here the roads were lined with eucalyptus trees and the sound of the cicadas grew louder and louder, some were so loud they could have been mistaken for strimmers. It was just how a Sunday afternoon should be. Families were out having picnics and barbecues. Children were playing in the fields and bathing in the pool. There was a relaxed, sleepy and friendly atmosphere. No one was in a rush to do anything or go anywhere.
Our last stop was back at Tomatitas as I had seen some ‘Humintas’ stalls by the side of the road. Humintas had intrigued me for a few weeks and I wanted to try one. You can either buy boiled or fried humintas; I was advised to try the boiled one.
Humintas are made with crushed corn (made into dough), sugar, salt, butter or lard, cinnamon and sometimes with either basil or anis (but not both). Cheese is put into the middle of the dough and is then wrapped in two maize leaves. The parcel is tied together with a strip of husk and either left in boiling water for about an hour or fried until golden.
Following the success of my first day in Tarija, I decided to do the tour of the ‘bodegas’ on my second day, again with VTB Tours. I had the same guide and, once again, I was alone.
It was another beautiful hot day. We set off mid-morning to Casa Real in Santa Ana first of all. This is the largest and most modern ‘bodegas’ in the region. It’s a very grand building, containing all the best equipment, much of which has been imported from France. One of the rooms contains 20 tanks each with a capacity of 250,000 litres. Between and 18,000 and 22,000 bottles can be filled per day. The owners are Tarijeños but with French ancestry; making wine must be in their blood.
Casa Real makes Singani only but due to its capacity, bottles wines from other vineyards such as Campos de Solana. Singani is similar to brandy but is aged in a stainless steel tank rather than an oak barrel. The highest quality Singani is made from Muscatel of Alexandria grapes.
To the left of Casa Real are the vineyards, which are surrounded by trees. Several types of grapes are grown here: cabernet, sauvignon, merlot and riesling.
After a picnic lunch by the river we went to the Concepción-Rujero ‘bodega’. This is the most famous winery in the area, situated in the Concepción valley. It produces what is considered to be the best wine in Bolivia.
The Concepción Reserva is the best and most expensive of the Concepción wines. This is because the wine has been left in an oak barrel for up to 12 months. The oak is brought over from France and its aroma diffuses into the wine to give it a richer taste. The winery is a friendly, family-run business.
Our last bodega was Casa Vieja (the old house). It’s a small artisan ‘bodega’ in the town of Concepción. Sadly the owner was not there when we arrived, but we caught a glimpse of the house and the vineyards.
To me this was the most beautiful ‘bodega’ I saw as it has such character. The house is large and made of adobe, a mixture of mud, water, straw and dried manure. The vineyard is next to the house and is surrounded by fig trees and peach trees. It is the perfect picture postcard and in such a tranquil setting.
Tarija is the highest commercial wine-producing region in the world and stands between 1,700 and 2,800m above sea level. The wines produced here are known as ‘high altitude’ wines. At this height the ultraviolet sunrays the grapes receive are more intense. This enriches the fruit and gives the wine a distinctive flavour. The wine harvest starts in February and ends in March. I would recommend going during this time if you can.
Tarija itself is a quiet, sleepy town during the day and busy with people in the evenings. Plaza Luis de Fuentes is the main square with many restaurants and bars overlooking it.
The town makes for a pleasant change from La Paz. The pace of life is much slower and there’s far less pollution. People seemed more relaxed and the climate was much milder. Tarijeños have the reputation of being slow, dumb and lazy. This is well known in Bolivia and therefore many jokes have been based on this, most of which have been started by Tarijeños themselves. At least they have a sense of humour.
When I first arrived in Tarija I did feel very conscious of the fact that I was the only white female travelling alone. I felt a little uncomfortable the first evening. I was getting a lot of the looks I had got when I first arrived in La Paz. People weren’t too sure what to make of me. They looked as if they were asking themselves: “What is she doing here?”
It was partly paranoia on my part I’m sure and partly the Bolivians just needing to get used to there being a stranger alone in their midst. They don’t always know how to react towards foreigners but then again the same can be said for the way the English treat foreigners.
Once we had accepted each other everything was fine and I felt quite comfortable. Being alone in a strange down didn’t phase me at all, I actually quite enjoyed it. I even quite enjoyed being in the minority. In England I’m just an ordinary white woman but here I’m different. When you’re alone you can also do what you want when you want. You don’t have to answer to anyone and can be as selfish as you like. You’re a free spirit and can do as you please.
Travelling alone has been a great experience for me. I have seen many places, met great people and have been able to make myself understood in a new language. I have felt safe wherever I’ve been and all the worries and concerns I had before embarking on my adventure soon vanished.
A forgotten world - Tarija
Lost in a great cornucopia of landscapes are hundreds of picturesque villages that still conserve local customs and traditions, unchanged by the passage of time. The architecture, streets and artisans of these villages reflect a unique culture distinct from the rest of Bolivia.
The people of Tarija are largely mestizo (of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) rather than indigenous and have traditionally regarded themselves as closer to northern Argentina than the rest of Bolivia. Geographically too, Tarija is dissimilar to the rest of the country. With the high Altiplano on one side and the cactus-covered hills that are the beginning of the Chaco on the other, it is nestled in a rich, fertile valley that is ideally suited to agriculture. The striking resemblance to the countryside of southern Spain has earned it the nickname the “Andalucía of Bolivia”.
Tarija was founded in 1574 as a Spanish frontier outpost to guard against incursions by the spirited tribes of the Chaco. The Spaniards who arrived in Tarija settled in the multitude of small villages and married local inhabitants to give rise to the mestizo population of today. Centuries later their steps were retraced by the founders of the independent Republic of Bolivia. The most famous local hero is Eustaquio “Moto” Méndez, who led the defeat of a Spanish army during the War of Independence in 1817, securing eight years of de facto independence for Tarija before it voted to join the Republic of Bolivia in 1825. To walk through villages such as San Lorenzo, Concepción, Canasmoro, Las Juntas del Rosario, and Calamuchita is to breathe history.
One of the most interesting villages to visit is Inmaculada Concepción – now known as Uriondo, the capital of the province of Avilés – in the Central Valley of Tarija. Most of the buildings reflect a typical style of architecture that dates back to the transition period from a colony to a Republic. Surrounding the village are the vineyards, wineries, old churches and haciendas which have long been famous as the source of Bolivia’s wines.
Oswaldo Rivera Sundt
Edited by Sonja van Renssen