Bolivia's original capital: Your guide to Sucre

From its whitewashed centre, nestled beneath a sea of orange tiles, to fairytale castles and miniature monuments – Bolivia’s original capital is a feast for the eyes and senses

5 mins

Wedged into a highland valley just east of the altiplano – the Andean plateau stretching across western Bolivia – Sucre is one of the most beautiful cities in South America and a place that confounds expectations. Set at an altitude of 2,810m, it was established in the mid-1500s by Spanish conquistadors on the lands of the indigenous Yampara people and has since been known as Charcas, Chuquisaca, Ciudad de la Plata (City of Silver) and finally Sucre, rightfully earning it the title “The City with Four Names”.

Sucre’s initial success was down to silver. As well as exploiting deposits in the area, it became an administrative hub for the larger reserves in Potosí, 160km to the south, and a centre of Spanish colonial power. Wealth flowed into the city, funding the construction of the grand buildings that would later see it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe sees traditional dances and a huge mass take place in the main square (Alamy)

the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe sees traditional dances and a huge mass take place in the main square (Alamy)

The Castillo de la Glorieta is a whimsical confabulation of well-known landmarks and wild imagination (Alamy)

The Castillo de la Glorieta is a whimsical confabulation of well-known landmarks and wild imagination (Alamy)

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.


Walking the historic centre reveals whitewashed facades that the city maintains by pushing development to the outskirts (Shutterstock)

Walking the historic centre reveals whitewashed facades that the city maintains by pushing development to the outskirts (Shutterstock)

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.

Four things you must do in Sucre

1. Visit Tarabuco

Sucre is a good base for visiting the town of Tarabuco, a textile-producing centre 60km to the south-east that is famous for its Sunday market, which draws people from far and wide.

2. Admire history and art

There are several interesting museums and galleries in Sucre, including the Casa de la Libertad, where the Bolivian Act of Independence was signed in 1825, and the Museo Universitario Charcas, which is home to a wealth of anthropological, historical and artistic exhibits.

3. Go shopping

After visiting the Museo de Arte Indígena, head to the in-house shop, which stocks a selection of beautiful textiles and ceramics made by local Jalq’a and Tarabuco artisans.

4. Dine on local delicacies 

Sucre is renowned for its salteñas – delicious pasties stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables – and the best are served at El Patio, a bougainvilleaclad courtyard cafe near the main plaza. The city is also known for spicy sausages called chorizos chuquisaqueño, as well as its chocolate shops.

Best places to stay in Sucre

The Chuquisaca Government Palace was the country’s original presidential building (Alamy)

The Chuquisaca Government Palace was the country’s original presidential building (Alamy)

Kultur Berlin

Set in a historic building close to the action, Kultur Berlin is a welcoming, German-run hostel with a wide range of clean dorms and private rooms. It also has a peaceful garden, economical cafebar-club, in-house Spanishlanguage school and an array of activities, from dance classes to cultural nights. 

Hotel Boutique Mi Pueblo Samary

A short walk from the Plaza 25 de Mayo, Hotel Boutique Mi Pueblo Samary is a renovated 18th-century mansion has spacious rooms set around a flower-filled patio. There’s also a fine restaurant and a chichería, a rustic bar serving traditional Andean beer made from fermented corn. 

Parador Santa María La Real 

Parador Santa María La Real is a restored 18th-century townhouse in central Sucre. This five-star stay has elegant rooms filled with period details and modern comforts. The cellars have been turned into an atmospheric restaurant, while the tranquil rooftop garden offers views across the city.

Essential travel information for Sucre

This otherwise unedifying wall is actually filled with dinosaur footprints (Alamy)

This otherwise unedifying wall is actually filled with dinosaur footprints (Alamy)

International dialling code: +591

Currency: The boliviano (BOB), currently around BOB11 to the UK£. ATMs and casas de cambio (currency exchanges) are commonly found in downtown Sucre.

Getting there: There are no direct flights between the UK and Bolivia’s two main international airports, El Alto and Santa Cruz, but there are connections via Madrid, the US and neighbouring countries. Sucre’s modern airport is served by plenty of domestic flights; its long distance bus station has services to towns as well as cities across Bolivia, and shared-taxis run regularly to and from Potosí.

Getting around: The historic centre and the Recoleta district are easy to explore on foot, but you will need to take a taxi to the airport, Castillo de la Glorieta and Parque Cretácico Cal Orck’o. Dedicated buses also run to the latter from the main square in town.

Festivals: One of the city’s most important annual celebrations is the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, which takes place in early September and features music, dancing, parades and feasting dedicated to Sucre’s patron saint

Related Articles