Travel in Latin America
Santa Cruz is both the largest city and the largest department (state) in Bolivia, offering a diverse selection of sightseeing opportunities from urban plazas and museums to lush rain forests and quaint villages. Therefore, a good strategy for travelers is to split their time between the sites of the city and those located in the surrounding countryside.
Santa Cruz's lively main plaza, which Frommer's calls "one of the prettiest in Bolivia," is a good place to begin a sightseeing tour in the city center. On its south side is the cathedral, built beginning in 1845 to replace a previous one founded there in 1605. The cathedral has a small museum displaying religious artifacts, and the bell tower provides excellent views of the city. On the plaza's east side, the Casa de Cultura Franco Aleman is housed in a splendid colonial building, where it offers performances and courses promoting cultural ties between Bolivia and France and Germany.
The city has an array of museums where visitors can learn about local history and culture, including the Museo de Historia y Archivo Regional de Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz Museum of History and Regional Archive), the Museo Etnofolklórico de Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz Ethno-Folkloric Museum), and the Museo Guaraní, a museum dedicated to the Guaraní indigenous people from the area around Santa Cruz.
To enjoy some green space in this bustling city, visitors can head to the Parque El Arenal and its small lake. Paddleboats are for rent here, and a mural by artist Lorgio Vaca depicting Santa Cruz's history is on display on an island in the lake. There's also the local zoo, which is home to exotic South American birds, reptiles and mammals, such as llamas, jaguars, tapirs and spectacled bears.
Spiral staircase at Biocentro Güembe.
For a day trip out of the city, the Biocentro Güembe (www.biocentroguembe.com) is only 10 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz and easily reachable by taxi. The 24-hectare preserve has a monkey island, a butterfly farm, a bird observatory, an orchid display and a vivarium for termites, ants and bees. There are hiking trails, fishing opportunities and bungalows for rent for those who would like to make an overnight trip out of it.
Relaxing in Samaipata.
Amboró National Park, about three hours west of the city of Santa Cruz, is a birdwatcher's paradise, with more than 830 different types of birds. It's also home to jaguars, monkeys, giant anteaters and more than 3,000 types of plant. Mountains, waterfalls and canyons add to the attraction.
Samaipata, a small village in the foothills about two hours southwest of Santa Cruz, "has developed into one of the top gringo-trail spots over the last few years," according to Lonely Planet. The town itself is quite nice, but the big attraction is El Fuerte, a mysterious Inca religious site where visitors can see the Chinkana labyrinth as well as the ancient ruins of temples and amphitheaters.
There are at least six former Jesuit missions in the department of Santa Cruz, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The restored missions at San Javier and Concepción are the closest and easiest to reach from the city of Santa Cruz, according to Frommer's, though San Javier is still a five-hour drive.
Ruta Verde is a highly recommended Dutch tour operator that offers trips to all of the above locations, as does Rosario Tours. Michael Blendinger runs nature tours out of Samaipata.