Life in the raw, Tarija’s Paleontology Museum

If Tarija is famed for its Mediterranean climate and its vineyards, it is also famous throughout Bolivia as being a region rich in pre-historic sites filled with fossils and whole skeletons of dinosaurs and ancient mammals.

There are areas just outside Tarija literally littered with fossils, and some of the best finds from the region are now on display in Tarija’s Archaeology and Paleontology Museum. The museum isn’t very large, it only takes 30 minutes or so to visit, but you can get up close and personal with the region’s pre-history – and it’s free.

Giant sloth, Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Giant sloth, Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Giant bones of an early elephant, Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Giant bones of an early elephant, Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Giant bones of an early elephant, Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Giant bones of an early elephant, Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

A full elephant skeleton, Tarija's Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

A full elephant skeleton, Tarija’s Paleontology Museum, Bolivia

Wine, Singani and song…Tarija’s wine making valley

OK, so there may not be much ‘song’ in this, but there is definitely wine and Singani (a popular grape based Bolivian firewater similar to Pisco or Grappa). Which means this is one of the most typical sights in the valley surrounding Tarija…

Wine grapes on the vine, Campos de Salano, Tarija, Bolivia

Wine grapes on the vine, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

…not only because this is the home of Bolivia’s emerging wine industry, and well established Singani industry, but because this time of year is the grape harvest.

We were lucky enough to go on a tour of one of Bolivia’s oldest and best winemakers at the Campos de Solana bodega. The people behind the Campos de Salano brand also happen to own Bolivia’s best known Singani brand, Casa Real. Which meant we got to do a tour and tasting of both.

First on the agenda at 9.30am was the Casa Real Singani distillery. At 40 proof, a slightly flowery aftertaste and with a kick in tail that is like being slapped across the face, Singani cannot be recommended as a post-breakfast digestif. Still, we got to see the freshly picked grapes arriving to start the long process of being turned into Bolivian firewater.

Grapes arrive to start the process, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grapes arrive to start the process, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grapes getting mushed, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grapes getting mushed, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grapes, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grapes, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Then it was on to the business end of the process…distilling and mellowing, with a little help from the French in Cognac where all the equipment comes from.

French-made distilling machinery, Casa Real, Tarija, Bolivia

French-made distilling machinery, Casa Real, Tarija, Bolivia

Big metal things full of firewater, Casa Real, Tarija, Bolivia

Big metal things full of firewater, Casa Real, Tarija, Bolivia

Fuerte, Casa Real Singani, Tarija, Bolivia

Fuerte, Casa Real Singani, Tarija, Bolivia

The finished product, SIngani and red wine, Tarija, Bolivia

The finished product, SIngani and red wine, Tarija, Bolivia

After a shot of Singani at 10am to test the claim that the ‘black label’ was better than the ‘red label’, we went off to the Campos de Solana bodega and a tour of the wine making facilities – followed by a much easier tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grape country, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Grape country, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Big metal things for wine, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Big metal things for wine, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Modern wine making, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

Modern wine making, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

The old and the new, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

The old and the new, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

The end result, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

The end result, Campos de Solana, Tarija, Bolivia

After our tour of the Campos de Solana vineyard we headed out to the small village of La Conception where we tried out a few ‘artisanal’ wines, still made traditionally by crushing the grapes by foot. Travelling through the lush valley en route to a date with non-commercial wine we passed some amazing scenery.

Wine country, Tarija, Bolivia

Wine country, Tarija, Bolivia

Artisanal wines, Tarija, Bolivia

Artisanal wines, Tarija, Bolivia

Artisanal wines, Tarija, Bolivia

Artisanal wines, Tarija, Bolivia 

Fearing the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the ‘artisanal’ wines, although I wouldn’t want to drink a whole demijohn of the stuff. After all our exertions throughout the morning it was time to return to Tarija for a light lunch and a well deserved siesta.

Tarija, where Bolivia and Argentina meet

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.

Tarija's leafy Plaza Luis Fuentes y Vargas, Bolivia

Tarija’s leafy Plaza Luis Fuentes y Vargas, Bolivia

Plaza Sucre, Tarija, Bolivia

Plaza Sucre, Tarija, Bolivia

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.

Colonial-era church, Tarija, Bolivia

Colonial-era church, Tarija, Bolivia

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.

Artwork in Tarija's Plaza Luis Fuentes y Vargas, Bolivia

Artwork in Tarija’s Plaza Luis Fuentes y Vargas, Bolivia

Artwork in one of Tarija's plazas, Bolivia

Artwork in one of Tarija’s plazas, Bolivia

Artwork in one of Tarija's plazas, Bolivia

Artwork in one of Tarija’s plazas, Bolivia

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.

Street vendor, Tarija, Bolivia

Street vendor, Tarija, Bolivia

Sculpture in Tarija showing traditional musical instruments and hat, Bolivia

Sculpture in Tarija showing traditional musical instruments and hat, Bolivia

Advert for a vineyard, Tarija, Bolivia

Advert for a vineyard, Tarija, Bolivia

Advert for the oldest vineyard in Tarija, Bolivia

Advert for the oldest vineyard in Tarija, Bolivia

Tarija's Guadalquivir River, Bolivia

Tarija’s Guadalquivir River, Bolivia

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?

Illuminated artwork, Tarija, Bolivia

Illuminated artwork, Tarija, Bolivia

Illuminated artwork, Tarija, Bolivia

Illuminated artwork, Tarija, Bolivia

Wild, wet and foamy, Carneval in Tarija

Carneval is exhausting, a lot of fun, but exhausting fun. I don’t know about the performers, who have to dance and sing their way around town while being soaked with water and foam, but a few more days of this and I’ll need a holiday.

Sunday saw the big carneval parade in Tarija: the stands along the parade route were packed, the water guns loaded and cans of foam spray were selling faster than hotcakes. First though, the gathered thousands had to endure a torrential downpour, but since everyone expected to get wet (and covered in foam) at some point during the festivities, summer rain was greeted like an old friend.

Like most fiestas I’ve been to in Bolivia, carneval had its elements of chaos, but that makes it all the more human. I’ve not been to Rio or Salvador for carneval, but I imagine they are more managed. The parade route in Tarija was constantly being plied by a host of people selling everything you’d ever need for several hours of sitting in the stands: food, drink, waterproof clothing, foam spray, masks.

The endless processing of sellers mingled with the performers and spectators alike. Small children ran a-mock amongst the stands and performers. Foam and water were constantly being sprayed at just about everyone who passed by and, every now-and-then, a section of the stands would suddenly erupt into a mass foam fight.

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Our section of the stand did this regularly, seemingly with the sole intention of covering me in foam. I was nearly drowned in the stuff – this photo is after the nice woman behind me had lent me her child’s blanket to wipe most of the foam off.

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A lot of the carneval is non-traditional, with people dressed in a variety of strange costumes, others as mythical creatures, Egyptians, mummies, etc. One unexpected element though is the number of young men who cross-dress for the day, the antics of whom made the crowd hysterical. There is a very strong element of transitory transvestitism in the whole parade.

Anyway, here are some photos from when I was still able to have the camera out without fear of getting it soaked in water or foam.

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second 'princesses' of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second ‘princesses’ of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in the campo, fiesta in San Lorenzo

If you want to know Bolivia, go to the campo, or the countryside as its known. If you want to see tradition during carneval in the countryside around Tarija head for the small country town of San Lorenzo, where ‘tradition’ is built into the fabric of the town and its people.

I hadn’t expected to witness 20 or 30 horses charging down a street crowded with people, most of whom had been imbibing heavily, but in San Lorenzo the health and safety officers seemed to have taken the day off. I’m grateful that they did, because this turned out to be a fabulous day in the company of people who know how to have fun.

 


The other great thing about being in the country is the opportunity to try ‘artisanal’ wines – made the traditional way with the grapes being crushed by feet. I was assured they used plastic boots these days rather than bare feet, but judging by the taste of some of the wine I’m not convinced. Below is a photo of my recommended carneval outfit, complete with a pint of homemade wine.

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Wearing a plastic poncho is a necessity to protect you from occasional torrential downpours during the rainy season, and, much more importantly, from gangs of people spraying you with foam and water. As we strolled into San Lorenzo I heard the the shout, “Gringo, gringo”, and before I could react was viciously attacked with foam. My attackers stayed long enough to ask where I was from, to wish me a good carneval and to pose for a photo. They were charming, but I was still covered in foam.

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

After a couple more foamings and a lot of water spraying I decided to invest in some protection – a large can of carneval foam with a range of about 10 meters.  It is a lot of fun to get your own back. One thing is for sure, they start them young on foam around here.

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

The start of proceedings had been delayed by an hour or so due to a huge cloudburst, but once the rain stopped and the sun came out again the carneval
got underway properly with traditional dances, music, horse riding and lots and lots of water and foam.


The music, using a horn and small drum, often played while riding a horse, is unique to this part of Bolivia and while lively is also quite mournful.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

 


A little like the Brazilian carneval there are some floats in the parades, but these are largely for small children to ride on and have the occasional tableau relating the the countryside.

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

No Bolivian fiesta would be complete without a large amount of traditional food being served. All around San Lorenzo the smell of cooking, especially the barbecuing of meat, was in the air. A typical dish is pig barbecued ‘a la cruz’, a sight that welcomed us to the main street of the town.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in Tarija, Dia del Ninos

With only a few hours sleep under our belts following the comadres festival, which marked the start of four days of festivities for carneval, we found ourselves back at the scene of the previous night’s crime for the children’s parade.

After ten months in Bolivia I should have known things wouldn’t start on time. Billed to start at 9.30am, the parade finally got off to a somewhat shambolic start around 11.00am. Not that anyone was sat under a relentless sun for over an hour waiting, oh no. Still, once it got going it was fun, despite the ever present danger of being splattered by water bombs, blasted by high powered water guns, or sprayed relentlessly with canned foam.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that carneval is predominately about getting wet and foamy for three or four days before the authorities step in and make everyone go back to school/work. Huge fun for the kids and quite a lot of fun for adults.

Children's float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Children’s float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Everywhere you go unscrupulous people are selling cans of foam to anyone with the money to buy, regardless of age and whether the foam will be used ethically and only for defence. After being foamed several times I started to view these people as ‘arms dealers’ or ‘dealers in foamy death’. Although to be fair to them, I did use there services from time-to-time.

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You've been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You’ve been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Note the sheer joy on the face of this child assassin…

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Meanwhile, back at the parade, the children’s event is something of a curtain-raiser for the real thing on the Sunday of carnvel, and although not that well attended everyone involved seemed to have fun.

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

The world’s biggest hen party, Tarija’s Comadres festival

“There are no wives or girlfriends today, only singles.” Was how one Chapacos (the name given to residents of Tarija) explained the comadres fiesta to me.

“The women start gathering in the square in the morning, there is much drinking. In the afternoon the men come and hang around the square waiting for the women.” Was another attempt to explain an event that was taking on an increasingly sinister vision in my mind.

Comadres is traditionally held the Thursday before carneval and seems to mingle elements of a school disco, a giant hen night and a female drinking Armageddon. During the day the action is centred on Tarija’s beautiful Plaza Louis de Fuentes y Vargas, a plaza that wouldn’t be out of place in a provincial Spanish town. For comadres however, it more resembles Liverpool city centre on a Friday night.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The plaza slowly filled with women, and some men, throughout the day and there was indeed an indecent amount of drinking and drunkenness, but, unlike Liverpool on  Friday night, not a hint of trouble. One side of the plaza featured a huge disco that seemed to have the volume set at a level intended to communicate with outer space. On the opposite side of the plaza things were more sedate, with an older crowd, a traditional band and much dancing.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

There is a real purpose to comadres, I’m not sure what it is, but it involves friends giving large baskets of fruit, vegetables and other goodies to each other. Although not before they have danced the night away with the basket. The baskets often feature a largish cucumber as a not-so-subtle sexual reference…it really is a hen night.

Everyone seems to be carrying one of the baskets, decorated with flags and balloons. The one below even came with a bottle of whisky.

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

As the curtain closed on the festivities in the plaza, and the sun started to set, the focus of attention turned to the Avenida de las Americas. All the comadres who could still stand joined a parade and danced up and down the street in a more-or-less organised way. Festivities go on long into the night and a lot of the dancers carried grapes – the symbol of this wine producing region.

The women also wear a rose over one ear. A rose over the right ear indicates that she is married, over the left ear that she is single. Although it may be the other way around, the person who explained this to me had drunk her own body weight in booze. As I said, a hen night.

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Men do get to participate in the comadres parade, but their role is limited to that of musicians or to carrying cans of beer for the ladies.

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia