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Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Welcome to Bolivia

View High Altitude Landscapes Tour - Bolivia, Chile & Argentina 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Viru Viru Airport

After a very long journey to get here (39 hours door to door including the layover in Buenos Aires), the plane lands in Santa Cruz de la Sierra half an hour after midnight. The wheelchair waiting for me at the gate is the smallest I have ever encountered – I guess Bolivians generally are of small stature – and I can barely fit my bottom into the seat. The chap pushing me, is what you might call petite, and it is uncomfortable for both of us. I suddenly feel a burning sensation on my hip and realise that the wheel is rubbing on my bottom as it turns (I end up with a scar lasting the whole trip).


At immigration, the officer takes David’s form but not mine, and at security all passengers are required to pass through the X-ray, whereas I am wheeled around it without as much as a cursory pat-down.

Outside, Juan (our tour guide), is waiting for us, holding a sign with our names. With typical indigenous Bolivian looks, he is of slight build and when I stand up out of the wheelchair, I notice he barely reaches my shoulders. Two-thirds of the population of Bolivia is made up of indigenous people, more than any other South American country.

We reach the hotel in next to no time, as there is very little traffic at this time of the morning. The front door is locked, but Juan manages to wake the night security guard to let us in.

Hotel Las Americas

The whole hotel looks old and tired, and it has some troubling recent history. On April 16, 2009, at 4.30 am, Bolivian security forces entered the hotel, alleging that they had received reports of five foreign nationals carrying arms with the intent to assassinate President Evo Morales and his vice president.

According to Morales, this alleged commando group was responsible for an attack carried out on the house of a critic of Morales, two days earlier. The manager of the hotel contradicted Morales, as he claimed that the men were in their rooms when that attack occurred.

The police report stated that when agents attempted to enter the rooms, they were met with gunfire, initiating a shoot-out that went on for almost half an hour. These ‘facts’ have been heavily denied, and disputed, with images of the so-called gunmen wearing just underwear or no clothing at all surfacing, as well as information emerging that the operation was carried out without any judge's warrant (which violates the Bolivian penal code) and it was determined that the doors to the rooms had been blown up before the shooting commenced. The CCTV from the hotel was disconnected on the eve of the shooting, and the footage from the time when the foreigners entered the hotel had been ‘accidentally’ deleted.

I wonder which rooms they were in?

I don’t think the hotel bedrooms – or the rest of the building – have been redecorated since the 1970s. A lick of paint would freshen them up no end.


The beds are comfortable, however, and we slip under the sheets at 2am, setting the alarm for 07:00.

Waking a few hours later, I feel surprisingly refreshed. Breakfast is on the top floor, with a limited choice of breads, cakes, cereal, ham, pineapple, and melon.

Briefing meeting

At 9am we have a briefing meeting with Juan, our guide here in Bolivia, to go through the itinerary, what we can expect, and what is expected of us. Juan is very thorough and detailed. I have a question about tomorrow’s sightseeing – we are leaving town to visit a fort, and on the way back we are stopping for a hike to a waterfall. I fear that I am not fit enough for the hike, and David isn’t particularly interested, so I ask if we can visit a butterfly park instead. Juan explains that the park is on the opposite side of town to the fort, so it would be better to do it this afternoon instead. He has already been informed by Mark at Undiscovered Destinations (who we booked this trip through) that I am massively into photography, especially wildlife, and he is more than happy to change the itinerary for me.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Santa Cruz has around 2.4 million inhabitants and is currently the largest (and by far the wealthiest) city in Bolivia, known as the economic hub of the country.

At 416 meters above sea level, it is warm and tropical most of the year., with a temperature average of 28 °C during the day. Santa Cruz borders the Amazon Rainforest and the city’s surroundings are lush and green.

The city was founded in 1561 by the Spanish settlers, and named after a town in Extremadura in Spain.

Recova Vieja

We start our walking tour of the city in this colonial area, which is full of handicraft stalls.


Several narrow alleyways lead into a leafy central courtyard, with plenty of welcome shade and a representation of Cotoca, the Virgin of Santa Cruz.



The items for sale here are a combination of tacky souvenirs, traditional handicrafts, delicate jewellery, quirky leather goods, and everything in between.


Many of the leather stalls have cow’s heads on display – not sure if they are for sale or just simply decoration. They appear to be real, taxidermied heads of cows.


David makes a purchase at one of the leather stalls – thankfully not a bust of Daisy the heifer, but a belt to replace his existing worn-out one.

The local precious stone, bolivianite, is a popular choice for jewellery.



Also known as ametrine, it is a naturally occurring variety of quartz, a mixture of amethyst and citrine with zones of purple and yellow or orange.


Plaza 24 de Septiembre

Also known as Plaza de Armas, the square is flanked by the cathedral on one side (as are most main squares in Bolivia’s colonial cities), and surrounded by baroque, neoclassical, and Moorish architecture. While the square itself is 400 years old, the centre of the plaza was renovated in 2005 and represents modern Santa Cruz. It is named after the date the revolution started in 1810.


The square is leafy, with plenty of shade and numerous benches, where you can sit for a while and watch the world go by.


Or have your shoes cleaned.


Ignacio Warnes, a revolutionary hero commemorated by one of the statues in the square. Warnes lived during the Independence War, which started in 1810 and led to Santa Cruz gaining autonomy from Spain. The plaza is named after this momentous victory.


The square is full of people strolling and chatting, beggars, and sales people, students celebrating their graduation, various statues and monuments, and some striking pink trees.


The beautiful Toborochi Tree

And pigeons. Lots of pigeons. Lots of well-fed pigeons.


San Lorenzo Church


Also known as Santa Cruz Cathedral, the original basilica was founded in 1605, but the present structure dates from 1845 and wasn’t consecrated until 1915. The church is unusual in that it is completely made of bricks, with neoclassical designs on the façade.


There is a solemn hush in the air inside the church, and we wander around trying not to disturb those to whom this is a holy place.



Cotoca - the Virgin of Santa Cruz


Typical Jesuit flower decoration


The Virgin of Guadeloupe - always depicted as a painting, never as a statue

The Love Pig

We continue to a small enclosed square behind the cathedral, where a large chain mail structure of a pig has been erected, with the public encouraged to attach a padlock while making a wish.


The Cross of Santa Cruz - brought over from Extremadura in Spain

Street art near the square

Gladys Moreno, a famous local singer

Outdoor Photography Exhibition

In a small square behind the cathedral, there is an outdoor exhibition of contemporary photography to represent modern Bolivia.

A man reduces his rival with a punch as part of the traditional Tinku (meeting) festival, held in Mancha. Juan explains that if one of the participants dies during the fight, his body will be considered sacrificed to Mother Earth.

A man who rejected the mobilisation of the electoral fraud in 2019, receives a kick in the face. La Paz was one of the points of conflict between critics and supporters of the government of Evo Morales.

A coca grower from the Yungas who was demanding the closure of the market in Villa El Carmen, rescues a bag of coca leaves before the stalls go up in flames.

Natitas, human skulls, are exposed in the General Cemetery in La Paz. Every November 8th, believers celebrate the Day of the ñatitas to venerate them and ask for blessings.

A man represents Jesus whipped by a Roman soldier during the recreation of the Via Crucis held in La Paz.

Supposedly the highest football match in the world, these traditional ladies play soccer on the snowy peak of Huayna Potosí, at an altitude of 5,890 metres above sea level.

A man disinfects a line of people in La Paz to prevent the spread of Covid 19.

Manzana Uno Espacio de Arte

This modern (indoor) art gallery mainly showcases paintings, but there are also a couple of very cool pieces of carved tree trunks.


Club Social 24. de Septiembre

We stop for lunch in the oldest restaurant in Santa Cruz, dating from 1810.



We are the first people here and have a choice of tables.


Since its inception, when it was just a coffee house, this used to be the place for the in-crowd to come to mingle, see and be seen, and discuss ideas. The wall at the far end of the restaurant has a rogue’s gallery of all the ex-presidents who have visited this place.


We order their set lunch menu, which starts with a Caesar Salad (with beetroot, really?), followed by a quinoa soup with cabbage, carrots, celery, marrow, and beef. The two dishes both arrive at the same time.


A bowl of fresh bread appears, as well as the ubiquitous hot sauce. This one really does pack quite a punch!


We both really enjoy the main course, a dish called Rapi, which consists of beef cooked with a special sauce, served with yucca, rice and a red pepper (capsicum) salad.


The Vanilla Pudding to finish is very smooth, but a little artificial-tasting.


The whole four-course meal for the three of us, including a jug of delicious freshly made lemonade comes to 75 Bolivanos (just over $10 at today’s exchange rate).


We drive out of town to reach this park, which is said to have the most amazing butterfly house, and which has been substituted into our itinerary at my request. Unfortunately, it is closed.

Yvaga Guazu Ecological Park

Juan quickly confers with Tito, our driver, and heads for another place that he describes as “similar”.


I am not sure how I would describe this place – it seems to be a cross between a simple zoo, a botanical garden, an animal rescue organisation, and a centre for learning.


Despite being the only visitors there, we are issued with armbands, and wait for what seems like an eternity for a guide, a young girl called Geri, to turn up. She doesn’t speak English, but Juan translates for us.


Juan explains how the outer membrane of the coffee fruit is removed to make ‘pure coffee’.



As my back and knee are both hurting and making walking painful for me, I am unable to do this park justice. Apparently, there are some lovely trails leading through the 14 hectares of ground, but I find myself more and more grumpy as the pain becomes worse and worse.

Toborochi (the pink tree we saw earlier in the square) in bonsai form

A fruit called Sinini, said to be useful in the treatment of cancer

The birds and animals in sad-looking cages (apparently all rescued pets) do nothing to help my mood in any way.


There are some wild birds around, but Mowgli the dog makes sure that they don’t hang around for very long.

Black Legged Serima - our first lifer of the trip.

Blue Grey Tanager

Juan keeps encouraging me to continue, despite my protestations that I am in a great deal of pain now, promising me that there will be benches to sit on as we continue on our way. I feel guilty for not showing much enthusiasm, especially as Juan has gone to the trouble of amending the itinerary for me, and finding this place, so agree to make my way to the largest collection of orchids in the country.


When the afore-promised benches fail to materialise, the light makes it almost impossible to take photos, and hardly any of the 600+ orchid plants are flowering, I give up and Juan reluctantly agrees for us to make our way back to the hotel.

We stop on the way at a supermarket to purchase frozen vegetables that I use as ice packs for my knee and back. It works to some extent.


After a shower and rest in the room, Juan picks us up to go to a traditional restaurant for dinner. I don’t feel too great this evening, as I seem to have picked up a cold on the flight over here.

La Casa del Camba


In order to try as many different local dishes as possible, we order what is called a ‘Mini Buffet’ for two people. Juan insists it will be enough to feed three, as the portions are big and he “doesn’t eat much”.


The buffet consists of Charqui (similar to jerky/biltong: salted and dried beef), Duck Majao, Spicy Chicken, and Slow Cooked Beef Tongue.

These dishes are accompanied by Salad of the Day, Rice with Cheese, Fried Yucca, Fried Plantain, Fried Eggs, Chuño (potatoes processed by successive freezing, thawing, and dehydrating), and a Hot Sauce.

Spicy Chicken, and Rice with Cheese

Rice with Jerky and Fried Plantain

Duck Majao

Slow Cooked Beef Tongue

Salad of the Day

Yucca with spicy sauce

Freeze Dried Potato and Fried Eggs

We share a bottle of local red wine to go with it, as recommended by Juan - good choice!

Unusually for me, I seem to have lost my appetite, so I just a try a little of each dish. Funnily enough, it is Juan, who claims “not to each much”, who eats by far the most out of the three of us. Quite miraculous really, as he is so tiny – where does he put it all? He was right, though, it was more than enough to feed three people.


David and I do have dessert, however. Again a combo of three typical local dishes: Leche Crema (cream milk, a little like caramel pudding), Rice Pudding, and Manjar Blanco (similar to Dulce de Leche, a thick creamy caramel) served with Crillo Cheese.


We have a lovely evening with good food and good company at a reasonable cost.


Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this awesome private tour for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 20:42 Archived in Bolivia Tagged paintings gallery market square zoo pigeons cathedral orchids lunch plaza photography bolivia coca handicrafts soup santa_cruz plantain tanager quinoa exhibition wheelchair quartz padlocks belt cuckoo plaza_de_armas wood_carving yungas undiscovered_destinations art_gallery covid_19 serima viru_viri santa_cruz_de_la_sierra hotel_las_americas recova_vieja handicraft_market bolivianite ametrine 24_de_septiembre 24_de_septiembre_square shoe_shine toborochi toborochi_tree flowering_tree pink_flowers pink_tree san_lorenzo_church cotoca cirgin_of_santa_cruz love_pig making_a_wish outdoor_photography_exhibition photography_exhibition natitas villa_el_carmen via_crucis highest_football_match_in_the_w manzana_uno_especio_de_arte club_social rapi cuembe yvaga_guazu_ecological_park yvaga_guazu ecological_park bird_cages sinini bonzai frzon_vegetables ice_packla_casa_delcamba charqui yucca majao chuno

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Awesome👍👍👍. I loved the food.

by Goutam Mitra

Thank you very much, Goutam, the food was great! ♥

by Grete Howard

Lots to enjoy in what looks like a fairly typical S American colonial city? I love the street art and the pretty trees :) The frilly bibs on the graduation outfits look a bit odd! Like you I wouldn't especially enjoy seeing those sad animals, and really Juan should have listened sooner if you were in pain and wanted to call it a day. But the meal seems a good note to end this first full day :) I'm looking forward to reading more!

by ToonSarah

Thanks, Sarah. I am sure Juan was just desperate to please us, making sure we got the most out of our trip. :)

by Grete Howard

Dear travellerspoint.com administrator, You always provide in-depth analysis and understanding.

by Dillon Hartigan

Sorry to hear that you had a bad day with your knee. Nice of Juan to make changes in the program, that is always a bonus when going on a private tour. The food looks great by the way! :)

by Ils1976

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