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Photo essay: heading south; Bolivia’s wine country in Tarija & Rosilla

We took a plane from La Paz, Bolivia down south to the Bolivian wine country to a city called Tarija. The south of Bolivia often gets slighted by the more famous and larger cities in the country like Sucre or La Paz.  If you find yourself tired of the dirt, noise or high altitude associated with these other locales, why not hop on a quick flight to sunny, laid-back Tarija and its surrounds?  Vineyards, bodegas, and dry desert rural valleys are calling you!

Located in the southernmost part of Bolivia, Tarija sits less than 100 km away from the northern part of Argentina’s border.  From La Paz, we decided to fly using BoA airlines. Flight time is just slightly over two hours for the reasonable price of 600 BS (US $85 ).  Don’t bother with the buses unless your idea of a fun day is to sit on a bumpy bus for hours without a bathroom.

This city is not your typical Bolivia.  Large plazas flanked by palm trees, sunny blue skies just warm enough for contemplating another ice cream, give Tarija some of its easy going character. Considering that most of Bolivia is muy tranquilo, it’s hard to believe that this city is even more laid back!  But that’s not to say it’s a sleepy city.  The region is noted for its wine, dances, friendly people & southern Spanish (Andalucían) character.  The Spanish influence shows, especially in the Spanish music called copla, and usually involves dancing, costume and masks.  Festivals abound year-round and Tarija hosts one of South America’s best Carnavals.

Mention the wine scene in Bolivia and you are likely to get some confused looks and perhaps even a chuckle or two.  It’s true, winemaking is still in its infancy stages in Bolivia but the country does deserve some credit. Since 2005, they obtained the gold and silver medals in competitions recognized by the International Wine Organization (OIV) in Belgium, Canada, France, Argentina, Chile, just to mention some countries. Still, Bolivia has a long way to go before Tarija is the next Mendoza (or even Cafayate) and none of these areas can compete with Chile’s formidable vines.  I was hard pressed to find a decent wine after months of travel in Bolivia.  That is, until I made my way to Tarija to sample from the source.

In addition to wine and the regional food specialties, the nature surrounding Tarija is very pretty. It is mostly desert-like, reminiscent of the north of Argentina. Great hiking abounds in the area including one valley that is famous for spotting the mighty condor. Nearby the city, small villages are scattered around with some offering homestays. Through a non-profit agency, we were lucky enough to visit a small village called Rosilla.

Come discover more of this incredible region through our photo essay!

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_IMG0767_IMG07721. The peaceful city of Tarija

Tarija is blissfully peaceful. Large palm trees flank open plazas and colonial architecture is found throughout the city. The biggest decision of the day is trying to figure out which flavour of ice cream to order and from where.  Take your ice cream over to the plaza, have a seat and enjoy the day watching the people and pigeons as palm tress sway overhead.

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_IMG07282. Visiting El Valle de la Concepcion; valle d’vino, an organic wine maker

We took a full-day wine tour through the recommended agency Viva Tours (Calle Bolivar #251 in Tarija).  They customized a tour for us that included visits to a Singani producer (similar to Pisco but more of a prominent grape flavor) Casa Real, Kohlberg, La Casa Vieja (one of the oldest), Valle De Vino (an organic, artisanal bodega) and Campos De Solana for 150 BS ($21) for the entire day including guide and transport. We were pleasantly surprised by the wines at Valle d’vino-small in production with bold flavors.

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_IMG0682_IMG02523. Lunch at Casa vieja, the oldest artisanal vineyard of the region

We stopped at Casa vieja, the oldest vineyard of the region, during lunch time. From here we enjoyed an excellent view of the surrounding vineyards and valley. It was also a perfect opportunity to try one of the regional foods of the area. Saice is a mildly spicy dish made from aji rojo, seasoned ground beef and peas. The locally produced Bolivian wine complemented the slight spice nicely.

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_IMG06274. Visiting Singani … 

Singani is the local firewater. It is considered Bolivian’s national drink and it’s only produced in that country. It is made in much the same way as Pisco and so it is considered a brandy but the flavour is very different. We had an in-depth tour at Casa Real, Bolivia’s largest producer of Singani, and discovered it is made by distilling the white muscatel grape. The alcohol is the main ingredient in the national cocktail-‘chuflay’ which mixes the singani with ginger ale and lime. The taste is strong and similar to the French eau de vie.

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_IMG06585. And wine producers

We visited some large wine producers such as Campos de Solana and Casa Real. Our favourite wine in Bolivia was from Aranjuez but unfortunately, they didn’t open their doors to tourists. Plans are in the works for this to happen soon though. The tours we received were rudimentary but it was still fun learning more about Bolivian wine.

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_IMG0609_IMG06076. Staying on a farm in Rosilla

At the corner of the main square is a great little shop called Eco-Sol, which is a fair trade store run by the non-profit organization Educacion Y Futuro (EDYFU).  They not only run the shop but also many other social programs dedicated to bettering the lives of the local and national people.  Think eco-tourism.  In addition to Eco-Sol, another one of their programs is called Valle de los Cóndores. Through this program, you have the opportunity to stay with a local family and participate in various programs.

We spoke with Vicente, an affable Belgian guy, who runs the program.  We had arranged a two day tour to the small village of Rosillas, about a one hours drive away from Tarija.  We were driven to a small farm where we met a woman named Sophie.  They call their little place Hostal La Torre and they only receive about 25 groups per year.  Valle de los Cóndores runs special programs such as cheese making, trekking, cooking classes with the locals, chicha making and more.  We had arranged to do some trekking in the valley to see the condors, chicha making and a cooking class where we prepared a traditional sopa de mani (Bolivian peanut soup) & picante de pollo (chicken cooked in an aji rojo sauce).

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_IMG0196_IMG02047. Drinking ambrosia

Ambrosia is a drink consumed almost daily by the local villagers. Tarija and it surrounds are Bolivia’s largest dairy producers. Milk cows are found everywhere here. On the farm we stayed at, the cows were milked twice a day and after the evening session, the fresh, warm milk was used to make a drink called ambrosia. What else but Singani was added into the milk along with some cinnamon-sugar. I was surprised that the combination made such a delicious beverage.

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_IMG0223_IMG02408. First time milking a cow & enjoying the scenery 

I got my first chance ever to milk a cow and as you can see by the photo, I was pretty happy about it! Our farm host, Sophie, showed me how it’s done. I can tell you it is not as easy as it looks and the nipple is surprisingly hard. You have to have a firm grip but be gentle at the same time. Tasting the fresh milk, as well as having the yogurt made right at the farm with the milk was such a treat! Our accommodations had a gorgeous view of the sunset which we enjoyed every night.

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_IMG0300_IMG02869. Camping on top of the mountain

We decided to do some trekking in the Valle de los Cóndores. It was just for an overnight backpacking trek with a guide. Normally we don’t use guides but this time we knew the money was going for a great community cause so we didn’t mind. The path wasn’t marked at all and the weather turned bad in the evening, so I was happy to have the guide. The scenery was still stunning and it was fun camping on top of a mountain.

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_IMG0304_IMG032910. Crazy descent

Getting down the next day was a bit crazy as there was no real trail.  It had rained heavily the night before into the morning which made the long grass slippery as could be. This was another instance where having the guide came in handy. The views were extraordinary as we steeply made our way back down.

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_IMG0358_IMG040511. But with an amazing landscape

The landscape in this valley is diverse.  One minute you are up on a bare rocky outcrop, the next surrounded by stunning greenery with the desert sprawled out in front of you.  The view with these grand mountains was unforgettable. Do not miss a visit into this incredible valley if you visit Tarija.

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_IMG040912. And the condors

The valley isn’t called Valle de los Cóndores for no reason! Normally there are countless condors in the area swooping up and down around you but this day there weren’t so many. We thought we might not even see any at all until we heard a ‘whoosh’. Sure enough, three condors were circling right near us. These mighty birds are a sight to behold. The wingspan on a condor can measure up to 10 ft wide. That’s the largest wingspan of any bird other than the wandering Albatross.

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_IMG0523_IMG060113. Cooking with the locals

After our trekking experience, our time in the community was not over. I had a great opportunity to learn to cook some traditional Bolivian dishes with the local women. I tried my best to listen and communicate in my (improving) Spanish. We got straight to cooking and prepared two of Bolivia’s most famous dishes-sopa de mani and picante de pollo.  I learned how to grind peanuts and aji de rojo (mild red chile peppers) using a batán, a traditional stone grinder.  After cooking, we enjoyed the fruits of our labors family-style with the extended family, including the children.  It’s an experience I will never forget.

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_IMG0544_IMG053214. And learning how to make chicha

Before we left, Sophie walked us over to one of the local villager’s homes where we learned how to prepare fresh chicha (a beverage, similar to beer, made from corn).  It has to be cooked for at least a day or two and then is left to ferment for up to 14 days.  We were treated to fresh samples which we drank out of hollowed-out gourds, which is how the drink is traditionally served.  This beverage has been around since the times of the ancient Andeans. It is still considered a sacred beverage and one I was glad to partake in.

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Tarija is not only the perfect long weekend getaway but a true destination.  I cannot fathom why more tourists continue to overlook this true gem. Only in Tarija can you feast on the country’s best beef, wash it down with a local vintage and finish the meal with a tempting ice cream while the palm trees sway in a breeze as gentle as the city itself.  Our time with EDYFU was truly touching. Experiencing and learning about the local life first-hand and knowing that you were making the difference in someone’s life, was something that will stay with us forever.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I loved Tarija so much! Glad to see you had a wonderful time there and managed to be a part of Educacion y Futuro too. The condor trek is one of the most beautiful I’ve done and somewhere that a guide is definitely worth it. Cheers!

    March 31, 2014
    • I couldn’t agree more! I was so happy we made it down south to experience it. It was so strange to me that there weren’t more tourists because it was one of my favorite places in Bolivia!! We loved that trek too and definitely agree about the guide!! It was so slippery and steep going down, I think I would’ve fell over for sure without him!!

      April 1, 2014
  2. Valle de los Condores #

    What a great review. It’s really touching to stuble upon something like this from a year ago. I’ll share this post with Vicente he will be pleased to read that.

    I have a favor to ask, could we please use this post and photos on our own blog? Obviously we will mention the source!

    By the way, we had a problem with our educacionyfuturo.com website, could you please update the link to valledeloscondores.com ?

    May 20, 2015
    • Hi guys! We still remember our time there so fondly. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you! You can use the post and photos, we would consider it an honor. I will update the link now, thanks for it! All the best!

      July 2, 2015

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