To be honest, I didn’t fall in love with Santa Cruz at all. I can’t explain why, maybe it was my mood, or the way people drove their SUVs, or just the fact that people weren’t as friendly and lovely as I had previously experienced in Bolivia.
Apart from this, I am still convinced that people should visit this city because it offers a completely different perspective on Bolivia. Located at 416 metres above sea level, Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the country’s largest city, its main economic hub, and it has a completely different climate compared to all the other cities. You can basically divide Bolivia into three main climatic areas: the western part, the freezing altiplano where Potosí, Oruro, Uyuni and La Paz lie; the central part, the valleys of Cochabamba, Sucre and Tarija, where one can enjoy a mild climate all year round; the eastern lowlands, close to the Amazon, where humidity and heat will give you hard time, home to Santa Cruz. It’s worth noting that the department of Santa Cruz, bordered by Brazil and Paraguay, is larger than many European countries.
While walking around the city you will notice expensive shops, brand new 4WD cars and very wealthy barrios, which will give you the impression of being in the wrong country.
To understand Santa Cruz, you need to first comprehend the social conflict between the two main ethnic groups of Bolivia: ‘Collas‘ and ‘Cambas’. The Collas are basically the indigenous people living in the western part of the country, while the Cambas are people with more of a foreign background, who live in the area known as Media Luna, because of its shape. The half moon region refers to the Cambas’ majority districts of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija.
After the election of Evo Morales (who belong to the colla “faction”), in 2006, these departments objected to the nationalisation and redistribution of natural gas – the most important natural resource in the east part of Bolivia – and to the land reform, actions implemented by the new government. So, the Media Luna became the opposition to the national government and the crib of the Camba nationalism, promoted by the Movimiento Nación Camba de Liberación.
This sort of racial hatred, led Bolivia to a political crisis in 2008. The Eastern part of the country was asking for more autonomy, which obviously wasn’t granted by the central government, Santa Cruz being the richest department. Clashes between the two factions ended up leading to heavy protests, occupations of natural gas infrastructure, quickly escalating to the Porvenir Massacre, in September 2008, causing roughly 30 deaths. The victims were predominantly farmers, guilty of supporting Evo Morales. Under these circumstances, in 2009 terrorist groups were discovered, apparently planning a coup d’état. Other sources believe this was set up by the government, in order to persecute the opposition. The Media Luna held a referendum for independence, which was declared unconstitutional, as often happens in these cases – e.g. Cataluña in Spain.
In the past, these departments ‘suffered’ a migration wave from Europe and Japan, during the two World Wars (there is even a city called Okinawa in Santa Cruz!). More recently a new migration from the poorer western part of Bolivia took place seeking for jobs, and this is one of the reasons why indigenous people are not well seen in this area. This clash is real and it is easily perceivable. In Cochabamba I was ‘warned’ about the Cambas women, who apparently are able to steal your man in front of you.
What to do in Santa Cruz
Chill at the lovely Plaza 24 de Septiembre
The heart of the city is Plaza 24 de Septiembre, and it is the only part of the city I actually liked. It is a lovely spot to sit eating an ice-cream or reading a book, surrounded by palm trees, locals playing chess, shoeshiners at work and children playing. The square also host the beautiful Cathedral which you can climb for just 3 BOB (Monday to Sunday, 8am – 12pm and 3 pm – 6 pm).
In Plaza 24 de Septiembre you can also check out the small art gallery Manzana 1, which hosts free temporary exhibitions of local artists.
Cool down at Café Patrimonio
Not too far from the square you’ll find the lovely Café Patrimonio, the perfect place to charge your batteries with a tasty iced coffee, in their nice shady courtyard or in the air-conditioned indoor area.
Don’t get too excited for standing in the centre of South America
In Santa Cruz you can stand on the centre of South America, but wait… don’t get too excited! We heard about this”special place” and wanted to live this experience, but our expectations were definitely too high! Located in Plaza Callejas, the spot is very disappointing, with not even a sign saying what the rusty cross with a ripped green and white flag of the district is there for.
If you visit Santa Cruz between December and March, you should definitely try this little tasty orange fruit which grows only in this part of Bolivia. Locals make juices and jams out of it.
Visit the rest of the region
Apart from the capital Santa Cruz, the rest of the region is very interesting to visit for the remote Jesuits missions, the quite inaccessible Noel Kepff National Park, the Che Guevara trail retracing the places where Ernesto Guevara fought his last guerrilla and lost his life, and the tiny, yet lovely Samaipata. Unfortunately, due to budget reasons, I only managed to visit the latter, for which a new blog post is on its way.
Where to stay
I stayed at Jodanga Backpackers Hostel. Backpackers hostels are not my favourite, but in a city with only a handful of hostels, and being unable to find a Couchsurfing host, this seemed like the best option. Slightly overpriced compared to Bolivian standards, at least this hostel offers a great breakfast (included in the price), and has a nice swimming pool, for those hot days where you wish you hadn’t pushed yourself to such a low altitude.