After playing a key role in the struggle for independence from Spanish rule, Sucre became the capital of the new Republic of Bolivia in 1825, but political and economic influence gradually drained away. In 1899, following a brief civil war, the presidency, congress and de facto capital status moved north-west to La Paz, though Sucre was allowed to retain the title of constitutional capital.
Today, it has a population of about 360,000, and while the drivers of political, economic and social life lie elsewhere, it has retained a cultured, middleclass air with its tidy streets and relaxed pace of life.
Downtown is a treasure trove of well-preserved 16th- to 19th-century architecture laid out on an orderly grid system. The expansive Plaza 25 de Mayo lies in the centre, surrounded by a Mestizo-Baroque cathedral, Neoclassical town hall and elegant former presidential palace. Surrounding streets are lined with similarly impressive churches, chapels, monasteries, townhouses and university buildings, their brilliant white adobe walls and red-tiled roofs gleaming in the sunshine.
This heritage is taken seriously: historic buildings must be whitewashed each year – a uniformity of colour that has given rise to yet other nickname, the “Ciudad Blanca” (White City) – and modern constructions are resolutely confined to the outskirts. This wealth of history and architectural splendour could easily have turned Sucre into a museum piece, yet the city has a young, cosmopolitan feel thanks to the crowds of students at its universities and a steady stream of gringos. Many historic buildings have been turned into boutique stays and hostels. There is also a proliferation of Spanish-language schools aimed at backpackers, and numerous European migrants have set up travel agencies, restaurants, bars, galleries and other ventures. This has helped to created a thriving eating, drinking and cultural scene.
Beyond the historic centre, Sucre breaks out from its monochrome appearance with a pair of colourful architectural curiosities. In a park near the Supreme Court sits the Torre Eiffel, which was installed in the early 20th century. It is a miniature take on the Parisian original and was designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. Around 12m in height, it has a spiral staircase leading up to a viewing platform and – on my last visit – a coat of pumpkin-orange paint.
South of downtown is a more outlandish construction, the coral-pink Castillo de la Glorieta. Built in the late 19th century, this kitsch castle was a vanity project for mining tycoon, banker and diplomat Francisco Argandoña Revilla and his wife Clotilde. It features a trio of towers: a replica of London’s Elizabeth Tower, home of Big Ben; the Russian-Byzantine-style Prince’s Tower, topped with a turquoise onion dome; and the octagonal Princess Tower, complete with keyhole-shaped windows.
Visiting the castillo feels like stepping into a Hollywood take on The Arabian Nights. Yet there’s more to Sucre than its history and architecture. A steep 20-minute hike uphill from the main square takes you to the Recoleta district, home of a 17th-century Franciscan monastery, a mirador offering panoramic views over town and, most significantly, the illuminating Museo de Arte Indígena. Run by an NGO named ASUR, the museum supports and showcases the traditional textiles of the indigenous Jalq’a and Tarabuco peoples, who live in the surrounding region. The exhibits are exquisite: multicoloured ponchos, shawls, tapestries and chuspas (small bags for carrying coca leaves). The Tarabuco creations feature bright scenes from everyday life, including farm work, religious rituals and festivals, while the Jalq’a designs have darker shades and supernatural imagery, such as gods and demons.
Arguably Sucre’s most dramatic attraction lies a short drive to the north, to a cement works on the city’s outskirts where a towering grey-white cliff rises out of a large quarry as heavily-laden trucks chug by. Here you’ll find Parque Cretácico Cal Orck’o, which – beyond its menagerie of model dinosaurs – has a viewing platform facing the cliff. At first glance the wall appears nondescript, but as you slowly focus, you’ll be able to see that the myriad indentations covering the surface are actually dinosaur footprints. In total, the cliff has over 12,000 individual tracks from as many as 15 different species of dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period (68–65 million years ago), making it the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world. Guided tours take you down into the quarry and provide a close-up view of giant Titanosaur and Tyrannosaurus rex footprints – a mesmerising experience and a reminder that Sucre’s history stretches back at lot further than you might expect.