Archaeological site of Samaipata Rock Carvings (el Fuerte) 4th-16th centuries AD. World Heritage Site (UNESCO). Bolivia

Bolivia //

Santa Cruz and the Eastern Lowlands

Stretching from the last Andean foothills to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, Bolivia’s Eastern Lowlands – the Llanos Orientales – form a vast and sparsely populated plain. The areas varied ecosystems range from Amazonian rainforest in the north, through broad savannahs and tropical dry forest in the centre, to the immense wetlands of the Pantanal in the far east and the arid Chaco to the south. Rich in natural resources, the region’s economy has in recent years become the most important in the country, fuelled by oil and gas reserves, cattle-ranching and massive agricultural development. Its attractions are diverse, from the vibrant city of Santa Cruz to wildlife-rich Parque Nacional Amboró and the fascinating former Jesuit missions of Chiquitos.

At the centre of the Lowlands’ economic boom is Santa Cruz, the lively tropical regional capital, which in just a few decades has been transformed from an isolated provincial backwater into a booming modern metropolis with a brash commercial outlook utterly distinct from the reserved cities of the Bolivian highlands. The city has few conventional tourist attractions, but is a crucial transport hub and the ideal base for exploring the surrounding area, where much of the beautiful natural environment survives, despite the ravages of deforestation and development.

About 40km west, the exceptionally biodiverse rainforests that cover the easternmost foothills of the Andes are protected by the Parque Nacional Amboró. The beautiful cloudforest that covers the upper regions of Amboró can be visited from Samaipata, an idyllic resort town and home to the intriguing pre-Inca archeological site El Fuerte. From Samaipata, you can also head further southwest through the Andean foothills to the town of Vallegrande and the hamlet of La Higuera, which witnessed the last desperate guerrilla campaign of Che Guevara, who was killed here in 1967.

East of Santa Cruz the railway to Brazil passes through the broad forested plains of Chiquitos, whose beautiful Jesuit mission churches played a crucial role in Spanish colonial history, when a handful of priests established a semi-autonomous theocratic state in the midst of the wilderness. In the remote far north of the region, accessible only by air or an extremely arduous overland journey, Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado is perhaps the most beautiful and pristine of Bolivia’s protected rainforest areas, combining dramatic scenery with unparalleled wildlife-spotting opportunities. Finally, south of Santa Cruz stretches the vast and inhospitable Chaco, an arid wilderness of dense thorn and scrub, reaching south to Argentina and Paraguay.