NEAR THE turn of the century, a group of upstart aristocrats from northern Bolivia rode south to the capital city of Sucre for a brief civil war. In a move that still provokes dismay among Sucre's proud residents, they took the seat of government back with them to La Paz, where it remains today.
Eighty-five years and 42 Bolivian governments later, Sucre's loss has become its gain. The city of 65,000 is still the legal capital of Bolivia. But it has seen the beaten path move elsewhere, leaving intact its own elegant traditions and preserving a rich heritage of historical monuments, colonial art and jeweled religious treasures that count among the most impressive in Latin America.
Sucre (pronounced SOO-kray) sits in the rolling foothills on the eastern slope of the Andes, easily accessible by air from La Paz 420 miles to the north. At 9,000 feet above sea level, it boasts a perpetual spring. The mountain sun is brilliant, the evenings cool, and the temperatures hover in the mid-sixties all year round.
Although many residents resolutely insert the phrase "La Ciudad Capital de Bolivia" (the Capital City of Bolivia) when talking about Sucre, the city is most commonly known today as "La Ciudad Blanca" (The White City). By government decree, all of its houses, churches and public buildings--many now museums--are whitewashed every year. Very little construction is evident from the last 50 years, and the city maintains what can easily be imagined as its original architectural elegance, spreading gently among the hills under red-tile roofs.
Sucre's size makes it a walking city, an activity that its altitude does little to encourage when you first arrive. Even those stepping down from La Paz (at 13,000 feet, the highest metropolis in the world) will want to pass some time getting acclimated in the shaded Plaza 25 de Mayor, Sucre's main square.
There, much of the city's life unfolds. Children on the way to school on a brisk morning hitch up their uniforms and climb on the bronze lions at the base of the Plaza's monument to Latin American "Liberator" Antonio Jose de Sucre, for whom the city is named. In the afternoon, when shopkeepers pull down their blinds and the streets empty, the ice cream vendor sets his cart in the shade. Shoeshine urchins stow their boxes under benches being gradually filled by men with broad-brimmed hats and folded newspapers. Quechua Indians from the surrounding countryside, famous for their monteras, or conquistador-style helmets, hawk fine weavings and handmade charangos, a string instrument with an armadillo shell as the sound box.
In the evenings, especially on weekends, crowds circulate through the Plaza: boys, almost without exception, counterclockwise, girls and couples clockwise, all under the towering but (one understands) ignored posing of Field Marshall Sucre.
The city's rich past, and its association with the independence of South America, dates to well before Jose de Sucre's outsmarting of the Spanish in 1824. Sucre was officially founded in 1538 on orders from Francisco Pizarro. A few years later, the Spaniards stumbled onto the silver mountain at Potosi 100 miles away and changed the city's name from the original Indian Charcas to La Plata (Silver).
Despite the strong Spanish foothold, Sucre quickly became an intellectual center and front of liberal ideas on the continent. The first call for independence of the Americas was issued in 1809 from the city's University of San Francisco Xavier--itself founded in 1624, making it 12 years older than Harvard and the second oldest university in the hemisphere behind Lima's San Marcos.
Part of the university is now the Casa de la Libertad (House of Liberty), a museum on Sucre's main plaza where Bolivia's declaration of independence was signed. A copy rests in the gallery. Surrounding a beautiful stone courtyard, the museum also holds exhibits from Simon Bolivar's stay in the city, and proudly displays what is claimed to be the first Argentine flag, guarded "in good keeping" smiles the guide, "for our brothers to the south."
Also on the plaza is the renaissance-style cathedral with its somewhat incongruous clock tower, added in honor of the city's bicentennial. The cathedral and its adjoining chapel can be visited only in the early morning, the latter being open from 7 to 8.
The chapel, however, is a must. Behind the altar is the Virgin de Guadalupe, a painting dating back to 1601 that has since been covered with layers of gold and silver, adorned with thousands of priceless pearls, diamonds, rubies, emmeralds, and other precious stones. It is believed to be the richest religious treasure in the Americas. In the dim chapel early in the morning it may be difficult to see the Virgin clearly. Ask one of the altar boys to turn on the lights above the altar, which he will be happy to do.
Of Sucre's dozen or so churches dating back to the colonial period, one of the most pleasant is attached to the Santa Clara convent on Calle Calvo. The nuns sing mass every morning at 7. The choir of the church has been converted into a museum that holds a number of paintings by both Melchor Perez de Holguin, one of Latin America's most important colonial painters, and his teacher, the Italian Viti. The museum, open during the week from 10 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m., also contains a collection of gold-embroidered religious vestments and bibles printed locally in the 16th century. The nuns knitting in the doorway offer tours for a 25-cent donation to the convent.
In the early afternoon, when the museums and shops close for a few hours, much of Sucre retires to the cafes near the Plaza 25 de Mayo for ice cream and fresh fruit, and for the local specialty, a cheese, yuka and spinach pastry called a cunape. Cunapes, at 20 cents apiece, go fast at the beginning of the lunch hour, hot from the oven.
Sucre shuts itself down after lunch. The quiet hours are a good opportunity to return to the courtyard of one of the city's four mansions now operating as hotels, sit by a dripping fountain and read.
The afternoon is also a good time to hire a taxi in the main square for $1 and take the half-hour spin out to La Glorieta, a castle built at the turn of the century on the outskirts of town. Back from a swing through Europe with his wife, the millionaire industrialist Don Francisco Argandona raised an estate that is a dizzying tribute to the architecture of the Old World, combining Venice-style canals with snatches of French renaissance, English Gothic, Byzantine and Moorish styles. The mansion is now closed, after an attempt by the Bolivian Army to turn it into a military museum sent canons crashing through the floors. Today it is a school for cadets, but well worth a look.
Sucre holds a special treat in the late afternoon. Walking eight blocks from the Plaza 25 de Mayo--a steep climb takes a half hour in this altitude--you arrive at a series of colonnades lining the Plaza La Recoleta. The archways provide a spectacular view of Sucre at dusk, the sun's rays slanting through the mountains and being thrown off the city's white buildings.
At the far end of the Plaza is the convent La Recoleta, a Franciscan monastery founded in 1601 with its face to the city and its back to a forest of eucalyptus. Only two monks remain, but they provide relaxed private tours of the museum.
The monastery's courtyards, with their rose gardens and the sound of lightly running water, recall the comfort with which Sucre lives with its past, and its place in the history of the Americas. According to legend, the Venezuelan Bolivar, the father of Latin American independence, spent much of his time in Sucre reading and writing in the monastery's gardens, beneath a 1,000-year-old cedar that still stands today.