Christmas in Bolivian Wine Country

The holiday season is full of traditions, which vary greatly between countries. Here’s the low-down on Christmas activites, food, and wine in the city of Tarija in southern Bolivia.

December 24th is the more important day, rather than the 25th. My day started with going to a friend’s pool and getting incredibly sunburnt. After a lunch of fresh fish and a quinoa salad, the house shut down for a long siesta. Last minute decorations were added to the tree. Having a Christmas tree is common, but is an imported tradition.

IMG_0284Left to right: my roommate and coworker Mariel, me, her sister Anahi who studies in Argentina, her mom Patricia, and her dad Javier.

In the evening, we had the traditional Bolivian Christmas dinner: picana. This is a spiced stew that has beef, chicken, lamb, carrots, potatoes, choclo (a starchy variety of corn), and sometimes raisins, peas, wine… each city and family has their own version, and everyone’s is “the very best”.  But I can attest that this one truly is the best.


By the way, Christmas cookies are not a Bolivian tradition. That was my contribution, for which I had to bring cranberries all the way from the U.S.! The traditional Bolivian holiday dessert is hot chocolate and paneton- a sweet, lightweight fruitcake/bread.


After the late dinner, midnight was fast approaching. We went up to the terrace, where we could see most of the city. When it officially became Christmas, we could see fireworks in at least 20 different places. We toasted, gave lots of kisses and hugs, and lighted sparklers.

IMG_1303 Photo credit: Mariel Cabero

We headed back inside to open presents, and stayed chatting till 3am. I was given a mug showing a traditional dance of Tarija, the Rueda Chapaca.

IMG_0423Rueda means “wheel” and Chapaca means “of Tarija”. Another dance of Tarija uses what is basically a maypole, and is performed in the plazas around Christmas time. Kids have coordinated steps to intricately weave the ribbons, and this is done as worship to “el niño”, baby Jesus.

Christmas day itself consisted of sleeping in, calling my family, and hanging with friends out on the terrace, late into the summer night.

Even though I missed the pristine, magical silence of a Christmas snowfall, I found that Christmas and summer is an enjoyable combination- the excitement of the holidays with a bonfire-hangout mentality. Everyone is home just for a week or two, so there’s a forced intentionality to make the summer get-togethers happen.

A common activity is to go to the river with family or friends. You might bring fresh choclo, shown below, or humintas- sweet tamales with cheese, wrapped in corn leaves and ready to carry on a river hike.

IMG_2509After going to the river, or also after not going to the river, in the afternoon you could head to “El Puente”- The Bridge. There, vendors sell fried yuca (cassava) on a stick, fried pastry pockets with cheese inside, and more humintas. It’s common to run into people you know at El Puente. Of course, that’s not surprising because everyone seems to know everyone in Tarija.

IMG_1323Another summer get-together was with the families of three of my friends, whose parents are also friends. It was a “lunch” that lasted until 9pm, consisting of a pool party, barbecuing chorizo de llama (spiced sausage from llama meat), and sharing quality wine. After all, the Bolivian vineyards were just down the road.


On one of our last days in Tarija we took a vineyard tour. Did you know that high-altitude wine has additional benefits? Supposedly, it “gives the grapes more cancer-fighting anti-oxidants and helps juices age faster into a sweeter, less-acidic wine,” so that a two-year Bolivian wine might be more like a standard six-year wine (


We also learned about the process to create Singani, a Bolivian liquor made from grapes. The equipment has an antique, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque look.

IMG_0376One vineyard had a restaurant where they were serving up “chancho a la cruz”- a pig roast where the pig is split and slow-roasted over embers for up to 8 hours. This a Tarija tradition, especially for New Years. On New Year’s Eve, the grapes of these vineyards play another role, when you can eat 12 grapes at 12:00 and make 12 wishes for the new year.

And that’s only a snapshot. There were more holiday traditions and adventures in southern Bolivia- such as checking on a water project in a community I really enjoy spending time with. But I’ll save work updates for a subsequent blog post. With that, I wish you all the best for 2014.  May God greatly bless you and yours!



Festivals! Alasitas and Carnaval


On the morning of January 24th, vendors set up stands all over the city with miniature versions of everything. At 11:45am, the plazas get more and more crowded as business people, families, friends buy small versions of what they would like to be blessed with that year, and tradition is that at the stroke of noon, you get your purchases blessed by someone like a shaman.

With the hopes of traveling, one buys a mini passport. To have abundant money, one buys small paper bills that say they’re from the “Bank of the Future”, and keeps some in the wallet all year long.

To give a friend good luck in the the romance department, buy a small hen statue for a guy or a rooster for a girl. This festival goes on for three weeks, and the main area seems like its own city!


Here are some other fun Alasitas: mini food boxes, Image

(like a good engineer, giving a sense of scale by placing the purple pen) 🙂

Miniature tools and materials for people building/fixing a house, or in the construction business. Ruben, our office director, got some for the Engineers In Action office:


You can get a diploma:Image

Or get “married” here:


And to top it off, there are full-size versions 🙂 of food and games. Here is Ruben and Mariel, my new roommate, co-worker, and friend:



Then to Carnaval! The Carnaval in Oruro, Bolivia has been named a UNESCO “Masterpiece” of culture.

Secondary celebrations include throwing water balloons, squirting water guns, and shooting foam. This all starts well before Carnaval: here I am a few weeks ago, victim of a drive-by foam shooting: Image

Saturday I went to Oruro with my two roommates and some family/friends of Mariel. The day before, Friday, the city had an extra energy too it. We were preparing for our big journey, a “day trip” of a 24 hours. We bought and prepared lots of food. We got ponchos. We packed our bags. I even tested my various jackets to see which is more waterproof! It felt like we were preparing for battle! I had trouble falling asleep, anticipating the next day, and then we all woke in the silence of the night at 3am to go to the plaza.

Well, I realized I wasn’t Katniss, filming the next Hunger Games movie, when the bus didn’t show until an hour later and we waited in the rain. When something typically Bolivian happens, some of my friends sing a majestic-sounding song… “Bol-i-via!”

By and by we reached Oruro, and as we had gone with the bare-bones travel package, we had to go under the bleachers and climb between people’s feet to get to our seats. Then… it was mesmerizing! A whole day of parade sounds like a lot, but consider that there are many different types of dancing, there’s acting, huge bands, and costumes like I’ve never seen before. Take a look:


(quality versions and more photos available in this album)


There are storys to go along, like the history of slavery in Bolivia:Image

and the fight of good against evil. Image

And then there’s the constant entertainment of actual foam-fights:


And taking pictures with the performers! Image


As the day grew dim, night brought the promise of fire and fireworks in the parade. I started to worry as rainy season lived up to it’s name and a storm drenched the city. But lesson learned: Bolivians don’t let even rain, thunder and lightning “rain on their parade”.

The dancing continued with fire coming out of the top of dancers’s heads, bears dancing in colored fog: Image

And the parade passing through a shower of fireworks:


Finally, we returned to a sleeply La Paz that woke to celebrate again the next day- the next three days, in fact! The dancing continued, the foam fight continued, and I wasn’t even safe right around the corner from my apartment:


The celebrations close with “challa”, or rituals of blessing, on the day before Ash Wednesday. Most store fronts, houses, and cars have been decorated and blessed.


Life returns to normal, but now the new year can really start. Businesses have been blessed, dances and smiles have affected us all, and big desires are carried by tiny reminders.