The Village of San Lorenzo
31 Mar, 2020 | Rinalda Aay
Photos: Rinalda Aay, George Fearnley and Rhiannon Matthias
A new tour agency offers visitors a wealth of culture, food and natural beauty
Fifteen kilometres north of Tarija, the capital of Bolivia’s wine region, lies San Lorenzo, a quaint, colonial-era village with a population of around 3,000 people. In the late 18th century, it was home to Eustaquio Méndez, a prominent military leader in Bolivia’s war of independence. La Casa del Moto Méndez, the local museum, displays some of his weapons and personal belongings.
Chances are, though, if you’re a tourist passing through Bolivia, that small claim to fame will seem insufficient to draw you out to San Lorenzo. Maria Isabel Valdez Gutierrez, Nely Tinta Fernandez, Ramiro Pocoaca Torrez and Carlos Antonio Vasquez know this, but they also know that San Lorenzo and its surroundings have much more to offer. This is why they began a private, nonprofit tour agency, the Agencia de Turismo Encanto Mendeño.
Among this group of San Lorenzo locals (some have lived there all their life; some have moved there more recently) are housewives, mechanics, farmers, merchants and dentists, but all have one thing in common: they know and appreciate the beauty of San Lorenzo’s location, culture and people, and they want to share it with the world.
‘San Lorenzo is a town full of tradition and culture,’ says Nely Fernandez. ‘It has amazing tourist attractions such as natural landscapes and also warm people. But before us, there was no organisation to receive visitors comprehensively.’
I had the privilege of being a part of Agencia de Turismo Encanto Mendeño’s first tour group. Had I not been told that this was their first tour, I would never have known. From the minute we were picked up from our Tarija accommodation in a faded blue truck until we were seen safely onto a minibus back at the end of the day, the trip ran confidently and smoothly (although ‘smooth’ is not a word that could apply to the drive itself).
The agency offers a variety of tours around the San Lorenzo area, including but not limited to activities such as hiking, horse riding, sport fishing, camping, condor watching and seasonal berry tasting. My group selected a one-day hiking tour followed by a horse-riding experience, and it wasn’t a day we will soon forget.
Following breakfast in San Lorenzo’s markets, back at the tour agency, we were offered a traditional breakfast drink – a wine shake made of raw frothed eggs and wine. While this was undeniably a shock to my Australian senses, there was a sense of being included in something unique and personal.
To get to our next stop, we piled back into the truck with Nely and Ramiro and trundled off to see a waterfall called Chorro de Marquiri.
Located on a property named Reserva de Sama, the falls were our reward at the end of a 40-minute hike through stunning mountain vistas. Next came a lunch of fresh food cooked by Ramiro over open fire and coals.
‘In all our tours we offer local and typical food, traditional from San Lorenzo,’ says Nely. ‘At the same time, we consume the products that are cultivated near the town.’
Our guides also shared with us a wine handmade in the Méndez province, and taught us the traditional way of drinking it. The wine is poured into a mate (a natural container made from a plant called porongo) and passed around the group with the words te invito (I invite you).
After lunch, we visited more waterfalls, referred to as Chorro Negro and Chorro Blanco (Black Waterfall and White Waterfall) by our guides. This time, we carried with the group a plastic bag for collecting rubbish along the way, reflective of the agency’s dedication to respecting the land on which they live and work.
‘The businesses’ good practices play a fundamental role, because we have to guarantee that our activities minimise social and environmental impact,’ explains Nely.
The agency also collaborates with various members of the province, promoting their individual goods and services. One such service that my group experienced at the end of our tour was the horse-riding experience. We began at a property near the border of the town and were guided on horseback into the centre of San Lorenzo, where our tour concluded.
The Agencia de Turismo Encanto Mendeño is a small business committed to incorporating all that San Lorenzo has to offer into innovative, environmentally conscious and locally driven tourism experiences. As Nely states: ‘We aim to contribute to the town’s diversification and motivate a greater flow of visitors in all seasons, to contribute to the economic and social development of the communities involved.’
Not only this, but the agency is highly knowledgeable about the local area and completely open and welcoming, making for an informative, adventurous and thoroughly enjoyable tourism experience.