If you ever visit Bolivia, be sure to go to Sucre. As you approach its outskirts from high mountain roads, the entire city is splayed out below you. Last summer, my position as a field research assistant for Princeton’s Department of Geosciences took me to this corner of Bolivia to work as part of a small team. We spent most nights in tents, far from electricity or running water, but occasionally we took the winding mountain roads to nearby towns or cities for supplies, internet, and a long shower. On my first time heading into Sucre to rest and restock, I eagerly took snapshots of everything I could as we drove to the hostel: the whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs, the wide streets, the tiendas and churches, all of it tucked into a relative lowland among the mountainous terrain of southwestern Bolivia. Before I even got out of the truck I was loving this city. I had a few hours to explore, and so armed with some Bolivianos in my pocket and LonelyPlanet as my guide, I got to know Sucre one on one.
I wandered down side streets and in and out of hole-in-the-wall tourist shops that boasted handwoven bags and purses, traditional Bolivian panpipes, and just about anything you could think of -- with the image of a llama on it. As I was walking down the sidewalks, the older, indigenous Bolivian women were apparent among the flow of other Bolivians and tourists: these women wear layers upon layers of petticoats, bowler hats, and most specifically a colorful woven shawl that is used for everything from staying warm to carrying a child to bringing home produce from the market. I turned down an alley and into a market, where I was bombarded by the bright yellows and greens and oranges of fresh fruits and vegetables. At the same time, the air was sweet from the freshly cut fruit that the woman at every stall would offer me, so that I might ultimately buy her produce. I was used to the sweet smell of cut pineapple, but it wouldn’t be until a later visit that I discovered the taste of cherimoya, a sweet, creamy fruit native to South America. Pro tip: it’s fantastic as an ice cream flavor. As I continued walking, each section of the market went forward like this: the meats section had tables of huge raw cuts of beef ready to be portioned and sold. The market had people milling every which way, gathering their ingredients to make a fresh dinner. And going to the market wasn’t just a chore: locals sat together on stools, chatting and enjoying jelly treats for a few minutes… or maybe longer.
I went back out to the streets and kept exploring, ending up outside of a beautiful church with white walls and a red roof to match the city. For just a few Bolivianos, summing to under a dollar, the church sanctuary keeper let me up the back staircase to the bell tower. I climbed up a narrow stone staircase to the opening and emerged onto the roof. As one of the highest points in a generally low city, I could see it all laid out before me. In the main plaza, vendors sold caramel-covered apples, pastries, or most commonly salteńas, a Bolivian snack akin to an empanada with a juicy mix of potatoes, peas, and meat inside. At street corners, locals did backflips or juggled oranges in front of stopped cars in hopes that the entertained drivers would give them a few coins. At other intersections were people dressed head-to-toe in zebra onesies, dancing playfully in front of cars while pedestrians crossed to be sure that no distracted drivers would hit anyone. It was a gorgeous day outside with blue skies and sunshine, and I was in no hurry to make my way back to the hostel.
Eventually another person, David, a student at the local university, joined me. My less-than-fluent Spanish didn’t seem to bother him; he told me about studying philosophy in school, the best salteńaría in Sucre that I needed to visit, and a hodgepodge of the history of Sucre. After learning Spanish from classes and textbooks, this conversation on a church roof in Bolivia felt like seeing a piece of art for the first time after studying photographs of it for years. I couldn’t have appreciated the art nearly as much if I hadn’t studied the photographs. Now this was real life, with a real stranger and a great conversation that I would have otherwise missed. David described to me the lowland vineyards in Tarija, in southeastern Bolivia, and the temperate Cochabamba more in the north, both of which I needed to visit. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to venture outside of southwestern Bolivia this time around. The conversation went on until we both had to leave for dinner and parted our separate ways, David wishing me a safe trip back to the states and letting me know that I need to come back to see the rest of Bolivia. I climbed back down the steep stone stairway and along cobblestone roads to the hostel where I was staying, but not before snagging a fresh salteńa along the way.
There’s something to be said for wandering a new place alone. You get to know a city differently, more intimately, with no other tourists and no agenda. Sucre only made this better; it didn’t try to sell itself to me like a tourist-driven city with a packaged experience; it welcomed me into its tiny shops, onto its church roof, down paths that locals take. I got the chance to walk those cobblestone streets as if I went to that market every day.
~Hope Lorah '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler