In a broad highland valley on the Altiplano’s eastern edge, about 162km north of Potosí, SUCRE is Bolivia’s most refined and beautiful city. Known at various times as Chuquisaca, Charcas and La Ciudad de la Plata – and thus also as “The City of Four Names” – it has some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in South America, and enjoys a spring-like climate all year round, thanks to its setting at an altitude of 2790m.
The centre of Spanish power in Alto Peru, Sucre was made capital of Bolivia after independence, a status it retains today, although all real power has long since passed to La Paz. The city exudes the sense of being frozen in time somewhere back in the late nineteenth century. Although the courtly manners and conservatism of the old aristocratic families who dominate Sucre can seem stuffy and pompous, it’s nicely tempered by the youthful vitality the city enjoys as home of one of the Americas’ oldest universities.
Laid out in a classic grid pattern, the city is an architectural jewel, with splendid churches, monasteries and mansions. The historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is protected by strict building codes, and as a result most of it has been preserved as it was a century ago. Municipal regulations require all buildings to be whitewashed once a year, maintaining the characteristic that earned Sucre another of its many grandiose titles: “La Ciudad Blanca de Las Americas” – “The White City of the Americas”.
Sucre is also the market centre for a mountainous rural hinterland inhabited by Quechua-speaking indigenous communities that are renowned for their beautiful weavings; their work can be seen at Sucre’s stunning Museo de Arte Indigena, or on a day-trip to Tarabuco, a rural town about 60km to the southeast.
Sucre was founded some time between 1538 and 1540 (the exact date is still hotly disputed by Bolivian historians) by the conquistador Pedro de Anzures during the second major Spanish incursion into the Andes south of Lago Titicaca. Initially named Chuquisaca (probably a Spanish corruption of the original indigenous name Choquechaca, meaning “Golden Bridge”), it was given the official title Villa de la Plata (“City of Silver”) after significant quantities of silver were found nearby. The title proved prescient, as the massive silver deposits of Potosí were discovered soon after, and the city quickly emerged as the administrative headquarters for the mines and the centre of Spanish political, religious and military power in the region. In 1559 the Audiencia de Charcas – an independent court representing the Spanish crown, with judicial and executive power over an area comprising modern-day Bolivia, Argentina and part of Peru – was established here. The city became home to the first bishopric in Alto Peru in 1552, and in 1624 the Universidad de San Francisco Xavier – only the third university in all the Americas – was founded here to train the religious and administrative specialists needed to manage the vast conquered territories.
The silver boom
The first half of the seventeenth century was La Plata’s golden age, as the wealth from Potosí’s mines funded the construction of lavish churches, monasteries, palaces and administrative buildings. Its power waned with the flow of silver, however, and in 1776 it was made subject to the rule of the new Spanish Virreinato de la Plata in Buenos Aires, reverting to the name of Chuquisaca to avoid confusion. The university retained its importance, and became a centre in developing the liberal ideas that led to the first qualified declaration of independence from Spain, which was made here on May 25, 1809.
After independence in 1825 the city was made the capital of the Republic of Bolivia and renamed Sucre in honour of Antonio José de Sucre, the Venezuelan general who completed the defeat of the Spanish at the battle of Ayacucho and served as Bolivia’s first president. Its economic importance continued to decline, however, and the seat of both congress and the presidency was moved to La Paz after the 1899 civil war between the two cities. In a very Bolivian compromise, Sucre remained the seat of the supreme court and was allowed to retain the title of official or constitutional capital, an honorary position it still holds today.Read More
Jalq’a and Tarabuceño weavings
Jalq’a and Tarabuceño weavings
The difference in style between the weavings of the Jalq’a and Tarabuceños could hardly be more dramatic, even though the two groups live only a short distance apart to the west and east of Sucre. Tarabuceño ponchos (unkus) are woven with bright stripes of orange, black, red, green and gold, while smaller items like the chu’spa coca bags and chumpi waist bands are decorated with finely detailed and usually symmetrical designs depicting scenes from everyday life: wild and domestic animals; trees and crops; people ploughing, harvesting or dancing at fiestas.
The Jalq’a designs, on the other hand, are entirely figurative, eschewing symmetry and abstract geometry. Woven into women’s shawls known as aqsus and almost always only black and red in colour, they depict a kind of primordial chaos filled with strange beasts: animals with elongated bodies and multiple heads or eyes sprouting from their tails; birds with puma heads; toads with wings. The few human figures that do appear seem lost in this forest of supernatural animals. This is the ukchu pacha, a mythological underworld of extraordinary and untamed creatures, over which rules the Sax’ra, a horned devil-like figure with wings who appears in the centre of some of the weavings, part Andean demon and part god of fertility and abundance. Many of the designs are inspired by dreams, and new themes are constantly being incorporated, but though every piece is unique they all fall within a set of artistic norms that makes them instantly recognisable as Jalq’a – both to neighbouring ethnic groups and to international art collectors.
Examples of both weaving styles are available to buy in a shop attached to the museum, and though they’re far from cheap (particularly the Jalq’a items – larger individual pieces can cost well over $100/Bs700) the money goes direct to the indigenous artists who made them, and the quality is exquisite.
Sucre’s culinary delights
Sucre’s culinary delights
The salteñas (meat-filled pasties) in Sucre are rightly considered Bolivia’s best, and locals consume them with a passion – they’re available from stalls and handcarts throughout the city, and from specialist salteñerias, which open only from mid-morning to noon and serve almost nothing else. Another local specialty is chorizos chuquisaqueños, spicy pork sausages sold in the market and in restaurants. Sucre is also famous throughout Bolivia for the quality and variety of its chocolates, which you’ll find on sale at specialist shops on Calle Arenales, just off the plaza; Para Ti at #7 is the pick of the bunch, and has a delightful café.