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Finding Joy in Sucre, Bolivia

How a backpacker couple turned a local watering hole into a nationally known restaurant and tour company.

 

Travelers in Bolivia who are looking to get off the usual backpacker circuit are increasingly finding themselves in Sucre. Unlike the more popular destinations of La Paz, the salt flats near Uyuni and the mines of Potosi, Sucre offers all the modern amenities and culture of a large city and more, despite its relatively small size (the city has about 200,000 residents.)

For the intrepid, a lesser-known Inca trail traverses through orange and green mountain ranges and an ancient crater, and the unspoiled Seven Waterfalls—comparable to Argentina´s Iguazu Falls—lie just outside the city limits.

Still others travelers get “stuck” in Sucre (in a good way) by enrolling in Spanish lessons; the number of schools offering language, cooking and dance lessons has taken off in recent years. For these and other reasons, many travelers find themselves staying in this charming city for days or weeks longer than they planned, perhaps more so than any other place in Bolivia.

One couple who came to Sucre in 2007 stayed far longer than they bargained for.

In November of 2007, husband and wife Lorenzo and Tina Rauco took over Joy Ride (www.joyridebol.com), a pub on the southeast end of the city´s central square. In a few short months they transformed it from a hangout for the previous owner´s friends to a full-fledged bar, restaurant and dance club—and more recently, a tour business. Today, it boasts the distinction of being the city´s “it” place for locals and gringos alike.

The couple did not come to the city looking to take over a business. Like so many others backpacking through Bolivia, they planned to stay a few days, and then eventually make their way back to their native Italy. "I was drawn to the color, the white colonial architecture, but it was my husband who fell in love with Sucre," Tina said of her first impression of the city.

They found themselves having lunch in the Joy Ride one day and found out the Dutch owner was looking to sell the 7-year-old bar and restaurant. At the time, the country was in the throes of social unrest, as politicians opposed to President Evo Morales´ so-called “agrarian revolution” called for greater state autonomy from the central government. The last thing on Tina´s mind was making such a huge investment in what was then an unstable country. 

But Lonenzo had other ideas.

"Back then there were a lot of problems with the social conflict. We went back to Italy, and my husband was constantly talking about buying the restaurant," she said.

"He insisted we go back to Bolivia on another trip in November of 2007 and when we got here, that´s when my husband told me he bought the place," says Tina. "I said, ´are you crazy?´ I did not  want to stay—we have a 6-year-old son, Filippo. I told him I was going back to Italy."

She and her son did go back, and her husband stayed in Sucre to head up the family´s new business. But a month later, Tina decided to come back, yet again, to the city as it was better to have the family together in one place.

The Learning Curve

Having come back, somewhat unwittingly, to help shape the new family business, the next hurdle that Tina, a tourism operator by trade, had to face was learning to speak the language. "At first it was hard, I didn´t speak Spanish, but my husband had some grasp of the language," she said. "I started classes, but learned most of what I know while working. The people of this city are so friendly and helpful if you try to speak to them."

In a few months, she had all but mastered the language and was then ready to put some of her ideas for Joy Ride in motion.

At the time, gringo-friendly bars offering referrals to tour operators were on nearly every corner. But a month ago, something new popped up on one of the corners—the Joy Ride Tourism Office. Mr. and Mrs. Rauco became the first entrepreneurs in the city to officially bridge the divide between its two biggest pastimes, drinking and outdoor adventure.

It is not uncommon to find familiar faces in Joy Ride for hours at a time. Stopping in for a leisurely mid-afternoon lunch, staying for the 7-o´clock film in the third floor lounge, and then drinking and dancing till the early hours is a regular occurrence for more than a few backpackers and hip young Bolivians. The same faces can also be found staggering back to Joy Ride in the morning for a much-needed “Hangover Breakfast” (there´s actually one on the menu!)

Once the hangover has worn off, many choose to escape the revelry with a move to the mountains, the crater or the waterfalls, either by bus, horseback, motorcycle, or quad bike. And now, such activities can all be found under one roof.

"Before we opened the office, I felt the tourism information in Sucre wasn´t as good as it could be," says Tina. "We started promoting the restaurant and the tourism office under a common brand. We now have the free Joy Ride maps—it´s like a key to the city."

And the tour operation is taking off. "We have trained, full-time guides who speak Spanish, English, French, German and Italian. We have nearly 100 people coming into the office each day," she said.

While her husband takes care of the finances, Tina has kept busy promoting Sucre in general and Joy Ride in particular across the whole of Bolivia. She has taken out advertising spots on television and radio, and runs ads in newspapers and magazines in La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and elsewhere.

Despite Joy Ride´s success, does she harbor and lingering thoughts of moving back to Italy?

"No, Sucre is my home now," she said. "We have a nice life here. And it´s good for my son—he speaks Spanish fluently."

And like any good Italian wife and mother, she´s more than willing to open her home to whoever drops by. As the old saying goes, “Mi casa es su casa.”

For more information about Joy Ride, see their website at www.joyridebol.com.

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