Sucre and a return to La Paz

After a 4 hour bus ride to Sucre, I booked into a hotel of European design near the centre of town and spent the evening walking around and getting dinner. The first thing you notice about Sucre is the altitude. It´s much lower than most other places in Bolivia, and so is hotter and less tiring to walk around. It´s also far prettier to look at than Potosi, or even La Paz, due to a UNESCO declaration that its architecture cannot be altered, and building is strictly regulated nearer the centre. The result of this is that the colonial houses, hotels, restaurants, plazas and churches all remain, meaning Sucre is just a pleasant place to be. Its got large palm trees around the main plaza, and all the restaurants and cafes feel kind of like they´re designed for tourists without there being a tourist feel.

Despite my hotel having some cool architecture, it was a bit antique and my room tiny, so I decided to move to a hostel for the rest of my 3 day stay there. The best one I could find on HostelWorld (great website/app) was The Celtic Cross, one run by an Irish guy. It´s a really well run place. They emphasise space over quantity of people, so there are 2 large bathrooms and 2 kitchens and an open courtyard in the middle where people chill out and work on their Spanish homework. Incidentally pretty much everyone there was in the process of doing a Spanish course, and I quickly learnt that this was because there was little to do in Sucre unless you wanted to leave the city and do some adventure activities (expensive and time consuming for me) or learn Spanish.

Starting to think about the time I had left on my trip, I began to feel I´d already prolonged my stay away from La Paz and Argentina for long enough, so booked a flight back to La Paz the following day for $80. To put it in perspective, the plane takes 50 minutes, the bus takes 18 hours (although is a lot cheaper). Such is a decision you have to make when travelling through a country like Bolivia.

While I visited some cool restaurants in Sucre (they do really good crepes there, really cheaply), my favourite place to go, and probably the place where most tourists there go, is Florins, a gastro bar a block away from the main square. It was there I headed on my last day to get one of their famous burgers and watch some of the Champions League that was on with the two French guys from Potosi. I stayed there for a couple of hours before heading back to the Hostel to pack up my things and head to the airport.

If I ever return to Sucre I´d be surprised, but I can see why some Bolivians use it for Romantic escapades, as it´s just a nice place, if a little boring.

 

When I arrived back in La Paz at about 6pm, I was met with a really great view of the sun going down on the city, as well as a previously unseen perspective on the size difference between El Alto and La Paz. While the latter is confined in a gorge (although it can stretch out downtown), the former spreads out for miles around the edge of the cliff overlooking La Paz, a sea of tiny houses, occasional churches and weirdly what look like mosques, and large open spaces, presumably for weekend markets. When I´d picked up my bag, I returned to the Ortega-Mendoza´s house by taxi to pick up my other bag and try to find a room for the night. When I arrived it was such a relief to be in an actual house again. For so long I´d been in sometimes uncomfortable beds, occasionally lonely (an unavoidable truth about travelling alone) and without some of the general home comforts you get when you´re in an owned house! For example, when I got there only Mariana was home, so we ordered food and watched TV, then the movie Magnolia (good film). By the time it had finished, it was midnight, the others in the family had come home and gone to bed, and there was no chance of getting a hostel, so they kindly allowed me to stay in their spare room until I´d found space.

Somehow that managed to turn into a week´s stay (although I won´t talk too much about this to respect their privacy, it was a lot of fun)! This enabled me to see La Paz the way Bolivians see it, and with Mariana as my guide also managed to see some more of the city. On my first day back I went to University with her, in her design and film classes, and although I didn´t learn much (the classes were in Spanish), it was cool, if a little surreal, being back at University! Over the next few days we also got through a lot of Netflix episodes of Orange is the New Black and Weeds, as well as trips into the city. On Thursday evening I went to see a friend who was working at Oliver´s English Tavern in the centre of La Paz, and the next day did the Death Road. As you can tell, I survived, but despite this it was cool.

I chose the company ´Gravity´, known to be the most expensive, but also have the best safety record and the best bikes. You meet at Oliver´s pub for a 7:30am kick off, and load into a bus with two guides. My primary one was called Marcus, an Aussie who had come here for a few months off from work, and stayed. In the bus we were briefed on what we would be doing, how to use the bikes etc. and then told to introduce ourselves and give the rest of the group an embarrasing story. As is to be expected when put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, pretty much everyone couldn´t think of one, so I stepped up with the great comedic tale of my disasterous bus ride to Uyuni. At the starting point, high in some mountains about an hour from La Paz, we tested out our bikes and kitted up in some baggy red and black overalls and helmets, then set off. When you have Israelis in your group doing some kind of extreme activity (and this isn´t a generalisation, it´s the truth), they will attempt to be the fastest and do the most stunts. The Death Road was no exception. However their speed was checked at points when we would stop to be given information on the road. At one point, a great vista overlooking a valley, we were told to look directly downwards, and saw the wreckage of a bus smashed by the rocks below. The drop was at least 200ft, and so inevitably there had been no survivors. It is estimated that around 200 to 300 travellers are killed every year on the road, although only 19 riders have been killed in about 25 years (12 Israeli). However I think that total figure must be less now, as regular traffic has been diverted onto a better, newer road since 2006, and the last death I´d heard of had been 2 months ago, a motorcyclist backing up against the edge to pose for a picture.

It´s called the Death Road for a reason, but it isn´t a particularly hard ride if you´re sensible. Most accidents results in broken or fractured bones, not deaths, and it´s more just a thrill to speed down a bumpy mountain bike track, knowing that if you wanted to, you could kill yourself. Of course, I´m not trying to belittle those who have died. I heard of one British guy, my age, who passed out due to altitude sickness and careered off the edge. Half of the charm of the road is to get the T-shirt, say you´ve done it, and big it up to those who have yet to complete it. As you can see from the picture below, our visibility at the top was also pretty poor, so unfortunately we missed most of the great views which may have made it more scary. But if you´re in La Paz for a few days, it´s a great day out and when conducted with Gravity, you end in a cool monkey rehabilitation centre with an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet, which I took advantage of.

On the weekend I was taken out for some steak, which included large appetisers of bread and traditional sauce, salad, empanadas, and cheese melts. Then came a huge Argentinian Bife de Chorizo (medium-rare) steak, which was incredible, with a side of chips. Then Mariana didn´t eat much of hers, so I ended up eating that as well. Then we had kind of creme caramel desert. I think it´s fair to say it was the most I´ve ever eaten, and we all stumbled slowly out of the restaurant, clutching our stomachs, but satisfied.

I had eaten so much I´d almost forgotten that we were supposed to be going out that night, so shortly the meal Mariana got a call that her friends were at a local bar, with requests that she and I join them. We met her friends at a kind of English themed bar (as in the music was all English, usually what it means), who are all really cool people with varying levels of English, although my Spanish was good enough to communicate with them, and soon afterwards headed off for the main event of the evening, a dub-rave party hosted by more of her DJ friends. Although I won´t go through the entire rest of the evening, it was a really really fun night, by the end of which I didn´t feel too bad, probably because the sheer amount of food inside me had absorbed all of the alcohol.

The next day was my last day in La Paz before my flight out to Buenos Aires (I was very excited) on Monday, so we got up at the ungodly out of 12pm to go get some lunch at a really fancy, but great restaurant nearby, and had some great pork stew, which is apparently a speciality here. The deserts were also recommended, but there was no way I could handle that. No way. Well I tried some of Mariana´s brother´s tart and it was really good, but I physically couldn´t eat anymore. Afterwards, for the second time in 24 hours, we stumbled out of a restaurant holding our stomachs and vowing that we wouldn´t eat that much ever again. Instead of driving straight back we decided to take a walk around downtown La Paz, partly because it was a nice day, partly to walk off the food. However the pace was slow, mainly because Mariana´s brother continually had to sit down anywhere he could find to avoid a stomach explosion. I deducted that he had eaten too much.

That evening we went out to the movies and saw Spiderman 2, paying a little extra (it´s Bolivia so emphasise the little) to get reclining seats and food brought to us (we opted against this as apparently the portions were too small. Seriously). I actually really enjoyed the movie, and Mariana and her brother are huge comic fans so they of course enjoyed it.

Basically it was a really relaxing and fun week. Their maid made some really good meals and even a milkshake for me early in the morning before doing the Death Road, which I really appreciated, and I was made to feel incredibly welcome by the whole family, despite such a tenuous link between us! So if you´re reading this Viviana, thank you again so much!

The next morning I said my goodbyes and got to the airport ready for a 15 hour journey and 4 flights, but on my way to Argentina´s colourful and flamboyant capital, Buenos Aires!

 

Church in Sucre. Even the cars are antique!

I love these people so much. I´ve only seen them in La Paz and Sucre, but I´m sure they´re in every major Bolivian city. Effectively they´re there to escort people across the road, kind of like lolli pop ladies for everyone. They´ll walk in the middle of the road when a red light shows and basically dance about, joke with people, high five, wave, shake kids´ hands, basically cheer everyones´ days up. They´re obviously just cool people. I asked Mariana about this afterwards and she said you can actually sign up to be one of these people for the day, although the waiting list is about 5 months long, and everyone wants to do it. What makes it even better is they also get street kids involved (in the suits) to give them some money and get them off some of the more shady activities that must go on. Just a brilliant scheme that could be applied back home as well!

Little courtyard in Sucre.

Easter day in Sucre. People are making palm leave crosses for others to take in.

20 boliviano ($2) pancakes for breakfast one day.

My favourite cocktail in South America, the Caiprinha

Back at University in La Paz!

Bit of Fifa at the Mendoza-Ortega´s. Beat Argentina with Bolivia on Penalties after a great game. If that doesn´t mean much to you, Argentina have one of the best teams in the world, and the best/second best player. Bolivia just don´t. They suck. Although teams never come to play them as the altitude makes it almost impossible! Argentina lost 6-1 the last time they came here, and both teams from La Paz are in the quarter finals of the Copa Liberdatores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) because of this!

A minion maid adorned on the wall of a street in downtown La Paz. Perhaps a tribute to the maid who do such good work here? Perhaps a subtle social commentary? Either way it´s cute.

 

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