The History Behind Bolivia’s Two Capitals

Did you know that Bolivia has two capital cities? Yes, it is one of the few nations in the world that can claim more than one city as its capital. 

Obviously the two capital cities of Bolivia did not just spring up randomly— there was, and is, reason behind them. It goes all the way back to the 1500s, when Spain was colonizing the Americas. In 1524, the Spanish split the colonies into viceroyalties (large territories), which were each governed by a viceroy. What is now Bolivia formed part of the Alto Peru Viceroyalty, which also consisted of Peru and certain parts of what is now Chile.

Bolivia finally gained its independence from Spain in 1825. However, the fledgling country did not form two capitals right away. Instead, Sucre (then Chuquisaca) was named the capital of Bolivia after the Bolivian congress was relocated from the city of Oruro. The change was largely due to Sucre’s proximity to the tin and silver mines of Potosi (a city in the mountains situated just to the west of Sucre), and many silver miners decided to settle in Sucre and raise their families there, thus rapidly growing the city.

However, it wasn’t long before La Paz started gaining its own importance as a mining city. Various tin mines operated outside of the city. As the years went by, Bolivia’s tin industry began to catch up to its silver industry, and within 70 years tin managed to surpass silver as silver prices fell and tin ones went up. Combined with the new abundance of tin, this set La Paz up to become more important to Bolivia for economic purposes. 

As this was happening, the country was undergoing a lot of political turmoil. The Conservative Party and Liberal Party naturally conflicted, and the latter was backed by the tin mine owners while the silver mine owners supported the Conservatives. After gaining political power and overthrowing the Conservatives, the Liberals tried to move all national government operations to La Paz. At the time, La Paz was more populated and in a better geographical location, and of course, it had tin.

Eventually though, a compromise was reached that resulted in both cities sharing the title of “capital” (It is worth mentioning though that Sucre remains the only “official” capital as per the Bolivian constitution). In more recent years there have been movements to return all of the power to Sucre, but so far they have been unsuccessful.

Of course, outsiders may wonder just what kind of political confusion having two capital cities can cause. After all, Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States, and as such it serves as the country’s political hub— the president (and his administration), congress, and supreme court are located there. Capital cities across the world have similar purposes as their respective nation’s political, and sometimes economic, centers. So what does Bolivia do?

Fortunately, the answer is surprisingly uncomplicated. The political operations normally seen in a capital city are simply split between Bolivia’s two capitals— Sucre is the constitutional capital, dealing with all of the main judicial responsibilities of the country, and La Paz is the administration capital, where both the president and the Bolivian congress conduct their business. In this capacity, both cities serve great purposes and keep the country running.

Now, if you decide to visit Bolivia (which you should, because there is so much to see and do!), it is important to know that both cities are worth seeing. Sucre, for example, has many museums and cultural landmarks— many of them old churches and state buildings— that make it easy to explore the country’s heritage and history. La Paz also has its fair share of museums and cultural landmarks, including the presidential palace.

One of the most interesting things about both cities (and Bolivia in general) is their proximity to paleontological sites. Yes, this means dinosaurs once roamed what is now Bolivia! Both Sucre and La Paz feature a variety of parks and dinosaur dig sites close by. In fact, a national park (at Cal Orcko) just outside Sucre boasts one of the largest collections of dinosaur tracks in the entire world. So in addition to soaking up Bolivian culture (and food) during your visit, you’ll also be able to see real dinosaur footprints and fossils.

Bear in mind that the two cities are 258.9 miles (416.65 km) apart, however, and the actual driving distance is made even longer because of the roads winding through the mountainous region. Fortunately, you have the option of traveling between them via bus or plane, if doing your own driving while abroad just isn’t your style. Still, it is important to plan out your trip in advance and make sure you have adequate time to spend in both Sucre and La Paz.