Committing a Travel Faux Pas in Tarija, Bolivia

Tarija is one of Bolivia’s more upmarket cities, known for its wine and sunny climate. It’s not overly popular with tourists because it doesn’t quite fit into the traveler transportation route – the road between Tarija and Tupiza is hairy, with sheer drops and perpetual rock slides.

Drawn by the promise of wine and weather, we booked three nights in Tarija and hoped for the best.

Tarija, Bolivia
Hmm. So far, so good.

After one afternoon and a poorly-chosen bottle of red wine, we decided to skip the wine tours and see what else there was to do in the city.

We settled on the dinosaur museum – which, by the way, is not always open when it says it will be. Kind of hit-or-miss, like everything in Bolivia.

The entrance was free, and we strode into a single room crammed with prehistoric bones. I was immediately taken by this gigantic guinea pig thing. It was the size of a Tyrannosaurus and reconstructed on a small platform of gravel. The skeleton was propped against a tall tree trunk, and every visitor had their picture taken with it.

Prehistoric animal, Tarija, Bolivia
I still contest it is a giant guinea pig.

“You want me to take a picture of you?” Jared asked.

“No, that’s okay,” I said. Then – “Okay, yes. Do it.”

I skipped over to the skeleton and immediately assumed a weird pose. I have this thing where I feel the need to copy inanimate objects, so that’s what I did here.

I stood on the other side of the tree trunk, wrapped my arms around it, and made a weird face that I thought was pretty close to a giant guinea pig thing.

Let’s say that one more time – wrapped my arms around the tree trunk.

In the US, I would never dream of touching an exhibit at a museum. I usually walk around pinning my bag to my body to make sure that I don’t inadvertently destroy something.

And I don’t know what got into me here. The seeming lack of rules in Bolivia? The schoolkids who were striking emphatic poses at its tail? Sheer idiocy?

Whatever it was, two things happened simultaneously:

1) Two old men yelled at me.

2) I noticed the skeleton swaying.

My heart dropped, first because I hate being yelled at (even when it’s justified) and second, because in my mind, I could see the whole thing crashing into a pile of dust and broken bones, and it would be all my fault.

I leapt away and cowered in a corner, dizzy with humiliation.

Giant armadillo
I cowered next to the enormous armadillo bones, to be precise.

What the hell had I been thinking?

The men watched me suspiciously from across the room. I was so embarrassed – my actions had made me that girl. The one who does stupid, careless, disrespectful things while others look on and judge her unfavorably. It was like I’d waltzed into the Vatican in a bikini.

“I can’t believe you touched it,” Jared whispered. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“I can’t talk about it,” I hissed. “Not for a long time.”

I slunk around the museum with my head down, giving every dinosaur bone a wide berth. Enjoying the museum was out of the question, which was unfortunate because it was pretty cool. I was preoccupied with why I’d done something so irresponsible and out of character.

It was a few days before I could even look at the photo, which still gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. At the very least – lesson learned. From now on, I’ll think before I pose.

Breaking bones in Tarija, Bolivia
The picture wasn’t even worth it. Oh, the humiliation.

Have you ever temporarily lost your mind while traveling?
Please tell me about it so I can feel slightly less terrible.

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    1. That’s all I could picture for the next hour: the whole thing falling over as if it were a movie scene. It’s worth a visit, but keep your hands to yourself!

  1. Great story L! I felt like I was there. Too funny! p.s. I am catching up on all your blog entries and am loving it.

    1. If there had been alcohol involved, I’m certain I’d be in a prison cell in Bolivia at this very moment. Probably being tortured. With dinosaur bones.

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