A common question that many backpackers have after being on the road for a while is “how can I stretch this out?” A common solution is to go to the countries where the cost of living is cheaper. In South America, this includes Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. While, except for Peru, they may not have the fame and appeal of their more well-known continental neighbours like Brazil and Argentina, I can speak for Bolivia in saying that I saw some of the most spectacular landscapes in my life there.
In the case of Bolivia, the fact that many places are severely underdeveloped, poor, and just a bit behind the first world characterises it as a ‘cheaper’ country. In terms of the culture and the people it is also an extremely difficult place for middle class white boys such as myself. While these differences are initially exotic and attractive to the Westerner, at times they can become draining when you yearn for more commonality and the other comforts of your middle class upbringing which you have been breastfeed to you since you were a child. Sometimes too, the charm wears thin when you just don’t know what the f’ck is going on anymore and you’re sick of it all.
Which is why Sucre, a well preserved, colonial UNESCO world heritage listed, European-esque city in the middle of Bolivia is the perfect place for privileged, middle class backpackers to rest their sorry heads for a few days and operate on the cheap without having to lock themselves in their hostel rooms. Here’s why:
A very nice room in a very nice hostel or B&B shouldn’t cost you more than $10 Australian dollars a night. You can find cheaper, and if you stay a while you can also ask for a discount. Eventually, I found myself in a private room for $55 Bolivianos a night which was so comfortable to work in that I was suffering from cabin fever by the end of my stay. The hostel was in what looked like the former residence of a Bolivian prince, with the resident dogs trampling around the pond and through the arches that I imagine the said Prince’s horses once regaled with their royal presence.
This is, of course, all conjecture and the imagination of an impressionable 24 year old, but I can vouch with absolute security that the peaceful backyard, open-aired kitchen, laundry, and free breakfast – even though it pushed for bread to be the dominant dietary force — all existed and were a great way to save money. Furthermore, all these benefits kept me mentally secure against the constant barking of the dumb devil dogs that lived there and the frequent and unhelpful yelled responses of their owner, who possessed a voice so violently high pitched, abrasive, and annoying that I think she may have hit audio frequencies higher than even her mongrel curs could hear. To even this slur out, I want to put it on record that Condor B&B is a great place to stay and the host, Fabio, was extremely hospitable.
Eating and going out
If you get sick of cooking, or can’t, you can go out and eat well for cheap in Sucre. On the very same block I stayed were two fantastic vegetarian restaurants, Condor Cafe and El Germen. In Condor Cafe, a not-for-profit organisation run by a fellow Australian, you can eat an outrageously delicious vegetable and egg filled pastry called a tucumana, with salsa, chutney, and a salad for $10 Bolivianos. That’s like $1.65 Australian. A coffee will set you back another $10 Bolivianos, bringing your expenditure for lunch to approximately $3.30 Australian, and the money goes back into to the surrounding communities. El Germen offer falafels, hummus, and curries for those craving more familiar tastes, as well as coca bread and pasta for those wishing to sample the local cuisine in a more artistic way than shoving a bunch of coca leaves in your mouth like the locals — which I also recommend trying. Otherwise, the markets are cheap for fruit and vegetables, and the supermarkets provide anything else you need.
There are plenty of coffee shops and patisseries in Sucre for any of you that are feeling a little blue with all this travelling and are in need of sugar kick. Pueblo Chico, on the main square, serves amazing coffees named and styled after famous musicians. I took the BB King, a coffee with honey, liqueur and some other ingredients which was both delicious and inappropriate for 11am in the morning.
You can also party if you want to
An encounter with some backpackers possessing obnoxious loud mouth bravado, idiocy, and the intent to continue drinking at 11am on a Sunday morning reminded me of my previous trip to Europe when all I wanted to do was party. I will not get on my high horse here and say I have never been or won’t ever again be disgustingly drunk in someone else’s country but I struggle to imagine myself rekindling the passion to consistently drink myself through an entire trip.
The point of this is, whatever your preference, you can party with more Western intent and familiarity in Sucre without having to ask your parents for a loan to finance your cultural awakening in every space that sells alcohol. Sucre is both a student and tourist city so you will find like-minded people to party with and there is a circuit of bars and clubs you can go out to that have both a European and touristic feel.
On one Saturday night I went to La Vieja Bodega for a bite to eat and a few starter drinks. Things started to get out of control after a foosball victory, a beery reward from the losers and then several games of beer pong at the backpackers party hostel, KulturCafe Berlin. After losing count of how much I had to drink and deciding to stop for a while we tried and decided against Joy Ride and Florin Café, all of these locations within a few blocks of each other. Riding in the boot of a taxi, we discovered what was described to me by a Sucre native as the “local meat market”, Mitos nightclub, in which some Bolivianos try to hook up with foreigners and some foreigners try and conquer the local population.
Sure enough, Mitos was almost entirely populated by the backpackers we had meet at KulturCafe Berlin, completed by a fat drunk Australian walking around the club saying “I just wanna find some fucken’ cocaine!” At Mitos, I met some locals and was whisked away to a Bolivian karaoke bar that gave the impression of being closed, but was very much in full flow. Here I was graciously drowned in repeated tequila shots by a local who told me he had just broken up with his girlfriend. Judging by the liberty with which he served me shots I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to help me forget this too. The image of him and another middle aged Bolivian man howling Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’ and not one, but two, performances of Guns n’ Roses ‘Don’t Cry’ will forever be burnt in my memory with a frightening clarity that belied the fact that I had completely lost my senses.
Watch football in European and British style bars
In a hypocritical premonition of the encounter I mentioned with the heavy partying backpackers I met the following Sunday morning, I woke up on the prior Sunday morning still drunk and, on three hours of sleep, went to watch football at Florin Cafe, avoiding my imminent hangover by doing the obvious thing and drinking more. There are numerous bars showing European football around Sucre, such as Florin, Joy Ride, KulturCafe Berlin, and O’Finnigans, in which you can drown yourself in beer and the familiar warm feeling of watching football in a bar.
The conclusion of all this unsavory, but highly enjoyable behaviour which has taken up far too much of this article is that you can do as you do at home and party persistently with the free-spirited, idiotic enthusiasm only a tourist can muster in the highly westernised tourist bars in Sucre, all while still operating within that precious budget of yours.
If alcohol drenched debauchery is, quite reasonably, not on your wish list as you explore a completely new continent then there are a number of sightseeing opportunities for the more adventurous and cultured, as well as the hard-core hangover riders whose thirst for beer is only matched by their thirst for life, that you can have on the cheap. The ones I have listed are all within walking distance or you can get to by way of an inexpensive micro bus:
There are a number of markets in and around Sucre. Mercado Central is both an authentic slice of Bolivian market life and a popular tourist destination. One block from the main square, this extremely colourful market has small grocery stores, drink stalls serving fruit smoothies and beers, a fly-filled and repulsive meat section which any self-respecting health and safety inspector would shut down immediately if they don’t choke on their own vomit beforehand, mountains of fruit and vegetables, eggs, cheese, nuts, bread, and all the usual stuff you find in a market. It’s dirt cheap, which makes you feel better about the times you get charged more as a gringo. You can always walk around and see what the locals are being charged before trying to negotiate a price if you are that determined. On the second level there is a food court where, once again, you can eat for close to nothing.
Mercado Negro, while not supplying guns, drugs, organs, and anything else that helps you live fast and die young, is still very much worth a visit. I went to get my jeans fixed by one of the bevy of tailors for $10 Bolivianos and enjoyed walking through the maze of covered stalls that reminded me of a glorified version of the Middle Eastern styled cubby houses my sister and I used to build with bed sheets, towels, tables, and chairs when we were little. Weird old school posters of once mighty football players modelling once fashionable clothes and even more dated haircuts line some of the walls here. The stalls offer jeans, jumpers, fabrics, instruments, food, and, my personal favourite, football jerseys — although not in the variety and sizes I hoped for.
You can also eat or take a fruit smoothie in the front. In an experience I’m not sure was all of my own creation or was actually a real thing, on the advice of a fellow traveler I tried a ‘beer smoothie’. The fact that it was quite literally a beer blended with an egg and the fact the woman laughed when I asked whether this was “a specialty of Bolivia or only for the gringos” makes me thinks this was a strange culinary drinking experience that grew out of my own well intended but foolish creation.
Of all the markets I visited, the surroundings of Mercado Campesino were the weirdest. I would have been hard pressed to purchase anything had it been forced upon me for free. I had heard they sold furniture and hardware and other weird stuff. After the introductory fruit stalls, I was not disappointed, as I had shovels on my left, shovels on my right, hard hats, tables, chairs, shoes, and a litany of clothes that seemed to follow the theme of “anything goes.” Obviously, the decision to spend or not is entirely between you and the personality of your budget.
I didn’t make it to the Mercado de Tarabuco but heard it was an experience in the people, rather than the place, with the locals in their highland clothes, wearing an array of different and unique hats. In the main plaza there is a statue of an Inca with a heart in his hand, ripped from the chest of the dead Spanish colonialist at his feet.
The best adventure I had in Sucre was to the Sietes Cascadas, a series of seven small waterfalls. Taking a micro bus from the mercado central for the pittance of $1.50 Bolivianos, you ride through the congested, stall-infested streets to the outskirts of town, where you are deposited in a small, rubbish skirted village where the hills start rolling.
A pleasant stroll down the side of one hill, from which I could, thankfully, safely view a bull on the opposing hill, leads you down to a dry river bed. Climbing up another hill you find yourself on a ledge from which you have an overview of some of the seven cascades, and can see that each becomes less peopled and rubbish filled as they become less accessible. Once at the very top of the ledge you make your way down the steep opposing side which is extremely fun because you can slide down the shaley surface. This is also stupid when you lose control, have nothing to hold onto, and have to put your hands down on gravel to slow down and not break something.
Once you are safely at the bottom you can proceed to climb up the sides of the small cascades to the next ones, which, as I said, become nicer and more private. Beyond the last one is a gorge in which I realised the mountain goats were silently watching me from above. I decided to leave before they stormed the gorge Lion King-style, choosing to amuse myself with the old fashioned past time of doing bomb dives into the turquoise waters of the final cascade. If I include everything, from the return bus trip, to a picnic of fruit from the market, an abundance of water and sunscreen, you would be hard pressed to blow $10 Australian.
Climb the steep, narrow roads up to the Mirador and feel extremely unfit as you struggle for breath at this moderately high altitude. The view is free, encompasses the entire city, and if you don’t want to pay to enjoy a drink or food in Cafe Mirador, you can always just picnic from above.
Casa Municipal De Cultura
We asked at our lodgings where we could find traditional Bolivian musical performances. What we got was a fun, exciting, eclectic, and sometimes simply bizarre clash of traditional music and western pop and rock in a free two and a half hour, three band line-up at the Casa Municipal De Cultura, just off the main plaza on Aniceto Arce. Low lights over the course of the evening included a pair of lead singers dressed very similar to a dominatrix and vampire hunter, as well as a guitarist stuck in the shredderiffic ’80s. Highlights included the dominatrix/vampire hunter band harnessing traditional Bolivian music with the power of bass and drums to create a Western soundtrack that was complete with one near shirtless performer not letting the fact he was stuck striking a cheese grater type instrument get in the way of grinding and grooving with such enthusiasm that I thought (and kind of hoped) that he was going to fall through the stage.
Ethnographic and Folklore Museum
This museum is free and next to the main square at 74 Espana Street, including a floor to roof mask of the devil.
Like Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, the cemetery in Sucre has a reputation for being beautiful, and is a popular tourist attraction.
I was recommended a private tutor through Condor Trekkers and I was not disappointed. Laura was a brilliant teacher, well organised, clear, and personable. I experienced a small dose of guilt, in which you feel bad but don’t do anything about, because I was only paying her $45 Bolivianos for daily one and half hour lessons. Many of the other backpackers where studying through various tutors or schools, supporting the theory that Sucre is a great place to learn Spanish because it is so cheap.
You can renew your visa easily
Bureaucratic offices are synonymous with repeat visits, paper work, queues, and having a bad time. Three days and three visits to the Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires is still too fresh in my memory to forgive or forget. So you can imagine that when I was alerted to the fact that I needed to renew my 30 day Bolivian tourist visa I didn’t feel particularly overjoyed.
Luckily, before I had time to jump off the balcony I was standing on, I was also told it was a very easy process in Sucre, as opposed to other parts of Bolivia. All I had to do was provide photocopies of my passport, the original 30 day entrance stamp in my passport, and the green piece of paper that authorised my visit to Bolivia to the Bolivian Immigration Office, two and a half blocks from the Plaza 25 de Mayo on Bustillos. There is a place to make photocopies on the way.
The immigration office was so laid back I was surprised anybody even noticed me. I showed my documentation to a guy listening to his iPod, and was invited to take a seat in which I contemplated whether I would be sent to heaven, hell, or just be left there in purgatory. Five minutes later I was summoned by another guy who wasn’t listening to his iPod, asked me a few questions, and then granted me another 30 days with a stamp of approval. My experience in Buenos Aires may not be forgiven, but this certainly went a long way towards ensuring I won’t wake up screaming and breaking furniture anymore. I can’t save you money here because it’s free, but I can save you time and frustration.
All of this makes Sucre the perfect destination for the middle class backpacker intent on a holiday within a holiday and in possession of a militaristic budgeting routine. With its European feel, Sucre provides more familiar settings if you are struggling with culture shock, while still being interesting, uniquely Bolivian, and an extremely economical place to visit.