While visiting the city of Sucre, Bolivia, in March 2011, my partner and I decided to book a trip to local villages Candelaria and Tarabuco with Candelaria Tours, whose services were highly recommended in the Lonely Planet Bolivia guide.
However, I have to question if the writer responsible for this section of the book actually went on the tour they recommend, or even to the village of Candelaria.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the two-day tour offered by Candelaria Tours was the single worst trip I've been on during my regular trips to South America over the past 10 years.
We were picked up from our hotel on time, but then spent an hour being driven around Sucre, picking up stuff for the trip. OK, so this sort of bewildering detour isn't so unusual in Bolivia, but it culminated in the tour company owner getting in the car too - who, we were told, was coming along as our cook - and a 90-something woman shuffling up to the car on a Zimmer frame.
This old lady, we were told by the tour guide, is the owner of the hacienda where we were to spend the night - and mother of the owner/cook - who *had* to come along as "she has the keys".
We stopped again in Tarabuco, where the owner/cook again spent half an hour sorting out various things, talking with the staff of the restaurant she owns there, and buying food.
Finally, at around 2pm, we arrived at the hacienda where we were to spend the night. While the hacienda is indeed "colonial", I can't see how Lonely Planet could possibly describe it as "beautiful". It's rundown, depressing and shabby, with a fountain in the middle spraying a sad trickle of muddy water.
Our room wasn't ready, so we had to sit around for almost an hour while someone changed the bedsheets. When he was finally done and we were shown our room, we were then press-ganged into buying some awful weavings from the cleaner.
We were then shown around the hacienda by the guide, who - given the lack of actual sights - resorted to showing us different kinds of insects, plants and domesticated farm animals.
Finally, at around 3.30pm, lunch was served. By this time we were starving, although in fairness the food was really good. Lunch was nonetheless incredibly uncomfortable as the elderly lady was helped to the table and given a bowl, but no food. As we ate, she'd occasionally lift her bowl and let out a plaintive cry which we couldn't quite understand.
Eventually, the owner/cook gave her mother some soup, shouting "QUE QUIERES MAMITA?!" over the table repeatedly as the elderly woman struggled to eat. Eventually, the old lady gave up using the spoon provided and slurped loudly from the bowl.
We ate our lunch in silence, embarrassed at being unable to help this frail old lady who was clearly struggling.
At 4.15pm, we actually began the 'tour'. And this is the crux of my complaint here - there is pretty much *nothing* to see in Candelaria. The book describes it as "appealingly rustic"; in reality it's pretty much featureless.
As we left the hacienda, a local man asked if he could show us his weaving technique. Fine, although we could see where this was going. After a ten-minute talk on weaving, the man tried to sell us a used poncho covered in food stains, while stressing how poor he is (which he clearly was, but what the hell am I supposed to do with a used poncho, even if I could get the thing in my rucksack?).
Afterwards the tour guide spent 20mins asking around town for a key, then we were finally shown to the textile "museum". It isn't really a museum; it's a shop with a few explainationary notes and displays. We were rushed through the musuem by the guide in about five minutes, while the woman who let us in stood looking at the ceiling, tapping her fingers on a table and waiting for us to buy something.
Again, we were pretty much forced to buy some decidely average weavings before we left.
Next we did a tour of the village. By this point even the guide
seemed embarrassed at the lack of local things to see, and resorted to prising open rocks in the hope of finding some fossils.
We walked up a hill, from which you could see how tiny Candelaria is, and down again - on the way being forced into buying *another* weaving from a local family.
Back at the Hacienda within an hour, we just had to kill time until dinner. I read a book for two hours.
Dinner was OK, with no old lady this time, but we were grateful to go to bed. In all, day one of the tour was not just a waste of a day, but one in which we felt uncomfortable, embarrassed and bored. It wasn't a tour; at best it was a homestay, and not even a good one.
I really wouldn't recommend visiting Candelaria at all, but if you do it needs an hour at best. It is not worth a full day, and the weavings are not of the high quality indicated in the Lonely Planet guide.
Day two saw us going to Tarabuco. We agreed a 7.30am breakfast so we could leave at 8am to get to the market for 9am - the main reason for our trip. At 8am we got in the car. At 8.50am we were still waiting as the owner/cook faffed about putting things in the car. We finally left at 9am, with five other people in the car, including the family who maintain the hacienda, and the owner's elderly mother.
As a town, Tarabuco is also underwhelming. The market doesn't even fill the town plaza - the streets beyond the main square have hundreds of market stalls, but they mostly sell items for local reisdents. There were some local weavings and hats for sale, but for the most part the goods were the same as those all over Bolivia (hats, gloves, leg warmers) at the same prices. In short, the Tarabuco market is not really worth going out of your way for.
It was Pujllay weekend, so President Evo Morales was about to arrive in town any minute. We found a fantastic vantage point from which to see the stage - only for the tour guide to track us down and tell us our lunch was ready and we had to come *right now*. So we missed the President's speech too.
The two-day tour lacked all the major elements of a tour - namely a schedule, a series of things to see, and a decent guide. We chose a private tour, as we often do, as we're short on time and like to have some control over the pace and timing of trips. But on this trip *everything* was dictated by the owner/cook. And with her elderly, frail mother in tow, it felt like the whole thing was the owner's nice weekend in the country, which we'd mistakenly paid US$200 to join.
Personally I wouldn't recommend Candelaria Tours *at all* - the guide wasn't very good, the tour badly organised and mis-sold, and the whole sorry affair was poor value for money. If you *really* want to see Candeleria and Tarabuco while in Sucre, book a cab - it will be cheaper, it will run at the pace you dictate, and you won't feel uncomfortable throughout the experience.
FOOTNOTE: Although this could be *absolutely* nothing to do with Candelaria Tours, we spent the three days following the tour doubled up in pain, suffering from food poisoning. And while there's no doubt the food was delicious, I hope our sickness had nothing to do with the cook/owner licking her fingers throughout the cooking process, or dunking a peeled cucumber in a bowl of dirty dishwasher to rinse it, before chopping it directly into a salad bowl...