Friday, March 18, 2016

South America (Bolivia) - Day 97 - 103: Sucre

We didn't really do a whole lot in Sucre. It was really refreshing. Sometimes you just need to wind down a bit, rather than rushing from tour to tour, and city to city. Our main goal in Sucre was to learn Spanish and enjoy the surroundings. After arriving at around 6am, we made a beeline for Casa Al Tronco, a place where our good friends Paul and Fi spent almost a month when they visited the city 4 years ago. They had raved about it, and Tripadvisor certainly backed them up, so we had no doubt it'd
be a great place to stay. It was. Ten minutes from the centre up a steep hill - necessary to burn off all the food we'd end up eating - it was a family-run hostel, and Tonia was a wonderful host. She had a dog named Ñeca who was super cute, and she cooked a mean breakfast which we made full use of on that first morning.



We headed to Sucre Spanish School soon after to sign up for a few days of Spanish. We booked in two hours that afternoon, and then a further three hours for the following five days. My exposure to Spanish was far less than Gilly's, as she'd been on a beginner's course before we left the UK. As such, we opted for private 1-to-1 lessons which were crazy cheap in comparison to back home at £4.50 per hour. After some meat and veg skewers at Cosmo Cafe, we were ready to begin in the afternoon. My teacher - at least for the first day - was Carolina, who made me feel at ease immediately. We went through the basics of one part of the verb "to be" (Spanish has two different versions depending if the subject is temporary or not...very confusing) and I left feeling like I needed a lie down. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to continue lessons with me as she only worked in the afternoons and we were keen to have morning schooling so we could make use of the rest of the day. It wasn't an issue since her replacement was Veronica, who turned out to be very good too. Gilly really liked her teacher who, confusingly, was also called Veronica.




Sunday is market day at a nearby town called Tarabuco. Apparently it's one of the biggest markets in the region, but in truth it's a bit rubbish. We spent the day wandering around in the pouring rain looking at pretty much the same stuff that can be found on sale in almost every tourist shop in Bolivia. Still, it was fun to go people-watching even if we were sopping wet and freezing. An odd highlight is the statue in the central plaza depicting an indigenous man ripping the heart out of a Spaniard and eating it. Not your everyday park installation. I liked it. At the end of lunch we were treated to some traditional dance.







Sucre is known as the White City of Bolivia, and it lives up to its name with colonial buildings assailing your senses at every turn. When the sun is out - which it was for around half the time we were there - the blue sky lights up the centre beautifully. We spent our days hopping from restaurant to restaurant, as well as mooching around the town and visiting a couple of museums. The best of these was the Museo del Tesoro (Museum of Treasure), a new museum which showcased the various mines around Bolivia and the different materials obtained therein - silver, gold, iron and bolivianite, a gem specific to Bolivia (also known as ametrine). There were dioramas of the mines as well as examples of their crafting in ornate filigree and other techniques. It was well worth the visit, especially since we'd decided early on not to visit the Potosi mines. It's possible to do a day trip there to see the conditions the miners work in and also go inside the mines, but things have changed a lot in the last few years and we were told by locals that the amount of blasting that has been done within the mines has made them incredibly unstable, and liable to collapse at any point. There's also a tinge of misery tourism about Potosi, since the miners get paid a pittance and work long hours under incredibly dangerous conditions to satisfy the country's need for sparkling metal. It's pretty grim, and aside from the obvious danger, we didn't want to contribute to the exploitation of their livelihood just to take a few pictures. I don't begrudge those that do, and I'm sure it's an eye-opening and humbling experience, but it just wasn't for us.








We ate really well in Sucre. As well as cooking in the excellent kitchen at our accommodation, our breakfasts prior to Spanish each day were split between Abis Cafe (fantastic omelettes) and Condor Cafe (amazing pancakes). We had great food at Tentaciones, La Taverne, and on one evening we met up with Tanja and Jacqueline at Abis Patio for a game of cards and some burgers. More mediocre was Cafe Mirador which offered the great scenery you'd expect, tempered with cold, overpriced food. A Mexican evening at Kultur Berlin Hostel included mojitos, burritos and a salsa lesson - albeit, less of a lesson and more of a "watch what the guy is doing and then fail to copy him" event. We even found time to fit in a game of Wallyball with other Spanish students, which is like volleyball except it's played on a squash court and you're also allowed to use the wall to get the ball back over. It was great fun.





Bolivia was going through a referendum process whilst we were there. The decision the people had to make was whether to allow Evo Morales, the current president, to alter the constitution to allow him to run for another five years. By law, a president should only have two terms, and Morales had been in power since 2005, having sidestepped the maximum term rule by renaming the country "The Plurinational State of Bolivia", and claiming that he'd not had two terms under the new name. There were two opposing factions in the country - the "Si" vote that loved Morales and wanted him to continue, and the "No" vote which wanted him to step down in 2020 as per the constitution. Generally, the poorer people were on Morales' side as he promised jobs left, right and centre for them, whilst the white-collar folks saw it as a potential dictatorship if they let him continue. While we were there, the vote took place. An unfortunate side effect of this was the prohibition of alcohol for 48 hours prior to the voting period: the general populace needed to be sober when they voted, which meant that restaurants and bars could only serve soft drinks. Allegedly, anyway; we still managed to track down a local restaurant that was happy to sell beer to gringos - probably because we obviously not going to be involved in the country's fate. There were marches all through the city with the "Si" groups followed by the "No", accompanied by lots of drums and music. 


After seventeen hours of Spanish, I felt pretty happy with my progress and even confident that I could have a basic chat with a native speaker, so long as they spoke slowly, clearly, repeated things to me several times, and ideally also spoke English when I looked at them blankly. A mild success, then. We said goodbye to our teachers on the Friday but still have them on WhatsApp in case we need to bug them about how to use tenses in different scenarios. 

The view from the hostel was fantastic, and got even better when we moved to the suite for our last two nights in the city, which had a panoramic view from the bedroom. It wasn't as good as hiking up to the roof for pictures, but it came pretty close.




We also took a trip up to Cerro Churuquella on our last full day which had some steep steps and a statue of Jesus at the top. We sat and played cards in his shadow, just like he would have wanted, while local people came by to have water flicked at their backs by a guy in a hat. Also visiting were hardcore mountain bikers who packed taxis full of their equipment, and then pelted down the hill at speeds which would give their parents palpitations. We also tried and failed to track down a mythical singing fountain in a park, which Gilly had spotted online. Unfortunately the last article about it was around five years ago and when we got there we found a sorry looking installation, devoid of water. Still, the park was nice at night.








After almost a week, it was time to move on from Sucre. I could have easily spent a month there, learning more Spanish and exploring the surroundings. Unfortunately, we don't have unlimited time out here, and at times you have to move on even if you don't want to. It was one of my favourite towns on our trip to date, mostly because it was a welcome respite from hard travel and a chance to kick back for a while. A flight to La Paz was next - a bus was obviously an option, but we decided we wanted to save a bit of time and plane travel seemed fairly reasonable. La Paz was one of the highest places we'd be visiting, and we hoped that altitude sickness wouldn't affect us too much.

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