Stories from Valle de la Concepción

You can sleep in the bus until 6am

After crossing the border from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazón, Bolivia we found ourselves waiting for seven hours in the new bus terminal for a 9pm bus. We knew the bus ride was only 5 hours, but we were told we could sleep in the bus until 6am, so we agreed. The route is mountainous and windy, and at one point it seemed almost certain we would drive off the edge as the driver slowed to a crawl and drove around around a sharp curve. At 1:30am, the bus driver started blaring this delightful tune (turn up volume for full effect) as we entered the city and continued to do so until we arrived at the bus station in Tarija 15 minutes later. There he told us he had somewhere else to be and we had to get out.

The bus station was closed, of course, and we had no idea how to get to the winery, so we curled up on a metal bench outside and tried to sleep until 6am. At six we learned we needed to take bus A into town to catch a taxi back out to Valle de la Concepción. And so it was that we finally arrived at the winery at 10am.  Bleary eyed from our eventful night, we wanted to meet the owner before taking a hard-earned nap, but we learned he was already too drunk to talk to us!  We were shown our room, and later that evening we found the owner asleep sitting at the kitchen table, glass in hand.  This would become a recurring theme…

An Unusual Wine Tour

The first day we were at the winery, there were quite a few large tour groups. Jesús asked us to join one of the tours, so we could get the lay of the land. The tour started with Jesús asking people in the tour group to read aloud from some of the funny posters hanging around the winery. After that, it continued into the museum which has a rather eclectic collection of old objects including typewriters, calculators and computers as well as fossils, bones, animal skins and other unusual objects. After the museum, we walked around to the other side of the grape fields where Jesús showed us the Tunnel of Love. The Tunnel of Love is a 50-foot long tunnel decorated with red and pink hearts at the entrance and exit. Inside it is pitch black and legend has it that the darkness allows you to open yourself to true love. After walking through the Tunnel of Love, the tour continues up past the old swimming pool, which is in a state of disrepair, to the bodega where the finished wine is stored. Outside the bodega, there is a wooden structure shaped like a gas pump with a garden hose attached. Jesús stopped near the hose, picked it up, and filled a glass with wine! It turns out the garden hose is the surtidor (pump) and lots of people like to buy wine directly from the surtidor in big jugs. Who doesn’t want their wine served out of a garden hose? It was at this point that we realized why we had been filling containers at the top of a scaffolding with wine – they were feeding the surtidor! After trying the wine from the surtidor, we went to the wine tasting area.

An Interesting Wine Tasting Follows

A unique wine tasting is a fitting way to end an unusual wine tour. There were roughly 20 people in our tour and we all sat down around a large table for the tasting. Jesús brought out eight wines, four sweet and four dry, and eight glasses. He filled the first glass to the brim with the first sweet wine, announced what it was, and passed it to the first person. That person took a sip and passed it to the next person who took a sip and passed it on. The glass made its way around to all 20 people in this manner. Once the third person was tasting the first wine, Jesús poured the second wine to the brim and passed it to the first person and repeat. Eventually there were eight glasses with varying levels of wine slowly making their way around the table. We were roughly 15 people in, so it was a little tricky to keep track of which wine was which. After the sweet wines, we thought all the wines started to taste the same, but apparently it’s typical to start a tasting with sweet wines in Bolivia. When the “standard” wine tasting was done, Jesús proceeded with a wine by the meter ceremony in which one visitor stands up and makes three wishes. After each wish, he or she takes a sip of wine through a one-meter siphon hose. At the end of the wishes, the visitor has to drink all the wine in the hose which amounts to approximately half a glass. We can’t say we have ever experienced a wine tour or tasting quite like this, but it was a pretty fun experience.

Large group wine tasting

Te Invito, Servite

In Tarija, there is a tradition of inviting another person to a drink in which the first person pours a glass of wine or beer with a splash of coke and says “Te invito” (I invite you) and the second person takes the glass and says “Servite” (for which we haven’t quite deciphered the exact meaning). The second person then drinks the contents of the glass, refills it the same amount, turns to a third person, and says “te invito”. The cycle continues until the wine or beer is gone. The funny thing about this tradition is this one glass is usually the only one for the whole table, so the person who is invited has to drink a whole glass of something before anyone else can have any. It both accelerates and slows down the drinking at the same time.

An evening of invitation

Go to the River

One day after work, Carlos who works at the winery recommended we visit the river. He explained how to get there (cross the main square and then walk ten blocks). It sounded pretty easy, so we set off. The way there was fairly straightforward; the road Carlos mentioned turned into a dirt path that crossed a small river and then ran along the edge of a vineyard. However, at the end of the rows of grapes we found we were trapped by trees and a wall that dropped down to the bigger river. We found a small gap in the trees, climbed down the wall, and strolled by the river. After walking upstream for a bit, we saw a path back, so we started walking along it, and pretty soon we found ourselves in the back of a winery. It didn’t look like there was any way out without literally walking through the winery, so we backtracked a bit and found ourselves in a field with a horse. We walked by the horse slowly and found another path that was definitely part of another winery. In the distance we could hear dogs barking, and we crossed our fingers they weren’t there to defend the winery we were so clearly trespassing on. We zigged and zagged through a few more vineyards and finally found a road back to town. We think we must have misunderstood Carlos’ instructions because neither the path to nor from the river was totally clear.

The river in Valle de la Concepción

A Michelin-Starred Chef

Over the weekend, three Germans arrived at the winery. We really enjoyed spending time with them in the evenings over wine and swapping travel stories. It turns out one of them, Stephan Hentschel, is head chef and his partner, Consuelo, is sommelière at a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Berlin, Germany, called Cookies Cream. They were asked to prepare a German meal for lunch on Sunday, so we were in for a treat. They made a goulash with cabbage and potato dumplings. Jesús supplied the wine and everyone sat down to eat. The food was absolutely delicious; by far some of the best food we’ve had in months. If the food at Cookies Cream is anywhere near as good as what Stephan and team were able to make in a foreign kitchen with foreign ingredients halfway around the world, we can recommend it if you are ever in Berlin. We never thought our first experience with Michelin-star worthy cooking would be at a winery in a small town in Bolivia.

Goulash, cabbage and potato dumplings

Carnaval Chapaco

By coincidence, we were in Valle de la Concepcion for the last weekend of Carnaval and the celebration happens right outside the winery in the town square. Before we went out to see it, Jesús gave Eric an erque (a horn) to play. Eric was quite good at it, so Jesús gave him a caja (a drum/tambourine instrument) to play at the same time as well as a classic Chapaco (meaning from the Tarija region) hat. Eric agreed to play the erque and the caja in the winery but drew the line at playing them in the town square, so we left them behind. Jesús filled up a leather sack with singani (a Grappa-like liquor made from grapes) and we went out to drink singani with his friends and enjoy the carnaval. Later that evening, we found Jesús asleep at the kitchen table again.

Eric’s musical prowess

Our Friends Came to Visit!

Leia and Angela from the bus del Infierno came to the winery to visit us. This is the second time we have met up with them since we were in Salta, Argentina together. They came and saw us working on Wednesday morning, we gave them the tour complete with museum and Tunnel of Love and then went out to explore Valle de la Concepción. We visited the cemetery which is colorfully decorated according to the age of the person who died. We went to Casa Vieja, the oldest winery in the valley, and shared a pitcher of wine. We showed them our local shops as we bought groceries to cook together, and then we went back to the winery and played Tichu. Leia and Jess were victorious. It is so fun to have friends on the road who keep reappearing, especially ones we have taught Tichu.

The Cats Have to Go

The winery was full of cats. We saw at least seven of them while we were there. They would usually make a huge mess of the garbage which for some reason was often left out at night. Sometimes they would play catch with a large beetle or fight with each other, but mostly they just hung out at the winery. Jess liked to give them names. There was Sneaky (our favorite and very aptly named. We once caught her standing on her hind legs reaching for a glass from the glass cabinet), Molé (a cat with a small black mark by her nose), Not Mole (a similar looking cat without a mark), Grinch (a cat who always seemed to be fighting), Look Alike (a cat who looked like Sneaky but was scrawnier and less sneaky), Snuggles/Curiosity (the cat who spent the most time in the fermentation room and seemed to always want to be close). Towards the end of our stay, we learned most of the cats don’t belong at the winery and they were causing a lot of trouble, so Carlos and Adelpha rounded up Molé, Not Mole and Look Alike, put them together in a potato sack, and drove off to some destination 40 minutes away where they dropped off the cats. We had enjoyed having the cats around and watching their antics, so we were sad to see them go.

Prepare a typical American dish for 10 people

Just before 8pm on our last Saturday night, a drunken Jesús came over and told us he wanted us to prepare an American dish for 10 people the next day before leaving the winery.  Sunday is normally our day off, but we thought it sounded kind of fun to prepare food for the people who had been cooking for, and working with, us for the past two weeks. On Sunday, we bought five kilos of tomatoes, five carrots, three onions, one kilo of cheese and ten breads to make tomato soup and grilled cheese. We started cooking around 10:45am, and at some point Jess went out to buy more tomatoes because we didn’t think we had enough. In town she ran into Jesús who confirmed we were cooking before leaving.  Just after noon our tomato soup and grilled cheese was finished, but no one showed up to eat it. Despite telling the women who work at the winery that we were cooking for everyone, they prepared their own lunch and sat down to eat it right before we served our food. We’re not sure if they misunderstood us despite the obvious mountain of food we were preparing or if they didn’t think it looked good. Eric was so angry, he did not want to finish making the soup which still needed to be blended. Jess was also annoyed, but she figured this was our lunch too and she wanted to eat the finished product. We marched off to find Jesús who was with his friends drinking in the bodega and told him food was almost ready and then went back down to blend the soup. After the third round of blending, one of the workers told us we needed to let the soup cool before blending it or we would damage the blender, so we decided it was good enough. We served two plates and sat down to eat. Jesús didn’t come down for at least another hour at which point we were packing our bags to leave. Jesús made an effort at an apology by inviting us to a final bottle of wine which we shared with him before we left. It was a frustrating end to an otherwise pleasant stay, and we felt we had somehow missed an opportunity to give something back. 

WWOOF-ing has been a very interesting experience, allowing us to live more like locals than we normally do. Eating lunch with the other workers on the farm, and being present in the evenings for parties gave us a good glimpse into their lives. We also enjoyed being more stationary, developing short relationships with local shops, local pets and the surroundings. It has come to an end, but we’re thankful for the fun experiences, relaxing times, and the memories of Valle de Concepción.

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