When you think of wine and South America, Bolivia doesn't immediately spring to mind. The country isn't exactly famed for its wining and dining expertise – unless you head to Tarija, a small, relatively unknown city in the south of the country that is home to the vast majority of Bolivia's vineyards.
And at an altitude of 6,000 feet, it's also where some of the world's highest wine comes from.
Tarija is a gorgeous little town. With two central plazas, a wonderfully warm climate, palm trees dotted along each street and the sense that not many tourists pass through here, there's every reason to visit.
The bizarre thing, though, is this: for a place renowned for its wine, Tarija makes it exceedingly difficult to actually drink the stuff.
First off, Tarija strictly adheres to the concept of the siesta. For three hours each afternoon, silence reins: every shop is shuttered, softly padding dogs are the only creatures frequenting the pavements, and the whole city falls into a hush of sleepy stasis. Not exactly the best way for two tourists to spend their first day in Tarija.
Secondly, there's a strange lack of access to Tarija's famous wines. Despite the main offices of various local vineyards all being located in the centre of town, and all happily selling their products, barely any restaurant, cafe or bar actually has these same wines in stock.
We had numerous interchanges with Bolivians about our inability to sample Tarija's wine in a way that, we thought, was pretty undemanding.
But it turns out that sitting in a plaza at late afternoon and sharing a bottle is simply not the done thing.
Day one: trying, and failing, to drink Tarija's wine
After siesta time was over, we approached a promising-looking cafe and sat at an outside table. The appearance of the waitress with a sizeable wine list only made us more certain that we'd be enjoying a delicious bottle of local wine within a matter of minutes.
Sadly, this was not to be the case.
Of the forty two wines listed in their menu, the waitress informed us that they only actually had two in stock; the vino tinto and the vino clasico – both table wines, and the cheapest two offerings imaginable. Apparently the produce of the numerous nearby vineyards isn't popular enough to warrant being stocked – despite Tarija branding itself as the home of Bolivian wine.
We left this cafe, headed to another, and another – and faced the same situation in every place. A fruitless afternoon followed, of running fingers down the wine lists of about twenty different menus, only to see the same two wines in stock, until I ended up in a tour agency, hurling questions in rapid Spanish at the startled woman on the tour desk.
“We just want to try some wine!” I kept saying. “Tarija is the home of Bolivian wine! Why doesn't anybody want to let us drink some?!”
By the time we arrived at La Vinoteca, we'd admitted defeat. It's the only place in the city to actually offer wine samples, and all we wanted to do was buy a bottle and drink it on their upstairs terrace – but samples were the only option.
Luckily, the city of Tarija isn't the only place to drink wine. In fact, the vineyards and the small pueblos in the surrounding countryside are reputed to be where the wine is much more freely flowing – so we set out to Concepcion for the day, in the hope of finally getting stuck into the Bolivian wine scene.
Day two: a visit to Casa Vieja, Concepcion
Visiting the pueblo of Valle de la Concepcion was already on our agenda, but the recommendation for lunch at Casa Vieja came from the woman running our hotel.
“It's the best place for lunch in the whole area,” she told us. “Wonderful wines, beautiful view and great food for not much money, either!”
We were sold – and the journey to Concepcion was relatively easy by Bolivian standards, too. Hopping out of the shared taxi from Tarija, we wandered around the little pueblo, enjoying the stunning views of the cloud-topped mountains in the distance.
And then we arrived at Casa Vieja, and I started to remember that Bolivia has this uncanny ability to make the easiest of situations the most complicated.
Dining at Casa Vieja: a breakdown
1. We enter a small, shaded courtyard, spot a quaint-looking wooden sign stating 'ristorante' and head through the doorway. Inside, a rather grumpy woman sits at a counter. We ask her for a menu. There isn't one. Instead, the previously unseen whiteboard outside displays the only food on offer, but it all sounds tasty so we decide to stay. Even though I ask what 'saice' is, and the woman tells me it's 'comida'. Cheers for the food clarification, lady…
2. We ask the grumpy woman about what wines she has on offer. “Sweet, semi-sweet and sharp.” We try again – any specific type? A particular vineyard? Nothing – just the same answer, with zero eye contact or seeming consideration for actually serving her potential customers. We look at each other, and decide to find somewhere else for lunch.
3. Walking through the courtyard again, we spy someone dressed suspiciously like a waiter. We follow him through another doorway, and hidden around a corner is what looks like a mirage: twenty tables filled with people eating huge plates of roast pork, accompanied by big glass jugs of wine. We sit at a table, hail a waiter and ask for food and wine. He looks at us blankly, waves a small receipt and explains that we need to order somewhere else. Around the corner. Where a woman sits at a desk.
It's the same restaurant.
4. We head back to the woman again, but this time armed with the knowledge that she is our one barrier to delicious wine and a plate filled with pig. We place our food order with little issue, and then say we want a good wine to go with it. She asks which wine we want. We don't know – whichever is good with the pork dish. Every wine, apparently, is good – it depends on our taste, she says. Still no eye contact. In fact, she says, we need to go and taste test the wine before we're allowed to order. We're pointed to another room where a group of twenty teenagers are standing excitedly around three glasses of red wine, while a girl in full, resplendent Bolivian traditional dress talks about vine leaves.
Things are starting to get very stressful.
5. Back with our favourite grumpy woman, we say repeatedly that we just want a jug of wine with the food – whichever one she thinks is the best. Then begins the issue of what size jug we'd like. By this point a Bolivian tour guide with another group has come over to help us, as we're clearly struggling. With her help, the grumpy woman fetches a glass of the semi-sweet wine for us to try. It's way too sweet. A pointed look from the guide makes her get a second glass, this time of the sharp wine. Unsurprisingly, it's super sharp.
Feeling like we've inadvertently become part of a Bolivian Goldilocks story, we explain that neither one is right. Grumpy woman takes a third, empty glass, and promptly pours both types of wine inside. Our shocked faces turn to surprise when the resulting mixed taste is, actually, much more palatable.
That's what they do with artisan wine, explains the guide.
6. Our relief at leaving the grumpy woman for the third time, now brandishing two receipts for wine and food, is palpable. We sit at a table overlooking the mountains, eat freshly roasted pork with our fingers, and drink copious glasses of mixed up, locally produced red wine, while a group of musicians play rousing tunes at the next table.
Day three: visiting the vineyards of Campos de Solana
Buoyed by our eventual successes in wine drinking, we decided to spend the next day visiting a couple of vineyards nearby – but not with the suggested tour group route. Usually, going independently is the preferred option when travelling, as organised tours and package deals often leave little room for a sense of independence and adventure.
So while there were wine tasting tours offered at various vineyards in the countryside surrounding Tarija, Josh and I felt it would be more than ok to simply visit the vineyards by ourselves.
In hindsight, however, it was definitely not the most sensible thing to have done.
It wasn't a blind decision, of course. We visited the Tarija-based offices of the main wine companies and enquired about the likelihood of getting an impromptu tour if we just turned up. Campos de Solano, one of our most preferred wines, readily approved of the idea, saying that there were free tours of the vineyards offered to anyone who went there. So we jumped in a taxi, explained that we wanted to hire it for a few hours and stop at a few vineyards, and we were off.
Arriving at Campos de Solana to a locked door, our vineyard tour was comprised of a quick glance at a room filled with metal vats, a few waves to wandering men in Hazmat suits, and a confused conversation with our guide, who made it clear that we couldn't sample any wines unless we bought the entire bottle first.
And then there was the Casa Real vineyard: the home of Bolivia's favourite grape-skin spirit, singani. Although we were shown around the bottling plant and managed to taste two different types of the strong, clear liquor, we left the vineyard feeling as if we'd been shortchanged somehow.
It wasn't all bad, though. On our way back to Tarija we spied a little roadside restaurant and ended up with two plates of soft shell crabs, little silver fish and mountains of fresh corn, while dusty children played with the dogs scavenging for scraps at our feet.
And even without a bottle of local Tarija wine it was still delicious.
Why is Tarija so stingy with their wines?
There's no doubt that Bolivia still has a way to go in terms of its tourism infrastructure. Once you stray from the gringo trail of La Paz, Sucre, and Potosi, planning even the simplest day can become very complicated.
The question, however, is why the vast majority of Bolivians simply refuse to change their behaviour for the sake of making a better profit. There seems to be no enthusiasm surrounding tourism – something I simply can't quite understand – plus there's a complete lack of concern for changing methods that absolutely do not work. People here are just accustomed to it – or go along with it, regardless of the clear impossibilities.
I guess I have a certain level of respect for this. Ok, so there's a chance that a vast number of tourists aren't going to put the effort in (I'm talking about those without a good level of Spanish, not to mention those who aren't willing to constantly bend for Bolivian ways) – but on the other hand, in an age when the vast majority of countries around the world are tweaking and editing their nuances for a better tourist fit, Bolivia simply refuses to do so. And that has to be given some credit.
Either way, Bolivia still has me fascinated. Like my travels in India, there are so many elements of Bolivia that stress me out and totally confuse me – and yet here I am, trying to extend my visa so I can stay for longer, and explore more of it.
And that's not just because I'm rather keen on their wine selection.