March 4, 2014
This is the story of our Carnaval/vacation in Tarija.
On Tuesday afternoon, February 25, Amaszonas, the airline, calls and tells us that our flight the next day has been cancelled and that we have to fly out on Friday instead. This will not work for us, we tell them. We go to their office to see if we can fly to Santa Cruz and then to Tarija, but no. And they won’t refund our money on the spot; we have to e-mail someone at their office. We get, after a couple of hours, a flight on Ecojet instead; it’s in the early morning rather than mid-afternoon.
The Hotel Altiplano is new and very small (four guest rooms), run by a New Zealand couple with impeccable taste. Even at 10:30 a.m., our rooms are ready. We explore the city, which is smaller and flatter and uglier than Sucre. It is, however, full of trees, which Sucre lacks, and, like Sucre, is surrounded by mountains and hills. Fewer campesinos are on the streets than in the other cities here, and it feels more “Western”—perhaps that’s the Argentine influence (we’re only three hours from the border). The restaurants, on the whole, leave a bit to be desired; the service is so bad that at one we leave before I get my meal, and at another my aperitif comes after Karen’s wine and my soup after everyone else’s main course. We do find two good ones, El Fogón del Gringo, where we sampled various organ meats and had grilled goat, and Plaza Mayor, which serves traditional Tarijeño dishes like saice and keperi. The Museo Nacional Paleontológico y Arqueológico displays mainly mammalian fossils from the area, including an entire mastodon, and some smooth and graceful pre-Columbian pottery and small stone sculptures. But there doesn’t seem to be much else to do here.
Thursday is my birthday and also the Día de las Comadres, a festival for women. I wake up around 5:30 because of some noise downstairs; I feel very hungry and go back to sleep to dream about fried eggs and toast. Breakfast at the hotel has no fried eggs or toast but figs and raspberries. We walk down the wide and busy avenue next to the Rio Guadalquivir to get to the parade of Comadritas (little girls), but it’s not where the tourist office told us it would be; after about ninety minutes of walking, we finally find it, but it’s over. We pass by the local zoo on the way back to the center of town and see condors for the first time, up close, along with pumas and jaguars; it’s a pity they’re in such tiny bare cages. After a huge lunch we nap, then walk to the fairgrounds and look at the colorful baskets laden with fruits, vegetables, wine, and bread which the women give to each other and carry around with them today. The main square is full of dozens of women, almost all drunk, many dancing. After a ton of ice cream we visit the ugly cathedral, and finally go back to the parade grounds and sit on uncomfortable bleachers for an hour or two, waiting for things to start. Kids are squirting each other with water guns and shaving cream, drinking chicha de uva (slightly fermented and extremely sweet grape juice), and eating junk food. In the parade hundreds of women, some in traditional costumes and others in tight jeans and t-shirts, dance to a) drums and an instrument made of a cow’s horn with a reed in it; b) marching bands; c) music from speakers mounted on trucks. The groups go by extremely slowly with long breaks between them, and look quite similar to each other. It doesn’t hold a candle to the Entrada de la Virgen de Guadaloupe in Sucre. We go back to the hotel and I open my e-mail to see dozens of happy-birthday wishes from friends and even people I don’t know on Facebook cluttering my in-box. There’s something oddly contrived about it all.
I spend Friday morning at a tourist office booking a couple of tours; in the afternoon we visit Coimata, have lunch at an inn there, then climb to a spectacular waterfall with a deep pool at the bottom. It’s the best swimming I’ve done in Bolivia, even if the water is a bit cold; it’s so clean and clear. A couple dozen others are there too, and it’s fun to watch them dive from the cliffs, get their clothes wet, and play around. We’re the only gringos, which is pretty much a given throughout our entire vacation.
Saturday we visit the Reserva biológica Cordillera de Sama, but the tour disappoints us, despite a wonderful guide. We wanted to see the polylepis forests, but we only saw those from a great distance (one forest is perfectly circular); vicuñas, deer, and condors, but we never made it to the heights; cave paintings and an Inca trail, ditto. Instead we visit three mountain lakes, a few villages, and white sand dunes. The scenery, while enchanting, with clouds spilling over the mountains like dry ice, doesn’t compare to the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa—though perhaps if we’d seen more of what we wanted it would.
Sunday we spend in Tarija again and go to the Carnaval parades. There’s even more water and shaving cream shot and sprayed, and we get caught in crossfire—the crowds are thick and boisterous. The alternation of drag queens dancing to disco and Europop with the traditional dancers in folkloric costumes dancing to cow horns and drums is nuts. The float from Coimata features an actual waterfall somehow constructed on the back of a flatbed truck; other floats feature live vines with beautiful women tossing grapes into the crowds or live peach trees or live drummers, horn players, and singers. It’s dumbfounding how much energy the dancers expend over the course of an hour-long parade through the street, how much elaborate choreography goes with each song, even for the drag queens. We laugh a lot and leave just before it starts raining.
Monday morning we tour two wineries. Casa Grande, in Tarija, is ultra-modern; everything gleams, and even the wine barrels are new. Casa Vieja, in Concepción, is in an old adobe inn, and the wine there is “artesanal” (home-brewed), which means if it’s dry it tastes a bit of vinegar, and if it’s sweet it’s really sweet. The Bolivians are proud of their wine—they have the highest-altitude vineyards in the world. That doesn't make it good, though.
In the afternoon we visit la represa de San Jacinto, a huge reservoir built on the edge of a spectacular canyon, where we take a short rowboat ride and eat cangrejos (tiny crabs about an inch long), misquinchos (minnows), and doraditos (another small fish), sample chicha de uva, and finish with chirriadas (corn crepes) and humintas (sweet smashed corn and cheese wrapped in husks and grilled).
Today is Martes de Albahaca (Basil Tuesday, or, in North America, Mardi Gras); everything is shut down so people can party in their homes. At the markets the stalls are all decorated with corn stalks, basil, and flowers; they sell shrink-wrapped packages of good-luck charms (herbs, paper money, little wafers) that people burn on the sidewalk (along with occasional fetal llamas) as offerings to the Pachamama. One poor woman catches her hair on fire; her friends put it out with beer. The party next door to the hotel goes on all day, with people banging drums, singing, blowing horns, and playing guitar. The music is rhythmic and stirring. But the streets are mostly quiet, deserted; the restaurants and shops are almost all closed. I can’t help but compare it to the last Mardi Gras I celebrated, in New Orleans, where we stayed out all night and the streets were packed.