Tarija, Bolivia: A Complete Guide

by 7 Aug, 2019

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We went to Tarija, Bolivia on a complete whim. After someone we met for 15 minutes told it was “quite nice”. Our route from Argentina to Bolivia was taking us that way anyway, so it seemed as good a reason as any.

From the little research we’d done, this southern city in Bolivia seemed to have a pretty laid back vibe, which was exactly what we needed. After a wine fuelled couple of weeks travelling around Mendoza and Cafayate in North Argentina we were ready to take it easy for a while. 

Things To Do In Tarija Bolivia

Little did we know, however, that Bolivia is actually an up and coming player when it comes to South American wine production and, you guessed it, Tarija is at the epicentre. And so we ended up doing a bit more in Tarija than we had planned. Because, ya know…wine.

Tarija Bolivia: Your Guide

But equally if you are on a backpacking trip around South America and looking for a place to rest and recuperate for a few days, Tarija is a great choice. Tucked away near the border with Argentina and Paraguay, it’s one of Bolivia’s lesser visited cities.  

Bolivia Tourism in Tarija

Our first impressions were that it was clean, safe, had great food and the people had a noticeable warmth and friendliness about them. Like just walk up to you in the street and start chatting to you friendly. It was so welcoming.

Here’s all the best things to do in Tarija Bolivia. Including all our inside travel tips for how to get around, what to eat and recommendations for where to stay. But first up, wine. 

Tarija Wine Tour

The Tarija vineyards are some of the highest in the world with the combination of the high altitude and the year round temperate climate creating a unique flavour.

Bolivians like their wine sweet, but there are dry varieties too. Up until recently it hasn’t been imported internationally but the last few years have seen an increase in demand. 

Wine Tasting Tarija Bolivia

Most of Tarija’s wineries are situated just outside the city, in an area known as Valle de Concepción. You can get a public bus there or hire a bike if you’re feeling extra adventurous, but we heard that most wineries have sporadic opening times so it can be difficult to plan.

The best option for visiting Tarija’s La Ruta del Vino is to hop on the minivan tour that leaves from the main square, Plaza Luis De Fuentes y Vargas. It does pick up from some hotels too. 

Tarija Wine Tour Bus

The cost is $100 BOB (£12 GBP / £15 USD) each. And includes visits and tastings at one or two industrial vineyards, a singani distillery and one or two smaller boutique vineyards. It lasts about 4 or 5 hours and there are both morning and afternoon tours.

Singani Tasting Tarija Bolivia

This isn’t one of those wine tours that skips on the wine tasting either. Particularly if you stop by Casa Vieja, be prepared to taste a lot of wine. We won’t ruin the surprise for what happens there. Just don’t stand at the end of the line – or do, if you’re after a good session. 

Casa Vieja on Tarija Wine Tour

Some guides at the bigger vineyards spoke English, but for the most part the day will be completely in Spanish. If this is no good for you, your best bet is to take a private half day tour that will include an English speaking tour guide who can translate.

A Brief History of Tarija

First occupied by Churumatas and Tomatas indigenious groups. The Quechua civilisation of the Inca Empire took over the reign of the region between 1438 and 1527.

That was until the Spanish conquest, which was completed in 1533. The city of Tarija was then founded in 1574 in the territory of Bolivia that was at the time known as Charcas.

History of Tarija Bolivia

Later it was separated and became part of Salta, Argentina. The citizens of Tarija, known as Chapacos, voted to rejoin the jurisdiction of Bolivia in 1826. However, it wasn’t until 1899 when in exchange for the Atacama Plateau, Argentina renounced its claim on Tarija.

A completely different language to Spanish, there are still indigineous communities living in the countryside around the city who only speak dialects of Quechua.

Things To Do In Tarija Bolivia

Mercado Campesino

A maze like structure sprawling out over several blocks, once you find your way in, it can be hard to find your way back out.

It sells everything. Literally everything, there’s nothing you can’t find in mercado Campesino. Even if you’re not buying, come for the experience.

Casa Dorada

An unusual building, this restored museum was once the mansion of a wealthy foreign merchant.

Inside you’ll find an extravagant antique furniture collection. It’s interesting enough and offers a sneak peak into Bolivia’s wealthy colonial past.

Castillo Azul

This privately owned and supposedly haunted mansion is another of Tarija’s more eccentric buildings. There is the odd tour going on if you are ogling for a glimpse inside. Check with the tourism office on the square for more details. 

The Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology of Tarija

A fascinating collection of fossils and skeletons. Huge skeletons include those of a giant sloth the size of an elephant and a large ancestor of the armadillo that is as big as a car.  There’s even a creepy shrunken mummified corpse of a man, measuring just 35cm.

The museum is free to enter and is open between 9am-12pm and 3pm-6pm Monday to Saturday.

Mirador Loma de San Juan

Following the footpath up the hill from the roundabout at the end of Domingo Paz will lead you to a park with it’s own christ the redeemer statue and lovely views over the whole of the city. It’s a good spot to appreciate at sunset with a couple of cold ones. 

Coimata Waterfalls

Some natural swimming holes and waterfalls, this is where people who live in Tarija, Bolivia go to cool off the summer months.

Expect it to be quite busy on weekends December through February. It’s still a pretty spot to visit even in cooler months though.

Coimata Tarija Bolivia
Coimata Waterfalls

It doesn’t take long from the centre of Tarija, around 20 minutes. The trufis go from Calle Comercio inside Mercado Campesino. It’s pretty chaotic in there so you’ll likely need to ask for the exact location. We paid $5 BOB (£0.60 GBP / $0.75 USD) each, one way.

San Jacinto Dam

There’s really not much to do here other than eat. There’s a few restaurants along the edge of the reservoir.

You can take a trip out in a boat onto the water but that’s about your lot. Still it makes for a pleasant enough afternoon, especially if the weather is sunny. 

To get to San Jacinto Dam from Tarija you’ll need to a trufi from Ingavi y Daniel Campos. The journey takes around 30 minutes and will cost roughly $5 BOB each (£0.60 GBP / £0.75 USD). You pay the driver when you get off. 

Tomatitas

A small town made up of only a few streets either side of the Guadalquivir river, there’s really only one reason to come to Tomatitas and that’s for lunch. Noticing a theme? 

On the face of it the area looks a little run down and though you kind of have to search a little for them, there are a few cracking little family owned no frills restaurants.

Cangrejos Tarija Bolivia

If you are after trying the local delicacy of cangrejos, this is the place to come. In fact you’ll likely see them being sold by the road.

They are kind of like crayfish, except you eat them whole – shell and everything. It may sound about weird, but trust us, they’re good. 

You can swing by here on your way to or from San Lorenzo. Trufis leave from the corner of Domingo Paz y Bolivian. Alternatively you can take a local bus from General Trigo y Bolivar. We paid $3.50 (£0.40 GBP / $0.50 USD) each, one way.

Tarija to Tomatitas bus

San Lorenzo

Our trip to San Lorenzo was a highlight of our time in Tarija, Bolivia. Just over 30 minutes north, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time in this pretty countryside town.

Situated around a central plaza, you’ll have walked around every inch of the town in less than an hour.

San Lorenzo Tarija Bolivia
What to do in Tarija Bolivia

If you want a glimpse into Bolivian life proper while in Tarija it’s a must. Don’t be surprised if you’re the only tourist around and people say ‘son turistas’ to each other as you walk by. It’s not in an unfriendly way, people are just genuinely surprised to see you. 

Don’t miss grabbing some sweet treats from the market. And there’s a small museum called Museo Casa del Moto Méndez if that’s your thang. It was once the home of famous guerrilla and independence hero Colonel Eustaquio Méndez Arenas. 

Marketplace San Lorenzo Tarija Bolivia
Tarija to San Lorenzo Trufi

El Picacho

This riverfront hacienda is actually the home of former president of Bolivia, Jaime Paz Zamora (1989 – 1993). Once a refuge for artists escaping dictatorial regimes in neighboring countries such as Argentina in the 1970’s, it houses a huge collection of art from that period.

Also on display are gifts from Pope Juan Pablo II, President George HW Bush and other world leaders. It’s common for Zamora to be knocking around himself, but a visit must be arranged via a tour. Contact the tourism office on the main plaza for more information.

Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve

Located just over a couple of hours from the city of Tarija, the Sama Biological Reserve is a 108 hectare nature paradise of lagoons and sand dunes. Wildlife includes llamas, vicunas, Andean deer and lots of aquatic birds, including three types of flamingos.

To get there you need to head to a place called Albergue de Pujzara, located on the shore of Patanka lake. It’s from there that it’s possible to walk along a 7km part of the ancient Bolivian Inca Trail. There’s some simple accomodation here too if you wish to stay overnight.

It’s possible to go to Sama Biological Reserve independently bus or car. Or you can take a tour. Either way you’ll need a permit to enter reserve. Speak to the tourism office in Tarija for more information. 

Virgen de Chaguaya Festival

If you are lucky enough to be in Tarija, Bolivia between August 15 to September 14, you will be able to witness to annual pilgrimage to the Church of Chaguaya. It’s a big deal around these parts with people coming from as far as northern Argentina.

The story goes that on the 15th August 1750, whilst discussing the drought, two farmers saw an image of the Virgin Mary.

The word spread and that night people from all around came to light bonfires and pray. Then at the site the day after, the community built the church.

Tarija Bolivia Festival

The devotion to the Virgin of Chaguaya is so strong to this day that many people annually walk the 60km from Tarija City to Chaguaya, some even arriving on their knees. Ouch.

Street stalls are set up all around the church selling local foods such as chirriadas (corn tortillas), tamales and baked pork. It’s a proper community event.

And even if you aren’t religious, it’s a hugely important cultural event that provides a fascinating insight into Bolivian traditions.

Where To Eat In Tarija, Bolivia

There are lots of  restaurants and cafes in Tarija, Bolivia. But let me just preface this section by saying our favourite places to eat in Tarija are the markets or the street food stalls.

There’s a bit of a stigma surrounding cleanliness, but as much as I’m sure it’s sometimes founded, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. We’ve eaten at markets hundreds of times in Bolivia and never once had a problem. Just pick a busy stall and dive in. 

Mercado Central – Sucre & Domingo Paz

This was our favourite market to eat at in Tarija, Bolivia. Head here for breakfast or lunch. It’s always busy and seriously cheap. The sopi de mani is always on top form, as is the dorado fish and the fried chicken is delicious. Proper Bolivian grub. 

Sopa de mani Bolivia
Dorado Fish Bolivia Market

El Fogon de Gringo – La Madrid 1051 

If you’re after something a bit fancier, this Argentine style BBQ steakhouse always has consistently high reviews. We didn’t try it because we were all steaked out from Argentina, but the service is said to be as excellent as the food. 

Belen Cafe – Colon 536 

If you don’t eat meat products, you may find eating out in Bolivia a little tricky. It’s not that places don’t exist, they are just few and far between because the concept isn’t widely understood. But this place is veggie and vegan friendly and has really good coffee and carrot cake. 

How To Get To Tarija, Bolivia

There are several buses a day from La Paz (18 hours), Sucre (10 hours) and Santa Cruz (14 hours). Wherever we can we use ticketsBolvia.com to book our bus transport in Bolivia, because it’s way more convenient than traipsing out to a bus station miles away. 

Tarija Bus Station

However, they don’t always have all the smaller local routes so if you’re heading to Tarija from somewhere like Tupizia, you’ll likely need to book your bus ticket locally. 

One thing you’ll learn quickly about Bolivia is that just because there’s a road showing on a map, doesn’t mean it will be passable. And prices will vary depending on the quality of service you are after (e.g. whether you want a toilet on your bus). 

Bus from Tarija to Sucre Bolivia

For a bus without a toilet from Tarija to Sucre, we paid £12 GBP / $14 USD each – just to give you an idea of prices.

You can also fly into Tarija, Bolivia. There are direct daily flights from La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

Crossing The Argentina/Bolivia Border

Those looking to travel to Tarija Bolivia from Argentina will need to arrive via the border town of Villazon, crossing over from La Quiaca in the northern Argentinian province of Jujuy. 

Whilst there are some international buses that cross the border, there aren’t any that go Tarija, Bolivia. So for this journey you’ll first need to take a bus to the border. We use busbud.com for booking buses online in Argentina.

Bolivian Immigration in Villazon

Then you’ll need to walk across the border through immigration, it’s walking distance from the bus station in La Quiaca. After which head to the bus station in Villazon – again walking distance. 

From here, the rest of your journey will be by trufi. Trufis are shared taxis that travel a fixed route and leave once full. The reason you have to take a trufi from Villazon to Tarija in Bolivia is because the route is just a dirt road carved into the mountains. 

We paid $100 BOB each (£12 GBP / £15 USD) for the dusty, sweaty journey, which took around 6 hours. They make a stop midway, but it’s a pee on the road kinda situation. If you don’t already have some, remember to grab some Bolivianos after you cross the border.

Trufi from Villazon to Tarija Bolivia

By the way, you won’t get an entry stamp in the Bolivian immigration, don’t ask us why, but your exit stamp and the receipt print out you get from the Argentine immigration counts as your entry stamp. It really confused us. But it is correct.

Where To Stay in Tarija, Bolivia

Budget: Namaste Hostel

Clean, colorful and comfortable, this hostel which includes a daily breakfast comes with some outstanding reviews. Huge lockers, laundry area, spacious rooms, well equipped kitchen, hot showers, super friendly owners, really good location are just a few positives that stand out.

They have mixed dorm rooms, female only dorm rooms, a private double room and even a private single room. If you’re looking for a hostel, this is your place.

Click here to check availability and prices.

Mid Range: Kultur Berlin Tarija Guesthouse

If you’ve stayed in Kultur Berlin in Sucre, this isn’t the same vibe. It’s pretty much the opposite in fact. A small place run by a lovely family, this ain’t no party hostel.

We stayed here and really loved it. The included breakfast was the best we’ve had anywhere in South America.

The wifi is pretty good and it’s centrally located. There’s a couple of dorm rooms, a few private doubles and a family room situated around a pretty courtyard. You won’t regret staying here.

Click here to check availability and prices.

Luxury: Hotel Victoria Plaza

This centrally located hotel situated in a beautiful old colonial building comes with free parking and an onsite restaurant.

All rooms have private bathrooms, wifi, a minibar and a city view. The breakfasts are rated very highly. Great for couples looking for some luxury. 

Click here to check availability and prices.

Tarija Bolivia Weather

Because of the altitude and its semi-arid climate, the temperatures in Tarija Bolivia are pretty mild year round. The summers have a little humidity and rainfall, while winters are dry. When the suns out, it’s warm, but as soon as the sun sets the evenings can get quite cold.

Fresh Orange Cart Bolivia

No Hablo Espanol?

Despite being Bolivia’s fourth largest city, you won’t find much English spoken in Tarija, Bolivia. It’s the same throughout Bolivia in general.

So unless you pay for a private guide, you will find that most tours and services are Spanish speaking only. 

You can of course get by with sign language and the odd Spanish word. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

You see since we started learning Spanish we’ve found it has hugely enhanced our travel experiences. Like 100%. No messing.

Mercado Campesino Tarija Bolivia

Not to mention enabled us to travel around Spanish speaking countries more confidently. Which is why we recommend this Travel Spanish Confidence course we took recently.

It enabled us to move beyond a basic level to being able to communicate effectively in Spanish.

If you don’t know a word of Spanish however, this won’t be for you yet. Better to get started with Duolingo or some basic language classes first to get your head in the game.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

As with any trip abroad, make sure you have a good quality travel insurance in place. Our go to travel insurance provider is World Nomads.

They have a no bullshit approach to policy wording & are perfect for adventurous travellers like us. Get a no obligation quote here:

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