We decided to start our journey in South America in a city called Sucre (pronounced Suk-reh), which is the capital of Bolivia. The main reason behind our choice was the abundance of Spanish schools in Sucre. We read that it would be very difficult to travel through this continent without knowing Spanish as practically no one speaks English in South America.
But we were also craving for the atmosphere of a quiet, quaint, little town. Wait a minute – how can a capital city be quiet and quaint, you ask? The best analogy I can give you is the comparison between Ottawa and Toronto. Of course Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but let’s face it – it simply doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Toronto. It’s the same thing with Sucre. While Sucre is the official capital city of Bolivia, the true center of activity lies in La Paz. However, Sucre was just perfect for us. We needed a relaxing atmosphere, in which we could concentrate on learning Spanish and adapt to the new culture.
Many people come to Bolivia to study Spanish because Bolivians speak much slower and clearer than people in other South American countries. Bolivians also don’t have any special accent, so the Spanish that you pick up in Bolivia could be easily transferrable elsewhere. And boy, were we right to sign up to a Spanish school! Besides our Airbnb host, who spoke English fluently, and the teachers at our Spanish school, no one (and I mean NO ONE) speaks English.
In our first few days in Sucre, we went to a local restaurant that doesn’t even have a menu. It serves one type of food – chorizos – or basically sausages that are a classic cultural dish here in Sucre. After managing to order the chorizos, we were dumbfounded by the waitress’ question that had something to do with “tomar”. We had no idea what that word was and how to even spell it. So looking it up in the dictionary was a challenge. The waitress got frustrated with us and left to take care of our order. Only after a few minutes scrambling through our dictionary did we realize that “tomar” means “to drink”, and she was simply asking us whether we want to order a drink with our food. It was surprising to us at first that the locals don’t even know such basic words in English like a “drink”, but we soon realized that this was the case everywhere. It just meant we would have to work very hard to learn Spanish!
Sucre is located at 2,800 meters above sea level, which means that there is a possibility of altitude sickness. However, Sucre is much lower than La Paz, which sits at over 3,600 meters above sea level. That is another reason as to why starting our journey in Sucre made sense. We wanted to give ourselves time to adjust to the altitude before tackling cities that sit at even higher elevations. In fact, we met a couple that started their journey in La Paz and they were miserable for several days because of altitude sickness. Only when they finally left La Paz for Sucre, did their symptoms subside.
We were actually quite lucky that altitude did not affect us. But Sucre is a very hilly city. You might be walking downhill on one street, and then you turn right and are faced with a steep street that goes uphill. So walking about the city could easily take your breath away. Our Airbnb apartment is also fantastic. It is located at the top of a hill, several blocks away from a church called La Recoleta, and it has an amazing view. In fact, travellers often climb up to La Recoleta to take in the view of the city, but we have this luxury every single day looking out our window. The flip side however is that we have to climb up to our apartment every single day (sometimes several times a day, depending on what we are doing). But this gives us some great exercise and makes us even more capable of handling a higher altitude.
We also signed up to a gym called “Vista” in Spanish or “The View”. Besides having a great view of the city, the gym also allows us to train at altitude and become more adept to these living conditions. It has hot showers, towels, a strong Wi-Fi and all the equipment that we could possibly need.
The Spanish invaded Bolivia in the mid-1500’s and made Bolivia their colony. That is why Sucre has a lot of “colonial” architecture, which to me just looks very European and beautiful. Although Spanish is obviously the main language, 80% of the population in Bolivia is indigenous and speaks various indigenous languages. The two main ones in Sucre are Quechua and Aymara. The indigenous women (often referred to as “cholitas”) wear bowler hats, flowy skirts and sweaters of various bright colours, and have their jet-black hair in two long braids. We encounter cholitas everywhere – in the markets or on the streets, selling produce or fresh orange juice out of a cart.
Sucre is a fairly cheap city to live in. A decent lunch for two is about CAD$15, but you can find even cheaper places that offer “menu of the day” involving three courses for about CAD$4. However, these menus of the day are typically heavy on rice and potatoes, so we try to opt out for meals with some protein.
Fruits and vegetables are also fairly cheap at the local market (Mercado Central). For about CAD$7, you could score a broccoli, two cucumbers, a gigantic avocado (the size of a huge mango), a mango, some grapes, a large zucchini, a small bag of green beans and an onion. You can buy ten huge bananas or ten pieces of fresh bread for CAD$1! Laundry is less than CAD$2 per kilogram and is washed in separate washing machines, unlike Southeast Asia where your clothes would be combined with someone else’s to be washed.
Every now and then we buy fruits and veggies at the market along with a whole roasted chicken (for about CAD$10) and we make meals in the kitchen of our apartment. We also like a local food called salteña, which you can buy for CAD$1.60 a piece. There are two types of salteñas that we discovered: one filled with broth and chunks of beef called salteña de caldo, and another filled with chicken, egg, veggies and some spices called salteña de pollo. The fun part is to actually eat these pastries with a spoon because biting into them will cause the broth and the meat juices to spill. The locals eat them as a mid-morning snack, washing them down with milkshakes or lemonade. But for us, a couple of salteñas is a pretty big meal and the equivalent of a pretty filling lunch. In fact, lunch is the main meal here. At altitude, your digestion slows down, so eating a big meal late at night is not recommended.
The temperature in Sucre varies greatly during the day. In the morning it could be as cool as 6oC, but during the day it could climb up to as high as 23oC. As soon as the sun starts to go down, it becomes cooler again. It’s important to be prepared for these swings and carry a jacket with you. It’s also important to wear sunscreen since getting sunburnt is a lot easier due to the elevation and a thinner atmosphere.
There is also no central heating (or any kind of heating for that matter) inside the homes. Hot water is boiled by a natural gas heater that requires oxygen to combust and start working. The stove in our kitchen also uses gas. We often spot trucks on the streets delivering natural gas tanks to homes.
Buses run on diesel and spit out clouds of black smoke as they huff and puff to get up the hilly streets of Sucre. All the cars that people drive here are manual because automatic transmission could not handle the steep hills of this city.
There are many stray dogs on the streets, but they seem much fatter and healthier than the super-skinny ones we saw in Thailand. However, this also means that you are constantly dodging piles of poop as you’re walking down the street. Consequently, all of the stray cats live on the roofs to get away from the stray dogs.
There are people dressed in zebra outfits and people pretending to be mimes at the main plaza in the city center. These zembras and mimes help you cross the street because that particular intersection can be quite tricky. There are also a ton of kids in Sucre, which explains why the zebras and mimes are necessary to help them cross the street. During the weekend, the kids play at a large park (Parque Bolivar) where they have access to the coolest slides and jungle gyms.
Overall, Sucre is a very friendly city, rich in culture and beautiful architecture. We are very happy that we decided to spend an entire month here, dedicating ourselves to learning Spanish and building up our tolerance to the higher altitude.