A Final Week in Bolivia’s Capitals

We spent our last week in Bolivia exploring Bolivia’s two capitals: Sucre and La Paz. The two cities have a strong rivalry regarding their status as THE capital of Bolivia. In Sucre we learned the constitution designated Sucre as the capital, but in 1899 the government moved the Legislative and Executive branches to La Paz for economic reasons leaving only the highest courts in Sucre. Sucre claims this makes La Paz only an administrative capital, and Sucre remains the true capital. Officially, Sucre is right but it doesn’t stop the inter-city debate. For us it wasn’t that important since we were visiting both.

Sucre

We arrived in Sucre from Potosí tired and dusty from the mine. Milton, our tour guide in Uyuni, had given us the contact information of a friend, Javier, who rented apartments in Sucre, and as luck would have it he had one available for us. This turned out to be a real stroke of luck because he was incredibly helpful. He advised us to take the Transtin Dilrey bus from Potosí to Sucre because it is the only company that arrives at a bus station in the city instead of 2.5 miles away. Then, when it was raining on our arrival, he met us at the bus station with his car and drove us to the apartment. The apartment was six blocks from the main square, so it is very well located for exploring the city. He provided lots of maps and advised us on must-see attractions.

Unfortunately, Eric had come down with something that came with flu symptoms and some stomach distress, so he spent most of the first two days in Sucre in bed. After a few hectic days in Uyuni, we both needed a rest, so Jess went out exploring for part of each day but also took advantage of the good wifi to file taxes. Unfortunately, taxes don’t wait for epic honeymoon adventures. This is what we saw in four days in Sucre:

  • Casa de la Libertad – this museum where the declaration of independence was signed commemorates Bolivia’s independence in 1825. The declaration of independence is still housed here. The cost to enter is 15 Bs ($2.17) and comes with a guide in English, Spanish or French.
Bolivia’s Declaration of Independence
  • Cathedral Museum – This museum which is the most important religious museum in Bolivia houses objects and artworks collected from other churches that were falling into disrepair. A visit to the museum costs 30Bs ($4.34) and includes a visit to the inside of the cathedral. Some people appeared to have a guided tour although that was not offered to us.
Sucre’s cathedral. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside.
  • Museo del Tesoro – this museum is dedicated to Bolivia’s metals and precious stones which are found in its various mines. The museum is really well designed with a guided tour available in English that takes you on a tour of the exhibits lighting each one up at a time. This was one of our favorites in Sucre. Entrance costs 25 Bs ($3.62) per person and you finish in the jewelry store where you will likely be tempted to buy something.
  • Condor Cafe – we heard about Condor Cafe from Nils and Laura on our Uyuni trip. It’s a vegetarian restaurant that caters to foreigners. We enjoyed the cappuccinos here but we ended up cooking most of our food in the apartment.
  • Condor Trekkers Walking Tour – Nils and Laura also mentioned the Condor Trekkers walking tour and we’re glad we followed their recommendation. The walking tour costs 50 Bs ($7.24) per person but it’s great. You learn about some of the local indigenous cultures, and Bolivia’s history and politics. Our tour only had three people: us and a woman named Sophia from London. We visited the market and tried samples of the exotic fruits and the local chorizo. This is where we bought a shockingly expensive, but delicious chirimoya for 25 Bs ($3.62). We also marveled at the meat counters which just have meat laying out all day (and possibly all night). Evidence for this fact were two cow faces that we saw in the same place in the market two days in a row. We’re still not sure how people can eat meat this way and intentionally sought out the few refrigerated sections for our food. Afterwards we went to a local chicheria to try chicha which is an alcoholic beverage typically made from corn. Historically, the indigenous people made chicha by chewing corn and spitting it into a bucket. The saliva helped the fermentation process. Luckily there is now a commercially-produced version that does not involve saliva, but Jess still didn’t think it was very good. The tour also took us to the tunnels that go under the city. The tunnels go between all of the many churches in Sucre. We climbed into one and went a few feet inside, but we couldn’t imagine making it all the way to a church underground. The tour ended at the Mirador de la Recoleta which has a beautiful view of the city. We enjoyed a beer there with Sophia and then headed down to San Felipe de Nery.
  • San Felipe de Neri – Javier, the owner of our apartment insisted we visit the Convent of San Felipe de Neri. It’s a church built in the late 1700s. The church is beautiful, but the main draw is the awesome views of the city from the roof. The convent is only open to the public in the afternoon and entrance costs 15 Bs ($2.17) per person. The entrance is a little tricky to find and you may have to ring the bell to get in.
San Felipe de Neri and view from the roof
  • Cementerio – Having made visiting cemeteries one of our favorite activities, we couldn’t pass up the Sucre cemetery. This was the first cemetery where we saw people actively tending to the graves. Many of the other cemeteries we have visited seem to be historical cemeteries, but this one is very much still in use and has separate areas dedicated to graves of adults and children.
  • Museo Universitario de Las Charcas – This was the last museum we visited in Sucre and it’s actually three: a Colonial museum, an Anthropological museum, and a Gallery of Contemporary Art. The Colonial museum contains artifacts from the colonial era in Sucre. The Anthropological museum collects and collates anthropological artifacts from Bolivia’s history including pottery, weapons, and tools from local indigenous populations dating back thousands of years. They also have some mummified remains on display. The Gallery of Contemporary Art is primarily focused on works by local artists. We visited all three for 45 Bs ($6.42) per person.
  • Pollo Rositas – Javier recommended we eat at Pollo Rositas, and we decided this was a good last meal before getting on the night bus to La Paz. We met Sophia from our walking tour for dinner and shared a chicken platter before returning to the apartment to pack up.

Earlier that morning Javier had helped us buy bus tickets to La Paz for a reasonable price at the end of our stay. Apparently, there is often a higher price for foreigners, especially if you buy the tickets more than one day in advance. He secured us sweet reclining bed seats for 100 Bs ($14.50) per person. When it was time to go, we met Javier at the apartment, and he drove us to the bus station and waited with us until we were on the bus.

La Paz

Twelve hours later we were in La Paz sitting in the Plaza Murillo and waiting for a coffee shop to open. We couldn’t get into our apartment until 2pm, so we had breakfast, and then went to Valley of the Moon.

  • Valley of the Moon: Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) is an awesome landscape of clay/stone mountains and pillars that have been eroded by wind and water for a long time located about 6 miles from downtown La Paz. There are walking paths and steps around the site so you can see the formations from multiple angles and get good views of the nearby hills. Getting to Valley of the Moon required catching a colectivo from San Francisco Cathedral near Sagarnaga Street towards Mallasa for a 45-minute ride. The colectivo cost 3Bs ($0.43 per person). When we arrived we paid 15Bs ($2.17) per person entry fee and started wandering around the crazy-looking landscape. A visit to Valle de la Luna can be completed in about an hour, and when you’re ready to return to the city, there’s a bus stop across the street. There are tons of colectivos driving by, but they don’t all go to the downtown, so be sure to ask for San Francisco or “centro”.
Valley of the Moon landscape
  • Red Cap Walking Tour: Sophia recommended the walking tour and said she had seen the Cholitas Wrestling show too, so we decided this was a good way to see La Paz. We paid a hefty $28 per person for the Extended tour including Cholitas that departs on Thursdays and Sundays so we could see the El Alto market. While we learned some very interesting information about La Paz, we’re not sure we got our money’s worth on this tour. The tour visited the Cemetery, took the red cable car to El Alto, walked very quickly through the El Alto market and visited the El Alto Witches Market. La Paz’s altitude at 11,942ft is noticeable on this tour where almost any amount of walking results in lack of breath.

Cemetery: The Cemetery in La Paz showcases the largest open-air art gallery in the world. To the right of the entrance, the walls between the rows of graves are painted with beautiful works of art that all represent death in some way. The cemetery is free to enter and is open for most of the day. In the cemetery, we learned about the Bolivian tradition of ñatitas (literally: little noses) in which people care for a skull of a stranger, giving it cigarettes, candles, food, and flowers in exchange for protection and prosperity. If one night you dream of something bad happening to someone else, you have to give your ñatita to that person to protect them from the bad thing. The eyes of the ñatita need to be covered so the spirits don’t come in, and if it’s cold, it’s a good idea to give your ñatita a hat. Obviously, obtaining a ñatita is not that easy since it’s illegal to sell human remains. However, in the La Paz cemetery people rent space for the remains of their loved ones and if people don’t pay the rent, their loved one’s grave is emptied and rented out to someone else. Therefore to obtain a ñatita you only need to know an unscrupulous cemetery worker who will reserve the skull for you on cleanup day.

Cable Car: The cable cars were installed in La Paz in the last few years. They provide much greater accessibility in a mountainous city in which it can take an hour to get from the neighborhoods at the top to the center of the city without creating additional traffic. Each ride on the cable car costs 3Bs ($0.43). We took the red cable car from the cemetery to El Alto market. We also took the purple cable car a few days later just for fun and it’s well worth it for the spectacular views.

View from Red Line cable car

El Alto Market: When we got to El Alto, the tour guide warned us that there are a lot of scams in El Alto to rob tourists and advised us to watch out for the most common ones: “if someone throws you a baby, don’t catch it! It’s a dummy. If someone spits in your face or says you have something on your shirt, just keep walking and we’ll clean it off later.” With this warning, we put our backpacks on our fronts, crossed our arms, and walked through the largest street market in the world. You can buy anything you want at this market. The tour guide told us she once saw the engine of a plane for sale. The market is cool and we wish we had had more time to see it, but the tour zips through really fast and it’s all you can do to keep up with the person in front of you.

Witches Market: There’s a witches market in downtown La Paz, but it’s apparently more touristy than the one in El Alto. The tour took us through the El Alto Witches Market where we saw tons of llama fetuses and packages of plants. Later it was explained to us that there are yatiris (witch doctors) and amautas (senior witch doctors). In order to become an amauta, you have to be struck by lightning twice. These witch doctors have spells and cures for all sorts of ills. For example: it is said that you must make a sacrifice when you construct a building. For a house, a sacrifice of a llama fetus is sufficient; however, for a large, multi-story building, you need a larger sacrifice and there are tales of homeless people being plied with alcohol and then being sacrificed although our tour guide wasn’t willing to say for sure that actually happens. Apparently amautas always deny they participate in such rituals, but since they are illegal, it’s not surprising they don’t readily admit to it.

Cholitas Wrestling – The extended tour ended near the purple cable car, but we were continuing on to the Cholitas Wrestling show. This is a sight to be seen. Three times a week women dressed in traditional skirts with their hair in braids get in the ring and fight each other and/or creatures dressed as wolves or scary monsters with flying leaps and acrobatics. What follows is roughly two hours of dramatic show in which people are throwing each other into and out of the ring, hitting each other in the face with wooden crates, and in some cases, lighting each other on fire. One woman literally lit the skirt of another woman on fire who then ran through the crowd aflame. “Unboliviable” as our Sucre tour guide liked to say.

  • San Francisco Basilica: On our last day in La Paz, we took a tour of the Basilica of San Francisco. We paid 20 Bs ($2.90) per person to enter and got a guided tour in English. The church was originally constructed in the mid-1500s but collapsed and had to be rebuilt in the mid-1700s. There are some interesting architectural features as a result, as well as a beautiful garden in the center with fruit trees. The highlight for us was the visit to the roof where we got some cool views of La Paz and enjoyed this hodge podge of roof facets.
The roof of the Basilica of San Francisco

Of the two cities, Sucre was definitely our favorite. We loved the relaxed pace, beautiful white buildings and charming old town of Sucre. La Paz is a hustling, bustling big city and while we’re glad we got to experience it, we were happy to only spend a few days there.

Tomorrow we are leaving Bolivia via Copacabana and Lake Titicaca using Bolivia Hop. We will be in Puno, Peru by 8pm.

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