Santa Cruz may surprise you with its smalltown feeling, lack of high-rise blocks and a lightly buzzing, relaxed tropical atmosphere. The largest city of Bolivia oozes modernity yet clings stubbornly to tradition. The city center is vibrant and thriving, its narrow streets crowded with suited businessmen sipping chicha (fermented corn) at street stalls, whilst taxis jostle with horses and carts for pole position at traffic lights. Locals still lounge on the main square listening to camba (Eastern Lowlands) music, restaurants close for siesta and little stores line the porch-fronted houses selling cheap local products.
This is not the Bolivia that you see in pictures, but this is the place with the largest population diversity in the country ? from the overall-wearing Mennonites strolling the streets past local Goth kids, to a Japanese community, Altiplano (High Plateau) immigrants, Cuban doctors, Brazilian immigrants, bearded Russians and fashionable cruceños (Santa Cruz locals) turning sharp corners in their SUVs.
The cruceños are an independent lot who feel little affinity for their government in La Paz and are well aware of their stock value as the trade and transport center of the country. Support for President Morales is thin on the ground here and cruceños voiced their overwhelming desire for the autonomy of the region in 2006. Though they lost that battle following a national referendum, calls for independence continue to be the main source of inspiration for the graffiti artists of the city and the matter is far from settled. It is worth spending a few days here, wandering the streets, eating at the many international restaurants and checking out the rich kids play area, Equipetrol, where nightlife is rife with naughtiness. Alternatively, simply chill out at the town square.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded in 1561 by Ñuflo de Chavez, a Spaniard who hailed from present-day Paraguay. The town originated 220km east of its current location, but in 1621, by order of the King of Spain, it moved to its present position, 50km east of the Cordillera Oriental foothills. The original location had proved too vulnerable to attack from local tribes. Ñuflo himself was killed in 1568 at the hands of the mestizo Itatine tribe made up of indigenous and Spanish settlers.
The main aim of the city was to supply the rest of the colony with products such as rice, cotton, sugar and fruit. Its prosperity lasted until the late 1800s, when transportation routes opened up between La Paz and the Peruvian coast, making imported goods cheaper than those hauled from Santa Cruz over mule trails.
During the period leading up to independence of Bolivia in 1825, the eastern regions of the Spanish colonies were largely ignored. Although agriculture was thriving around Santa Cruz, the Spanish remained intent upon extracting every scrap of mineral wealth that could be squeezed from the rich and more hospitable highlands.
In 1954 a highway linking Santa Cruz with other major centers was completed, and the city sprang back from its 100-year economic lull. The completion of the railway line to Brazil in the mid-1950s opened trade routes to the east, after which time tropical agriculture boomed and the city grew as prosperously as crops such as oranges, sugar cane, bananas and coffee. It has continued to grow to the present day.
Emergency Tourist police (T. 3225016, north side of Plaza 24 de Septiembre).
Immigration (T. 3332136, 8:30-16:30 Mon-Fri) is north of the center, opposite the zoo entrance. Visa extensions are available here. There is an office at the train station (10:00-12:00 and 13:30-19:00), which is more convenient but which is reportedly plagued by phony officials. The most reliable office is at the airport.
Internet Access There are many places to get online, including Hostal Ambar (calle Mercado # 554). All places charge 2 BOB/hour. Wi-Fi only Hostal Ambar.
Laundry Central, efficient wash-and-dry places offer same-day service (with drop-off before noon): España Lavandería (España # 160), Lavandería La Paz (La Paz # 42).
Medical Services Private ambulance (Clínica Foianini; T. 336-2211) Hospital used by embassies, but be aware that some travelers have reported unnecessary tests and being required to stay for longer than is strictly necessary.
Money Cash advances are available at most major banks, and ATMs line Junín and most major intersections. The easiest place to change cash or checks of travelers (2% to 3% commission) is Casa de Cambio Alemán (east side of Plaza 24 de Septiembre).
Post and Telephone Fun can be had using public telephone boxes, which come in a variety of shapes anything from toucans to jaguars suspended mid-growl. Better rates are found at phone centers, such as the main Entel office (Warnes # 82), and internet telecom stores along Bolívar that offer cheap international calls. The Punto Entel (Junín # 284) office near the plaza has landlines. Local cell-phone rates are very cheap and chips already charged with credit can be bought everywhere.
Tourist Information Oficina Departamental de Turismo (T. 3333248, Palacio Prefectural, north side of Plaza 24 de Septiembre).
Book Exchanges For used paperbacks in English try Hostal Ambar (calle Mercado # 554).
The climate of the Oriente is tropical, but because it occupies the transition zone between the Amazon rainforest, the highlands and the dry Chaco plains, Santa Cruz enjoys more sun and less stifling temperatures than the humid Amazon Basin. Winter rainfalls mean little more than 10-minute downpours, but a single summer deluge can last for days. At times during winter, surazos (chilly winds) blow in from Patagonia and the Argentine pampas and the temperature plummets.
The main plaza of the city serves as a lush tropical space where you will see locals lounging on benches and strolling, camba bands banging out their tropical rhythms and families bringing their kids to play. Once there were resident jaywalking sloths here, but they were relocated to the zoo in an effort to protect them from electrocution and increasing traffic hazards in the city center.
A block away along Junín is the little Museo de Historia Nacional (8:00-12:00 and 15:30-18:00 Mon-Fri) which houses a permanent display of Chiquitania art and photographic exhibits explaining the customs of this littleknown indigenous group.
Although the original cathedral on Plaza 24 de Septiembre was founded in 1605, the present structure dates from 1845 and was not consecrated until 1915. Inside, the decorative woodwork on the ceiling and silver plating around the altar are worth a look. There are good views of the city from the belltower (10:00-12:00 and 16:00-18:00 Tue, Thu, Sat and Sun). The Museo de Arte Sagrado of the Cathedral (8:30-12:00 and 14:30-18:00 Tue, Thu and Sun) has a collection of religious icons and artifacts but very little typical religious art. Most interesting are the many gold and silver relics from the Jesuit Guarayos missions.
Locals relax around the lagoon at Parque El Arenal, but it is best not to dawdle here at night. On an island in the lagoon, a bas-relief mural by renowned Bolivian artist Lorgio Vaca depicts historic and modern-day aspects of Santa Cruz.
Located at the park entrance on Beni and 6 de Agosto is the Ethno-Folkloric Museum (T. 3429939, 8:00-12:00 and 14:30-18:00 Mon-Fri), which has a small collection of traditional art and artifacts from several camba cultures including Guaraní, Mojeño, Ayoreo and Chiquitano.
The zoo of Santa Cruz (T. 3429939, 9:00-18:00) has a collection of native birds, mammals and reptiles kept in pleasingly humane conditins, although the llamas are a bit overdressed for the climate. If you are not into going to the jungle, this is a good place to see spectacular species such as tapirs, pumas, jaguars and spectacled bears. Keep your eyes open for free-ranging sloths and squirrel monkeys in the trees.
Around the corner from the zoo entrance is the entry to the Guaraní Museum (8:00-16:00 Mon-Fri), a small but fascinating and professionally presented exhibition of Guaraní culture. Look for the animal masks and tinajas (huge clay pots) used for making chicha. You will need to knock on the gate for entry.
A great place for a day out of Santa Cruz, Güembe (T. 3700541, Km 7, Camino Porongo, Zona Los Batos) has a butter fly farm, orchid exhibitions, 10 natural pools, fishing and trekking in the surrounding forest. There is a restaurant with international cuisine, so you will not go hungry, and cabins if you wish to stay the night. The best way to get here is by taxi from Santa Cruz.
On the primer anillo, this small plaza has a huge airplane as its centerpiece. According to local legend the plane belonged to drug smugglers who, after entering into difficulties, touched down at its current location only to be raided by police. The police decided to leave the plane there as a reminder to other would-be narcotrafficantes. It is not true of course, but it is a nice story!.
For a real splash, dive into this water park (T. 3852500, 10:00-18:00 Thu-Sun Sep-May) near the airport, north of the city center.
Located 16km south of the city, this small nature reserve is famed for its gorgeous sand dunes ? a geological mystery, given that the sand apparently originates from Argentina and no other sand dunes have formed anywhere in the area. This is a great spot for birdwatchers, with temporary pools filling with migrant birds from September to November and February to March. The relict Chiquitania forest in the area is home to vocal titi monkeys and toucans. A taxi will take you to the entrance to the park, but if you wish to explore further you will either have to walk or you will need a 4WD vehicle.
This 430,000-hectare park lies in a unique geographical position at the confluence of three distinct ecosystems: the Amazon Basin, the northern Chaco and the Andes. The park was originally created in 1973 as the Reserva de Vida Silvestre Germán Busch, with an area of 180,000 hectares. In 1984, due to the efforts of British zoologist Robin Clarke and Bolivian biologist Noel Kempff Mercado, it was given national-park status and in 1990 was expanded to 630,000 hectares. In late 1995, however, amid controversy surrounding campesino colonization inside park bound aries, it was pared down to its current size.
The range of habitats of the park means that both highland and lowland species are found here. Mammals include elusive spectacled bears, jaguars, tapirs, peccaries and various monkeys, while more than 800 species of birds have been documented. The park is the stronghold of the endangered horned curassow, known as the unicorn bird.
Buena Vista Section Access: to the eastern part of the reserve requires crossing over the Río Surutú, either in a vehicle or on foot. Depending on the rainfall and weather, the river may be anywhere from knee- to waist-deep. Inexperienced hikers should not attempt any of the treks in the park without a guide.
1.- Rio Macuñucu The Río Macuñucu route is the most popular into the Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró and begins at Las Cruces, 35km southeast of Buena Vista. From there it is 7km to the Río Surutú, which you must drive or wade across; just beyond the opposite bank you will reach Villa Amboró. Villagers may charge an entrance fee to any tourist who passes their community en route to Macuñucu, regardless of whether you intend to stay there or not ? avoid unpleasantness and pay.
From here a popular trek runs to the banks of the Río Macuñucu and follows its course through thick forest. After four hours or so you pass through a narrow canyon, which confines hikers to the river, and a little later you will reach a large rock overhang accommodating up to 10 campers.
Beyond here the trek becomes increasingly difficult and terrain more rugged as you head towards some beautiful waterfalls and a second camp site. Take a guide if you are considering doing the full hike.
2.- Rio Isama and Cerro Amboro The Río Isama route turns off at the village of Espejitos, 28km southeast of Buena Vista, and provides access to the base of 1300m Cerro Amboró, the bulbous peak for which the park is named. It is possible to climb to the summit, but it is a difficult trek and a guide is essential.
3.- Mataracu From near Yapacaní, on the main Cochabamba road, a 4WD track heads south across the Río Yapacaní into the northern reaches of the Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró.
The seven-town region of Las Misiones Jesuíticas hides some of richest cultural and historic accomplishments of Bolivia. To travel through the entire circuit takes five or six days, but for those with an interest in architecture or history, it is a rewarding excursion.
Forgotten by the world for more than two centuries, the region and its history captivated the imagination of the world when the 1986 Palm de Or winner The Mission spectacularly replayed the last days of the Jesuit priests in the region (with Robert de Niro at the helm). The growing interest in the unique synthesis of Jesuit and native Chiquitano culture in the South American interior resulted in Unesco declaring the region a World Heritage site in 1991. Thanks to 25 years of painstaking restoration work, directed by the late architect Hans Roth, the centuries-old mission churches have been restored to their original splendor.
If you wish to travel the mission circuit on public transport, the bus schedules synchronize better going counterclockwise: that is starting the circuit at San José de Chiquitos. Travelling the opposite way, unsynchronized and irregular bus schedules make for a frustrating journey.
English-speaking Amboró Tours (T. 3145858, Pari # 81) in Santa Cruz runs adventurous trips to the northern section of the park.
Most of tour operators in Santa Cruz offers tours to this area
January 1: New Year 's Day.
February or March (changeable date): Carnival.
If you are in Santa Cruz during Carnaval, you should most certainly head for the paintball-plagued streets and join in the collective chaos. Carnaval occurs annually in February or March, one week before Lent begins.
April (Changeable date): International Theater Festival Theater.
International Theater Festival Theater groups from all over the world perform in venues around the city. Held from April 14 to 24 (odd-numbered years only), it is a great time to be in Santa Cruz.
April (Changeable date): Easter.
Palm Sunday: The Saturday before Easter. People enter temples with branches which the clergy bless.
Holy Thursday: It is a tradition of the people to visit 12 temples of the city, one for each apostle, in this day.
Good Friday: Procession of the Holy Sepulchre.
April (Changeable date): International Festival of Baroque Music.
A 10-day festival, held from the end of April to the beginning of May, with concerts in Santa Cruz and the Jesuit mission towns.
There are civic parades and in the evening, there are vervains in the main streets.
June (Changeable date):
Corpus Christie: Commemoration of the Body of Christ.
July 16: Feast of Carmen.
July 25: Rural Feast of Apostle Santiago.
August (Late days of August): International Festival of Cheese & Wine.
A relatively new festival, held in August, where locals showcase their best offerings. Great opportunity to taste Bolivian wine from Tarija.
September 21: Day of Spring. Youth and Students of Bolivia.
September 24: Anniversary of Santa Cruz.
September (Mid to late september): Expocruz.
Every year in mid to late September, Santa Cruz hosts this enormous two-week fair where you can buy anything from a toothbrush or clothing to a new house, a combine harvester or a 20-ton truck.
First Sunday in October: Feast of the Virgin of Merced.
Second Sunday in October: Feast of the Virgin of Rosario.
November 1: Todos Santos (All Saints Day).
This is a pre-columbian tradition when the people go to visit the Tombs prepared at home by the relatives of the deceased and where the friends are offered the same food and drink liked by him.
November 2: Difuntos (Day of the Deceased)
The tombs are dismantled and the people celebrate in the memory of the deceased.
November 3: Alma Cacharpaya (Soul of the Calypsobreakers)
Those in charge of dismantling the tombs show up in the home of the deceased with an orchestra so that the soul of the deceased will be happy.
December 24 and 25: Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
Amboró Tours (T. 3145858, Pari # 81) Trips to Amboró and Noel Kempff Mercado national parks and Jesuit missions.
Bird Bolivia (T. 3582674) Professional birding and wildlife tours with expert guides for those with a special interest in nature.
Ruta Verde (T. 3396470, 21 de Mayo # 332) Great for local information and tours to the Pantanal, Jesuit missions, Amboró and Noel Kempff Mercado national parks, plus Amazon riverboat trips and more.
Alexander (T. 3128888, Junín) This is a haven for delicious breakfasts and good coffee. Part of a chain, Alexander is excellent for sampling local Madidi coffee and any range of breakfasts, including huevos rancheros (spicy scrambled eggs) and gigantic fruit salads served with yoghurt and honey.
Vegetarian Center Cuerpomonte (T. 3371797, Aroma # 54, 9:00-19:00 Mon-Sat) Basic and simple, this place has a buffet selection, including quinoa cake, mashed sweet potato, salad bar goodies, veggie soups and lots of other nice wholesome things to keep your body healthy.
El Aljibe (T. 3352277, Ñuflo de Chavez) An atmospheric little restaurant specializing in comida tipica (typical food), which is increasingly difficult to find in cosmopolitan Santa Cruz.
Irish Pub (T. 3338118, east side Plaza 24 de Septiembre) A travelers? second home in Santa Cruz, this place has pricey beers, delicious soups and comfort food, plus tasty local specialties. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, though most people while the hours away drinking beer, relaxing and watching the goings-on in the plaza below.
Air Daily flights to La Paz, Sucre, Tarija, Trinidad and Cochabamba from International Airport of Viru Viru. Domestic Airlines includes Aerosur, BOA and TAM. International airlines includes AA, Lan, Aerolineas Argentinas, Lan Peru and others.
Bus The full-service bimodal terminal (T. 3340772), the combined long-distance bus and train station, is 1.5km east of the center, just before the third anillo at the end of Av Brasil. The main part of the terminal is for flotas (long-distance buses) and the train; on the other side of the tunnel is the micro (minibus) terminal for regional services. Taking a series of connecting micros or taxis can be a faster, if more complicated way, of reaching your destination, rather than waiting all day for an evening flota.
Train Trains depart from the bimodal terminal bound for Quijarro and Yacuiba. For access to the platform you need to buy a platform ticket and show your passport to the platform guard. The rail service to Yacuiba on the Argentine border, via Villamontes (the connection point for buses to Paraguay), is a reasonably quick and comfortable Ferrobus (passenger rail bus, 11 hours), which departs at 18:00 on Thursday and Sunday, returning on Friday and Monday at 18:00.
Bolivia Independence Day