Founded by Spanish conquistador, Nuflo de Chavez in 1561, Santa Cruz is Bolivia's largest city. In contrast with many of the country's cities, it lies a mere 1,365 feet (416m) above sea level and enjoys a tropical feel. Its conditions can be a welcome break from the harshness of the Bolivian Andes.
Many travellers visit Santa Cruz as a transit destination, given that planes have an easier time landing at Santa Cruz than navigating the mountains around La Paz. That said, Santa Cruz is a fascinating travel destination in its own right, and worth at least a day or two of exploration.
Strolling through town is a great way to take in the beautiful colonial architecture. Tourists can enjoy the many shops and restaurants, or join locals in the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, where people gather to play chess, feed the pigeons, or sip wine at outdoor cafes. Santa Cruz is also known as the fashion capital of Bolivia, and locally made clothing is a popular souvenir. The city's cosmopolitan ambience extends to discos, museums and art galleries.
Santa Cruz's comfort and convenience make it an ideal base from which to explore some of Bolivia's most popular attractions. These include Park Amboro, and the historical Jesuit missions. There are also daily flights to La Paz, and buses to many other destinations.
The Jesuit Church sent missionaries to a number of Bolivia's rural areas in the 16th century, with instructions to 'civilise' and convert indigenous tribes. Today, travellers can visit the churches they built and cultivated. Many vibrant villages lie around these beautiful colonial structures, which were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. The six historic missions that remain intact are San Miguel, San Jose, Santa Ana, Concepcion, San Rafael, and San Francisco Javier. All of them are in the Chiquitania region near Santa Cruz. Many local tour operators offer packages that include visits to several villages, all within easy reach of the city.
The tiny village of Samaipata lies two hours' drive southwest of Santa Cruz. Its home to an array of local tribes and some beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Visitors will encounter several important attractions, including El Fuerte, which is a set of pre-Incan ruins designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Las Cuevas Waterfalls. Condor Mountain and the stunning Amboro National Park are also nearby. Travellers should note that Samaipata is the start and end point of the Che Guevara Trail, which visits sites of interest.
Amboro National Park is a nature reserve in central Bolivia. Its wildlife population includes more than 800 species of birds, and many endangered animals such as the puma, jaguar and spectacled bear. Hikers will encounter a diverse terrain, which covers the northern Chaco, Andes foothills, and Amazon Basin. The region's spectacular scenery features canyons, forests, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. Visitors can pass the time birdwatching at La Chonta outlook, sunning themselves on the beaches of the Surutu River, or hiking the Yungas Mountains. Getting to the park is relatively easy, given that it's only around 93 miles (150km) northwest of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. A number of tour operators offer outings to Amboro and a range of activities in the park.
Santa Cruz is Bolivia's most cosmopolitan city and, in many ways, the least representative of the country as a whole. Its low altitude and tropical climate only reinforce this distinction.
The city's population is diverse and its centre pulses with business. Perhaps as a consequence of its commercial energy, tourism in Santa Cruz is less about serious sightseeing, and more about shopping sprees, and enjoying the range of bars and restaurants.
Indeed, visitors won't find many iconic Bolivian landmarks or attractions. That said, Santa Cruz is a good base from which to venture into the wider region. Favourite day trips include trekking in Amboro National Park, visiting the nearby cultural hub of Samaipata, and exploring the many old Jesuit Missions in the area.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination