Sucre - Capital of Bolivia

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sat 11 Nov 2017 21:44
19:02.52S 65:13.54W

Our bellies were full but our sacks were still heavy; to the camping gear, warm clothing and riding boots, had been added a Peruvian flute (Franco’s safe, I still can’t get a sound out of it), two hats and a Machu Picchu t-shirt each. We wanted to go exploring but first we needed to find somewhere to dump our stuff.

‘Booking-dot-com’ doesn’t really work in Bolivia, only the expensive hotels are listed, so we resorted to our copy of the Rough Guide. We liked the write-up for ‘Hotel de Su Merced’ but it was more expensive than our usual budget.

“It’s out of season, they might give us a discount.” I voiced, hopefully.


“Sorry, we are fully booked.” 

The receptionist, who shushed her ‘ll’s when she spoke Spanish, as they do in parts of Argentina and Uruguay, offered to phone another hotel on our behalf. We knew the name, it was out of our range.

“Argentinian? Uruguayan?” Franco was muttering into his beard, trying to guess where the woman was from.

The owner arrived, a friendly woman in her late 40s and the receptionist explained our predicament. 

“Could we possibly ...?” she asked, pointing at a line on the booking chart.

“Sure. You are staying two nights? We have a mini suite, you can have it for the normal room price.” Luxury!

“Barbarian!” exclaimed the receptionist. 

“You’re from Uruguay!” said Franco triumphantly. Only Uruguayans use ‘barbarian’ to mean ‘excellent’.

View from our hotel room

Inner courtyard of Hotel de Su Merced

A box in the Rough Guide caught my eye. It was about the ‘pollera’ skirts worn by Aymara women right across the altiplano, the type I had borrowed to go dancing in Acora.

“The distinctive dress of the chola (Aymara and mestiza women dressed in voluminous skirts and bowler hats) is derived from seventeenth-century Spanish costumes, which indigenous women were obliged to copy under colonial rule.”

I had assumed (wrongly) that it was the native dress. 

“The crucial element of the outfit is the pollera, a layered skirt made from lengths of material up to 5m long, which are wrapped around the waist and reinforced with numerous petticoats to emphasize the width of the wearer’s hips.”

“So what did these women wear before the Spanish arrived?” I wondered.

The answer I found at the museum of indigenous art (Museo de Arte Indigena). Although the clothing varied from tribe to tribe, it usually involved a straight skirt of woven wool (llama or alpaca).

Woven wrapped skirt and poncho

With the increasing availability of cheap imported second hand clothing (ever wondered what happens to the clothes you recycle?) from the USA and other First World countries, weaving fabric became less important and the skills were dying out. With encouragement from a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), two indigenous communities have revived their craft and as a result, the quality and market value of the weavings has risen dramatically providing an income for hundreds of very poor families. We saw medium sized wall hangings tagged US$ 2,000. Although every piece is unique, in my opinion weaving is a craft rather than an art and, given that nobody was buying, I wondered if they had over-egged the pudding.

The museum is run by the NGO. Although both communities speak Quechua, the same language as the people from the Cusco area, they have very different cultures and customs and are ethnically distinct. The first group, the Jalq’a live in the mountains west of Sucre. Their designs are almost always black and red, forming an abstract geometry depicting a chaos of strange creatures. A Jalq’a woman was demonstrating her weaving in the foyer and she showed me her work, she pointed out the different animals she had woven into the fabric: eagles, pumas, llamas, lizards and snakes that represent the underworld. In Andean cultures, the devil is often also the god of fertility and abundance.

A Jalq’a weaver

The other group, the Tarabuceños, live around the town of Tarabuco to the east. Their weaving is very different to that of the Jalq’a; bright stripes in orange, black, red, green and gold decorated with fine detailed scenes of every day life such as domestic animals, trees, people ploughing, harvesting or dancing. Traditionally the weaving was done by the women and the motifs were simpler but in recent times the designs have become increasingly sophisticated. Young people are now keen to learn as they can see the earning potential and a school has been set up to teach both girls and boys. The men’s designs are distinct from the women’s but recognisably from the same community.

Two examples of the women’s designs

While Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia, the executive power has moved to La Paz, leaving only the judiciary behind. Wherever there are lawyers, there is wealth and Sucre feels affluent with nice coffee shops, restaurants and parks. By now we had done quite a bit of wandering around the ‘White City of the Americas’, thus known because most of the buildings were painted white. The historic centre has been preserved as it was a century ago and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Palace of Justice

There were indeed many fine buildings but the traffic was so horrific that we forgot to look up. Probably a good thing because if we had, we would probably have been run over; Sucre drivers never stop, not even at pedestrian crossings.

Town hall

Tourist Information Office (closed)

We were impressed, however, with the cleanliness. It wasn’t that there were hordes of street cleaners, more that people actually put rubbish in bins. We saw them do it! After the filth of Peru, this was a welcome surprise. 

Franco in the park, note the mini Eiffel Tower in the background

Museum-ed out, we took a stroll to the park where we indulged in people watching. We relocated to a café and did some more. It was Friday afternoon but most civil servants seemed to be out on the streets, marching in a pro Evo Morales procession.

Evo Morales is the President of Bolivia. He was the first to come from indigenous stock. He grew up in the countryside tending crops and livestock, life wasn’t easy and three of his siblings died in childhood, only he and his brother survived. He later joined the trade union movement and slowly climbed up the greasy ladder of politics. His main focus has been poverty reduction and nationalising natural resources. He is very popular amongst the Aymara majority and other indigenous groups, handles the press in a relaxed friendly manner and is a (the oldest?) professional football player.

So far, so good. 

Evo has been president since 2006. When he was first elected, the Bolivian constitution stated that a president could only serve two terms. After two terms, he changed the constitution to allow himself to run for a third. Last year a referendum was held to vote on Evo’s proposal to allow him to run for a fourth consecutive term. A majority of Bolivians voted against ... so the result of the referendum was annulled by Bolivia’s Constitutional Court. This fourth term won’t even start until 2019 but the elections will be held in December 2017!

Dodgy? I would say so.

Having said that, 
- Does he have strong support? - YES
- Has he reduced poverty? - YES
- Has he weakened the influence of the USA and multinationals? - YES
- Do people want to vote for him? - YES

His campaign is very powerful, just two letters: S.I. ‘SI’ means ‘Yes’ in Spanish and this positive little word has been painted everywhere along the roadsides.

As the marchers filed past, we noted with amusement that one of the banners depicted Che Guevara …

Che Guevara banner

After the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara went to fight in Bolivia but the Bolivian peasants didn’t support him, they didn’t want a revolution. Before long, his whereabouts were betrayed to the army and its CIA mentors and Che Guevara was captured and executed.

Bolivians killed the man but have resurrected the effigy.

For our last evening in Sucre, we treated ourselves to the ‘Origenes’ dance show. 

Morenada Dance - Ceremonial dance (this is the style I danced in Acora)

Cueca - A love dance. The Cueca is also the national dance of Chile.

Pujillay dance from Chuquisaca (the area around Sucre) - It is a tribute to the abundance of the pacha mama (earth goddess) and to the military power of the indigenous people during the colonial rule.

Chutas from La Paz - Dancing in Bolivia is always associated with bier, often leading to much clowning around

Tinku - It represents the meeting of opposites, it is a ritualistic dance where alcohol is consumed and communities settle scores, it often ends in bloodshed and death.

A fit conclusion to the Tinku.

Diablada from Oruro - Devils and demons emerge from the mines to seek the forgiveness and blessing of the Virgin.

Taquirari from the eastern lowlands - a happy extrovert dance

Taquinari character

Caporales - Afro-Bolivian dance representing the power of the slave overseers, today it epitomises social transformation in Bolivia, feminine sensuality and the power and virility of men.

Franco invited to dance the Caporales with a very pretty lady

The next morning we headed for the bus terminal. We hailed the first taxi to pass, it was the most decrepit we had ever seen. The driver was a mining engineer who works in Chile.

“What do you think of Chile?” We asked.

“Bastante ordenado.” (They are pretty organised.) He replied. The mining area where he works had been part of Bolivia before it was lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884). Unlike most Bolivians, he had no regrets, he felt the Chileans were doing a better job managing it.

He worked 7 days on, 7 days off. Since his wife couldn’t take time off when he was back home, he drove a taxi to pass the time.

“What do you think of Evo Morales?” We asked.

“He is a scoundrel and if the people vote for him, they are fools,” was his blunt reply.