For its size, government buildings (complete with apparently almost constant protests - a Bolivian speciality I will get to find out about before too long, I'm sure) and incredible hustle and bustle, La Paz is not - officially, constitutionally speaking - Bolivia's capital city. That honour goes to the city of Sucre, located some 600 kilometres southeast of La Paz in the dry, rolling hills of the departamento
of Chuquisaca. Six hundred kilometres might not sound like much, but in a country like Bolivia it most certainly is.
Bolivia is over five times larger than the United Kingdom and has some of the most formidable geography imaginable: pretty much the northern half of the country is rainforest, and the bottom bit is dominated by mountains, volcanos and desert. As a result, Bolivia's road network is not exactly the jewel in the country's crown. Long, exhausting journeys on clapped-out vehicles are the norm in Bolivia - a norm I'll be doing my best to avoid during my time here. There are quite a few backpackers out there who seem to be under the awfully quaint impression that a journey's value is directly proportional to the discomfort experienced during said journey. To
which I confidently say: bullsh*t.
Fortunately for me, the 10-hour-plus bus journey is easily avoided thanks to the services of TAM - Transporte Aéreo Militar
- a useful little airline run as a commercial venture by Bolivia's airforce. The network and schedule are rather limited, but there's a La Paz to Sucre flight on just the day I need - a quick visit to their office in downtown La Paz and I have my ticket under five minutes. Hurrah for military efficiency! I reckon their pilots know what they're doing, too.
A quick taxi ride from my hotel the next morning and I'm back up in El Alto, the sprawling Aymara-speaking city which stretches out for miles on the plains above the bowl of La Paz. El Alto is also home to the world's highest international airport, at just over 4,060 metres above sea level. Getting planes to take off and land at these altitudes is apparently rather difficult, making a long runway and reinforced aircraft tyres essential - yikes! The flight to Sucre, with a brief stop in the city of Cochabamba, is as quick and easy as they come - although seeing the cabin crew push
the drinks trolley (yes, drinks on a one-hour military flight - I'm impressed) down the aisle dressed in their airforce uniforms certainly adds a rather surreal touch to the experience.
A few days later and my preconceptions about Bolivia - Bolivia, that impoverished, chaotic Andean nation - are well and truly shattered. Sucre, a small city with fewer than a quarter of a million inhabitants, is one of the most gorgeous, refined and relaxing places I have visited on this trip so far - and, to me, the smartest and most pleasant South American capital city. A place of quiet, verdant plazas ringed by blindingly white colonial buildings, of beautiful churches set against brilliant blue sky, of cafés and culture. Breakfasts of piping-hot meaty salteñas
(traditional Bolivian pasties whose name, strangely, suggests they're from over the border in Argentina...) with lemonade in a shady, bougainvillea-draped courtyard. Lazy lunches of homemade chorizo
sausages, washed down with a nice Bolivian beer, in a grassy restaurant patio. A glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice (twenty pence a glass, what better way to get my vitamin C?) sipped on a shady park bench. Not really what I was expecting from Bolivia at all. A
couple of museums aside, there isn't a whole lot to do
in Sucre, but wandering its beautiful streets and sampling its culinary delights is more than enough to keep me busy for three days. Sucre just might be one of South America's best kept secrets - I'm definitely in love.
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