A postcard from Casa Blanca Hostel, Tarija

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The thin door underneath the painted sign looked inviting. The fact there was a cake shop next door only made it more appealing. But this was New Year’s Eve, and there was no answer to our knocking. Instead we went to Hotel Libertador, which was decorated with potted plants and calendars of semi-naked women representing important historic events and the provinces of Bolivia.

Two days later, we walked past Casa Blanca again. The shutters at the floor length windows of the panadería were open. We knocked on the little blue door and it opened. And that’s how we discovered the only hostel in Tarija.

Casa Blanca is small and intimate – my favourite kind of hostel. Three dorm rooms surround a covered courtyard where The Beatles tinkle on a stereo and board games sit waiting to be played. Through lofty archways, the courtyard opens up to the sky. A couple of hammocks under a tree are ready for lazing. Two well-stocked bathrooms and a nice-size kitchen lead off from here. The reception and entrance are opposite.

The young owner explains that they’ve only been open a month, so they still need to get wifi and lockers. Also, would we like breakfast as it costs 10Bs more? Yes, of course we want breakfast, considering it includes cake.

Casa Blanca Hostel
Calle Ingavi #645 (between Ballivian and JM Saracho)
(00591) 4 66 42909
60Bs a night, 10Bs breakfast

A wine tour in Tarija

Tarija isn’t one of the world’s better known wine regions, but it does produce some of the world’s highest altitude wines. Whilst Bolivia can’t stand up to Chile and Argentina (read more here), it does produce some surprisingly drinkable wine at a low price, so we were quite looking-forward to our wine tour of Tarija. Plus it also included cheese and jamon Serrano tasting. What’s not to like about that?

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We started off at 9am (!) with Casa Vinícola El Potro. It was small! Everything – the processing tanks, bottling facilities, storage cellar – were in the same building. This was real ’boutique’ production. I wanted to like it, I really did, but the wine just tasted weirdly sour. The olives and crisps we got to eat with it were more my kind of thing.

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Next was Campos de Solano, which is my second favourite brand in Bolivia (Aranjuez is the absolute best). It was the most professional and largest of the wineries we visited and wouldn’t have looked out of place on the wine tours we did in Chile or Argentina.

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Campos de Solana are the only producers of rosé in Tarija – nice and refreshing in the hot weather!

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Bodegas Casa Grande was one of the more interesting vineyards we visited. They’re in the process of building a wine spa and the place actually looked like they worked there rather than it being just for show for tourists.

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The white wine we tried was pretty good – it reminded me a little of a pinot grigio. This was also the place we got to sample local ham and cheese. And there was a cute puppy running around. You can’t get much better than that!

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We made a brief stop at a showroom for Las Duelas. They make lots of desert wine, marmalade and other organic fruity products.

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Finally, we ended the tour at Casa Vieja, the oldest bodega in Tarija. This is the place where you share one glass with the whole group during wine tasting. It’s traditional. It also means the person at the end of the line gets to finish off whatever’s left in the glass.

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We were served in such rapid-fire fashion that I lost count of how many types of wine and singani we tried. None of them were very memorable. But Casa Vieja’s charm lies in its colonial buildings, restaurant and beautiful terrace.

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We decided to skip the tour bus back to Tarija and stayed here for lunch (delicious but very slow). A shared taxi back to Tarija cost only 5Bs per person.

Wine tours start from 100Bs for a half day. We went with Viva Tours, 150Bs, because we wanted to visit Campos de Solana and specifically avoid Kohlberg (seriously the worst wine in the whole world).

The best and worst of street food in Tarija

Tarija is full of good food and drink, the kind you can’t get very easily elsewhere in Bolivia; ice cream, coffee, cheese, salad, sandwiches…

But on New Year’s Eve, everything closed by 9pm. It seemed like the weirdest thing to do on the biggest night of the year. But this is not a night for making money, it’s a night to celebrate at your own private party with family or friends.

The only place that was still open was a fast food stand on Plaza Sucre. It was jam-packed (suggesting to me that more places ought to stay open at this time) and a hamburger involved a thirty minute wait. We went for a hotdog instead, ‘completo’ style. Mustard, ketchup and cheese? Of course. Corn? Um, why not? Tiny pieces of fried potato? Might as well.

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It actually tasted pretty good (as far as hotdogs are concerned). We were still hungry afterwards though, so we bought butter-flavour puffed corn snacks called “bird food” (they were actually human food, thankfully).

The next morning, we set off into the rainy, abandoned streets in search of more sustenance. Nothing was open. We went to the central market and even that was closed. But, there were some food stalls under a makeshift shelter along one side of the building. Once again it was crowded with people, wolfing down bowls of food while standing under dripping tarps.

I’m not really a fan of street food in La Paz. It seems to mostly consist of fried meat with a plateful of dry carbohydrates, no sauce or fresh vegetables. But the food in Tarija…looked really good! We didn’t know what any of it was, but we ordered something that had salad, vegetables and mincemeat, and thoroughly enjoyed it (we later found out it’s called saice, although it didn’t look like any saice I’ve seen in La Paz).

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It was, without a doubt, the best street food I’ve had in Bolivia. Perhaps it was a good thing that everything else was closed that day?

A postcard from Cementerio General de Sucre

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You don’t have to be a goth teenager to enjoy a stroll through a cemetery. They’re beautiful because they’re meant to be, especially the Cementerio General de Sucre. Unlike the Cementerio General in La Paz, which is fascinating, but not necessarily peaceful, the one in Sucre has manicured grass and full plots with tombstones, combined with the more morgue-like vaults for those who can’t afford more space. On the benches along the main path there are blind people you can pay to say a prayer for the one you lost. Children work for tips, bringing ladders to those who wish to leave flowers, children’s toys, bottles of whiskey, cans of Coca-Cola or photos for the departed on the higher rows.

How to get there From the center, walk southwest down Calle Junin for about 15 minutes.

Cost It’s free, but you can pay a young child about 10 Bs for a tour.

Hours 8:00-11:00 and 14:00-17:00.

Trekking el Valle de Los Cóndores, Tarija

We organized a two day trek to the Valley of the Condors, just outside of Tarija, with Educación y Futuro (a locally-run non-profit organization). There are estimated to be about 200 condors living in the valley – 7% of the world’s population, we were proudly told.

On the trek itself, the diversity of landscape and weather was totally unexpected (with El Choro trek I knew we’d be passing through different climatic zones since we were dropping a few thousand metres). We went from Wild West-like scrub to mist-shrouded jungle to rock-strewn post-apocalyptic wasteland all in one day. The next morning we climbed up to a rock plateau with amazing views while condors glided by, before descending through a bamboo forest back to the scrubland. It was one of the most amazing times I’ve had.

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Setting off towards the hills, which rise to 3,000m above sea level.

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Incan rock paintings.

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Spotting our first condor (even our guides were excited).

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A cave, where we didn’t spend the night.

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The outcrop where we did spend the night – it rained a bit and was very windy, but there was a wonderful view the next morning.

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El Puente

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Educacíon y Futuro – visit their website valledeloscondores.com or their shop, Ecosol, on Plaza Sucre in Tarija.
Cost: 2,603 Bolivianos for three people, including guide, equipment and food. Price is lower with more people.

Max Ronald’s

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There are no McDonald’s in Bolivia. They haven’t been banned or anything, they’ve just failed. Too expensive perhaps, though Burger King survives in a few locations in La Paz.

And, of course, the completely original Max Ronald’s thrives in Tarija. Observe Max and his sidekicks stepping in the blood of their enemies.