This white-washed Bolivian city was a great place to stop, relax, and hang out for awhile while learning Spanish. We were not alone: many travellers chose to study at one of the dozens of Spanish schools scattered around Sucre, which has the most competitive rates of possibly any city in South America. Having spent a month in Mexico studying Spanish five years ago, so I knew some basics but back then I did group classes and honestly they are a waste of time! If you’re serious about learning a language individual lessons are the way to go, and for around $6 USD per hour it’s a bargain. If you’re travelling as a pair and at a similar level then you can share a teacher and practice what you learned together outside of class. We did that and it worked well for us. Josiah being the brain that he is caught up to me fast.
Choosing a Spanish School
There are numerous Spanish schools around Sucre and it pays to do research. We didn’t book anything until we arrived to ask other travellers for recommendations and walked around to various schools to ask about prices. We ended up going with the Bolivian Spanish School which is based at Colors House Hostel and travel agency. They offered us a discount for packaging our Spanish lessons with accommodation. Most of the schools do this and usually also offer private apartments or homestays. Homestays can be a wonderful opportunity to practice spanish with a local family and experience more of the culture. However in my experience and from talking to other travellers, it can be hit and miss experience. My homestay family in Mexico were kind but usually not around and rarely would they sit and eat with us. There were few opportunities for conversation and I felt very disconnected. Again that’s why it’s a good idea to wait until you arrive, book only a few days and see if you’ve got a good family.
There are no shortage of activities in and around Sucre, from exploring the many churches and museums, shopping in the large Mercado Central and hiking up the hill to the Mirador for a striking view of the city. The weather is pleasant. An hour and a half from Sucre is the town of Tarabuco, which holds a handicraft market every Sunday. Once a good place to pick authentic items, it has become over-touristed.
You can also take day trips to waterfalls, traditional villages and see dinosaur footprints. Between daily Spanish lessons and the christmas period, we had little time for day tripping. Also my body seemed to be acutely aware that we were stopping for more than a week (the longest we’ve spent anywhere in 5 months!) and I succumbed to a cold and a terrible cough that kept us awake most nights. I dragged myself to class every morning but had little energy after lessons and homework (lots of it!). Still I was thankful not to be inflicted with the gastrointestinal ailments that plagued many backpackers we met in Bolivia.
We happened to be in Sucre for the festive season. The parks and squares were decorated with lights, our Spanish school put on a Traditional Bolivian Christmas dinner (Picaña -soup with corn, meats and vegetables and buñuelos – a sweet syrupy donut like pastry) along with wine, games and amigo secreto (the same as our secret santa).
We watched the Chuntunquis Christmas parade on Avenida De Las Americas. South Americans love their parades, and this one didn’t disappoint. It involved every vehicle you can imagine from motorcycles to cement trucks, emergency services and regular cars all adorned with so many lights and decorations that I wondered if the drivers could see anything ahead of them. There were multiple groups of santas, elves, grinches, people dressed as presents, candy canes, nativity characters, everything you can imagine fits with christmas and more could be found marching in this parade. In addition were brass bands and folk musicians alongside dancers dressed in traditional Bolivian costume. We didn’t spot another single tourist among the thousands of locals watching and participating.
Typically Bolivian families celebrate Navidad with dinner, exchanging gifts and a Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve. Some also attend mass on Christmas Day. We attended a service out of interest. Many Bolivians bring a baby Jesus statuette or doll into the service. Despite the holiday, the streets were surprising busy and the market was open. In Plaza 25 de Mayo (the main Square) poor families who travelled from outlying villages lined up to be given food and toys distributed by local businesses and charities. The plaza was bustling with families and children playing with their new toys.
Año Nuevo (New Year)
After Christmas we continued with our lessons and stayed until New Years Eve. Bolivian New Year traditions include wearing red (for love) or yellow (for money) underwear, taking a backpack out with them or leaving luggage at the front door (if they wish to travel in the next year) and eating grapes at midnight and making a wish. It’s common to have dinner with close friends and family before heading out, the celebrating doesn’t really start until midnight when the champagne bottles pop, confetti is thrown about and fireworks and fire crackers go off everywhere. We had the advantage of a rooftop view looking out over all of Sucre. Rather than one large fireworks display, the city was dotted with many fireworks mostly lit by individual families.