Introducing Sucre, Bolivia’s graceful grand old dame
Secondary Categories: The Essentials
With its proud history, gorgeous whitewashed architecture, temperate climate, A-grade textiles, and delicious cuisine, what’s not to love about Sucre?
Sucre is Bolivia’s most beautiful city. This is an undisputed fact you’ll read and hear often throughout Bolivia, and who am I to disagree? With countless colonial churches, monasteries, plazas and mansions (all of which are whitewashed at least once a year by municipal decree), and a laidback studenty feel that comes with being home to the third oldest university in the Americas (dating back to 1624, it’s 12 years older than Harvard), it’s an absolutely fantastic place to while away a few days, weeks or even months. Here are a few of the things we love most about La Ciudad Blanca…
Its churches and convents
Sucre’s entire historic center (read more about the city’s past below) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, which makes discovering the city on foot an absolute delight. While wandering aimlessly around its cobbled streets is sure to unearth treasures from five different centuries, there are a few buildings you should make a point of visiting.
- The Metropolitan Cathedral – whose construction spanned from 1559 to 1712 – combines the best of the Renaissance and Baroque styles, and even features a working clock brought out from London in 1722.
- The Casa de la Libertad (built in 1621 by the Jesuits) is a handsome building that – being the spot where the Bolivian Declaration of Independence was signed in 1825 – houses an exhaustive and fascinating museum on Bolivia’s turbulent history.
- The Convento de San Felipe Neri, built in 1799, features courtyards bedecked with roses and poinsettias; some important bones (human ones) and paintings; and the best views in town.
One building deserves a paragraph all to itself. Located on the outskirts of Sucre in a verdant valley below town, La Glorieta is a fantastical hodgepodge of architectural styles that echoes the whimsy of its creators. Francisco Argandoña and his wife Doña Clotilde Urioste were rich mining magnates of the late 19th century who represented Bolivia in Europe and were even given the titles Prince and Princess by Pope Leo XVIII, no less. Built between 1893 and 1897 by an Italian/British architect, La Glorieta borrows from Russian, Chinese, Byzantine, Dutch, and Italian styles, and is painted pink from wall to ceiling. It’s a weird spot that has to be seen to be believed.
Sucre is surrounded by relatively fertile farmlands (by altiplano standards), and is home to several ancient communities. Ancestral traditions still prevail, and have remained unchanged for generations. Two of these ethnic groups – the Tarabuco and the Jal’qa – are known for their weaving, which can be appreciated (and purchased) at the excellent Museo de Arte Indigena or on a visit to the village of Tarabuco (for Tarabuceño textiles).
Although they have lived in the same region for millennia, the textiles the two communities produce couldn’t be more different. Tarabuco weavings are big on bright stripes (orange, black, red, green, and gold), symmetry, and miniature depictions of domestic and agricultural life. Jal’qa fabrics, on the other hand, inhabit a much murkier underworld featuring strange beasts (birds with four feet, winged mammals, and humpbacked beasts with disfigured heads) and are expressed almost entirely in red and black.
Bolivians go mad for their mid-morning salteñas, and all Bolivians know that the best salteñas come from Sucre. On the outside, these wedge-shaped pastries may look pretty similar to empanadas, but it’s what’s on the inside that really sets Bolivian salteñas apart. Fair juicier and tangier than a regular empanada, there’s a plethora of YouTube videos detailing the correct method of eating them (shake it, bite it, drink it, eat it), and a Bolivian saying that anyone who can’t eat a salteña without spilling is a hopeless kisser (guilty as charged). You can find salteñas on pretty much every street in Sucre, but two of the best spots are El Patio and Salteñeria Flores.
Home to the largest array of dinosaur footprints in the world (you can see footprints from eight species at its Dinosaur Park), Sucre’s history goes back millions of years. Humans have lived on the plains and valleys around the modern city for thousands of years, and the modern city of Sucre is almost 500 years old.
None of the experts can agree whether Sucre was established in 1538 or 1540, but they seem pretty certain that it was known as Chuquisaca for the first few years of its life. Then silver was discovered and it was renamed Ciudad de la Plata de Nueva Toledo (La Plata for short). When far larger silver deposits were discovered at Potosí in 1561, Sucre cemented itself as the mines’ administrative headquarters (Sucre, being 4,200 ft lower in altitude, is a much more pleasant place to live than Potosí) and the center of Spanish power in Alto Peru.
In the first half of the 17th century, both La Plata and Potosí were the envy of the Americas, with the mines funding massive construction. After Bolivia declared independence in 1825, the city was made the capital and renamed Sucre, after the Venezuelan General who defeated the Spanish and served as Bolivia’s first president. These days, La Paz is both the economic and political capital of the country, but Sucre retains the ceremonial title of ‘constitutional capital’, and the university is still going strong.
By normal standards, a city located at 9,220 feet above sea level would be considered sky high, but Bolivia is not a normal country. Potosí (13,420 ft) is the world’s highest city and La Paz (11,940 ft) its highest capital. Sucre’s lower altitude doesn’t just make the air easier to breathe, it also means that the city is much warmer than its loftier neighbors, with temperatures averaging between 60˚F and 70˚F year-round. Sucre receives almost all of its rain between November and March, most of which falls during dramatic thunderstorms which occur a couple of times a week.
No trip to Bolivia is complete without at least a few days in the charming and fascinating Andean jewel that is Sucre. Check out our carefully curated Bolivia tours here. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the bespoke adventure of your dreams.
Credit to Henrique Perticarati for the title image of this blog.