A new direct flight route from Europe to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia could open up another side to the country writes Neil McQuillian.
Travellers setting off on a South American tour rarely make Bolivia their first port of call. But as non-stop flights between Europe and the county restarted again last November (with Air Europa), it could become a more popular option. The only potential sticking point is the arrival airport: not El Alto near La Paz, but Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a tropical lowland city in the east that relatively few travellers plan to visit.
Bolivia’s largest city in its largest department, Santa Cruz is set awkwardly apart from the usual traveller route that can be traced in a north-south line running from Rurrenabaque (a base for trips into the Bolivian Amazon) through the Lake Titicaca region and La Paz to the high-altitude constellation of Sucre, Potosí and Uyuni.
The off-putting story runs that Santa Cruz is a money-making machine, and that its commercial atmosphere is rivalled for stifling unpleasantness only by the heat, dust and occasional smoke from slash-and-burn forest clearing in the surrounding area. Those in the western highlands – where most travellers spend their time – are hardly itching to dispel this notion, such is the rivalry and cultural difference between the regions. But you could paint an equally grotesque picture of La Paz if you only focused on altitude sickness, car exhaust-induced headaches and party hostel malaise.
Santa Cruz can also be thought of as a gateway to an alternative Bolivia. Located just where the Andean foothills finally give way, it marks the start of a great expanse of flatness that extends to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. This eastern region is the country’s flipside, and there are adventures to be had: north to the remote Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado; east to the Chiquitos Jesuit mission churches and the wetlands of the Pantanal. You might even head south to the Chaco if you really want to cut your chances of seeing another gringo to near zero.
As for the city itself, one thing Santa Cruz certainly has is momentum. Rapid expansion began in the 1970s – in large part thanks to the cocaine boom – and shows no signs of letting up. Bolivia’s last census, in 2001, found the city’s population to be 1.55m, but it is expected that the November 2012 census will show closer to 2m, making Santa Cruz one of the world’s fastest growing cities.
In terms of architecture, traditional tourist attractions and that psycho-geographical je ne sais quoi that makes a city pleasing to just wander about, Santa Cruz is a little lacking. But there’s a vibrancy to the city centre and it’s of a most traveller-friendly sort, namely abundant nightlife and quality restaurants.
In Yorimichi you can blow a day’s backpacking budget on a plate of sashimi (the bento boxes are excellent value though) while café-bar-restaurant República clearly has a tuned-in design mind behind it, with menus that look like a newspaper and just-so interior décor. As for nightlife, any tips would be out of date before this sentence is finished – it’s best to ask the young staff at the excellent Jodanga hostel about the venues currently in favour.
And if you find that partying takes the edge off your adventurous spirit, there’s plenty to do without venturing too far from the city. Some 40km west, Parque Nacional Amboró has a gobsmacking biodiversity considering it’s so close to a major city, with more native plant species than the UK and the highest bird type count (830) of all the world’s protected areas.
It’s even better visited from Samaipata, a cute, quiet town that could become the next Rurrenabaque if word gets out about the tourism opportunities surrounding it: you can also take Samaipata as your base for trips along El Cerro de los Condores (a condor-spotting hike), to the El Fuerte archaeological site, and to a set of waterfalls known as the Cascadas las Cuevas.
One final thing to bear in mind when weighing up which airport to fly into is that Bolivia’s east is blissfully altitude sickness-free, so you won’t have to write off two days of your trip sipping coca tea, taking soroche pills and feeling sorry for yourself.
Neil McQuillian is the author of the Bolivia chapter of the third edition of The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.