You’ve probably never heard of Tarija. And maybe we should keep it that way. It’s a little slice of heaven, on the cheap… in Bolivia. Very few foreign travelers ever make it to Tarija. The guide books hardly mention it at all. That’s a shame, because Tarija probably has the best climate and lifestyle you can find in Bolivia (according to me). And when we take the cost of living into consideration, Tarija may have the best lifestyle for the price on the whole South American continent. Locals call it “Tarija the Beautiful” and also “The Capital of the Smile.” If I could sum it up in three words, Tarija would be about “wine, sun, and steak”… not necessarily in that order.
Tarija is the closest city to our small Andean pueblo where we’re living for a year. It’s where we go every month for the kids’ braces, to get money, and to buy supplies. I’m not sure whether Tarija is really a very large town or a very small city. The population is only about 150,000, but it’s the largest regional city for about 8 hours by car. It’s clearly a center of commerce where you can find nearly everything you would expect of a decent-sized city. But it’s also the kind of place where everyone seems to know each other.
Here are my kids in the central Plaza:
And here’s one of the typical streets in the colonial city center.
The king of Tarija is of course, the wines. When the Spanish founded Tarija in 1574 (nearly fifty years before the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock), they immediately realized that the climate was very similar to Andalucia in Spain. And what is Andalucia known for? Well, besides tapas, gypsies, and flamenco, in those days Andalucia was big on grapes and wine.
So, nearly four-hundred and fifty years later, Tarija is probably the biggest wine region in the central Andes. No, it can’t compare to the famous places further south like Mendoza in Argentina or Chile’s Colchagua Valley, where mega-wineries sell around the world. But, maybe that’s an advantage. Here the wines are ahead of the game when it comes to being artesenal.
The big marketing thing Tarija has these days is that it has “high-altitude wines”. It’s supposedly the highest wine region in the world, at about 6,000 feet (a little higher than Denver). I don’t know enough about wines to say whether that really makes a difference. But, I do know a lot about money, and I can say for sure that the wines here are cheap. Damn cheap!
Very few wines in Tarija are exported, mostly because they don’t produce enough volume. So that means prices are what people can pay in Bolivia. In Tarija, you can find top flight wines for pennies on the dollar.
I mentioned that tourists largely never make it to Tarija, and that includes wine afficionados. Nevertheless, the “wine route” is probably the top tourist attraction in town. For about thirty bucks, you can take a guided tour of some of the local vineyards for a day. Here’s a map of the region’s wine district:
Of course, enjoying all those beautiful wines would be a waste of time if the weather didn’t cooperate. Tarija is known for it’s warm summers and mild winters. The climate is a lot like California, except it rains in the summer, instead of the winter. Folks here don’t waste too much time indoors. Instead, they spend hours at outdoor cafes like this:
This week, we happened to be in Tarija for a festival called “Comadres”. I mentioned last week that I participated in a holiday just for men, “Cumpas”. Well Comadres is for women. If you ever make it to Tarija, a festival like Comadres is the way to go. It’s really the official kick-off to the days of Carnaval. The streets around the plaza become a big block party four nearly a week:
There are dancers and traditional music everywhere.
At night, the Comadres women put on a big parade.
Slow Down, Boss!
Not everything is a party here. Tarija has it’s own pace of life, and it’s decidedly slower than what you might be used to. This is not a go-go world. In fact, clocks really don’t rule the world in Tarija. Rather, it is “Hora Latina” on steroids. Here’s a wonderful example of what I’m talking about:
This is a sign we found on a local cafe. In case your Spanish is not fully polished, that sign says:
“Business Hours: We open when we arrive… and we close when we leave… and if you come and we aren’t here… it means you don’t coincide with our business hours. Thank you for your attention.”
It’s very easy to lose track of time in a place like this. It’s a slower lifestyle, but not so slow that you get bored.
It feels like the modern world is just starting to creep into Tarija. In fact, just last month, the city installed its first escalator. You can see it to the left of the photo here:
This is actually the new central market in Tarija. It just opened to the public this month. This is where you buy your food if you live in the city center.
I hate to make fun of people (OK, sometimes)… but, my kids and I had several minutes of entertainment watching people try to figure out how the escalator works. Many folks in town have never actually seen an escalator before. When the market is busy, they have an employee standing below helping people get on! That’s something I’ve never seen before…. but I digress…
As you might have guessed, there’s pretty much one thing on the menu in Tarija. If you’re a vegetarian, this might not be the place for you.
Steakhouses are as common in Tarija as a cold day in Canada. Your only choice is whether you want good steak or great steak. It’s all cheap. When our family goes out for steak, we hit up the best restaurant in town. It’s easily on par with well-known white-cloth steakhouses in the U.S. But, we feed the whole family for around $50. And that includes a good bottle of wine.
If you like wine, steak, or nice weather, and you don’t like to spend a lot of money, then Tarija, Bolivia has to be on your short list of places to see. Maybe stay for a while. Look me up while you’re in town!