When I first moved to Santa Cruz de la Sierra I was admittedly skeptical of my new home in Bolivia. Where were the towering peaks of the Andes mountains? And the perilous landscapes I came to expect from the images of Lonely Planet and National Geographic?
And seriously, where are all of these cows coming from?
As seemingly the only blonde gringa east of the salt flats, I didn’t take comfort in the heaps of tourists exploring the city because there were none. I immediately felt cramped in the steamy city and confined to public pools while seeking refuge from the heat.
And then I opened my eyes to my surroundings. Like, really opened them. I saw how the dry Chaco (forest) of the east is just as beautiful and unforgiving as the more-travelled Atacama Desert is to the southwest. And how navigating rivers while fishing for piranha and surubí (giant Amazon catfish) is just as thrilling as navigating “death road” by bicycle.
I even found the herds of cows sharing the road to be charming.
But what I have come to love most about Bolivia, and especially my home in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is that it is so much more diverse than what I expected. It’s not all bowler hats and potato sacks.
In fact, it’s a shame to see this area of the country overlooked by travelers who are unaware of what to see and where to go when in the department (state) of Santa Cruz and it’s capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
So I urge you, for an authentic Bolivian experience, hop off the gringo trail and explore the lesser known that is the Bolivian orient!
For further convincing, here are 7 reasons why Santa Cruz should be included on your itinerary to Bolivia:
1. Access some of the country’s most spectacular wildlife and national parks.
The department of Santa Cruz boasts some of the most pristine parks in all of Bolivia, and they are much more accessible than you may think! Within a day’s drive—or bumpy bus ride—from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, you can explore one of three national parks, soak in hot springs after hiking up waterfalls, and hike through some of the most bio-diverse forests in South America. The only place in Bolivia where you can observe condors in their natural habitat is a mere two hours from the city!
Get lost, with a guide of course, in the remote Noel Kempff Mercado National Park (Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado), a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses five ecosystems throughout its great expanse, ranging from dense, Amazonian rain forest to wet savanna and dry plateaus. For the animal lovers, check out Amboro National Park (Parque Nacional Amboro), a wildlife watching haven bordering both the Andes mountains and Amazon basin, and home to monkeys, tapirs, rare bear species, and over 800 bird species. Known for its Jaguar population, Kaa-Iya National Park (Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya) is a must for anyone interested in observing mammals of the Chaco (dry forest) such as giant armadillo, the endangered Chacoan peccary, puma, ocelots and much more.
LOCAL TIP: Let the Aussie/Bolivian team of Nick’s Adventures take you on a tour through Kaa-Iya to not only spot jaguars in their natural habitats, but to learn more about wildlife and large cat conservation in Bolivia. Camp among giant ferns in the cloud forest of Amboro National Park from August to November when rainfall and temperatures are low.
2. Follow the footsteps of iconic historical figures.
While museums may not be Santa Cruz’s forté, there is definitely no shortage of historical monuments and fascinating cultural landmarks to be explored in the region. Time travel with a visit to the pre-Colombian ruins of El Fuerte, a fortress built by the Chané people and later inhabited by the Inca. The religious site was even once thought to have been connected to aliens!
Before Santa Cruz de la Sierra grew to the metropolis as we know it today, the tropical capital was once part of the Gran Chiquitania, an area of remote Spanish settlements and Jesuit Missions in the steamy lowlands of the Orient. The 16th-century Spanish conquistador Ñuflo de Cháves introduced the name Chiquitos, meaning ‘little ones’ around the time he established the “original” capital (Santa Cruz la vieja) some 250 kilometers from where it has grown today. The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos have over time become a popular tourist destination, as six of the missions have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and have remarkably maintained the feel for what Santa Cruz really was like a mere fifty years ago.
Follow the footsteps of the famous revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his band of guerrilla fighters just outside the town of Vallegrande, a town which formerly served as headquarters to Che’s guerrilleros and ultimately, his resting place after his execution in La Higuera in 1967. While there is a small shrine and other relics in the classroom where Che was killed, the bulk of landmark’s commemorating the guerrillero are back in Vallegrande at the Museo Municipal Ruta del Che Guevara (more of a one-room photo gallery), Hospital Señor de Malta (where you can visit the laundry room where his death was put on public display and exhibit before later being buried), and Che’s Mausoleum (the site of Che’s grave at the edge of an airstrip before it was unearthed and sent to Cuba in 1997). Tour operators offer hikes to other notable sites in the area and every year in October a pilgrimage and festival are held in his honor.
3. Party like a cruceño in one of the fasting growing cities in the world.
In a metropolis of nearly two million people—and steadily increasing as the 14th fastest growing city in the world, source—you can almost guarantee there is a party happening at any given hour of the day, and locals love a good reason to celebrate! From afternoon churrascos to week-long festivals, Bolivia’s most cosmopolitan city has something to offer everyone when it’s time to unwind and let loose. Year-round the city center is pulsing with discos, high-end nightclubs, and themed bars for party-goers to sip on chuflays and Paceñas. There’s also no shortage of citywide festivals from month to month, including Carnaval (February/March), Fiesta de la Cruz (May), and the four-week celebration throughout September in honor of Santa Cruz in which you can catch outdoor concerts in the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, stroll the FexpoCruz (a state-fair of sorts), and indulge in local dishes during Día de Tradición.
LOCAL TIP: Hit up the new and trendy boliche Brown Fox on any day of the week from 6-8 p.m. for 2×1 artisanal cervezas (score!) and Caminito on Fridays for live music and an even livelier, young crowd on Saturdays.
4. Fill up on achachairú.
Fruit lovers, rejoice! If taste testing exotic produce from markets around the world is your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?), then this is the one region you can’t skip! Behold, achachairú. It’s the crown jewel of all tropical fruit in South America and can only be found and grown in the heart of Bolivia. Known as the Bolivian mangosteen, the sweet and sour flesh of the achachairú takes over the Santa Cruz culinary scene during harvest season from December to February. Locals love juicing the pulp, using it to flavor ice cream, freeze into popsicles, spread as warm jam, and drizzle over main dishes. I hear there is even a wine in the works!
LOCAL TIP: Get the most out of your achachairú experience with a visit to Porongo’s annual festival honoring the fruit’s harvest in January, just 20 km from Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
5. Admire the beauty of the orient.
Even if you aren’t deep in the jungle or meandering about one of the aforementioned national parks, there is still plenty of natural beauty to behold around every corner you turn in Santa Cruz. Along the two-hour drive alone towards Samaipata there are three different waterfalls to dip your toes in (Espejillos, Jardín de las Delicias, and Las Cuevas) as well as a volcanic crater, known as Laguna Volcán, and the incredible sandstone cliffs of Refugio Los Volcanes! Heading east towards Brazil towers the giant and sacred slab of red rock known as La Torre, an iconic marker of the Chochis area and nearby Jesuit mission town of Santiago de Chiquitos. Further ahead, just past Roboré and the great Valley Tucavaca (both underrated hiking hotspots), lay the nation’s largest hot springs and thermal waters in Aguas Calientes. For the ultimate adventure, give sand boarding a go at the sand dunes of Las Lomas de Arena, some 30km from Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
6. Savor a great cup of coffee.
It may not be obvious, but Brazil, Colombia, and Peru aren’t the only South American countries producing rich beans for a quality brew. Just two hours outside of Santa Cruz de la Sierra rests Buena Vista, a picturesque town adding flavor to the Bolivian coffee market. Experience the coffee culture of Café Buena Vista with a plantation tour and sampling of the region’s exquisite coffee varieties.
The city of Santa Cruz itself is full of cafés that are often best enjoyed in the late afternoon during tea time, a local tradition bringing cruceños together over horneados (savory baked goods) and tecitos. Head over to Vainilla to indulge in the Buena Vista coffee and their delicious cheesecake.
7. Experience the local ‘Camba’ culture.
Throughout the eastern lowlands, you’ll find the locals, affectionately known as cambas, to be diverse, energetic, and extremely proud people. They revel in their country roots and take tradition seriously. It’s no secret they pride themselves in the way they express themselves through their language, sense of style and culture that is anything but the Bolivian stereotype. Indulge in their customs and it won’t be long before you’re welcomed with an ¡Oye, che! ¡Qué camba que sos, puej!