How much can you tell me about Bolivia? If I asked you to point to it on a map, could you do it? How about naming its capital city, describing its flag, or identifying a single thing the nation is famous for? It’s astonishing how little we know about subjects that should, arguably, be part of our common knowledge, especially a country which sits at a respectable number 28 when the world’s countries are listed by size.
No one is guiltier of this than me. I’ve no idea about so many things; how do televisions work? Who are the office workers who keep skyscrapers alight at night? Why do we spend £3 on a birthday card when we could just write a letter or send an email? Who on earth came up with the first loaf of bread? Indeed, I am ignorant of so much, and I was especially ignorant about Bolivia before I went there.
I was expecting to set foot upon the Third World, a place untouched by the Information Age, bereft of comfort, and more than likely to be tarnished by poverty. Having spent all of my previous holidays poking around Europe and exploring America, it seemed logical to imagine an alien place like Bolivia to be exotically behind the times. But, of course, I was embarrassingly wide of the mark, and nowhere was this more apparent than Sucre, a city-sized UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the constitutional capital of Bolivia.
The best view of Sucre is from above, looking across a sea of delicately-tiled terracotta roofs that sprawl haphazardly toward the encircling crumples of land. They each perch atop dazzling white walls, creating a rich rustic tapestry that would sit comfortably in any of the world’s art galleries, achieving near-perfection through a great many minor imperfections. Indeed, it is a place that capture’s one’s attention with its splendour, and one’s heart with its idiosyncrasies.
The funny thing is, I can’t tell you a lot about those idiosyncrasies, because they were each so minute that they left no individual impressions upon my memory, but instead combined to create a dazzling municipal mosaic. I’m talking about the weathered doors with heavy dangling handles, the simple archways that reveal a quaint courtyard, the meandering cobbled lanes that lead to nowhere, the narrow doorways that are occupied by a stout Bolivian lady selling fruit… on their own they amount to nothing, but together they present a scene that goes straight to the soul.
It’d be easy to visit Sucre and get monumentally bored. I was lucky to have been there at a time when all I wanted to do was collapse in a small cafe and get drunk on coca cola, and couldn’t think of anything worse than being faced with an assortment of postcard sights, each demanding my appraisal. But Sucre offers very little in this sense; perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much?
I also happen to think this is why I felt like I discovered so much in Sucre, which, by extension, taught me so much about Bolivia. Because there was no conventional itinerary, and nothing to tick off the been-there-done-that list, I had no choice but to explore, to wander and absorb what I’d otherwise likely have missed had I been focussing on something my guidebook told me to do. There aren’t many places that afford this luxury, which is, consequently, what makes travel such a glorious thing.
Sucre allowed me to peel back the facade of tourism and peer into Bolivia’s culture. I found that it is a country far ahead of the archaic nation I’d preconceived, and surprisingly in touch with the technological age. Most importantly, however, it is a country that has preserved its rich heritage, which is a far greater reason to visit a destination than any monument to modernity.