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 its political and economic influence gradually waned. In 1899, after a brief civil war, the Presidency, Congress, and de facto capital status moved northwest to La Paz, although Sucre was allowed to retain the title of constitutional capital.
Today it has about 360,000 inhabitants and although the driving forces of political, economic and social life lie elsewhere, it has retained a cultivated, bourgeois flair with its clean streets and relaxed pace of life.
The city center is a treasure trove of well-preserved architecture from the 16th to 19th centuries, laid out in an orderly grid system. The sprawling Plaza 25 de Mayo is in the center, surrounded by a mestizo baroque cathedral, a neoclassical town hall and an elegant former presidential palace. The surrounding streets are lined with equally impressive churches, chapels, monasteries, townhouses and university buildings, their gleaming white mud walls and red-tiled roofs gleaming in the sunshine.
That heritage is taken seriously: Historic buildings must be whitewashed each year – a uniformity of color that has led to another nickname, the “Ciudad Blanca” (White City) – and modern construction is consistently confined to the outskirts. This wealth of history and architectural splendor could easily have turned Sucre into a museum piece, but the city has a youthful, cosmopolitan vibe, thanks to student numbers at its universities and a steady influx of gringos. Many historic buildings have been converted into boutique accommodation and hostels. There are also a variety of Spanish-language schools catering to backpackers, and numerous European migrants have set up travel agencies, restaurants, bars, galleries and other ventures. This has helped create a thriving eating, drinking and cultural scene.
Beyond the historic center, Sucre breaks out of its monochromatic appearance with two colorful architectural oddities. In a park near the Supreme Court stands the Eiffel Tower, built in the early 20th century. It is a miniature version of the Parisian original and was designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. It’s about 12m tall, has a spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform and – on my last visit – was painted pumpkin orange.
South of downtown is a quirkier structure, the coral-pink Castillo de la Glorieta. Built in the late 19th century, this kitsch castle was a vanity project by 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 Prince’s Tower in Russian-Byzantine style, crowned by a turquoise onion dome; and the octagonal Princess Tower with keyhole-shaped windows.
Visiting the Castillo feels like stepping into a Hollywood version of The Arabian Nights. But Sucre has more to offer than its history and architecture. A steep 20-minute hike uphill from the main square brings you to the Recoleta district, home to a 17th-century Franciscan monastery, a Mirador with panoramic views over the city, and most importantly, the luminous Museo de Arte Indígena. Run by an NGO called 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: brightly colored ponchos, shawls, tapestries, and chuspas (small bags for carrying coca leaves). Tarabuco’s creations depict bright scenes from everyday life, including agricultural work, religious rituals and festivals, while Jalq’a’s designs feature darker tones and supernatural imagery such as gods and demons.
Arguably Sucre’s most dramatic attraction lies a short drive north, to a cement works on the outskirts of town, where a towering gray-and-white cliff rises from a large quarry while heavily laden trucks chug by. This is where you’ll find Parque Cretácico Cal Orck’o, which — in addition to its menagerie of model dinosaurs — has an observation deck overlooking the cliff. At first glance, the wall appears unassuming, but if 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 of up to 15 different dinosaur species from the Late Cretaceous (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 offer a close-up of the footprints of giant titanosaurs and tyrannosaurus rex – a fascinating experience and a reminder that Sucre’s history goes back much further than you might expect.