Capital of Bolivia

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sucre, formerly known as La Plata (silver), was once the capital of a vast tract of Spanish controlled territory in South America covering all of present day Bolivia, and bits of Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The region was called Audencia de Charcas. In Sucre was the Spanish controlled local government, the seat of the Bishop, and the third university established in South America.

In 1809, Alta Peru (Bolivia) was the first coutry to attempt to gain independence from the Spanish. Due to the Spanish interests in the vast wealth of silver from nearby Potosi, it was the last country in South America to obtain it in 1825.

Simon Bolivar, who led the struggle for independence was recognised in the new name for the country. His right-hand-man, Señor Sucre, was honoured by having the capital city named after him.

And so I ask myself, why is La Paz considered the capital of Bolivia? The answer is that in a civil war in the early 20th Century, La Paz assumed some control of governmental functions. But, constitutionally, Sucre is still the capital. This will be recognised when the 48 parliamentary representatives of the new government sit in the Casa de la Liberdad in Sucre in the very near future.

Rachel and I get to Sucre on a 3.5 hour bus journey from Potosi for 15 Bolivianos (about GBP1.10) each. Fortunately this time we get on the right bus. Most of the journey is in the dark, and I am gald to get off because I feel a bit sick after all the twisting and bouncing along the road. We´ve come down from 4100m in Potosi to 2700m in Sucre so there is oxygen relief to counteract the nausea.

We jump into a taxi that will take us the 2km down to the city centre. Rachel is worried about bogus taxi drivers, having read lots of horror stories about tourists being kidnapped on various web forums. There´s also a big notice at the bus station in English telling tourists not to show their passports to policeman as there have been cases of fake policemen misleading and robbing tourists.

Rachel is tense in the taxi, but I am fairly relaxed for once. We get into the town centre with no problems and check into Hostel Charcas for 60 Bolivianos per room per night (about GBP4.80). The room seems fine but as soon as we shut the door we realise it reeks of sweat and dirt. We decide to look for something else in the morning.

We decide to go out for a late bite to eat. We find a Chinese restaurant on the main plaza that serves us some passable food and shows 'Animal Planet' on a large projection TV. Rachel speaks to the round female owner in Cantonese. The lady seems excited because after weeks, Rachel is the third Cantonese speaker in the restaurant that night.

Next morning we take a little walk around town and we are surprised at how beautiful the city is. There are huge Spanish colonial buildings with tall ceilings, shutters, and balconies. There are beautiful churches on every street. The streets are clean and the central plaza has manicured gardens, mature shaded trees, and plentiful park benches.

The people here clearly have more European blood than those in Potosi. Traditional clothing is less common, and there are plenty of Bolivian women here dressed in sharp business suits and designer shades. Historically this is because the poor Indians were forced to work in the silver mines of Potosi while the rich Spanish-descended businessmen built their mansions in the more pleasant, lower altitude setting of Sucre, and visited Potosi only when necessary.

We go into Museo Gutierrez Valenzuela which is run by the University and houses a collection of French furniture owned by a local lawyer (entry for 8 Bolivianos or GBP0.60 each). The display is not particularly exciting, but our wide-eyed and energetic guide gives us a pretty good rundown of everything there is to do and see in the city. She hands us a couple of useful maps which we use throughout our time in Sucre.

We scout arount some of the other hotels in town. There are some stunningly beautiful ones with tidy plant-draped courtyards and beds with crisp linen, but the rooms are USD$35 per night. Other cheaper options all seem to be fully booked. Back as hostal Charcas we move up to a larger room with two windows on the terrace at the top of the building. It seems nice at first but suffers from the same fusty non-cleanable carpet smells as soon as the door is closed. We reason that we can sleep with the window open, because we can´t be bothered looking around any more.

We take one of the hundreds of Japanese hand-me-down ´micro´ buses to the bus terminal and buy our tickets to leave for La Paz in a couple of days time. The micros cost just 1.20 Bolivianos (GBP 0.09) regardless of how far you travel. We buy the best possible seats for the 12 hour overnight trip to La Paz on the ´Bus Especiale´ which has cama (bed) seats. The tickets cost 120 Bolivianos (about GBP9.00) instead of 100 because we will arrive on Good Friday. Unlike Chile which has a sophisticated computerised bus booking system where different companies can sell each others tickets electronically, Bolivian bus companies have a single sheet of paper representing a plan of the bus on which you write your name on your seat.

In the afternoon we board the 'dino bus' and chug slowly to a dirty cement factory on the edge of Sucre for a look at some dinosaur footprints. We get out of the bus and see an enormous cliff of uplifted grey rock. 65 million years ago the rock was a flat mud beach on the edge of a lake which got covered in ash from a volcano, preserving the numerous dinosaur imprints on it. We pay our 30 Bolivianos (about GBP2.20) entrance fee, don ridiculous orange safety helmets, and enter the cement factory along with about 20 others to meet our profusely-sweating, but friendly, English-speaking guide. She shows us some plastic dinosaur toys to explain what animals left behind the footprints. We walk over to the grey cliff and look at the rock which has footprints all over it; some of them thought-provoking and distinct like those left by a running three-toed carnivore. Others are less exciting like those of two brontosauraus who were 'fighting' and left a large messy patch on the wall.

After an hour or so we walk back across the rocky ground of the cement factory dodging dumper trucks to get back to the bus. Across from the wall we see a new visitor centre, complete with 30 full-scale dinosaur models, that is being built to increase the appeal of this tourist attraction. Our guide tells us that once the centre is open we will no longer be able to walk beside the footprints by the wall. It feels like commercially minded people will sanitise the whole experience even further.

That evening we meet up with Roland and Chantal (our Swiss travellers) who also happen to be in town. We go to a very warm and cozy little restaurant which serves Italian food. We hear all about Chantal´s misfortunate problems with acute altitude sickness on the Salar de Uyuni and her amusing experiences of Bolivian hospitals. Somehow we all end up eating spaghetti which I think is excellent and Rachel says is OK. The bill for all four of us including drinks and desserts is 128 Bolivianos (about GBP9.50).

Next morning Rachel drags me along to the indigenous arts museaum where we see some fine examples of Bolivian textiles. We have a fat booklet with the English translation of all the displays and it is hard work keeping awake. Fortunately it closes for lunch after we´ve been in for just 45 minutes.

In the Plaza we see a lady selling fresh orange juice. She has a hand cart full of oranges which has a hand-operated peeler and crusher. A large glass of on-the-spot made juice costs just 2 Bolivianos (GBP0.15).

We go into a cafe on the Plaza and order lunch from a table beside an open window. As we are waiting for our food we meet 5 beggars, one hawker selling traditional textiles, and one shoe-shine boy. A tasty hamburger with all the trimmings and a side of piping hot homemade chips plus a large banana milkshake costs 9 Bolivianos (about GBP0.70) each.

We wait in the shady Plaza until the Casa de Liberdad is open. Within about five minutes there are seven or eight boys around us offering to shine our shoes for one Boliviano (about GBP 0.07). A drunk man clutching a plastic bottle of liquor staggers across the square with his trousers and pants round his ankles much to the amusement of the boys.

In the Casa de Liberdad we have a facinating tour in English by a plump but well educated goatee-sporting Bolivian gentleman (10 Bolivianos or GBP0.70 each). He explains the history of Sucre, the importance of silver, independence for Bolivia, the economic influence of the Scots and Irish in the country, and the reason for the confusion about the capital city (which he adamantly declares is Sucre). As he´s talking we walk through some beautiful buildings which are the Bolivain equivalent of the houses of parliament in London. Its the best tour we´ve been on in Sucre by far.

We walk down through town to get to 'El Cementario'. It is like a huge city of the dead, with houses that reflect the wealth of the deceased occupants. On the main thoroughfare are ornate mausoleums built of granite and sandstone with private chapels and brass plaques bearing the family name.

On the edges of the are the 'highrise flats' for the commoners where coffins are accomodated lengthwise in a matrix of concrete recesses. Once sealed in there is a small space for a memorial behind a locking glass door. Presumably the relatives of the dead in the 'top flats' use a ladder to attend the memorial.

We ride in a 'micro' back into the centre of town and go to Museo y Convento de Santa Clara (16 Bolivianos or GBP1.20 each entrance fee). This was the first convent in Sucre and used to house 300 nuns of the order of St Claire. Now there are only 20, and I see a few of them them silently preparing for Easter in the ornate and beautiful chapel. Our guide shows us around the extensive exhibits in the museam fondling and touching the priceless statues and paintings despite the 'no tocar' notice promininently displayed everywhere.

In the evening we go out to dinner in 'La Taverna' run by the Alliance Francaise. Finely prepared beef steaks with a gorgonzola sauce, salad, and fries, followed by dessert cost 43 Bolivianos (about GBP3.00) each including drinks. We really enjoy being in such a cheap country.

We wonder if La Paz will be as interesting and enjoyable as Sucre.
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