Bolivian Wine Country

Bolivian wine you say?! I know, it doesn’t sound familiar, but we were very happy to discover that Bolivia produces excellent wines. Near the city of Tarija, several vineyards offer tastings of their world class wines. This sounded like a trip made just for us, so we packed our bags and headed for wine country.

Tarija

According to experts, wine is considered to be a high elevation wine when the grapes are grown above 1,000 m (3,300 ft) elevation. At 1,850 m (6,070 ft) elevation, Tarija was thought to be too high to produce quality grapes for wines. That didn’t stop the local vineyards though. After testing several varieties of grapes, vintners found that tannat grapes were able to withstand the intense sun at high elevations, yet provide a rich, bold flavour. Using these grapes the vintners in Tarija were able to create very tasty red and white wines.

We took a half-day tour that brought us from the city Tarija to the nearby highlands of the Sama Mountain Range. Set in the rolling hills , the vineyards here have very pretty settings. We visited in the winter after the grapes were harvested, so there were no leaves or grapes on the vines. It would be even prettier during the spring or summer when everything is green.

On our half-day wine tasting tour we tasted several different wines, liquors and juices. Wine tours in this area tend to be very generous with their samplings and we were given large servings of several varieties of drinks. Bolivian wines tend to be a little sweeter than we usually like, but they were still very tasty. Our favourite was a red wine blend by Kohlberg called Tinto Classico. It was the most similar to shiraz and cabernet sauvignon wines from Argentina and California that we buy at home.

In addition to making wine, Bolivia is known in wine connoisseur circles for its international award-winning Singani. It’s a liquor similar to Brandy made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes that grow well at this elevation. Singani is usually served as a cocktail with ginger ale and lime. The cocktail is called chuflay. On our wine tasting tour we sampled a large glass of chuflay made with one of the award winning Singanis. It was quite refreshing, but others in our group who aren’t used to ginger ale didn’t like the taste. We were told it shouldn’t be mixed with anything too sweet, that’s why ginger ale works best.

As well as sampling a few different red and white wines and Singani we tried different types of grape juice and strong liquors including absinthe. Some of the drinks were not at all tasty and we wondered if the shop owner was trying to shock us rather than entice us to buy their products. In all we stopped at 5 vineyards and stores who each gave us generous servings of their drinks. For only 120 Bolivianos each we felt the tour was a great way to learn about Bolivian wines.

After an afternoon of wine tasting we enjoyed our favourite Bolivian wine with dinner. For the equivalent of $3 USD we bought a bottle of Kohlberg Tinto Classico.

In addition to having excellent wines, the city of Tarija has many other charms and soon won our hearts. It has a moderate climate, excellent restaurants, lovely parks and clean, organized streets. We didn’t do anything extraordinary in the city, but really enjoyed relaxing in the squares and walking through the streets admiring some of the older architecture. Plazuela Sucre and Plaza de Mayor are only a few blocks apart and are filled with large, flowering trees and rose gardens.

Down the street is the Cathedral of Saint Bernard of Tarija. When we were looking at it a local man stopped by to chat. He mentioned how it’s the only city he knows of where the Spanish didn’t put the Cathedral along the main square. And it’s true. We had to search to find it after assuming it would be on the main square.

We wandered along the surrounding streets to find a few interesting buildings. El Castillo Azul is an eccentric bright blue and white stripped mansion. On its roof are tall cupulas with tent-like tops. The mansion is a private house so we couldn’t go inside. Just down the street is the palatial Casa Dorada. This restored mansion from the 19th century has opulent gold and white pillars leading up to a golden roof. On the tops of the pillars are female figurines. It is now a museum, but was not open when we were there.

There seemed to be a festival in every city in Bolivia when were visiting and Tarija was no exception. San Rogue was said to have rid the city of leprosy in the 1800s. There is a huge celebration in August and September every year honoring him. Pilgrims walk in a procession in brightly coloured masks that represent leprosy patients. They parade along the streets carrying canes, playing music and dancing in celebration of the end of the plague. The pilgrimage we saw walked through the streets, passed one of the plazas and into San Francisco Church. From all of the parades and festivals we saw in Bolivia, the festival of San Rogue was the best.

On a hill above downtown is the modest 18th century San Roque Church. The streets around the church were decorated from a similar procession the day before.

How to get to Tarija

Even though it’s becoming a more popular destination, it’s not easy to get to Tarija. It’s also not easy to get bus schedules on-line. There are a few companies that travel overnight between Tarija and Santa Cruz. You can book through your hotel or at the Tarija bus station. If you’re coming from Potosi there are buses leaving from the new bus terminal and collectivos leaving from the old bus station. Schedules will be posted at the bus stations. If you’re coming from Uyuni, you need to change buses in Tupiza. See the bottom of this page for information on this trip.

Where to eat and stay

There are many excellent restaurants and coffee shops in Tarija. Most are located close to the two main plazas. There are also quite a few good hotels and guesthouses. Try to stay near Plaza Mayor or Plazuela Sucre.

Tupiza

On the other side of the mountains from Tarija is the desert town of Tupiza. There’s not much happening in this frontier town but one of the best things to do is hike in the nearby red rock canyons.

Walking distance from town is a colourful canyon. We used Maps.Me to get to the canyon and hike around the area. The hike first takes you to Puerta del Diablo. These tall red boulders block the entrance as if guarding what’s behind.

Beyond the rock gates we found the pretty Cañon del Inca (Inca Canyon) with bright red walls above arid ground with cacti and desert trees.

The further we walked into the canyon, the more narrow it became. We didn’t have any expectations for the canyon so the bright red rocks forming a narrow passage was an unexpected treat.

Tupiza is located near the southern end of tours to the colourful lakes and volcanos of Uyuni (Read our stories from the salt flats and lakes). It can be used as an alternative starting point for tours of Salar de Uyuni. Most of the Salar de Uyuni tours from Tupiza are 4 days/3 nights long. The first day is used to explore Cañon del Inca and other red canyons in the area before arriving at Laguna Verde. From there the tour toward Uyuni is done in the reverse of what we described in our posts. Exploring the landscape around Tupiza is an added bonus, but the tours are also more expensive than in Uyuni.

How to get to Tupiza

Tupiza is only 200 km away from Tarija but the bus takes 5 hours on a very winding, gravel mountain road. There is only one bus a day that does this trip and it leaves Tupiza at 10 am. You can buy tickets from the bus station. From Uyuni it is also 200 km, but the drive only takes 3 hours. The buses going from Uyuni to Tupiza all travel at night. Since it’s only 3 hours it would mean you would arrive in the middle of the night. Instead of a bus we took a collectivo (shared mini-bus) which left in the morning from the Uyuni bus station. If traveling from Potosi there are a few buses that leave from the new bus terminal in Potosi. When arriving from Argentina, Tupiza is the first major city you will reach after crossing the land border between Argentina and Bolivia.

Where to eat and stay

Because there are quite a few people stopping here on their way to or from Argentina, there are quite a few budget hotels and hostels as well as tourist restaurants in the downtown area. There’s no bad area in town, but try to find a hotel in or near downtown.

Coming Next – Samaipata, Bolivia’s Mountain Town

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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