When planning a Bolivia trip, you may come across traveler comments like “there’s not much to see and do in Santa Cruz” or “Santa Cruz is not the real Bolivia”.
We read those comments too, but rather than deter us from going, we grew curious and decided to add it to our Bolivia itinerary right after Sucre.
- Read more: A Complete Travel Guide to Sucre, Bolivia
On this blog post, I share the highlights of our 4-day stay – hopefully it will help you decide if it’s worth visiting!
If you are already set to go, then keep on reading to find out what are the cool things you’ll actually want to do in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
What to know before visiting Santa Cruz
If you are thinking of visiting Santa Cruz de la Sierra then it’s likely that you will arrive having already explored Bolivia’s Andean west.
It is for this reason that most visitors initially experience a sense of confusion. The air here is no longer thin, the weather is tropical, people look more European and there is a sense that America is still very much an influence evidenced by a huge Coca Cola statue in the city center.
Welcome to the land of Cambas (Santa Cruz natives), the financial powerhouse and the largest city in Bolivia. Until very recently, and to some extent today, Santa Cruz epitomized the remnants of Bolivia’s colonial past.
Cambas, are considered the descendants of Europeans that arrived in Bolivia throughout the post-Columbian era. There is a lot of old wealth concentrated in Santa Cruz, as evidenced by a ridiculous number of expensive SUVs and luxury condominiums. This is where we learned about Bolivia’s west/east divide for the first time.
Some quick facts about Santa Cruz de la Sierra:
– Unlike La Paz, Santa Cruz de la Sierra is located far away from the Andes and is within a tropical savanna climate of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. It is considered as one of the gateways to Bolivia’s jungles.
– The city is the main hub for flights in and out of the country.
– The people from Santa Cruz are considered to be friendly and laid-back.
– Uber is available and reliable and is the best way to get around the city (especially after dark).
Cool Things to Do in Santa Cruz
Stay at an Airbnb or hotel with a swimming pool
Knowing that the weather was going to be tropical and humid, we made sure that our accommodation had a swimming pool and what a great decision that was!
After a whole day walking in the city, it felt amazing to jump into the water and relax among the palm trees.
You will probably have to sacrifice proximity to the city as hotels and Airbnbs that have swimming pools tend to be located in residential suburbs, but with Uber operating in the city, it’s totally worth it.
Look out for sloths at the Botanical Gardens
To surround yourself by the flora and fauna of the Amazon without leaving the city, a visit to the Botanical Gardens is a must. The garden features a great variety of native plants and trees and leafy walking trails. You can easily spend half a day here.
The added bonus (or should I say the real reason to visit!) is the possibility of seeing sloths sleeping on the trees. It was my first encounter with sloths and we were so lucky to spot a sloth mom with a baby!
Address | Jardin Botanico, Carretera a Cotoca, Km 8 1/2, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
Entry fee | 10 bolivianos/US$1.50 *as of 2018.
How to get there | We took a green minibus 131 from Los Pozos (Calle Suarez Arana and Calle Barron) bound to Cotoca which passes the gardens. When in doubt, ask around! You can always take an Uber, too.
Top tip | Bring your own snacks and water. And please don’t forget sun protection and bug spray!
Catch a glimpse of the Mennonite community in Bolivia
The Santa Cruz Department has one the largest Mennonite colonies in Bolivia. The Mennonites are a religious group originated in Netherlands and Germany in the 16th century. Their devoted lifestyle involves, among other things, living secluded from the outside world and rejecting modern conveniences like cars or electricity.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays entire Mennonite families travel to visit the specialty shops surrounding Los Pozos Market in Santa Cruz to purchase agriculture products for their farms. It makes for a unique chance to see them mingle with the local shop owners, observe their signature clothing and listen to them speak German.
For a minute, you’ll forget you’re in Bolivia.
Tip | Be respectful of their privacy and personal space. If you really want to take photos, do it discreetly and at a distance.
Eat as many Acai bowls as you can (because you will be able to afford it)
Given its proximity to Brazil, Brazilian immigrants in Santa Cruz de la Sierra brought with them the Acai food culture.
Today, it is not hard to find an acai bowl spot in Santa Cruz. Our favorite was Acai BAR Superfood right next to the main plaza.
If you crave a cold drink instead, you’ll be pleased to find lots of shops that offer fresh tropical fruit juice and smoothies at reasonable prices.
Address | Sucre 8, Santa Cruz de la Sierra (next to the Cathedral)
Use Santa Cruz as a gateway to Adventure Travel in Bolivia
Santa Cruz can be a great base from which to explore the untouched beauty of the nearby national parks, jungle and historic ruins.
Some popular adventure trips outside of Santa Cruz:
Inca ruins of Samaipata | Samaipata is a charming mountain town located about 2 hours southwest of Santa Cruz. The main attractions here are Andean condors and the Inca ruins known as El Fuerte. The ruins are a huge mysterious complex, much of it unexcavated.
Parque Regional Lomas de Arena | For a day trip just 45 minutes away from the city center, consider this small desert with huge sand dunes where you can try sandboarding and observe the local wildlife.
Jesuit missions | San Javier and Concepcion are the two closest missions from Santa Cruz (the journey is around 5 hours long). San Javier was founded in 1691 and it was the first Jesuit mission in Bolivia.
While in Santa Cruz, my husband became obsessed with visiting a jungle and we’ve contacted a number of tour operators to see what is available. Here’s what we’ve learnt:
Parque Nacional Kaa Iya | This park is rarely visited but is internationally famous for its population of Jaguars and other jungle dwellers. Expect to pay an average of 450 USD per person for a 3-day/2-night private tour.
Noel Kempff National Park | This is considered to be one of the most secluded national parks in Bolivia and is a UNESCO Heritage Site since 2000. Unfortunately, it is out of the way and a number of tour operators advised us that they have stopped tours due to lack of safety standards from park’s authorities.
Amboro National Park | Amboro is only 3 hours west of Santa Cruz, and it is one of the most pristine national parks in Bolivia. This huge park features four different biodiversity zones, including a part of the Amazon basin, subtropical forests, temperature woodlands, and the cool mountainous terrain of the Andes. You need to engage an established tour company to visit.
We were quoted an average of 160 USD per person for 2-day/1-night and 220 USD per person for 3-day/2-night private tours. Note that there are not as many animals here as in Kaa Iya.
Regrettably, due to the high price of the tours, we couldn’t afford them. If you are traveling through Bolivia or South America there will be many other opportunities to visit the jungle, for example in Madidi National Park (from La Paz), Puerto Maldonado (flight/bus from Cusco), Iquitos (flight from Lima) and in parks in Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.
If you are keen to find out more here are some tour operator websites that we have contacted and who seemed reputable based on TripAdvisor reviews:
Where to stay in Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Here are some hotels that have swimming pools and are close to the city center.
Hostal Ibiza | Budget hostel located 10-min walk from the main plaza. Breakfast included. Double rooms start at US$35/night.
Senses Centro | Spacious rooms with comfortable beds. Just minutes away from the Sacred Art Museum. The hotel has a large outdoor swimming pool. Double rooms start at US$60/night.
La Siesta Hotel | Basic and clean rooms near downtown. Nice outdoor pool area. Double rooms start at US$60/night.
Browse more Santa Cruz hotels here.
We stayed at this Airbnb inside a gated community in the suburb of Santa Cruz (just 20 minutes by public transportation to the city center). The house is spacious and modern. Rooms are comfortable and showers are some of the best we’ve had in Bolivia. Coming back for a swim at the pool at the end of a hot day was amazing. Check reviews and book here.
New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 free credit to get you started!
How many days should I stay in Santa Cruz de la Sierra?
Santa Cruz is pleasant enough to spend a 3-4 days or more if you’re using it as a base to explore the outdoors.
Santa Cruz is bounded by a succession of circular highways known as “anillos” (ring). The first ring is the first circle around the city center; as you move further away from the center, you reach the second and third anillos as so on.
If you’re staying a bit further away like us, consider taking an Uber. Alternatively, local minibuses run frequently and are super cheap.
As in any city, make sure to only take marked taxis and avoid walking by yourself at night outside of the city center.
How to get to Santa Cruz de la Sierra
By plane | There are affordable daily flights to Santa Cruz from La Paz, Cochabamba and Sucre. By far the most convenient way to get to and from Santa Cruz is by plane.
By Bus | While it’s possible to travel to and from Santa Cruz via bus, it’s important to note that the roads connecting the city to other parts of Bolivia are notoriously bad. Long distance bus routes to and from Santa Cruz are windy and bumpy. Bus ride distances to Santa Cruz for your reference: La Paz 14 hours, Cochabamba 10 hours, Sucre 12 hours.
Weather in Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Santa Cruz has mostly a humid tropical climate all year round with an average temperature of 30C (86F). There is rainy season between late September to May. From then onwards, there is less rain and more blue skies. December and January are the hottest months.
Travel essentials for your Santa Cruz stay
– Bug repellent
– Long sleeve sun protective jacket
Click to shop
Hope you enjoyed my personal recommendations on the top “cool” things to do in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Which one intrigued you the most? What did I miss? I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with me via the comment section below or Instagram!
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