In the far south of the country, hemmed in by the high Altiplano to the west and the cactus-choked hills that drop down into the impenetrable forests of the Chaco to the east, isolated TARIJA feels a world away from the rest of Bolivia. Indeed, the country’s two biggest cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz, are both 24 hours away by road. Set in a broad, fertile valley at an altitude of 1924m, Tarija lies at the centre of a rich agricultural region known as the Andalucia of Bolivia on account of its sunny climate, vineyard-filled valley and the arid mountain scenery that surrounds it. Indeed, so striking are the similarities with southern Spain that Luis de Fuentes, the conquistador who founded the city, named the river on whose banks it sits the Guadalquivir, after the river that flows past Seville.
Laid out in a classic grid pattern, Tarija has few obvious sightseeing attractions – its appeal lies more in the easy charm of its citizens and the warm, balmy climate. Although the population has mushroomed to over one hundred thousand, the city remains provincial in the best sense of the word: small enough to get around on foot and culturally self-contained, but open to foreign influences and welcoming to outsiders. Moreover, Tarija’s Carnaval is one of Bolivia’s most enjoyable fiestas.
Tarija was founded on July 4, 1574 as a Spanish frontier outpost on the far southeast edge of Alto Peru to guard against incursions by the indomitable Chiriguano tribes of the Chaco. The settlement thrived, exporting wine, cattle and grain to the mines of the Altiplano, but despite its prosperity, Tarija remained on the front line of missionary and military expeditions against the Chiriguanos – only after the final Chiriguano uprising was crushed in 1892 were outlying settlements finally freed from the threat of tribal raiders. The greatest moment in Tarija’s history came during the Independence War on April 15, 1817, when a combined force of Argentine troops and Chapaco guerrilla riders led by a one-armed rebel named Eustaquio “Moto” Mendez defeated a Spanish army outside the city at the battle of La Tablada. After this victory Tarija enjoyed eight years of de facto independence before voting to join the newly proclaimed Republic of Bolivia rather than Argentina in 1825.
Tarija is famous for its wine production, and the valley’s rich soils and fecund climate attracted many Andalucian farmers during the colonial period. The peasant culture they brought with them is still evident in the traditional costumes, folkloric dances, religious fiestas, love of food and wine, and languid, sing-song accents of the Tarijeños. Known as Chapacos, Tarijeños take considerable pride in their distinct cultural identity; closer culturally to northern Argentina, they think of themselves as a people apart from the rest of Bolivia, and though the region has provided two presidents in recent decades, it otherwise managed to avoid much of the upheaval of the past century.