The vacation is planned and the tickets are bought, but you can only realistically visit one of these two Bolivian cities, so the nagging question is just that- which one?
Reading guidebooks and blogs you learn that La Paz is uniquely located and a hive of activity and adventure. But Sucre…so many people who go there seem to stay and never want to leave. To make a comfortable choice you need to take a hard look at your needs and the type of travel opportunities you will have in each destination.
La Paz or Sucre?
Your route is the first thing you need to think about when making your decision. How are you going to get there?
If flying, La Paz will obviously have far superior connections, but you will have no time at all to acclimatise to its mountainous location, meaning that altitude sickness is all but guaranteed. Sucre, being a much smaller city with a basic airport, does not offer direct international connections. However, it is possible to find flights via either La Paz or Santa Cruz.
Coming overland from Peru (from Cusco or Lake Titicaca) or Chile (from Arica) will give you time to acclimatise, particularly if you have already been at altitude prior to your arrival in La Paz. On the other hand, buses from Uyuni will take you to Potosi from where it is only a 2-3 hour shared taxi ride on to Sucre.
Where are going to?
La Paz is a better base in that it will combine well with trips to the Bolivian Amazon, Lake Titicaca and Peru (Cusco and/ or Arequipa), as well as Arica via Lauca National Park in northern Chile. Sucre is not a transport hub, but it makes a more logical stopping off point if you are on your way to Brazil via eastern Bolivia.
The bus trip from Sucre to Santa Cruz has a reputation for being hard going, even by Bolivian standards. It may not be as cheap, but a flight should result in less body bruising and exhaustion.
What are you looking for?
The selling points of La Paz are its markets, its genuine Andean feel and the uniqueness of its location. Calle Sagarnaga and Calle Linares are overflowing with markets selling all forms of alpaca and baby Alpaca clothing and textiles. Vendors in traditional Andean dress will compete to sell you fabric tablecloths, table runners, fleeces, t-shirts etc. Add into the equation the fact that it has more of a city feel and this may be the destination for you if you want to add some urban buzz to your vacation. Recently declared a Wonder of the World, its steep streets and cable car ascents will leave you breathless.
Sucre is more subtle. This is the city to visit the room where Bolivian independence was declared, view the white rooftops of the city centre from the top of the elegant San Felipe Neri Convent, and then climb the main street to Recoleta to enjoy sunset views over a cup of coffee or a beer. La Cordillera de los Frailes provides great trekking opportunities and numerous agencies in town sell tours to the well-known markets of Candelaria and Tarabuco. More than anything else, this is the perfect place to relax, particularly if you want to stop for a few weeks to learn Spanish. Academia Andina offers good prices for individual and group classes in a homely and friendly setting.
Eating or entertainment
What are you looking for on your South American trip? If you want to party with other travellers, then it is a no-brainer, La Paz has to be the choice for you.
Loki’s and The Wild Rover in La Paz are (in)famous for being party central and the nightlife in the city is known to be buzzing for those who want to indulge. On the other hand, if laid-back living and getting to know the locals is more your style, then places such as Bibliocafe Clasico (not to be confused with the reportedly unpleasant Bibliocafe de Conciertos) in Sucre will hold a definite appeal. The choice is clear on this score- but what type of traveller are you?
Which one is easier on the pocket? Neither city is a budget breaker and Bolivia offers excellent value to travellers. However, La Paz, with gastronomic jewels such as Gustu (sister restaurant of the Salt in Copenhagen) offers more opportunities to splurge than Sucre. Bear in mind that Chuquisaca, the province in which Sucre is situated, is now one of the poorest in the country.
If price and cost is the top consideration, the former capital is the winner in this category.
Often synonymous on the South American backpacker trail with the Death Road bike ride, La Paz attracts travellers who want some adrenaline rush. What can you say about a city where you can abseil down a skyscraper (Urban Rush), cycle that famous Death Road, climb high Andean peaks or just go paragliding? Sucre also offers the latter, but travellers here are more likely to want to meet traditional country folk on a guided tour of Cordillera de los Frailes or to view the dinosaur footprints on a quiet afternoon than their counterparts in La Paz. After all, this is the destination where people stop, learn Spanish and get to know the locals more than other backpackers.
Ultimately, the answer to the question depends on YOU! Are you in South America to backpack, party and meet other travellers? Or, do you want a quieter vacation to really get to know the history, culture and people of each country you pass through? If you would describe yourself more as the former, then the answer has to be La Paz. On the other hand, if you see yourself more as the latter, Sucre is the place for you.
Finally, there is your route and the typical Bolivian fly in the ointment. Given the frequency of strikes and blockades in the country, you may plan to visit one city and end up visiting both or neither as a consequence of unforeseen circumstances. However, should you make it to Bolivia, you will understand why it is the favoured destination of so many South American travellers.
Please feel free to leave a comment below if you want to share an opinion or an experience. You can also mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love hear here your feedback, both positive feedback and constructive criticism.