A tale of two Bolivian capitals: La Paz vs Sucre
Quick: what is the capital of Bolivia? La Paz, you say? But wait…or is it Sucre? If you said both, you are correct! Whereas Sucre is the constitutional capital as well as the location of Bolovia’s supreme court, La Paz is its administrative and legislative capital and, thus, the “seat of government” (so saith Wikipedia). Not happy with sharing custody of the country, however, the cities continue to duke it out over where ALL of the country’s powers should be located. On our tour of Bolivia we visited both cities, which are 250 miles away from one another but a world apart in terms of their character. And we vastly preferred Sucre. Ssshhhhh, don’t tell La Paz!
Our journey from Copacabana to La Paz began with a lift from our over-landing friends David and Sylvie, who we met volunteering at ZooRefugio Tarqui in Ecuador. Unexpectedly, this trip involved loading their van onto a small ferry to cross the Strait of Tiquina, a passage linking Lake Titicaca’s larger and smaller parts, and a great time-saving route to/from La Paz. Before taking our turn, we watched a huge bus – empty of its passengers – rock to and fro on its crossing. That was a nail-biter in and of itself. But making our own crossing felt even more treacherous. I think Sylvie nearly had a heart attack watching their van lean this way and that as we made our way across the lake: She was single-handedly trying to hold the van in place! Eventually, we and the van made it to the other side in one piece, and so could breathe a sigh of relief as the van’s wheels touched dry land.
We saw a lot of brown landscape en route, with litter strewn all over the place. The rumor that Bolivia had a litter problem similar to Peru was true then. Disappointing and sad. After spending what seemed like ages driving through a looong, dusty, unappealing town, we came around a corner where a new, expansive, and impressive view revealed itself: we were on high looking over the entirety of La Paz, which is situated in a large canyon. Evidently, and similar to Medellin (Colombia), the wealthier tend to live in the bottom and the poorer in the hills.
Before depositing us at our hotel, David and Sylvie took us on an outing to visit Valle de La Luna [in English: Valley of the Moon], just outside La Paz. There are a number of places in South America referred to as Valle de la Luna because – as you might have guessed – they supposedly resemble the moon. And this one in Bolivia did, at least if the moon had spire formations made of clay; which I don’t think it does! In any case, it was a cool, strange landscape, so we explored it under the baking sun while taking arty-farty photos. The excursion was topped off with lunch made by Sylvie in their tiny mobile kitchen. And me throwing scraps to the seemingly homeless dogs passing by. It was lovely to have spent a day on the road with friends and getting a small sense of what it would be like to travel across a continent by car. But it was time to say good-bye once again to David and Sylvie and return to our own way of travelling.
As we approached our hostel, we got the distinct feeling that we weren’t staying in the best part of town. So it was with a little trepidation that we exited the van and went inside. Luckily, our room was spacious, clean and comfortable. Phew!
So what to do while in La Paz? We considered one of the top tourist attractions in the city: a bike ride down Death Road (its real name being Yungas Road). But I didn’t fancy the idea of hurling myself down this narrow, hair-pin turning, sheer-cliff encrusted road. And the tour is quite expensive to boot. So we didn’t get the t-shirt. I think Toby was a little disappointed, but I pointed out he could do it alone. He didn’t. Once again I foiled his plan to do away with me. ;p
Maybe we didn’t like La Paz as much as Sucre because our first impressions of it were not altogether positive. And as a social psychologist, I am well aware how much first impressions count! During our first 16 hours in La Paz not only did we discover we weren’t staying in the nicest of areas, but when we went out to nearby Plaza Murillo – site of the presidential palace and La Paz’s Cathedral – to check it out and find some dinner, it was eerily empty of people and activity. And there were no restaurants to be seen, only fast-food joints (one of which is named ‘Toby’!). Hungry and tired, we succumbed.
The next day we attempted to explore Calle Jaen, one of the few remaining streets in La Paz where the historic buildings have been preserved. It was cute/quaint, but none of the shops or museums were open. It too felt devoid of life. To top it off, I then spotted a man walking up the street carrying a long pole of bright-pink cotton-candy and I thought it would make for a lovely photo, so I asked for his permission to take a picture. His answer was to turn his cotton-candy pole and direct it into my face! A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.
Feeling a bit down about La Paz at this point, we persevered in the hope that we could find some love for it. Over the course of the next day and a half, our impression improved as we wandered through the Witches’ Market (or ‘Mercado de la Brujas’), where we saw the (in)famous dried llama fetuses and sex potions. Evidently, the llama fetusus (fetii?) are buried under the foundation of many people’s houses in order to ward off evil. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t personally vouch for the veracity of this claim, but it seems rather dubious.
Toby was keen to visit San Pedro Prison, as he had recently finished reading Marching Powder, a book describing the illegal tours run by a convicted drug trafficker inside the prison. We didn’t actually go on one of these tours – I don’t think they are still running – but it was enough to see the outside to know that we didn’t want to be inside. We heard from another tourist we met later that cocaine is sold throughout the plaza in front of the prison. Hm, I wonder how we missed that?
Adding some positive points onto La Paz’s scorecard was a fantastic vegetarian restaurant deep in its midst: Na Maste. Toby said it was the best Pad Thai he had ever had, and I had a huge bowl of yummy (spicy!) chili. If you ever find yourself in La Paz, do make the effort to eat here.
Oh, and further happy points to La Paz for offering up a cheap-but-warm puffy jacket for Toby, as we were discovering – surprise! – that winter south of the equator is rather cold!
Upon our arrival by plane in Sucre* we were greeted by a dinosaur and a police officer. The former didn’t have much to say, but the latter welcomed us to town and offered a city map + pamphlet advising tourists on how to stay safe (e.g., only take licensed taxis, don’t flash money, etc.). The presence of the dinosaur was a bit befuddling. And to be honest, the police officer slash tourist information dispenser was befuddling as well. Overall, however, we took these as signs that the city was both welcoming and not devoid of a sense of humor.
*Flights within Bolivia are relatively cheap and mean you avoid the risks associated with bus travel, including terrible roads (where they exist at all), and ridiculously long journeys potentially made longer by the possibility of strikes and blockades.
After checking into our hostel (which was lovely and had the cutest Scottish Terrier puppy bounding around), we did our usual thing of “let’s not bother with maps, just point us to the central plaza and we’ll explore on foot from there.” This approach inevitably led us to Plaza 25 de Mayo, where it immediately became apparent why Sucre is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Not only is the plaza leafy, pretty, and happily peopled, but the buildings that surround it are stunning. As the World Heritage Convention website states “(Sucre) is an excellent, intact and well-preserved illustration of the architectural blending achieved in Latin America through the assimilation of local traditions and styles imported from Europe”. These European architectural styles range from Renaissance and Gothic to Baroque and Neoclassical.
Despite the mix of architecture, Sucre doesn’t feel like a hodgepodge. That is because – being the “White City” – most of the buildings’ facades are painted purple. Er, I mean white of course! This fact is best observed by walking up a very steep hill to visit Plaza Pedro de Anzurez, as we did one evening in time for sunset. Plaza PdA is where you’ll find the La Recoleta Monastery, a lovely fountain around which teenagers loiter, and a white-arched mirador from which to get a great view over the city. But if you are like us – meaning that views are often improved by the simultaneous consumption of beer – then I suggest you walk down a few steps to pull up a seat and buy a cerveza at Cafe Gourmet Mirador. We spent a couple hours there sipping beers, nibbling appetizers, and watching the sun go down whilst the city’s lights came on. Not a bad place to just be.
Speaking of being, one morning we visited the city’s General Cemetery, as I had read it was beautiful and worth checking out (it is even reviewed on Tripadvisor; who the heck gives a cemetery 1 star?). On our walk there and just outside the cemetery we discovered a phonebox shaped like a dinosaur. What the heck is with Sucre and dinosaurs? Luckily, we didn’t encounter any more inside. Instead, we found a myriad of lanes dotted with trees and benches. The memorial walls enclosing the lanes held mementos and sometimes photos of those interred behind, as well as an abundance of flowers, most of which were fresh, showing the dedication of the loved ones left behind. Many of the memorials also had music boxes inside. I couldn’t help but feel slightly spooked out by one of them playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise all by itself. I tried not to ponder too long on this incident. Neither Toby nor I want to be buried, but we agreed that if it had to happen, this was a lovely place to do it. But I would prefer Metallica playing on my music box.
OK, so dinosaurs. It turns out that just outside of Sucre was discovered one of the largest deposits of dinosaur footprints in the world: more than 5000 of them from over 15 different species (e.g., sauropods, theropods, ornithopods and Ankylosaurios) of the Mesozoic Era, Cretaceous Period. The collection covers an area spanning 1200m (long) x 110m high. And what is also unique is that the footprints are traversing up and down a nearly-vertical wall, which might make one think that these were gravity-defying dinosaurs. Not nearly as cool an explanation as that, but close, is that the wall used to be the ground, but became a wall with shifts of the Earth’s plates. /Science lesson. To see these footprints, one merely needs to hop on the DinoMobile outside the central plaza to make your way to Parque Cretacico. There, not only will you find the footprints (to get close to which you need to put on a hardhat), but they have also built life-size replicas of the animals who made the prints. As an adult without trailing children, it feels slightly silly to walk among these replicas, but it is also a teeny bit awesome to imagine creatures of such size being real. And standing next to you. Ack!
Battle of the Bolivian capitals
Points to La Paz for sheer weirdness (the witches’ market, a prison smack in the middle of the city, outside of which – evidently – cocaine is sold) and a striking location. Points deducted from La Paz for being poked in the face with a cotton-candy pole and for the lack of vibrancy in its main square (at least when we visited). Points to Sucre for its quiet beauty, european-cafe-culture feel, and dinosaur kitsch. No points deducted.
If we had to live in one of them, it would be Sucre in a heartbeat. Who knows? It could happen. And if it did, I would probably visit the Condor Cafe every day just to eat their mouth-wateringly fluffy empanadas and drink their addictive fresh-fruit lassis. Oh, and did I mention the peanut cluster thingies from the mercado that we consumed daily? Mmmmmmm. Right, Sucre has it by a mile!