Canarios del Chaco at Teatro Municipal

Whilst some things in Bolivia are relatively expensive, an evening out at the theatre isn’t. We paid 20Bs ($2.87) for a seat in the upper ring at the Teatro Municipal (the most expensive was 30Bs and the cheapest was 10Bs).

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The theatre itself was gorgeous – red velvet seats, painted ceilings and creaky wood floors – and worth the price alone considering we didn’t really know what the concert was going to be. The program said folk music, which we thought might be interesting so we went to buy tickets a few hours before the show (this being Bolivia, we got tickets numbered 1, 2 and 3 because we were the first people). They have a delightfully old-fashioned way of assigning seats; a wooden board with little holes arranged like the seating plan, with slips of paper curled up in the holes. Like some kind of carnival game, you choose where you want to sit and pull out the paper slips, which you need to keep safe for later finding your seats.

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The Canarios del Chaco are a group from Tarija, in southern Bolivia, so there were no charangos or zampoña. Instead the music used fiddles, guitars and drums. I recorded some songs with my iPod. Although the quality is not too great, you can still get an idea of the overall show.

It was a nice surprise to have some of the songs accompanied by dancers as we thought it was just going to be the musicians. This next video is my favourite; it not only has more twirling dancers, but also a religious icon carried on a litter, a guy in black costume and blackface, as well as some guys dressed in animal skins whipping each other with ropes. I wish I knew what it was all about!

This third video shows some very twirly skirts and some pretty awesome dance moves from the guys.

Incidentally, we saw a tiny boy in the audience dressed in the same costume as these guys. He later turned up on the side of the stage during the final song. I hoped he was going to dance, but he disappeared backstage so I can only guess he was a relative of one of the performers. You can see him briefly on the left in this final video. Be warned: it’s pretty long and they tried to get the audience to join in but I guess we weren’t prepared at first. However, by the end we’d got the hang of it and demanded an encore.

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?

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.

Relaxing with Educación y Futuro in Rosillas

Educación y Futuro are a locally-run non-profit organization which run several programs in the local community. From their base in Rosillas, they organize treks and horse-riding in the surrounding villages and mountains of the Valle de las Cóndores. The starting and end point for these activities is la Torre, their lovely guesthouse on their farm in Rosillas.

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They produce bread, yogurt and cheese on a small scale and visitors to the farm can watch the process and taste the finished products.

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You also get to try ambrosia, fresh milk mixed with singani (Bolivian liquor) and a little cinnamon and sugar. It was warm, frothy and delicious.

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The farm has a plant nursery where they grow trees to be used in reforesting the local area.

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There’s an array of cute farm animals and pets (except for the one called Gollum, which is easy to spot).

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Contact Educación y Futuro through their website at valledeloscondores.com or their shop, Ecosol, on Plaza Sucre in Tarija.

Christmas in Bolivia

We escaped La Paz and its rain and wore T-shirt and shorts on Christmas day in the colonial ‘white city’ of Sucre. Our cosy hostel was full of lovely people who cooked a wonderful Christmas dinner. We drank, we ate, we had a good time.

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For New Year we headed even further south to Tarija, where we got alternately sunburnt and soaked with rain. We drank some more. A lot more. We ate cheese and serrano ham and really great mayonnaise. The kind of things you can’t get elsewhere in Bolivia.

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On our way back to La Paz, we stopped in Potosí for a bit of acclimatizing. It was as cold as La Paz, but the people were a little warmer.

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Stay tuned for upcoming posts about our Christmas road trip. Happy 2013 everyone!