Oh, Tarija. The women there are beautiful. It’s their smiles. They are the dream of every Bolivian man.
— David, our Bolivian guide for the Salar de Uyuni tour, delivers an animated testimonial for one of Bolivia’s lesser-known cities.
Cafés with outdoor seating line palm tree-dotted squares; cars broadcast opera from open windows as they cruise the plaza; wine lists measure longer than food menus; tablitas (ham, cheese and olive tapas plates) are standard fare; and smiles are in ample supply.
A Mediterranean-style culture smack in the middle of South America? Tarija is not your typical Bolivian town.
Tarijeños (or Chapacos, as locals are often called) will proudly tell you that Tarija is different. Even Tarija’s economic migrants — there are many – will openly share that they don’t plan to return home to places like La Paz, Potosi or Sucre anytime soon. The economic opportunities may have drawn them to Tarija, but it’s the atmosphere and attitude that have convinced them to stay.
Tarija is “muy tranquilo” (very calm), they say.
The local government employs disabled workers to monitor the parking areas in town. Streets are cleaned daily; signs asking people to throw garbage in cans actually seem to be working. A walk through Tarija’s largest outdoor market, Mercado Campesino, delivers curious looks rather than the trademark looks of suspicion we’d become accustomed to in the rest of Bolivia.
The staff in Tarija’s local restaurants and cafés knew us after a visit or two; some even knew our names. They made us feel at home, a really nice feeling in nomadic lives such as ours.
Perseverance Through Hardships
But alas, life is not all wine and roses for everyone in Tarija. Like any city, it struggles with a growing population and a large community of economic migrants.
A photo shoot with Five Talents brought us to Tarija. During our project, we profiled two dynamic women promoting savings groups and performing capacity building in marginal communities. We witnessed families living on the literal and figurative edges of town – including children of market vendors eager for a free breakfast and families living for years without running water and electricity.
Despite these challenges, the people we met evinced a positive spirit and an openness unmatched during our time in Bolivia.
This is what we’ll take away from Tarija.
Well, that and a greater appreciation of Bolivian wine (coming in Part 2 of this series).
Tarija Travel Information
Where to eat: The Tarija Social Club on the main square offers one of the highest value lunch menus in all of South America. $3.50 (25 Bs) fetches you a four-course meal that is not only enormous – we usually didn't need dinner afterwards – but tasty and balanced. The owner explained to us, “I import all my beef from Argentina or Uruguay. Bolivian beef is like shoe leather.” After eating there three times, we can attest that whatever he's doing seems to be working. Although the restaurant is nicely decorated and the waiters have uniforms, the atmosphere remains genial and unpretentious. Highly recommended.
Check out Cafe Mokka on Plaza Sucre. We became regular consumers of their chicken fajitas ($5 for two people). A hearty bowl of marinated chicken, onions and peppers comes sided with an array of toppings (beans, guacamole, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo) and six tortillas. Good coffee, too.
Bufalo, on Plaza Luis de Fuentes, sets the pace for Tarija's outdoor eating scene. Our favorite dish: the serrano tablita ($5) – a chopping board spread with two types of local hard cheese, local serrano ham, traditional ham, olives, marinated onions and garlic bread. One tablita is more than enough for two and possibly enough to keep a party of four busy. Accompany it with one of the many wines from Bufalo's local vintage wine list. Bonus: Bufalo also offers free wifi internet.
Just next door, Gattopardo also gets great reviews. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation during our visit. Gattopardo is rumored to offer free wifi internet, too.
For a snack or a light lunch, visit Gringo Limon on 15 de Abril Street (next to Plaza Sucre) for some of Bolivia's tastiest beef salteñas, stuffed, baked pastry like empanadas, usually only served in the morning or early afternoon). Friendly staff and cold beer. Should you ask, you'll find that the “gringo” was in fact a light-skinned Tarijeño.
What to do: To be fair, Tarija does not offer a laundry list of big tourist sights. The fun for us was simply being there, talking with its people and enjoying its food and wine outdoors. For many, it will serve as a break from Andean Bolivia.
Having said that, there are Bolivian wine tour possibilities in Tarija. If you are interested in a formal tour, consider stopping into the helpful tourist office on the corner of Sucre and Bolivar, for it's likely that new wine tours will crop up over time. Tarija does offer a Ruta de Vino bus that tours a few commercial wineries; it departs Tarija's main square twice a day, in the morning and afternoon. The cost, according to our discussion with the folks at the tourist office: 5 Bs ($0.70).
Alternatively, you can take a shared taxi from the corner of C. Corrado and Gral Trigo streets to El Valle (one of the wine-making villages in the Valle de Concepcion) and take a more rustic do-it-yourself tour. Cost: $0.70 (5 Bs).
Where to stay: Because we needed internet access for work, we chose to stay at Hostal Carmen on Ingavi Street, just a few blocks from the main square. At 190-200 Bs ($28) for a comfortable double room and private bathroom, it's the least expensive accommodation option with wifi internet. On the budget end, consider the Residencial Rosario just across the street. Book a hotel in Tarija.
How to get there: We arrived in Tarija by bus from Tupiza (7 hours overnight on bumpy roads, fording rivers and cutting through slot canyons), but there are daily flights from Bolivia's major cities.