Tarija may lie well within the boundaries of modern-day Bolivia, but after spending a few days in the town for carneval it feels culturally and ethnically closer to Argentina than much of the rest of Bolivia. Close your eyes and you could easily believe yourself in Salta, northern Argentina.
In part this is down to the population, many of whom look like Argentinians (and on closer inspection are in fact Argentinians working in Tarija’s wine industry). The town is also architecturally closer to the more Spanish-style cities of Argentina, with city plazas that could have been copied directly from Andalusian towns.
Perhaps this isn’t a surprise, in post-colonial times Tarija voted to become part of Bolivia despite being wooed by Argentina – although this didn’t stop Argentina retaining a territorial claim to Tarija until 1899. Tarija is even twinned with Sevilla in Andalusia, and is known as the Bolivian Andalusia. Mind you, it is also twinned with Glasgow in Scotland, which isn’t as blessed with leafy plazas or a Mediterranean climate.
Tarija is also the only place I’ve been in Bolivia where the climate and food culture has cultivated al fresco dining. Restaurants and cafes spread their tables on the pavements, providing ample people-watching opportunities – another similarity with southern Spain and Argentina. The town feels prosperous, with a thriving middle-class, and is the second fastest growing city in Bolivia economically thanks to large gas reserves and a thriving wine industry.
With an open and friendly population, plenty of good eating options in the town, museums and churches to visit, excursions to vineyards and wine tastings, lovely country towns dotted throughout the valley, and high altitude lakes and rural villages a day’s drive from town, Tarija is a fantastic place to spend several relaxing days absorbing the unique culture of the region.
If all that wasn’t enough, Tarija is probably the cleanest city in Bolivia, and it also feels like one of the safest. There are very few dogs on the street, which means very little dog mess on the pavements – something I lament all too regularly in Sucre. There are litter bins that people actually use, and for those litter louts who remain, a small army of street cleaners seems to be working around the clock.
What’s not to love?