After the excitement of the Salt Flats, we spent two weeks in Sucre, dubbed as Bolivia’s most beautiful city, learning Spanish and staying in a homestay with a Bolivian family. For the most part, it was a fun two weeks and we came out with a solid grasp of basic (present tense!) Spanish and a lot of good memories; but it was also pretty testing, because it was in Sucre that we got really ill.
I managed to get food poisoning twice in two weeks, and Sam had it once, really badly. So we were juggling classes and trying to see as much as possible of the city, with being bed-ridden, vomming down drains and into plastic bags (yes, it was classy) and spending 12 hour periods on the toilet! ANYWAY, let’s start with the good stuff…
Mirador Recoleta overlooking the city
So Sucre is indeed a really beautiful city. It’s made up of white colonial buildings with terracotta roofs, narrow cobbly streets on hills, surrounded by mountains on all sides. There are beautiful ornate churches, fantastic miradors where you can look out to the whole city (like on the roof of a local college where we went on an open day, and proceeded to run around like loons on the rooftops! Sam even had a go at ringing the church bells, but I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that…)
Atop a local college, playing on the rooftops
There’s also some cool parks and squares where we hung out on the weekend, one with a bizarre mini Eiffel Tower, an artificial lake for kids to play on in inflatable balls (?!) and a shark ride thing… There was also lots of election noise going down while we were there, with lots of parading and marches!
Bizarre mini Eiffel Tower! It smelled a lot like wee.
And also there’s a fantastic museum called the Casa De La Libertad, which houses their declaration of independence, and where we learnt about Bolivia’s tumultuous history of military coups, hundreds of presidents (many of which were assassinated, some within days of presidency!), how they lost their coast to Chile, and about their indigenous population. 70% of Bolivia is made up of indigenous groups, but only in the last 10 years have they been properly recognised with the addition of their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is on his third term now. He seems like a pretty cool, left-wing kinda guy, and it’s astonishing that for so long Bolivia’s indigenous population were so under-represented (until recently, they weren’t even allowed the same civil rights, and there’s definite class snobbery towards the indi groups). We also learnt about a super cool indigenous couple who were vigilante fighters in one of many land-grab wars with Peru and Chile, and the lady of the couple was recognised and knighted for her efforts only recently. Also, the indigenous flag is AMAZING, and basically looks like a big pixelated rainbow. I’m a big fan.
Gotta love that indigenous flag! And giant Simon Bolivar head.
On the Sunday before school started, we took the bus to a nearby tiny village called Tarabuco where there was a big annual indigenous festival taking place. It was so much fun! Loads of different indigenous groups dressed up in mad garb, like wooden shoes with cymbals attached; crazy head gear with bright fabrics and patterns. We watched the groups sing and play their exotic instruments, and bang their drums, as they travelled around the town. We got some beers and watched from the sidelines, as well as bartering for some local crafts (an amazing colourful walls hanging) and eating some local foods on the markets.
Indigenous dancing and mad instrument playing…
That Sunday at the fair we were also reunited with Hannah and India, who we studied with throughout our two weeks in Sucre. We did 4 hours of group classes each day (as a 4-some) then in the afternoon we had 2 hours of conversational Spanish with just me, Sam and a teacher. The days were pretty exhausting, but the teachers were all young, fun and enthusiastic so we kept the energy levels up (for the most part!) by playing games, having trips out eg to buy icecream or bitch about people in the main plaza to practice our adjectives eg ‘she’s pretty and he’s ugly and old!’ And in conversation we talked about normal things like Breaking Bad and hangovers, as well as practicing things like ‘family’ and verb conjugations! The school also ran after-school activities, and one night we went to play ‘Wallyball’ which is basically Volleyball and Squash’s bastard child. I’m not the sportiest of people (especially with team sports!) so I was mainly trying to keep the ball in the air, but India, Hannah and Sam really went for it and were amazing!
Us with our lovely Spanish teacher Sara!
We also had some really fun nights out in our time in Sucre – drinking Singani (a local, throat-burning grape brandy) cocktails in our hostel with the girls (followed by some truly terrible pub food, like Doritos with broccoli… more on that in the food blog piece!); a reunion when Rosie popped by for a night, so we all went out for dinner (pub grub of burgers) and a TERRIBLE Irish bar (it was St Paddy’s day!) which was tiny and had no beer on tap, where we proceeded to people-watch and chat to spritely young travellers (who were clearly coked up!) We also met up with our buddies Tom and Jen for a third time, for dinner and drinks – we went to Cafe Florin (our regular haunt in Sucre) which felt like a 90s pub, all wood panelling, smoking, and indie pop. It was a bit like being in a Brit timewarp! We also met a lovely British couple in our hostel who ended up on our course, and we had a fun night boozing with them on the third floor, but they weirdly turned lights out at 11 at our hostel (and often turned them on late) so we ended up drinking by flashlight on some nights… Classy!
Boozy nights out in Sucre…
Now finally, onto the dirty work: the food poisoning episodes! As a bit of context, Bolivia is known to be VERY high risk when it comes to food poisoning and traveller tummy problems. So it’s not really that surprising, given that we ate local almost the whole time, that we got the bug. The first week there, we eat at the local food markets a lot, because they had amazing meals, like spicy chicken with rice and potatoes, or chorizo sandwiches, or milanesas, for a quid. You’d walk around these huge food markets and there’d be everything from piles of fruit, to meat, cheese, creamy cakes and desserts, everything, but… here’s the kicker.. no refrigeration. Refrigeration is actually pretty rare in Bolivia, and most corner shops (they don’t really have supermarkets here BTW) will sell yoghurt, meat etc. without fridges. So you’d literally see a whole butchers’ worth of meat (including terrifying piles of cow snouts) and they’d just sit there all day, ambient. I think, in the end, the first bout was down to a load of delicious cheese we bought from the market that tasted great, but had probably not been pasteurised to British standards (and had probably never seen a fridge). Cue 48 hours of agonising cramps, and projectiling out of both ends. Oh yeahhh.
Eating on the market… risky business!
The second time, we were staying with our Bolivian family. And boy what an experience that was! India and Hannah had stayed with them the week before so we’d been warned about Diana (the mum) being a bit eccentric, but it was even more intense than we expected! With the 6 hours of lessons a day aswell, it was Spanish-to-the-extreme. We’d wake up, have breakfast (half an hour of chatting with Diana), then in our lunch break, a 2-hour lunch with Diana, Gonzalo and Fabrizio (mum, dad and bro) with three courses of food, and a LOT of chatting. Then after classes, we’d have tea and sandwiches… often with conversation not finishing til about 9.30pm, then we’d do our homework for an hour, then lights out!
Me and Sam were staying in a summer-house in the garden so we had a little bit of privacy, but there were also 4 really loud dogs in the house so wherever we went, they knew about it! On the first evening, Diana’s daughter came over, who was lovely and we had a really good chat about her job as a child psychiatrist, and about travelling. Equally Fabrizio was great to talk to (and he spoke English too, which helped!) but sometimes Diana’s conversation completely lost us! She’s a published academic, and conversation flowed languidly from history, to films, to language, to travel, and we’d weave in and out of understanding and not understanding. Also she was pretty hilaire at times and would openly bitch about previous students (sometimes in a casually racist way!) or bitch about Evo Morales or indigenous people as she was firmly upper class with an indigenous house maid.
After the first couple of days, we got really ill too so at didn’t help with our energy levels. We think it’s was a squash that ‘dad’ prepared using tap water that made us ill, but it could’ve been the creamy soups or the meat at lunch. Either way, me and Sam were in a BAD way. Sam was sick a fair few times, and I was on the loo about twice an hour, which was pretty awkward given there was only one toilet and we had to come into the main house to use it! ‘Mum and dad’ were so sweet about it though, and they phoned their older son who’s a doctor in Argentina, and rushed out to buy us rehydration salts and medicine. They were super warm at heart, and despite Diana obviously despairing at our terrible Spanish (she’d often sigh ‘chicos, chicos, chicos’ when we failed to understand, and she clearly hated our school!), overall she was lovely to us, and they gave us the warmest goodbye I’ve ever experienced, with loads of photos taken, hugs, and a lift to meet the girls for our bus. ‘Dad’ even played The Beatles in the car for us, to make us feel at home.
Lunch with our Bolivian family, with the very welcome addition of India and Hannah!
As bad timing had it, we’d booked a night bus to La Paz on the Friday, which was when me and Sam were REALLY sick. But after sipping some Coke we managed to get enough energy together to make the bus, and it was a comfy Cama class (infuriatingly, without a toilet though!) so we just passed out early and slept most of the way there…