The City of Smiles   1 comment

When the Spaniards came to the valley of Taraxa in the 16th century they were delighted to find an almost Mediterranean climate in the area. By the banks of a stream, which they named Nuevo Gualdaquivir after the river in their far away homeland, they founded the city of Villa de San Bernado de la Frontera de Tarija in 1574. The region was perfectly suited for grape and wine production and soon commonly regarded as the Bolivian Andalucía.

Tarija is alternatively known as la Cidudad de las flores (the City of Flowers) or la Ciudad de la Sonrisa (the City of Smiles) and has grown massively during the last three decades due to the natural gas development in the department, from 38,000 inhabitants in 1976 to over 214,000 today.

To me Tarija seemed to be the perfect stop before climbing up to the harsh Altiplano. But before leaving the friendly town of Entre Ríos where I had spent the night, I still had some business to attend to. The ladies in the hotel did look a bit surprised when I asked for breakfast but then started to prepare some hot chocolate, bread rolls and jam for me. Maybe the normal guests just head for a café on the plaza? Well, I prefer to eat something before I face the outside world, but the next time in Entre Ríos I will do some research on the local breakfast habits.

Checkout time in Bolivian hotels is quite generous and as there were only 70ish miles / 112 kilometres between Entre Ríos and Tarija, I was in a position to spend some more time in this friendly place. First I headed for the market area and the watchmaker’s stall again. And right, the lovely Señor had brought all his spare pins from home and within five minutes he had attached the wristband to my watch again. All he wanted for his efforts was one Boliviano – that’s not even 10p… I thanked him profusely, once again humbled by the helpfulness of the Bolivians and the income that people survive on in this part of the world.

I really liked Entre Ríos and found it hard to leave – a phenomenon which I would experience rather often in Bolivia. But I wanted to be in Chile for the 18th September to join the bicentenary celebrations of its independence – a rather ambitious if not completely unrealistic schedule as it should turn out… Anyway, I managed to pack my stuff eventually, vacate my excellent room in the Plaza Hotel and hit the road.

Straight after the Zona Urbana the Ruta 11 became quite spectacular – it was leading me through wonderful wooded hills…

… over mountain ridges…

… and along gorgeous gorges

There was a lot of roadwork going on, occasionally the carretera was even paved – but after two kilometres it was back to dirt, gravel and stones. And sometimes you had to pull your belly in…

Rush hour in the village of Caraletas

The weather was just fantastic, the temperatures were ideal for riding a bike, and I felt happy to be alive and travelling through such a beautiful country.

Some people had not been so lucky – as this shrine reminds the passing motorist. 

It wasn’t always easy to find an opportunity for a wee…

No, still not suitable…


Ok, these old stable ruins will do

Approaching “Andalucía” – you would probably have guessed even without me mentioning it at the start of the post, wouldn’t you?

The Taraxa Valley

Welcome to Tarija!

On the outskirts of the city I fuelled up and then started my usual orienteering run around the city – buzzing streets, broad boulevards, flowering trees, market stalls, and impressive architecture. The South American Handbook had recommended the Hostal Carmen and I even found it relatively quickly in the Calle Ingavi. The building looked quite welcoming but not so the young receptionist who didn’t seem particularly interested in my business; the price was considerably higher than stated in the travel guide and did not include aparcamiento seguro, the all important safe parking. Well, there is no shortage of accommodation in Tarija and so I carried on.

Negotiating the usual one-right, one-left pattern of the urban road system, I passed the Hostal Cristal. It looked slightly out of my price range but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The young lady at reception was exceptionally nice, they had a good single room, at a cheaper rate than the Hostal Carmen, secure parking included, free internet, and when the deal was agreed, she even picked up my dusty luggage to carry it upstairs before I had the chance to stop her.

Like many of the higher buildings in South American cities, the hotel had a multiple-use roof terrace…

… which offered great views over the city


Arty shot with DRZ

The church of San Roque in the distance

Obviously, there was plenty to explore in Tarija and my first destination was the Catedral San Bernado

Then on to the heart of the city: the Plaza de Armas

Within the first hundred yards I had already noticed something very special: despite its size, Tarija still had this friendly intimacy of a small village – everyone looked me in the eyes, we all greeted each other and there were open faces all around. The City of Smiles indeed.

Just one street away from the Plaza, in the Calle Ingavi, is the Casa Dorada, Tarija’s House of Culture. The Art Nouveau mansion was built in 1887 by Moisés Navajas Ichazo, a talented descendant of Sephardics Jew from Spain (Navajas) who converted to Catholicism, emigrated to Bolivia, and married a Tarijeña, Esperanza Morales Serrano. Both were very successful business people and, as they didn’t have children, commissioned a couple of impressive buildings which they would be remembered for.


The Calle General Trigo then leads to the Iglesia San Roque – the church of the city’s patron. By pure chance I had managed to arrive in Tarija right at the beginning of a whole week of festivities in honour of Saint Roque. The biggest fiesta in the region starts every year on the first Sunday in September, and the streets were teeming with people.

Inside the church

Looking down the Calle General Trigo

At that point of my journey I was still hesitant to eat from street stalls to minimise the risk of food poisoning, so I left the fiesta and looked for a restaurant to have dinner. Fancying a nice steak but finding most of the excellent dining places out of my price range, I settled for the Bolivian fast food chain Pollo Crocan, where a lomito in a bread roll garnished with ham, egg, salad, chips, condiments and a large Fanta, cost me 20 Bolivianos, about £1.90. Who was I to complain?

Back at the hotel, the lovely receptionist reminded me that I still had a bike to park for the night. Oops. And now I must confess that I broke another one of my principles – people who have known me for a while will be appalled, so please skip the next sentence: without fetching helmet and proper gear from my room, I set straight off for the designated garage.

After I had circled the main square a couple of times, I stopped in front of a posh restaurant, La Taberna Gattopardo, in whose vicinity the car park was allegedly located. One of the waiters had already spotted the obviously lost tourist and came immediately outside and to my aid, pointing me in the right direction.

The big courtyard that served as car (and bike) park was attended by two slightly handicapped young men who promised to look after my baby so that I could sleep easy. On my travels through Europe and South America I have often seen disabled people fully integrated in their communities, doing jobs they are capable of and thereby playing an equally important role, whereas in Germany or in the UK we tend to segregate them and keep everyone who does not conform to ‘normality’ in closed institutions. More food for thought…

The walk back to the hotel led me over the Plaza de Armas again

… where a plaque commemorates the founder of the city


Lying in my comfortable bed I realized that I had fallen in love with this beautiful city, the Ciudad de la Sonrisa. The prospect of leaving the next day didn’t seem overly appealing – but that was also down to the fact that I was quite apprehensive of climbing the Altiplano and up to an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level. Also, my next destination was Tupiza, 290 kilometres / 180 miles away, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what the road conditions were like…

Oh, by the way and talking of distances, do you remember the 1,000 km detour calculation for the route between Villamontes and Tarija at the start of the last episode? It’s down to lazy map drawing as it turned out:

The missing link…

Posted 12 October 2011 by Pumpy in Bolivia, The 2010 Bike Trip

One response to “The City of Smiles

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  1. Nice to hear from you again Ella…. hope all is well x

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