Last Sunday my 11 hour bus ride from Samaipata to Sucre disembarked and I finally bid farewell to my unsecured seat, which threw me around all night on the bumpy unpaved road. Through the silence of a Sunday morning in Latin America I walked into the main part of town, where it was immediately clear that my arrival in Sucre brought with it a return to gringo mania. All the hostels I checked out were staffed with English-speaking employees and full of amenities like breakfast buffets and reliable hot water. Lining the streets were tour agencies and restaurants serving international and vegetarian fare, with the city constantly populated by travelers.
An inviting climate, cheap prices, and a simple lifestyle make Sucre one of the best destinations in South America to settle down for a few weeks to take Spanish classes, volunteer at a hostel, or just relax and soak in the city’s charming atmosphere while planning your next moves through Bolivia.
Eventually I settled in at The Beehive hostel because it was recommended to me by multiple people. Immediately I was welcomed in like a family member by the hospitable staff and friendly guests. Many of the fellow travelers had already been at the hostel for a few weeks taking Spanish classes and enjoying Sucre life, and their relaxed comfort added to the welcoming feeling. A sign next to the open-air courtyard summed it up best: “May all those who come as guests leave as friends.”
They were having a potluck BBQ that night so I headed out to the market to buy some chorizo, but ended up running into some old friends from Ecuador and getting severely sidetracked. First we hit up Condor cafe, home to some of Sucre’s most scrumptious vegetarian fare, then ended up chilling in the main plaza, definitely one of the most beautiful in all of South America. With its perfectly manicured gardens, surrounding architecture, and happening atmosphere, the Plaza 24 de Mayo is the place to be.
That evening the Beehive’s kitchen was buzzing with activity, as almost every single hostel guest prepared meat or vegetables to throw on the grill. It quickly turned into a legitimate feast, highlighted by some honey-marinated pork loin and a sweet and spicy grilled pineapple with chili powder. Our fearless hostel volunteer and BBQ master Marco then transferred some coals over to the fire pit to start up a bonfire, and we settled in to marvel at the slow onset of that night's lunar eclipse. With perfect visibility, the moon rose just over the outer wall of the hostel as the eclipse began. Slowly a black spot began to spread across the moon’s lower half, progressing into a dark red until it looked like we were on a spaceship approaching a foreign planet.
My first morning at The Beehive was a delight. As opposed to standard “free breakfasts” at hostels that consist primarily of bread, this one a choice between oatmeal with fruit and yogurt or a veggie and cheese frittata. I ended up alternating back and forth between the two during my stay.
At 10AM the hostel grounds morphed into a fully-fledged school, as Spanish instructors arrived to conduct classes on the sunny second floor patio. After scoping the tourism options in town under the guidance of the gregarious Marco, I opted to split the city’s main attractions: one day of exploring outdoors and another the city’s culture. After 10 months of traveling, I’m not going to lie: there is such a thing as traveler’s fatigue. Eventually all the markets, plazas, and churches in South America appear similar. But it quickly became apparent that Sucre is one of the most beautiful cities in South America. The charming colonial architecture includes scores of churches and government buildings, each one sporting Sucre’s signature color: white.
My first stop of the day was a lookout point just a few blocks straight uphill from the hostel. It was a nice way to get a feel for the size of the city, which isn't as sprawling as some of Bolivia's other hot spots but is still full of life and energy.
For lunch I stopped by the central market, a popular place in town teeming with fresh and healthy food. Sucre’s climate and fertile surrounding lands make it a wonderful destination for travelers who want to stay healthy; the market was packed with a massive selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. I stocked up on veggies for the week for just over $2 and many of the Beehive hostel members did the same, keeping the kitchen well-stocked.
As I stepped out back into the city’s main drag, afternoon in Sucre brought with it a distinctly different feeling. Students streamed out for their long afternoon lunch break and the city transformed, the air filled with laughter and scenes of young romance dominating the parks and streets.
To escape the throngs of pedestrians I spent the afternoon in Parque Bolivar, its wide walking paths and huge trees the perfect getaway from the city.
The following day I headed out to hit the town with some fellow travelers from the Beehive. The free tour we were promised didn’t turn out to be free so instead we headed first for La Casa de La Libertad. Bolivia’s birthplace, the building on the main square in Sucre is where the country originally gained its independence from Spanish Conquistador rule in 1825.
Just beyond a beautiful courtyard is the hall where their original congress was held. A guided tour was thankfully included free with entry and our tour guide walked us through the fight for Bolivia’s independence. Although the movement was primarily instigated by Spanish-speaking elite and most of the heroes depicted where white males, my favorite paintings and stories were of Juana Azurduy, a fierce indigenous woman with an illustrious military career.
On the tour we also got a crash course in Bolivian history, spanning from its brief inclusion in the Inca Empire to the revolution of the majority indigenous population in 1952. Over the past two centuries Bolivia has surrendered vital geographic portions of its land to more aggressive South American rivals, including a vital passageway to the pacific ocean lost to Chile, profitable rubber tree regions to Brazil, and the oil-rich Chaco to Paraguay.
In the afternoon I decided to hit up one of the local museums, which contained exhibits on folklore and original ethnic heritage. The most jarring exhibit was a collection of masks traditionally used in dances and festivals, some so realistic that they looked scary.
Afterwards I embraced the social scene at the Beehive, hanging out on the porch while we patiently waited for a massive thunderstorm to ominously approach. Stuck inside during the downpour without functional WiFi or TV we turned to real world reality TV, as a pair of girls tried to cut each other’s hair with potentially disastrous results.
As evening fell the rain stopped and a refreshed air fell over town, imploring us to hit up the nearby supermarket for some bottles of wine to pre-game Sucre’s popular Tuesday night activity: free salsa lessons. Attended primarily by gringo girls eager to learn and local guys twice as ready to show them how, the lesson was led by the effervescent Roberto. Aware that most participants had been there before, he launched straight into the basic salsa moves, embellishing with original hand movements and snazzy shoulder shimmies. Soon enough he roped us off into pairs and sent us on the speed-dating version of salsa, making sure every girl got the chance to dance with him at least once.
On Wednesday the weather started off looking threatening, but it eventually cleared enough to give us the confidence to hit up the central market in search of Sucre’s most delectable treat: fruit salad. The market’s central courtyard is occupied by more than a dozen fruit stands, each one staffed by a local lady serving up fresh fruit juices and salads topped with yogurt, granola, and whipped cream. A massive bowl only runs you 10 Bolivianos, making it a great deal and a daily ritual for many of the Beehive’s long-term residents.
Continuing in our walking about town, two newly arrived French travelers starting asking me about the differences between the types of Empandas found on the streets of Bolivia. Here’s the breakdown:
- Classic Empanadas (top right): Take some bread dough and pack it full of cheese or other delicious goodness before baking it and you’ve got yourself the basic idea of a Bolivian empanada. These types of empanadas can be found anywhere, ranging from the piping hot spicy cheese ones I found on the streets of La Paz to the dry three day old ones at every bus station.
- Salteñas (bottom right): Basically a pastry shell filled with steak or chicken stew, Salteñas are unique to Bolivia. Denoted by their perfectly primped top spine, Salteñas can be a little messy if the savory pastry shell starts to fall apart in your hand and the saucy filling spills out.
- Tucamanas (left): My favorite of the three types, tucamanas are deep fried, making the outer bread layer more flaky and adding a much-needed crunch. Inside you’ll usually find vegetables, potatoes, egg, and one or more types of meats. But the real reason to get a Tucamana is the spread of toppings available at the street-side stands: at my favorite one in Sucre the vendor offered cucumber, carrot, onion, and lettuce to complement her home-made hot sauce.
That afternoon another thunderstorm rolled in, slowly painting the sky a foreboding grey and then delighting us with a glorious thunder and lightning storm. Some of the lightning strikes were so close that we could see the detail of the cracks reverberating through the black backdrop, each one followed by a rolling thunder which shook the entire hostel. It made for a peaceful evening, just watching the storm come in and then listening to the powerful rain wash everything away.
On Thursday I spent another day enjoying the pleasant lifestyle of Sucre, stopping in at the local cathedral as entry was free for the first time all week. As expected, the interior mimicked the exterior facade: white on white on white.
That afternoon the scene at the Beehive hostel was nothing short of blissful: reading in hammocks, concocting a healthy dinner, and taking in the jaw-dropping sunset were all high on the priority list.
Finally departing from the city as late as possible on Friday, I regrettably headed back to the bus station and bid the charming city farewell. Although I wasn’t able to stay any longer, I won’t be forgetting the great times I had in Sucre anytime soon.
As the sun set and a chill rolled in over the Andean Altiplano region, the bus pulled into Potosi. At an elevation of 4057 meters, the city is one of the highest in the world and globally recognized as home to one of the most prolific silver mines in the world. I arrived in the extravagant circular domed bus station, the sounds of ticket takers yelling destinations echoing eerily around the circumference. Tours through the mines make Potosi a popular destination for travelers as well, as I was instantly drilled by my knowledgeable cab driver about my traveling itinerary and what I liked most about Bolivia so far.
At first I thought the town was a quiet little place, as we drove through largely uninhabited streets. But near the city center traffic picked up and the driver informed me we were about to drive straight through a huge festival. Sure enough, I had stumbled upon what must be my 10th plus parade since arrival in South America, this one highlighted by some competitive bands playing songs back-to-back.
On Friday morning I woke early and hit the streets of Potosi, greeted by an unexpected sight: snow! Just a week after sweating through my clothes in the jungle, I bundled up and felt the light flakes come down on my face, covering the town's roofs in a light dusting. The previous day I had booked a tour through the silver mines, a moving and controversial attraction.
Through a long and turbulent history, the people of Bolivia have both become magnates or died in the fight for worldly riches inside of the mountain that sits right outside of town watching over the citizens. On the way up to the mountain my tour guide Andretti walked me through the history of the mines, their exploitation by Spanish conquistadors, and the eventual centralization by the government in the 20th century.
Although the mountain, aptly named Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), was once so generous with its natural resources that doctors, lawyers, and professionals threw aside their jobs to adorn mining gear, the price of silver and tin has dropped enough that today the mine employs just 1/3rd of its peak workforce. This has left the economy of Potosi teetering in a precarious position. Tourism may be able to replace some of the financial loss, but the vast majority of the town is dependent on excavating natural resources.
Working as a miner at Cerro Rico is one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in the world. Standard work shifts consist of 2 or 3 consecutive days in the depths of the oxygen-deprived mountain sustained only by coca leaves, soda, and alcohol. It's customary for tourists to provide small gifts for the miners whose workspace the tours intrude on, but the impending festivities in town ensured we didn't encounter too many workers inside.
Immediately upon stepping into the mountain, the air turned to a dank, moist sulphuric smell and the light behind us instantly vanished. As I stooped low to avoid hitting my back on the stone and wooden supports, Andretti began explaining some of the customs of miner camaraderie and lifestyle. One of the most interesting to me was the religious undertones: the miners believe that the inner workings of the mountain are outside of God's jurisdiction and instead controlled by the devil. Near the entrance he brought me into a tiny alcove dominated by a massive statue of el diablo, ringed by offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, and 96% pure alcohol.
Along the way the pathways were riddled with potent sulfur puddles, each one a different color. From the ceiling hung stalactites in bright blue, yellow, and green.
Even after just an hour in the mine, I could feel my breath start to quicken and breathing deeply became a serious challenge. Trying to put myself in the shoes of someone going through a 72 hour shift isn't easy, but at least the tour gave me an opportunity to experience a truly unique situation. Scores of miners die every year and it isn't a topic easily broached among the people of Potosi, but undoubtedly every time someone steps into the mine, they're putting their life on the line.
If there's one thing I've learned in South America so far, it's that these people love to party! In the afternoon I returned to Potosi and it was immediately clear that this particular Saturday afternoon celebration wasn't going to be just another festival. With bands, dancers, and entertainment acts streaming in from all over the entire country, the parade was the perfect send-off on my last full day in Bolivia. As I wandered around the town in search of the action, I followed my ears until I came upon the starting point of the parade, a massive thoroughfare packed with spectators.
Weaving through the human traffic I marveled at the scale of the parade and all those who came out to watch it. The general celebratory feeling, constant pulsating beats, and exuberant family-oriented atmosphere made me feel like I was at a music festival or state fair back in America. I ended up following the parade along its winding path through the city, amazed by the intricate costumes and decorations worn by the performers. Whereas some women wore skimpy skirts and you could hear them coming a block away based on all the whistles from male members of the crowd, others wore layers of traditional dress, sweating themselves to exhaustion as they gyrated their hips in dance moves that swung entire dresses high into the air.
The male participants were either members of a marching band or dancers wearing oversize shoulder decorations and bells attached to their calf-length boots to make each step noisy.
Eventually I reached a do not pass point and had to work my way around the parade through an alternate route. Surprisingly, the side streets were just as popular. I stumbled upon a market set up in the middle of the street and at the next intersection found that it spanned a few blocks. By the time I reached a vantage point another few blocks down, it was clear that the market spanned as far as the eye could see, ensuring that I wasn't going to reconvene with the parade anytime soon.
I happily obliged to just follow the market as far as I could, delighting in the cheap street food including freshly grilled chorizo sandwiches, delightful little empanadas, and some weird sorbet-like ice cream concoction that ended up tasting delicious.
Seeing as I was originally considering leaving Potosi on Saturday afternoon to move on to my next stop, I'm immensely pleased I decided to stick around a little longer and get one last taste of Bolivian culture.