Sucre – The White City

23 Aug

We decided to rest our weary traveller’s bones and spend a week in the wonderful Bolivian city of Sucre taking some Spanish lessons. Frequently described as Bolivia’s most beautiful city, Sucre couldn’t have been a nicer place to relax and unwind and after just a few days we really found ourselves falling under its spell.

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La Paz may be Bolivia’s governmental capital but Sucre proudly holds the title of Bolivia’s judicial capital and despite it’s rapidly growing size (the fifth biggest city in Bolivia with 250,000 people), the centre is a compact, safe and friendly place to walk around. Sucre is also famously the place where the first constitution was formed when Bolivia gained independence from Spain. With a slightly lower elevation than other Bolivian cities we’d visited so far, at 2,810 metres, we enjoyed Sucre’s climate which offered blue skies with warm, sunny days and slightly cooler evenings.

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Sucre is endearingly called the ‘White City’ and its historic centre is filled with wonderful white-washed churches and colonial buildings with red-tiled rooftops and ornate wooden balconies. This university city has a fascinating and diverse mix of people from young, hip Bolivians who are into their fashion and pop music to a large indigenous population who maintain their traditional clothing and customs and sell crafts locally.

The views, the churches, the parks

One of the best views over Sucre can be found at the top of Recoleta Hill. The climb is tough but the views over the white buildings and terracotta rooftops are stunning.

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We took some time to relax and soak up the views at Cafe Mirador, slouching in comfy lounge chairs and playing a few games of chess whilst sipping cold beer. The arched walkway at one side of the pretty plaza, framed the surrounding landscape and as we left Recoleta Hill, the sky was bathed in pink and purple rimmed clouds as the sun started to set.

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You’d hardly notice the entrance to the beautiful San Felipe Neri Convent but once we stepped inside, a passageway led to a magnificent inner courtyard which was open to the elements and drenched with warm light.

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A further set of stairs spiralled up to the convent’s sprawling roof top and the sights from the top would thrill even the most jaded of Peeping Toms as you peer down into secret penthouse gardens or catch a glimpse of the ornate furnishings housed in Twentieth Century mansions.

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Churches are dotted all over the inner city and their bells chimed out at slightly different intervals.

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The Convent’s roof was uneven and we felt slightly drunk as we stumbled eagerly crossing to different viewpoints.

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Bell towers, domed ceilings, chimneys and sky lights all pushed their way skyward from below us and made our own unique wonderland.

Sucre has an abundance of leafy plazas and tranquil parks to escape the heat of the day and one of our favourite spaces was Simon Bolivar park with its miniature model of the Eiffel Tower which can be scaled via an interior spiral staircase for more excellent views over the city.

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You could almost forget yourself for a moment and imagine you’re in central Paris as you watch dreamy-eyed couples stroll hand in hand and steal a kiss, children chasing each other barefoot across the green lawns and tiny birds bathing in the fountain ruffling their feathers over and over again until they are the size of tennis balls.

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Food, street parades and Wallyball

Bolivia isn’t renowned for its gourmet food and let’s face it, you’re more likely to find chicken and rice on every street corner rather than Michelin star dining but we couldn’t help but notice the proud foodie culture in Sucre. We enjoyed wandering through the excellent central market selling shiny fresh fruit and vegetables piled high and food stands, with owner’s names prominently displayed, serving up mixed fruit juices, cauldrons of bubbling soup, grilled chorizo and beef along with regional delicacies such as meat and vegetable pasties called Saltenas.

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There was also a smattering of good coffee shops, pizzerias and European style restaurants throughout the city for the times we needed to indulge in some Gringo-style comforts.

Sucre is a young and sassy university city and we never found ourselves short of things to do in the evenings. Several of the cafes and bars have nightly movie screenings, salsa dancing classes and live bands.

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And it seemed that if any excuse for a party or a street parade was needed, the people of Sucre would find it, and most afternoons or evenings we’d find something unexpected going on.

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Whilst we were in Sucre we were fortunate enough to bump into Chris and Min, our Australian and Korean friends from the Salar de Uyuni tour, who were coincidently staying in the same hostal as us. They in turn had met Dean and Ellen, an Australian couple who they knew from an earlier part of their trip. Friendly rivalry between the Aussies and the Poms couldn’t be avoided due to the fact our guest house had a slick table tennis table in the garden just crying out to be played. And when we were invited out for the evening for a fast and furious game of Wallyball we couldn’t refuse.

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Wallyball has its roots firmly planted in Volleyball with the difference being it’s possible to use any part of your body (including heads and feet) to return a pass and it’s also possible to bounce the ball off the side walls (but not the back).

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We mixed up the teams and had a really enjoyable hour-long run around. The guys showed off passing headers between each other (mis-spent youth!) and the girls were just pleased to be able to get the ball over the net! We knew we were in good company when, after the game, someone mentioned beers followed by dinner in the city. You’ve got to love those Aussies really!

Learning Spanish

We’d heard that Sucre was a great place to take Spanish lessons and an abundance of language schools offered programmes to suit every need. We’d heard some very positive reports about ‘Me Gusta’ Spanish School and they didn’t disappoint. It was possible to join group lessons, however, Dan and I decided that private tuition would be more beneficial for us as we already spoke some Spanish and at 40 Bolivianos (6 USD) per person per hour it was an absolute steal.

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The classes were tailor-made to suit our needs and for two hours each day we covered vocabulary and useful phrases, learnt grammar and practiced conversational skills. Our teacher, Erika, was in her early 20’s and had previously worked for a bank but hated the stress levels. She was wonderfully patient with us and it’s probably safe to say that her good looks and slim figure helped to keep Dan’s concentration at an optimum level! It had been quite some time since both of us had been in a classroom but we really enjoyed getting the grey matter working again. Even our daily homework didn’t seem like a chore but that’s probably because we’d indulge in good coffee and cake whilst working through our text books after class.

Tarabuco market

Every Sunday, the village of Tarabuco, which is 65 kilometres southeast of Sucre, becomes a melting pot for hundreds of indigenous people from the surrounding countryside.

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The market is in two parts – one part selling artisan products, beautiful weaving and coloured fabrics, which is predominately for the tourists, and the other part selling fresh produce, second-hand clothes and household goods, which is mainly for the locals.

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Every corner we turned there was another fabulous photographic opportunity waiting to be taken but we decided to take our shots subtly as the locals can be shy or demand payment.

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We spent hours at the market wandering through the cobbled streets and window shopping. The local’s faces were weather-beaten and full of expression.

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We could tell that country life was hard and that pleasures in life were simple. Each local tribe had their own distinctive way of dressing. Even the men, who in more urbanised locations wear jeans and t-shirts, were dressed in long robes and unusual metal helmets.

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We stopped at a small kitchen serving interesting looking drinks from large pans. We tried two different types of a drink called ‘Api’ – one made from purple corn and flavoured with sugar and cinnamon which was unusual but quite tasty, and one which was thicker, more savoury and made with yellow corn which wasn’t quite so appealing.

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The lady who served us stared at us the whole time we drank her juice so we frequently smiled and made noises to indicate that we were enjoying it.

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Many of the locals seemed to be buying enough supplies to last them for weeks and some even loaded up waiting donkeys to transport their goods home.

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Many tourists also seemed to be laden down with bags full of woven ponchos, woollen hats, belts and knitted dolls. Dan looked hopelessly cute in a hat with ear flaps and gloves with alpaca designs so our bartering skills were put to the test too.

We were captivated by Sucre’s relaxed atmosphere and like many travellers before us, we came here only for a few days and ended up staying for much longer than we planned. We’d certainly agree that Sucre is a great city to kick-back and relax in, but it also offers excellent opportunities to learn Spanish. For us, this was probably the highlight of our visit because we are now able to have more meaningful conversations with local people and this has already enhanced our journey through Latin America and we hope will continue to do so.

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