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Published: November 6th 2013
Whew, after the horse-riding, hiking adventures of Tupiza, and the frenetic, high-altitude intensity of Potosi, it was sweet to bask in the gentility of Sucre. The city is the country's constitutional and judicial capital and had been the retreat of the wealthy escaping the high altitude, big city chaos of Potosi during the colonial period, and it was a lovely retreat for me.
Sucre is called the White City, and it reminded me of my native Santa Barbara, California, with its whitewashed, red-roofed, Andalusian-style, colonial architecture in good repair. It was perfect for a flanneur, and I loved wandering, admiring the wealth of architectural details. With a quarter million people, Sucre had delicious amenities I'd not indulged for a long time--a cinema, tasty, affordable restaurants serving international delights, organic Amazon dark chocolate, brazil nuts and green tea, a shop I trusted to repair my broken computer, and a dentist with a sign rather than a picture of a happy tooth. The city also had a wealth of museums, monasteries, flowered parks, and streets with wide sidewalks that didn't feel crowded. It sat in the high plateau of the Andes
at 2810 m/9220 ft, lower than anyplace I'd been in the previous month, and I felt as if I could fly. It didn't feel like the Bolivia I'd come to know, which was fine with me. A bit of R & R for a long-term traveler, and a cushy place to spend my March 1st birthday. I'd planned to spring for an expensive birthday tour to amazing natural sites outside the city--old Inca trails, dinosaur footprints, waterfalls, and unusual natural phenomenon. However, in the off-season, none of the agencies had enough people for a walking or car tour. Time for plan B.
True Confessions--I Love Dinosaurs! So, for my birthday, I visited a dinosaur park that had been erected to highlight a wall of dinosaur footprints uncovered in the process of quarrying (all of Bolivia is either being mined or quarried). The park was excellent with a bilingual timeline of the earth and its inhabitants, an explanation of Andean geology and the forces that uplifted the wall from its formerly flat position, and models of beasties and their prints to better interpret the marks on the distant wall. With my
binoculars, I had an awesome sense of walking with dinosaurs. Equally fun were huge, life-size models looming over us for more of the roaming-with-dinosaurs feeling. (see footprints in panorama shot at top) The bus to the park wound through the outskirts of town through cement block and slap-dash neighborhoods, making it clear that not all of Sucre was the white-washed perfection of its center, something also clear on the approach to the city from Potosi and to the lovely little indigenous market town of Tarabuco.
Tarabuco Colors Two Sundays, I joined other tourists for long rides up into the rainy-season green mountains to visit the lively, colorful market of Tarabuco. Villagers in traditional clothing from the surrounding pueblos had walked long distances or had piled into open trucks, bringing their wares to sell or barter. I visited not only the tourist areas with their beautiful woven goods, but also the indigenous food markets, buying treats and chatting with the sellers. However, they rarely liked having their picture taken, so I gave up trying and went for hikes to the peaceful cemetery and the surrounding mountains.
Madness Miradors/viewpoints are generally my places in a city, and Sucre's were outstanding, offering views from different perspectives and walks up through interesting neighborhoods. The Recoleta Mirador was a long, arcaded walkway with a panorama of the city in one direction, and in the other, an always-full and entertaining fountain and plaza. I often visited when the primary school let out, when the plaza was full of women collecting their children and lots of vendors selling tempting stacks and toys. Another great mirador was atop the huge, 17c monastery of St Filipe Neri. I waited a week and a half for a clear afternoon to wander the tiled, undulating roof and bell towers for sunset views. Since the monastery now houses a girls' school and not cloistered monks, I was then free to waft around the grand, arcaded cloisters, another favorite pastime. Sucre's lovely, hilltop cemetery provided great views and was a peaceful, lush parkland with stately cypress, elegant mausoleums and sculptures, banks of crypts and a little hill for babies' tombs. The funerals of the westernized people were somber, but full of expensive roses, while the indigenous funerals were livelier with lots
of weeping, singing, and tall bowers of palm fronds and flowers that somehow disappeared when the service was over. Child labor is everywhere in impoverished Bolivia, and here for a pittance, children climbed rickety, hand-made ladders to reach upper niches in crypts to replace flowers for mourners. Blind people earned money by praying with and comforting mourners, and musicians went around playing at the indigenous funerals. They and the army of gardeners composed a whole society in the cemetery.
The Best Bolivian Museums Sucre had fabulous, informative museums in beautifully-restored, 17c and 18c colonial houses, monasteries and convents. A community museum featured local, indigenous weaving, masks, musical instruments, and traditions, while another showcased and explained the various weaving techniques and styles from all over the country. A most impressive mask in the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore was used in a ceremony in which the dancer was fed caramels, spent the night with a virgin, and then danced for three days until hopefully, he died of exhaustion; were he to live, it would bring misfortune to the village. Sacrifice was all! La Casa de la Libertad
(the House of Liberty), on the main plaza, had been a Jesuit college attended by many leaders of the 19c revolutionary movement. The rich, gilded chapel had become a meeting room, and it was there that the independence of Alto Peru (Bolivia) was proclaimed in 1826. After having a proper history lesson, I spent the rest of the day reading on the benches around the pleasant, peristyle courtyard. The huge, wealthy Santa Clara Convent and the modest Recoleta Franciscan Monastery were still inhabited by nuns and monks, respectively, so I couldn't roam freely, but had to join (Spanish) tours. Still, the cloisters held their peaceful magic around flower-filled gardens, and I was impressed with the collections of colonial paintings, gold and silver treasures and musical instruments. Both were worth visiting.
Bus Misadventures After a couple of mellow weeks, I was ready to face the big city madness of La Paz. However, there were no day buses, and I'd have to take my first overnight ride, something I wasn't looking forward to. Bolivian bus drivers have a well-earned reputation for both drinking and falling asleep at the wheel. Several
years ago, a law was passed prohibiting drivers from drinking while driving, and they held a nation-wide strike in protest! It's so bizarre that when miners and workers chew coca leaves to give them energy, that bus drivers prefer alcohol. My last two Bolivian buses had horrible "entertainers;" from Tupiza, a snake oil salesman droned on for hours extolling the benefits of his fiber pills, and from Potosi, an off-key singer nearly drowned out my IPOD opera for five hours. What was I in for on a ten-hour ride? I was holding my breath.
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