This is a guest post by Kimberly of Pannali.
Imagine my surprise when I heard that the education conference I was to attend was being held in Bolivia. “Bolivia?” I asked. “You know how far away that is, right?!” After getting over my initial surprise, I realized this would be my first trip into the continent of South America, and I was going to make the most of it. And thus, began the research.
Bolivia is nestled in the heart of South America, with the Andes mountain range running through the western and central part of the country. Bolivia boasts the highest (de-facto) capital city in the world, La Paz, in the northwest. La Paz has amazing cable cars running across the city for public transportation. Bolivia also boasts remains of the ancient Inca trail that still runs throughout the country. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. Even with so many incredible sights, Bolivia is still largely untouched by international tourism.
Sounds pretty amazing, right? Well, I wasn’t going to any of those places. I was going to Tarija, in Southern Bolivia. Information the Internet gave me on amazing things to do in Tarija was almost non-existent. But the experience I had was life transforming. Join me as I share my unusual journey into this marvelous country.
Getting To and From Bolivia
When you fly into Bolivia, you will land in Santa Cruz de La Sierra. La Paz, the capital, does not have a runway long enough to accommodate international jets. When booking your flight be sure to type out the full name, Santa Cruz DE LA SIERRA, or your search engine will probably try to send you to California or Spain (as happened to me). The airport code is VVI.
Santa Cruz is a lively city with several upscale hotels, a large international shopping mall and a zoo. It also has the lowest elevation of Bolivia, making it an ideal entry into the country. Although Bolivian tourists often come here for the city life, I mostly rested in my hotel, swam in the rooftop pool and prepared to fly to Tarija the next day.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz de La Sierra
The Marriott in Santa Cruz de La Sierra currently takes the top spot for hotel breakfasts I’ve experienced in the world. They had everything: fresh green juice and fruit juices, chia pudding, quinoa, empanadas, tamales, waffles with fresh berries and cream, all types of nuts and seeds to make your own muesli or granola, a variety of fresh hot coffees, hot cocoa, pastries, bread, salads greens, vegetables, and fruits, cheeses, meat dishes, and oatmeal – all freshly prepared.
They were also happy to help me pack up enough to take lunch with me on my flight. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels and this wins for the greatest variety of healthy options, treat options, and freshness of ingredients. The pool and gym area were very nice as well.
Book a room at the Marriott Santa Cruz de La Sierra here.
Things to Know About Tarija
The next day, I headed to Tarija. Tarija is the name of both the capital city and the department, like a state. The elevation of approximately 6000 feet or 1854 meters makes it higher than Denver but low altitude by Bolivian standards. As I was traveling to Tarija to participate in a training conference, my intention was still to see and experience as much local culture as I could in between meetings.
When I landed at the airport, that intention already started to be fulfilled. There was a group of people dressed in bright yellow traditional dress. I don’t know the name, but if you see it, you can’t miss it. It includes a bright yellow poncho over pants or a skirt with a hat. My Bolivian hosts explained that it was very rare and special to see this type of clothing, as it is only used for special ceremonial purposes.
Although Tarija is off the beaten path, there are many wonderful experiences like that first airport experience, to have in this area of Bolivia.
Pro-tip: If you have difficulty with altitude sickness, Tarija is an ideal location to spend time acclimating and exploring before visiting higher areas like Sucre, Salar de Uyuni, and La Paz.
The Best Things to Do in Tarija, Bolivia
Casa Dorada is famous with tourists and locals alike. The outside of the building is covered with what looks like gold and silver. An image of Casa Dorada appears on the Bolivian currency.
There is a private home-turned-museum to explore next to Casa Dorada, which is officially called the “House of Culture”. It is full of beautiful pieces of art and furniture from the early 1900s, and gives a glimpse into one wealthy Bolivian family’s life at the turn of the last century. An hour or so is enough to take in this relatively small museum.
Luis de Fuentes
Luis de Fuentes in a beautiful park, with a central fountain and sculptures. It is popular for families and locals to gather and socialize. I was there on a warm, sunny day in winter and there were families out feeding the pigeons and throwing coins into the fountain (after making wishes, of course). On the weekends there is often live musicians playing. You can also get your shoes shined at one of the small vendors that set up along the sidewalk. Luis de Fuentes in only a couple blocks from Casa Dorada, so you can easily walk between the two.
Mirador de Los Suenos
Mirador de Los Suenos is the highest lookout point in Tarija, allowing you to see over the city and up to the mountains with 360-degree views. The lookout tower is shaped like a giant wine glass made of mirrors, as Tarija is the wine region of Bolivia.
You can park your car at the bottom and pay the dollar or so entry fee to climb the steps for the expansive view. Be sure to take pictures of your reflection in the giant wine glass lookout either before or after climbing up.
Visit the Farmer’s Markets and See Baby Llamas
This is not really a destination, but more of a general recommendation. On the weekends many of the squares in Tarija have farmer’s markets and fairs. You can sample traditional Bolivian food and sweets, see women in the traditional cholita outfits, and yes, often see families with their baby llamas dressed in brightly woven blankets. They are usually happy to let you take a picture.
Other interesting sights you may see at the markets include men on stilts wearing scary-looking black masks, and lots of local music and dancing. Wander from one square to the next, sampling the most enticing treats and, if you like, join in on the dancing!
Visit the Traditional Market – Mercado Central
For an authentic Bolivian market experience any day of the week, head to the Mercado Central, a large building housing an indoor food market on the first floor, restaurants on the second floor, and clothing on the third floor.
We stopped here for breakfast one morning and enjoyed the traditional corn drink and cheese pastries covered in powdered sugar. The prices are reasonable, and you can pickup whatever fruit, vegetables, and meat you need from the farmers on the first floor.
Most people think of the Inca trail in Peru, leading to Machu Picchu, but did you know the Inca trail runs through Bolivia? I didn’t before I arrived there.
The Incas lived all throughout Bolivia, and these trails are not only well preserved but offer spectacular views of the mountains and high altitude lakes, as well as connecting important Inca spiritual sites on the high plane of the Andes. You get the spectacular Inca experience without all the tourists.
You can walk the Inca trail from Reserva Biológica Cordillera de Sama, which is about 2 hours by car or bus from Tarija. You will start at the Tajzara Lakes, which are beautiful to walk around and explore. Depending on your time and endurance, you can plan to spend anywhere between a couple hours and several days hiking the Inca trail in this area.
If you are planning to stay overnight, be sure to get the appropriate permits from the Sevicio Nacional de Areas Protegidas (SERNAP). However long you plan to be there, be sure to bring many layers of clothing as the weather on the high plain is highly variable – with nighttime temperatures nearing freezing, and daytime temperatures reaching nearly 80°F (27 °C).
Cuesta de Sama
For those not inclined to a day of hiking, there are some beautiful mountain passes within an hour drive of Tarija that give you a panoramic view of the high plain. Perhaps the most infamous is Cuesta de Sama, which you will cross if you plan to visit the Reserva Biológica Cordillera de Sama. Be alert for the 360° views.
For those who enjoy wine, Casa Real is the famous wine tasting house of the Tarija region, known for its Singani. Singani is distilled white wine that originated in Bolivia and is still only produced in Bolivia. You can take an afternoon tour, wander through the vineyards or visit one of the tasting rooms. Tours are free, and usually happen every day but Sunday.
Eat Traditional Foods – and Bring Some Home!
As I mentioned before, I tried the traditional breakfast that included a cornmeal drink, called api morado y blanco. Api morado y blanco is prepared by making two separate beverages and swirling them together. Api morado is made from purple cornmeal with spices, while api blanco is made from white cornmeal.
Both are sweetened, usually with a mixture of stevia and sugar. Api morado y blanco is served piping hot and is quite hearty. The idea is this rich drink will help keep you warm in the extremely high altitude climate.
Bolivia is also famous for is empanadas and pasteles con queso. Empanadas are fried, fluffy pastries, and pasteles con queso are fine sheets of pastry dough filled with cheese and rolled flat like a tortilla. Pasteles con queso puff up with hot air when cooked on a hot griddle and are traditionally served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar.
For other local products to bring home, I recommend chia seeds, stevia, cocoa powder, and wine, all produced in the area. Be sure to also pick up a supply of the special cornmeal to make Api Morado, to prepare it for friends and family back home.
For those looking to cut back on sugar, the brand of stevia I got in Tarija is nothing like anything I’ve had elsewhere (read: not at all bitter). It is called E.N.D Stevia. You will not miss the sugar in your recipes with this stevia.
This is an obvious choice, but hear me out. You can go to large shopping malls or the duty-free shop, but I recommend that you wander the streets and walk into the small local shops. Choose the ones with at least a few locals already inside shopping.
For those looking for souvenirs to bring home, in addition to the food mentioned above, Bolivia is known for beautiful alpaca wool products. These are woven in traditional patterns unique to each area, and often each family has their own weaving pattern.
With the alpaca products, you get what you pay for, and the prices tend to be similar to Europe or America. But, you can haggle, and be sure to check several shops until you find exactly what you want, as quality and style vary vastly from shop to shop.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Bolivia
Bolivia contains the best of all worlds: the sophisticated squares from the time of the Spanish, the Inca trails with the ancient indigenous spiritual traditions, and the current modern traditions which are uniquely Bolivian.
I hope you feel more connected to this beautiful part of the world, and inspired to join me in experiencing first hand the majesty of the mountains on the Inca trail, and the simplicity and kindness of the people of Tarija.
About the Author:
Kimberly is originally from the US, but has lived in Europe, when she’s not traveling, for the last 12 years. Kimberly has worked for non-profits in the areas of girls’ education and women’s empowerment for the last 11 years. She holds an MA in an area of eastern religion and is nearly done with an MBA. She believes deeply in the incredible potential of each person, and in working to unfold that full potential.
Through this work and personal interest, Kimberly has traveled to more than 30 countries, usually spending 1-2 months at a time. Wherever she goes, Kimberly enjoys chocolate, ice cream and getting out in nature for a hike, bike or swim. You can find Kimberly at www.pannali.org, and on Pinterest.
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