Sucre, Cochabamba and the central valleys Travel Guide
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East of the Altiplano, the Andes march gradually down towards the eastern lowlands in a series of rugged north–south mountain ranges, scarred with long narrow valleys formed by rivers draining to the east. Blessed with rich alluvial soils, and midway in climate and altitude between the cold of the Altiplano and the tropical heat of the lowlands, these central valleys have historically been among the most fertile and habitable areas in Bolivia. In the fifteenth century the Incas established substantial agricultural colonies in the region, which formed the easternmost frontier of their empire – to this day the majority of the rural population still speak Quechua, the language the Incas introduced. The Spanish were attracted by the same qualities, and the two main cities they founded, Sucre and Cochabamba, remain the most important in the region, though origins aside they could not be more different in character.
The administrative, political and religious centre of Bolivia during Spanish rule, and still officially the capital, Sucre is a masterpiece of immaculately preserved colonial architecture, full of elegant churches, mansions and museums. It’s also the market centre for the deeply traditional Quechua-speaking communities of the surrounding mountains, whose fine weavings are sold at the regional market town of Tarabuco.
The charms of Cochabamba, on the other hand, are much more prosaic. A bustling trading hub for a rich agricultural hinterland, it has few conventional tourist attractions, and for most travellers is no more than a place to break a journey between La Paz and Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands. Those who do spend some time here, however, find it to be one of Bolivia’s friendliest cities, and the surrounding Cochabamba Valley’s mixture of Inca ruins and lively rural market towns is worth exploring as well. It’s also the jumping-off point for an adventurous journey south into the remote Northern Potosí province, where the diverse attractions of Parque Nacional Torotoro include labyrinthine limestone caves, deep canyons and waterfalls, dinosaur footprints and ancient ruins.
East of Cochabamba, meanwhile, the main road to Santa Cruz passes through the Chapare, a beautiful region of rushing rivers and dense tropical forests, where the last foothills of the Andes plunge down into the Amazon basin. The area has become notorious as the source of most of Bolivia’s coca crop, which is used to make a large proportion of the world’s cocaine supply, and conflicts continue between government drug-enforcement officers and local peasant farmers. As such, it’s hardly an ideal area for travellers, though some areas remain safe to visit.
East of Cochabamba stretches the densely-populated upper Cochabamba Valley, or Valle Alto. Set at an altitude of about 2600m, it is blessed with rich alluvial soils and a warm, spring-like climate. The valley’s fields of maize and wheat are among the most fertile and productive in the country – not for nothing is it known as the breadbasket of Bolivia. This region is dominated by peasant farmers: though still Quechua-speaking, they’re much more outward looking than the communities of the Altiplano, and played a key role in the emergence of radical peasant federations in Bolivia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Every year for three days around August 15, Quillacollo hosts the Fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupiña, which attracts up to half a million visitors and involves a massive parade of costumed dancers from all over Bolivia, as well as copious eating and drinking intertwined with sincere expressions of spiritual faith – many pilgrims walk to Quillacollo by night from Cochabamba as a sign of religious devotion. The fiesta dates back to the early nineteenth century, when a local Quechua-speaking shepherdess had repeated visions of the Virgin Mary on the nearby Cerro Cota hill. When the villagers of Quillacollo investigated, they saw a brief glimpse of the Virgin ascending to heaven, and later found a carved image of her hidden among the rocks. This was carried to the parish church of San Idelfonsino, and soon credited with numerous miracles. The name Urkupiña is derived from the Quechua for “on the mountain” – the shepherdess’s cry when she pointed out the Virgin to the villagers.
As with most major Bolivian religious fiestas, however, there’s little doubt that its true origins lie deep in the pre-Christian past. Significant pre-Hispanic burial sites have been uncovered in the centre of Quillacollo, and the town’s name means “mountain of the moon” in Quechua – the Incas considered the moon to be a major female deity, and following the Spanish conquest it was often conflated with the Virgin Mary. As well as the procession and dances, a central feature of the fiesta is a visit to the rocky outcrop where the Virgin appeared, during which tourists and pilgrims alike hack lumps of rock from the sacred mountain to take home with them in the belief that this will ensure health and material prosperity. They also make libations of coca and alcohol and burn candles, offerings associated with the Andean earth goddess Pachamama. As in the fiesta of Alasitas in La Paz, pilgrims buy miniature replicas of objects they wish to possess in the belief that by doing so the real thing will be theirs before the year is out.
The best way to visit the fiesta is as a day-trip from Cochabamba, though you’ll need to get to Quillacollo early in the morning to ensure a good spot from which to watch the dances. Accommodation in Cochabamba can be hard to find during the fiesta.
The green hills and pleasant climate surrounding Sucre make this an area well worth setting aside time to explore. While the dinosaur tracks at Cal Orko and the market at Tarabuco are the most popular day-trips – and the latter will give you some sense of countryside by way of a bus window – forays by foot, mountain bike or horse will give you a much more intimate view (see Tour operators).
By far the most popular excursion from Sucre is to the small rural town of TARABUCO, set amid crumpled brown mountains about 60km southeast of the city. The town itself is an unremarkable collection of red-tiled adobe houses and cobbled streets leading to a small plaza with a modern church, but its real claim to fame is its Sunday market, which acts as a focus for the indigenous communities of the surrounding mountains, the so-called Tarabuceños, who come to sell the beautiful weavings for which they’re famous throughout Bolivia. The market is a bit of a tourist trap – there are usually several busloads of foreign tourists in attendance – but it’s still principally geared towards the indigenous campesinos of the surrounding region, and the stalls selling weavings and other handicrafts to tourists are far outnumbered by those selling basic supplies such as dried foodstuffs, agricultural tools, sandals made from tyres, big bundles of coca and pure cane alcohol. If you walk a few blocks away from the centre of town you can still see campesinos engaging in trueque, a traditional Andean system of non-monetary trade in which agricultural products from different ecological zones are exchanged according to standard ratios – potatoes for maize, dried llama meat for oranges, and so on.
You can pick up some nice souvenirs at the market, though it’s best to have some idea of quality and price before you arrive (have a look at things on sale on the streets of Sucre). Small items like decorative chuspa coca-bags make good mementoes; larger items like ponchos and shawls cost a lot more. Be prepared to bargain, but not too hard: many of the sellers are poor campesinos who may be desperate to sell something so they can buy essential goods to take home to their families. Photographing people without permission is considered rude and can provoke an angry reaction: ask first, and be prepared to pay a few bolivianos for the privilege. If you want a less touristy experience, try one of Candelaria Tours’ trips to Candelaria village.
Every year on the third Sunday of March, Tarabuco celebrates Pujllay (or the Carnaval de Tarabuco), one of the best-known indigenous fiestas in Bolivia. Pujllay commemorates the battle of Jumbate on March 12, 1816, during the Independence War, when the Tarabuceños ambushed a battalion of marauding Spanish troops, slaughtering all but the drummer boy and eating their hearts in ritual revenge for abuses committed by the Spanish. During the fiesta, all the surrounding Tarabuceño communities come to town dressed in their finest ceremonial costumes, joined by thousands of tourists. Following a Mass to commemorate the battle, the participants stage folkloric dances and parades whilst knocking back copious amounts of chicha (fermented maize beer), beer and pure cane alcohol. The climax of the celebration takes place around a ritual altar known as a pukara, raised in honour of the Tarabuceños who died in the battle and formed from a kind of wooden ladder decorated with fruit, vegetables, flowers, bread, bottles of chicha and other agricultural produce. Drinking and dancing continues through the night: if you want to sleep, you’re better off returning to Sucre.
Though they wear the same traditional costume, speak the same language (Quechua) and share many cultural traditions, strictly speaking it’s not correct to refer to the Tarabuceños as an ethnic group: the name was simply given by the colonial authorities to all the indigenous communities living around Tarabuco. When the Spanish first arrived, the region had only recently been conquered by the Incas and marked the very limit of their domain. To secure the frontier and defend against raids by the indomitable Chiriguano tribes to the east, the Incas settled the area with different ethnic groups brought from elsewhere in the empire. All these indigenous communities speak Quechua, the lingua franca of the Inca empire, and at some point after the Spanish conquest they also adopted the distinctive costumes that give a semblance of unity today, but they have no collective name for themselves nor any tradition of collective political organization that suggests a common origin.
These distinctive traditional costumes make the Tarabuceños difficult to miss: the men wear leather hats, known as monteros and shaped like the steel helmets worn by the Spanish conquistadors, along with woollen ponchos woven with bright, horizontal stripes of red, yellow, orange and green on a brown background, and three-quarter-length white trousers. In addition, they often use finely woven accessories like chumpi belts and chuspa coca-bags. Though generally more muted in colour, the traditional costumes worn by the women, particularly the woollen shawls known as llijlas or aqsus, are also decorated with beautiful and complex designs, and the ceremonial hats and headdresses they wear on special occasions match the monteros of the men in their unusual shape and design: black pillboxes with a flap covering the neck decorated with sequins and bright woollen pom-poms, or boat-shaped sombreros embroidered with silver thread. More even than their costumes, however, it is Tarabuceño weavings that draw travellers to Tarabuco, and selling them has become a major source of income for the Tarabuceños, who otherwise depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and live in great poverty.
At the geographical centre of Bolivia, midway between the Altiplano and the eastern lowlands, COCHABAMBA is the commercial hub of the country’s richest agricultural region, the Cochabamba Valley. With a population of more than six hundred thousand, it’s a modern, unpretentious and outward-looking commercial city. Named the “City of Eternal Spring”, it enjoys a year-round sunny climate that is matched by the warmth and openness of its population. Although most travellers who visit are just passing through, those who spend time here find Cochabamba to be Bolivia’s most welcoming city. It is also a good base for exploring the attractions of the surrounding valley – chief among these, in the eyes of the locals at least, is chicha, a thick, lightly alcoholic maize beer.
For all its charm, Cochabamba has few conventional tourist attractions, and little remains of the original colonial city centre. The Museo Archeológico is worth a visit, as is the Cristo de la Concordia, the Christ statue that overlooks Cochabamba from the east. Otherwise, the most interesting areas are the massive, rambling street markets that stretch to the south of the centre, the commercial heart of this market city.
The Incas were quick to spot the region’s agricultural potential when they conquered it in the mid-fifteenth century, moving Quechua-speakers here to cultivate maize. Inca control of the area was ended by the Spanish, who founded the city of Cochabamba on January 1, 1574, originally naming it La Villa de Oropeza in honour of the Conde de Oropeza, father of the Viceroy Francisco Toledo, who ordered its settlement. Locals soon reverted to calling it by the indigenous place name Cochabamba, a combination of the Quechua words for lake and plain, though all but one of the shallow, swampy lakes that once stood here have now been filled in.
The Spanish established haciendas to produce grain for Potosí’s silver mines, and so important was their agricultural work to the colonial economy that the valley’s indigenous population was exempted from having to work in the mines under the mita system. When the mines went into decline towards the end of the colonial period and the early republican era, much of the hacienda land was rented out, and the region saw the emergence of a class of small but independent Quechua-speaking peasant farmers, very different in culture and outlook from the rather closed Aymara ayllus of the Altiplano. These peasant farmers played a central role in the emergence of Bolivia’s radical peasant political organizations in the 1950s and 1960s and, as migrants to the Chapare, have assumed a key role in the coca-growers’ movement of recent years.
Referred to by its inhabitants as “La Llacta”, the Quechua equivalent of the Spanish word pueblo, meaning at once city and people or nation, Cochabamba is the centre of a vigorous regional identity, and throughout Bolivian history has enjoyed a reputation for political independence and rebelliousness, a tradition that continues to this day. In 2000 the city’s water system was privatized and sold to a consortium of international companies which immediately doubled or even tripled water rates. In response, Cochabamba erupted in a series of spontaneous protests that became known as La Guerra del Agua – “the Water War”. Thousands of citizens from all social classes took to the streets to demand rates be lowered, blocking roads in and out of the city. The Banzer government responded in familiar fashion: a state of siege was declared, protest organizers were arrested, armed troops were sent in and plainclothes snipers opened fire on protesters, killing one and injuring many others. Despite this oppression, the demonstrations continued, and the water consortium eventually backed down – a popular victory that was welcomed by anti-globalization campaigners around the world. The excellent 2010 film Tambien la lluvia (“Even the Rain”), starring Gael Garcia Bernal, is set during the Water War.
In the south of the city, an entire block between calles Tarata and Pulucayo on the east side of Avenida San Martín, is occupied by the massive covered street market known as La Cancha (“walled enclosure” in Quechua), where campesinos and merchants from throughout the region come to buy and sell their produce. Wandering through the market’s sprawling labyrinth of stalls is the best way to get a feel for the vibrant commercial culture of the city and the surrounding area: the buzz of Quechua fills the air and the traditional costumes of different campesino groups are very much in evidence, in particular the straw sombreros and bright-coloured pollera skirts of the women of the Cochabamba Valley. This is effectively one massive clearing house for agricultural produce, and the range of foodstuffs on sale reflects the full diversity of Bolivia’s different ecological zones. You’ll also find pretty much anything else poor Bolivians might need: sacks, rope, ironmongery, medicinal herbs, ritual items for making offerings to Pachamama and the mountain gods, and cheap manufactured goods. La Cancha has overflowed its original bounds, and now spreads across Avenida San Martìn onto the disused railway, and northwest to occupy another entire block between Tarata and Punata, an area now known as the Mercado Inca Llajta (“Inca Town” in Quechua).
Some 130km south of Cochabamba, PARQUE NACIONAL TOROTORO protects a remote and sparsely inhabited stretch of the arid, scrubby landscape that is characteristic of the eastern foothills and valleys of the Andes. Covering just 164 square kilometres around the village of the same name, Torotoro is Bolivia’s smallest national park, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with its powerful scenery and varied attractions. The park encompasses a high, hanging valley and deep eroded canyons, ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils, dinosaur footprints and labyrinthine limestone cave complexes. In addition, the park’s woodland supports considerable wildlife – including flocks of parakeets and the rare and beautiful red-fronted macaw, found only in this particular region of Bolivia – while ancient rock paintings and pre-Inca ruins reveal a long-standing human presence. The main attractions are the limestone caves of Umajallanta, the beautiful, waterfall-filled Torotoro Canyon, and hiking expeditions to the pre-Inca ruined fortress of Llama Chaqui. Two days are generally enough to see the main attractions though it’s worth taking longer if you want to explore the area more fully.
Though reached from Cochabamba, Parque Nacional Torotoro actually lies within Northern Potosí department. Before the Spanish conquest this was the core territory of the Charcas Confederation, a powerful collection of different ethnic groups subject to Inca rule. Following the conquest, the different Quechua- and Aymara-speaking groups that made up the confederation retained their distinct identities, each as separate ayllus (extended kinship groups, similar to clans or tribes). The ayllus of Northern Potosí mostly live in the higher-altitude lands to the west of the region, where they grow potatoes and raise livestock, but they maintain islands of territory in the dry valleys such as Torotoro, where they cultivate maize, wheat and other lower-altitude crops. This system ensures each group has access to the produce of different altitudes, and represents a distinctly Andean form of organization that has long fascinated anthropologists.
Throughout the colonial era and long after independence, Northern Potosí was the focus of frequent indigenous uprisings. As recently as 1958, during the upheaval following the 1952 revolution, Torotoro village – which was formed in the late colonial period by mestizo migrants from Cochabamba – was ransacked by armed ayllu members, who seized the lands of the haciendas that had been established on their traditional valley territories.
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 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.
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.
In an elegant colonial building, the fascinating Museo de Arte Indigena is dedicated to the distinctive weavings of two local Quechua-speaking indigenous groups: the Jalq’a, who number about 26,000 and live in the mountains west of Sucre, and the Tarabuceños, a more numerous group who live around the town of Tarabuco to the east. The museum is run by an NGO, ASUR (Antropologos del Sur Andino), which works with Jalq’a and Tarabuceño communities to revive traditional weaving designs and techniques that had been dying out. This renaissance of indigenous art has seen both the quality and market value of the weavings of both groups rise dramatically, turning the craft into a source of income for hundreds of desperately poor campesino families.
Expertly laid out, with precise text explanations in Spanish, English, French and German, the museum introduces the different ethnic groups with maps and colour photos, then explains the weaving techniques and describes the different plants used to make natural dyes. There is often a Jalq’a or Tarabuceño woman weaving away in the courtyard as you wander around the museum, so you can see the creative process in action. The archeological finds on display demonstrate that many of the wood and bone weaving tools in use today are identical to those used in the Andes more than a thousand years ago, while some beautiful and well-preserved ancient textile fragments reveal an astonishing continuity of style, technique and aesthetic vision stretching back over many centuries. The central attractions, though, are the weavings themselves: brightly coloured, intricately detailed and laden with a complex symbolism, they’re works of great creativity that express a distinctively Andean artistic vision. The textiles are displayed in chronological order, revealing the development and changing style over time. There are also examples of how they are worn in daily dress and in ritual costumes for fiestas.
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.
Northeast of Cochabamba, the main road to Santa Cruz crosses the last ridge of the Andes and drops down into the CHAPARE, a broad, rainforest-covered plain in the Upper Amazon Basin that has been heavily settled by peasant migrants from the highlands, who over the last few decades have turned the region into the main source in Bolivia of coca grown to manufacture cocaine. For the traveller, the ongoing conflict between cocaine producers and Bolivian government troops means that despite its great natural beauty the Chapare is not the place for expeditions far off the beaten track. For all the region’s troubles, however, the towns along the main Cochabamba to Santa Cruz road are peaceful and safe to visit, though most are fairly unattractive. The exception is Villa Tunari, a one-time narco-traffickers’ playground that is now at the centre of efforts to promote the Chapare as a tourist destination. The rainforests of the Parque Nacional Carrasco are within easy reach, and the town enjoys a beautiful setting and is a good place to relax. Otherwise, the main point of stopping in the Chapare is to make the exciting river trip from Puerto Villarroel, the region’s main port, north to Trinidad in the Beni.