Santa Cruz de la Sierra, more commonly known as just ‘Santa Cruz’ is the largest city in Bolivia. It is quite metropolitan and more affluent than the rest of the country. It was our first stop in Bolivia and other travellers at our hostel, who had come from other locations in Bolivia, told us that Santa Cruz wasn’t ‘real Bolivia’ – what on earth does that mean? Yes, it perhaps has a slightly different feel than other Bolivian cities and you will see less traditional dress and a few more western chains like Burger King and Starbucks, but this is a city in Bolivia housing millions of Bolivians, how it is not real Bolivia?!
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Things to do in Santa Cruz
Your stay in Santa Cruz is not going to be action packed. It is a nice city to wander round but a lot of travellers find themselves missing Santa Cruz off the itinerary altogether due to it being a little east of the Gringo trail. However, you can entertain yourself quite easily here for a couple of days.
Chill out in Plaza 24 de Septiembre
As with all cities in South America, the main square is a hive of activity and a place the locals come to relax and enjoy a drink or snack. The square is pretty and lit up lovely in the evening.
Climb the clock tower of the Catedral Metropolitana Basílica Menor de San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz
Overlooking the main square, you can get lovely views over the city for just 3Bs.
Take a trip out to the Botanical Gardens
Easy to get to using the local buses, head to Parada De Micro Cotoca (on the corner of Calle Barron and Calle Suarez Arana) and jump on any bus going to Cotoca. You pay the driver (3 Bolivianos) and literally shout when you want to get off. You will see the Botanical Gardens from the road and as soon as you ask the driver to stop he will pull over, so don’t panic about missing the stop. These gardens were not like the ones we had visited in Rio de Janeiro, unfortunately they were less well-tended, with a disappointing amount of rubbish lying around and more like a local park than a garden dedicated to the preservation and cultivation of plants. Despite this, they are worth a visit as, a) they only cost 10 Bolivianos, and b) you will encounter some interesting and exotic wildlife. On our visit we saw parakeets, capuchin monkeys, a tortoise and an incredibly gorgeous sloth!
Eat in the Local food market – Mercado Neuvo
See the food and drink section below.
Amboro National Park
Often reviewed as the best thing to do in Santa Cruz. The first thing to point out though is that the national park is 150km away so although most tour companies do offer day trips there I would advise against it as it's at least 3 hours each way!!
The best way to visit the Amboro National park is to take the trip out to the small town Samaipata & visit the park from there. The park is 4,425km2 of lush jungle & it's ecosystem is unique.
The Amboro National park is actually three ecosystems colliding:
Nowhere else in the world do these 3 ecosystems collide. The national park is home to 177 species of mammal including Puma & Spectacled bears and 912 species of bird!
Getting to the Samaipata from Santa Cruz
Collectivos run regularly from the terminal on the corner of Av. Omar Chavez Ortiz/Soliz de Olguin in Santa Cruz to the central plaza in Samaipata Bolivia.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
Traveller Backpacker Hostel /Hostel Travelero – oddly this hostel seems to go by two names depending on whether you are looking on Hostel World or Google! It is a lovely hostel, spacious and airy. The rooms and bathrooms are clean, and prices include a great breakfast with cook your own eggs. The common spaces are good and there is a fab pool to cool off in during the summer months. The location is good too, about a 15 min walk from main square but with bars and restaurants right outside.
Places to eat & drink in Santa Cruz
Bits & cream
A chain ice-cream joint that sadly doesn’t do cones but has tasty ice-cream.
Buteco bar – We went here on a Saturday night and enjoyed live music and reasonably priced beers.
Bravissimo, an Italian restaurant
A little on the pricey side but we shared a large pizza here and enjoyed a delicious free starter of garlic bread sticks served with roasted aubergine.
Mercado Neuvo, the local food market
Compared to some food markets we have seen in South America this one seemed quite clean, but you should always exercise caution when eating in the markets. If you have a particularly delicate stomach or are only a few weeks into your South American travels and not yet hardened, you might want to avoid. We ate here and were absolutely fine and the food was actually very tasty. I had a lasagne, not exactly the traditional Italian variety but tasty all the same and Dave had some very delicious pork with majadito. When I talk about exercising caution, we chose not to drink the fresh lemonade we ordered, as when I asked the lady if the water in it was bottled water she said there wasn’t any water in it and it was just lemon juice – it definitely wasn’t, so we opted to leave the drinks just in case.
Heroes restaurant & bar
Not sure where the bar was but the restaurant was good and fun! A superhero themed place serving American style burgers and fries and very messy but tasty chicken wings! You can play computer games while you wait or even play dress up with the props!
A Mexican restaurant – Really cheap, good tacos. Service was a little a slow and despite a range of drinks advertised they seemed to only have coke zero available, but still worth a visit. The tacos are quite small, we had 4 each which was a nice fill.
Where to get good coffee in Santa Cruz
If you have read any of our other South America blogs you will know we like to hunt out at least one nice café to get good coffee. We have learnt that although South America produces a lot of coffee, all the good stuff is exported and making a good brew is not necessarily a skill all waiters/waitresses possess! Here are a couple of places you can head to in Santa Cruz:
La Estacion del café
Which is right across from the hostel we stayed at, Hostel Travelero. We only had the coffee here which was really good, but they also offer a food menu.
We actually discovered this chain in La Paz but they have a shops in Santa Cruz too. A little cheaper than La Estacion del café and still decent coffee.
Getting there and away
We were supposed to arrive in Santa Cruz on the famous Death Train, following our amazing trip exploring the planets biggest wetlands, The Pantanal, however our trip didn’t go as planned. To read about our journey from Corumba, Brazil to Santa Cruz by bus click here.
From Santa Cruz we headed to Cochabamba via overnight bus, the journey took around 10 hours and cost 80Bs (c£10 in October 2022) with Trans.Copacabana S.A. As always with buses in Bolivia it is cheaper to head to the bus station to buy the tickets, but if you are wanting to save the trip it can be booked with Tickets Bolivia.