Santa Cruz de la Sierra to give it its full name, is Bolivia’s largest city by population and the main gateway in the east of the country. Situated in the lowlands, it enjoys a pleasant, warm climate, is a centre of culture, and has easy access to historic Jesuit Missions and national parks. It is near the eastern end of the Andes Mountains, and their peaks are visible from some areas of the city.
The city was founded in 1561 and remained a small colonial outpost right up till independence in 1825, and was little developed until after the second half of the 20th century when land reforms stimulated growth. Today it continues to thrive, predominantly as Bolivia’s premier business and financial hub, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It’s an interesting mix of old and new in terms of architecture with colonial buildings and modern offices, fashion with traditional costume and the latest international styles, and cuisine with traditional street vendors alongside on-trend restaurants.
The city’s churches and museums give an insight into its history. The cathedral dates back 400 years and it’s well worth climbing the clock tower for far reaching views over the city. The Ethno-Folkloric Museum has collections of costumes, masks, musical instruments and weaponry from various ethnic groups in eastern Bolivia, and you can see a range of exhibits plus theatrical and musical performances at Santa Cruz Cultural Centre. When you want a rest head to Plaza 24 de Septembre, a lively spot where you can watch locals playing chess and listen to camba bands, and enjoy a drink at one of the many cafes. In a similar vein, Parque el Arenal is a lovely place to stroll among the trees, take a boat out on the lagoon, or simply relax.
The Jesuit Missions are to the east of the city in Chiquitos, the then frontier of the Spanish empire. They were built in the 17th and 18th centuries with the aim of converting local tribes to Christianity. The missions were conceived as mini cities, each with a central plaza, a large church complex containing a school and accommodation for priests, and houses for local inhabitants. Today 6 of the original 10 missions are largely intact, unusual as most missions in the Spanish territories fell into disrepair after the expulsion of the Jesuits, and comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lovers of the great outdoor will enjoy Lomas de Arena, about 20kms from the city. The forests shelter sloths, capybaras and monkeys. You can see caimans in the lagoon, and there are over 260 species of birds. The park’s large sand dunes are a mecca for sand boarders.
Amboro National Park is 40kms west of the city. Its 4,425sqm contain 3 ecosystems: the northern Chaco, the Amazon Basin and the Andean foothills. The park features varied scenery and is home to diverse wildlife such as tapirs, armadillos, giant anteaters, spectacled bears, jaguars and pumas. Reptiles and amphibians also thrive here, and ornithologists will delight with over 800 species of birds including cock of the rocks, macaws, toucans and hummingbirds. The flora is similarly varied with both lowland and highland species. You can go for guided hikes within the park, and there are many waterfalls feeding waterholes where you can enjoy refreshing swims.
Santa Cruz and the eastern lowlands have a semi-tropical climate with warm weather all year round and an annual temperature of 23Â°C, and can be visited at any time of year. The dry winter months (April to October) are the most pleasant, although at this time the cold southerly Surazos winds can lower the temperature considerably for days at a time. The rainy season (November to April) brings more humid weather and higher temperatures with some days reaching 30Â°C. December and January have the highest rainfall.
Time: Bolivia GMT -4 hours
approximately 21.5 hours (no direct flights from the UK)
Language: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara
Visas – not required for British nationals for stays of up to 90 days
Yellow Fever vaccine should be given to travellers 9 months of age and upwards if travelling to areas below 2,300m east of the Andes Mountains. These areas include the whole departments of Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz, and parts of the Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, La Paz and Tarija departments. No other vaccinations are compulsory.