Sucre – the first

Sucre – the first

The city is bigger than I imagined, sitting in a valley surrounded on all sides by gentle hills. Red brick buildings have crept up all these hillsides, many of them looking like works in progress, but this is South America so you can never tell! The colour is arresting as you come into land at the tiny airstrip; the brick walls topped with terracotta roofs create a profound sense of redness. It’s a dramatic contrast to the colonial heart of the city with its classic white buildings embellished with wrought iron grilles and roofed in terracotta and its cobbled streets lined with elegant whitewashed houses. Scale is important here. The old centre is compact, the architectural style consistent without being same-y. A symmetry of design, with the streets laid out in verticals and horizontals creating even blocks makes it so pleasing to the eye.

The main square, named as ever in South America with a date that usually commemorates something momentous to do with independence, in the case of Sucre 25 May, is a perfect rendering of the Spanish colonial style, the big important buildings enclosing a place to gather under the trees and socialise. Or, in the case of the Thursday before Easter, listen to an evangelical zealot giving his all to a crowd of followers, seemingly transfixed by the message of pain, suffering and sin. Yep, deep in the heart of Bolivia there is much more god/God than anywhere I’ve come across so far in Argentina.

Easter celebrations combine devotional and pious with festive and rowdy. Apart from the maniacal over-excited preacher, the devotional bit involves climbing up to a massive floodlit cross on one of the hills above the city. A procession of people young and old do this all through Thursday night. Had it not been for my soroche I would have joined them just for the experience but the prospect of another 500 feet of headache was too daunting. The festive and rowdy involves plenty of drinking and loud music, including a rock band called Sacrificio – I doubt the irony was intentional – and eating a helluva lot of food from street stalls. The women do all the work at these street stalls, and this is a theme that confronts you wherever you go in Bolivia. On that a separate blog is already percolating.

Sucre is not just a colonial gem; it’s also vibrant and lived in with its graffiti and its litter, the leftovers of street food fought over by pigeons and the ubiquitous dogs. A bit of city grime to make it real rather than a monument to its historical pedigree. Sweet, just as its name suggests, Sucre has me charmed, just like all the books said it would. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, caters to the gap year trade with its trekkers cafes and bars, and sellers of local craft abound. But it has a gentle, modest beauty so different from, say, Buenos Aires where the buildings are bigger and the streets wider and the grandeur is altogether much more self-consciously grand.