Low-Cost Living in Bolivian Wine Country

The view from my seat looks out onto the sunny sidewalk covered with black-and-white-striped awnings, where smartly dressed couples break bread at umbrella-topped tables. Just across the street is a flower-filled plaza bursting with brilliant yellows, reds, and pinks, complete with park benches, a covered gazebo, and dozens of uniformed schoolchildren.

Inside the restaurant, wine flows freely, while patrons sample tender steaks drizzled in basil Dijon sauce or goat cheese and pear salads. The ambience is right for France or Spain. But I’m half a world away, in the city of Tarija, Bolivia.

My favorite thing about Tarija, though, is the scent. It’s not often I get to say I love how a city smells, but in Tarija, it’s true. You’ll see hundreds of rose bushes amid plots of clover-spackled grass. The roses give off a wonderful perfumed scent; and since many of the vehicles have been converted to run on cleaner-burning natural gas, the air has a freshness I’ve yet to find in any other city.

If you’re looking for a nice steady climate without extreme temperatures in either direction, Tarija fits the bill. Here, daytime highs range between 75 F and 82 F all year, and the winters tend to be dry. Even Bolivians who have lived abroad are flocking back to Tarija, in part because of its ideal climate. While Tarija does have a noticeable summer and winter, the change is not extreme.

Average daily temperatures during the summer (January through March) hang in the low to mid-70s F, and the area has more rain and humidity. During the winter months (July through September), the average temperature drops by five to 10 degrees, and the air is noticeably dry.

The city is also very affordable, with couples living on $800 to $1,200 a month, including average rent of $500 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Tarija (population around 150,000) is in the south-central section of Bolivia; you can be at the Argentine border in just three hours by car. You’ll find Argentine influence in the cuisine, with large spits roasting succulent cuts of beef, pork, and chicken over hot coals. It can be seen in the gaucho-style dress of many of the city’s gentlemen. But maybe most importantly, it can be seen in Tarija’s wine production.

Lying at 6,000 feet, Tarija is the highest wine-producing region in the world. Both white and red varieties are grown locally, and some 30 wineries are in and around the city. It’s a big part of Tarija’s identity, and you’re reminded of this constantly, with murals of vineyards painted on walls, grape leaves sculpted into pillars, and frescoes of wine bottles, grape bunches, and wine glasses adorning bridges and other public spaces.

Expect to pay anywhere from $2.75 to $15 for a bottle of local wine. Many of these wines tend to be sweet, but it’s entirely possible to find good dry wines, as well. My favorite is the syrah from the El Potro winery, which has a nice mild flavor and goes perfectly with the region’s popular grilled meats. You can pick up a bottle for around $5.

I especially love how easy Tarija is to navigate. Most of the city’s 150,000 residents don’t own cars; they prefer to walk or take public transportation. A taxi ride across town costs around 70 cents during the day or 85 cents after dark.

Walking is my favorite way to explore Tarija. Major roadways have wide pedestrian trails, bordered by a variety of large shade trees, in the median strip. Some look like weeping willows or sturdy cedars, others show off dainty violet flowers. Along the smaller avenues, the sidewalks take you past ice-cream shops, veterinarian offices, and barbershops.

Downtown Tarija is where you’ll find the main plaza, the Plaza de Armas, along with the smaller Plaza Sucre. Both are surrounded by historical balconied colonial buildings in pastel hues of pinks, greens, and blues. These now house cafés, restaurants, tour offices, and banks. The plaza is a relaxing spot to grab a bite to eat, watch people pass by, or check out the juggling street performers or the wandering musicians.

There’s more to Tarija than the downtown area, though. Expat Nathan Salveson lives just a few blocks east of Plaza Sucre in the Fátima neighborhood, near the large Parque Bolívar. According to Nathan, it’s a “great area and it’s not as touristy as downtown—it’s really only local Bolivians that go there. Food carts set up and encircle the park, and they have activities for little kids there every night.”

On Saturdays Nathan heads over to the large U.S.-style market. “Basically, people are selling second-hand North American items,” Nathan says. “You can find sports stuff, clothes, shoes, backpacks, just all sorts of things. This week I injured my knee, but I found a guy selling all kinds of braces for injuries. There are also a lot of people there who make their own food, so I can get different types of breads and jams and other homemade stuff.”

Nathan rents a furnished studio apartment for just $200 a month, including electric, water, gas, and cable TV. While his local friends think this is expensive, it’s a huge saving compared to Seattle, where he lived before. In Seattle, similar apartments average four to six times what Nathan pays now.

And the savings go beyond apartment rentals. The city’s cost of living overall is very low. A furnished apartment rental for a couple typically runs $300 to $500 a month, depending on the size and location. If utilities are not included in your rent, expect to pay around $20 a month for the basics and an additional $30 for internet and $25 for cable television.

Food is reasonable, too, even if you eat out often, as Nathan does. He estimates that he spends more on food than the average person for two reasons. First, he plays soccer for a professional team in Tarija, burning a lot of calories. Also, he’s health conscious and seeks out healthier and sometimes more expensive dining options. Even so, he says he spends “maybe 1,500 Bolivianos ($216) a month on food.”

Some people call Tarija a small town within a city, and it’s true. You won’t find big-box stores or mega supermarkets with one-stop shopping. Instead, each neighborhood is more or less self-sufficient. Within a four- or five-block radius you’ll usually come across a small market where you can buy your kitchen staples, a butcher shop, a hair salon, at least a few small restaurants, and maybe even a dentist or doctor. Neighbors know one another and, in typical Latin fashion, greet each other when they pass in the street.

The city doesn’t have a large expat community, but you will find a handful of North Americans, even more Europeans, and a growing number of Argentines who have come here to retire.

“The climate is very livable here,” says Nathan. “I can go out in a t-shirt and usually don’t need a jacket. It’s easy to enjoy my days when the climate is close to perfect.”

It’s easy to get out and enjoy that nice weather in Tarija without much trouble. The city has built a huge sporting complex that runs for over a mile along the Guadalquivir River; the complex includes soccer fields, basketball courts, running tracks, and permanently installed exercise equipment. Biking through and around the city is an easy way to get exercise, and it’s made easier by the terrain, which is more or less flat. Kayaking is even an option on the large Lago San Jacinto just outside of town. You can also take easy day trips to waterfalls, history-filled small towns, and vineyard-filled valleys.

There are plenty of healthcare options within the city for basic to moderate concerns. While you can take advantage of the free public hospitals, most expats recommend heading to one of the private clinics for more immediate and modern treatment. However, if you have a serious health concern, Tarija is not the city for you. For major medical care or surgery, the best treatment is found in the cities of La Paz and Cochabamba which are both accessible by airplane in under an hour.

If I were in the market for a new home, Tarija would be at the top of my short list. For me, the temperate climate, welcoming atmosphere, affordability, and aesthetic appeal all make for a great place to live. And with Bolivia being largely off-the-radar for expats, Tarija is a hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered.


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