Santa Cruz and the Eastern Lowlands Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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
About 40km west, the exceptionally biodiverse rainforests that cover the easternmost foothills of the Andes are protected by the
East of Santa Cruz the railway to Brazil passes through the broad forested plains of
The fascinating site of El Fuerte is the key attraction in the surrounding countryside, but too many tourists see nothing else before they shuffle back to the bright lights of Santa Cruz. The opportunities to explore the surrounding countryside are immense in this beautiful region of rugged, forested mountains, divided by lush valleys whose lower slopes are covered by rich farmland, where hummingbirds, condors and flocks of green parakeets are a frequent sight. The low mountains surrounding Samaipata make for excellent hiking – just follow any of the paths or tracks leading out of town. You can also access the Samaipata section of nearby Parque Nacional Amboró.
Some 100km northwest of Santa Cruz lies the peaceful little town of BUENA VISTA, the northern gateway to Parque Nacional Amboró. Raised slightly above the plains, the town is aptly named, enjoying good views of the densely-forested mountain slopes of Amboró. Buena Vista is a popular summer retreat for weekenders from Santa Cruz, though during the week it remains a sleepy place. The town was originally founded in 1694 as a Jesuit mission. Sadly, the eighteenth-century Jesuit church was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by the unattractive modern brick structure that stands today.
East of Santa Cruz stretches a vast, sparsely-populated plain covered in scrub and fast-disappearing dry tropical forest, which gradually gives way to swamp as it approaches the border with Brazil. Named Chiquitos by the Spanish (apparently because the original indigenous inhabitants lived in houses with low doorways – chiquito means small), in the eighteenth century this region was the scene of one of the most extraordinary episodes in Spanish colonial history, as a handful of Jesuit priests established flourishing mission towns where the region’s previously hostile indigenous inhabitants converted to Catholicism and settled in their thousands, adopting European agricultural techniques and building some of South America’s most magnificent colonial churches. This theocratic socialist utopia ended in 1767, when the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits, allowing their indigenous charges to be exploited by settlers from Santa Cruz, who seized the Chiquitanos’ lands and took many of them into forced servitude. Six of the ten Jesuit mission churches still survive, however, and have been restored and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites – their incongruous splendour in the midst of the wilderness is one of Bolivia’s most remarkable sights.
Of all the European arts and crafts introduced to Chiquitos by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, the one that gained most rapid acceptance among the indigenous tribes was music. Imported organs, trumpets, violins and other instruments were enthusiastically adopted by the Chiquitanos, who quickly learned to manufacture their own instruments, while the choirs and orchestras of the mission settlements were said by contemporaries to have matched anything in Spanish America at the time. Father Martin Schmidt, the Swiss Jesuit who designed the churches of San Javier, San Raphael and Concepción, was a keen composer who taught music and brought the first church organs to the region, while the missions also benefited from the presence of an Italian named Domenico Zipoli, who had been a well-known composer in Rome before coming to South America.
Like all the cultural accomplishments of the missions, their musical tradition all but disappeared in the centuries following the expulsion of the Jesuits, though its influence remained in the folk music of the Chiquitanos themselves. When the restoration of the mission churches began in the 1970s, however, researchers in Concepción discovered a substantial archive of liturgical and orchestral Renaissance Baroque musical scores, including works by Schmidt and other Jesuit composers. The rediscovery of this lost music inspired a musical revival in Chiquitos, and throughout the mission towns and outlying settlements you’ll come across children and young adults playing violins and other instruments.
In 1996 this revival inspired a group of music lovers to organize the first Chiquitos Missions Music Festival, featuring performances of the music recovered from the lost archives. Since then, the festival has grown into a major biennial event (in even numbered years), attracting dozens of orchestras and musical groups from around the world, and involving performances in all the mission towns of Chiquitos as well as in Santa Cruz. For further information, visit wfestivalesapac.com.
San José’s most unlikely sight is the bizarre spectacle of tall white people with flaxen hair and ruddy cheeks – the men dressed in denim dungarees and straw hats, the women in full-length dresses and headscarves – walking around town or driving horse-drawn buggies. These are the Mennonites, members of a radical Protestant sect founded in the Netherlands by Menno Simmons in the sixteenth century. For the next four centuries the Mennonites found themselves driven from country to country as they attempted to escape religious persecution and conscription, and to find land on which to pursue their dreams of an agrarian utopia. After migrating to Germany, they moved in succession to Russia, the US and Canada, Mexico and Belize, until finally arriving in Bolivia and Paraguay in the twentieth century, attracted by the availability of cheap land and guarantees of religious freedom. Perhaps twenty thousand Mennonites now live in communities across the Eastern Lowlands, farming and raising cattle in self-contained agricultural communities.
The central tenets of the Mennonites are the refusal to take oaths or bear arms (they are exempt from military service in Bolivia); the baptism only of believers (ie only of people who willingly adopt the faith, which excludes infants); simplicity of dress and personal habits; and an unwillingness to marry outside the faith. They also to varying degrees reject most modern technology, including cars and computers, though faced with the difficult agricultural conditions of Chiquitos, many Bolivian Mennonites allow the use of tractors – though not, bizarrely, of rubber tyres, so their wheels are covered with steel spikes. Though some speak Spanish, and a few of the older ones who grew up in North America also have some English, among themselves they speak Plattdeutsch, an archaic German dialect. If you can bridge the language barrier, many Mennonite men are happy to talk about their lives.
However, there seems to be some level of distrust between the Mennonites and the locals, possibly based on the Mennonite buying up of land in the area. The irony is that, two and a half centuries after the Jesuits were expelled, religiously inspired utopian dreams are still being pursued in the plains of Chiquitos, albeit by white Protestants instead of indigenous Catholics. This isn’t, however, an irony that would have been appreciated by the Jesuits themselves – their order was set up precisely to combat Protestant sects like the Mennonites.
When the Spanish first arrived in what is now eastern Bolivia, the vast, forest-covered plains between the Río Grande and the Río Paraguay were densely populated by up to fifty different indigenous groups. To the Spaniards this was a strategically vital region, providing a link between the silver of the Andes, their settlements in Paraguay and the Río de la Plata. However, a century of constant military expeditions failed to subdue the indigenous population – known collectively as the Chiquitanos.
In exasperation, at the end of the seventeenth century the colonial authorities in Santa Cruz turned to the Jesuits to pacify the region and secure the empire’s frontier. By this time the Jesuits had more than a century of experience in South America, and were quick to implement the missionary strategy that had proved successful elsewhere. Small groups of dedicated priests set out to convert the indigenous peoples and persuade them to settle in missions known as reducciones, places where they could be brought together and “reduced” to European “civilization”, which included being converted to Catholicism. Though many missionaries met gruesome deaths at the hands of those they sought to convert, the different tribal groups of Chiquitania quickly flocked to join the new settlements, which offered them many advantages. After a century of war, many had anyway been seeking a peaceful accommodation with the colonial regime, and under the aegis of the Jesuits they were protected from the rapacious slave raids of the Spaniards in Santa Cruz and the Portuguese in Brazil, as well as from their own tribal enemies.
Ten missions flourished under the Jesuit regime: European livestock and crops were successfully introduced; the Chiquitanos had limited autonomy under their own councils or cabildos, and were taught in their own languages (one of these, Chiquitano, was eventually adopted as the main language in all the missions); indigenous craftsmen were trained in European techniques and built magnificent churches; European musical instruments were introduced and quickly mastered by the Chiquitanos, establishing a musical tradition that survives to this day. The missions were not quite the autonomous socialist utopia Jesuit sympathizers have since tried to make out – many indigenous people were brought in by force, and the political and ideological control exercised by the fathers was pretty much absolute – but in general the missions provided a far more benign regime than anything else on offer under Spanish rule.
In the end, though, for all their self-sufficiency and autonomy, the Jesuit missions were utterly dependent on the Spanish colonial authorities. When in 1767 political developments in far-off Europe led the Spanish king to order the Jesuits out of the Americas, the fathers meekly concurred, and the Chiquitanos were quickly subjected to forced labour and the seizure of their best lands by the settlers of Santa Cruz. Within a few decades the missions were a shadow of their former selves, and this decline has continued pretty much ever since, leaving only the beautiful mission churches, now restored to their full glory with European aid money, to testify to the missions’ former prosperity.
From Santa Cruz, the railway line runs some 680km east to the Brazilian border across a seemingly endless expanse of forest and tangled scrub, gradually giving way to the vast swamplands of the Pantanal as the border draws near. Settlements along the line remain few and far between, and the region’s main towns are both close to the Brazilian border: Puerto Suárez, a half-forgotten lakeside outpost that was once the focus of Bolivian dreams of access to the Atlantic via the Río Paraguay, and the dismal border trading settlement of Quijarro, the train’s last stop before the frontier.
Much of Bolivia’s far east along the Brazilian border is covered by the Pantanal, the vast flood plain on either side of the Río Paraguay that forms the world’s biggest freshwater wetland system. Stretching over two hundred thousend square kilometres is a mosaic of ecosystems, including swamps, lakes, seasonally flooded grasslands and different kinds of forest, most of which is turned into an immense inland freshwater sea during the rainy season (Nov–March). This largely pristine wilderness supports possibly the densest concentration of wildlife in the Americas, including a vast array of birds, reptiles like anacondas and caymans, and mammals including swamp deer, giant otters, jaguars, capybaras and tapirs, all of which can be seen with greater frequency here than anywhere in the Amazon.
About eighty percent of the Pantanal lies in Brazil, but the fifteen or so percent within Bolivia’s borders (the rest is in Paraguay) is arguably more pristine and virtually uninhabited. In theory it is also better protected – north and south of Puerto Suárez, huge areas of the Pantanal are covered by the Area Natural San Matías and the Parque Nacional Otuquis, which together cover almost forty thousand square kilometres. The flipside is that it can be difficult to visit: facilities few and far between, and it’s generally cheaper to organize expeditions into the Pantanal from Corumbá in Brazil.
Several Bolivian tour operators offer a Pantanal package, however, including Ruta Verde in Santa Cruz and Michael Bledinger in Samaipata. Hotels in Puerto Suárez and Quijarro also arrange excursions. Alternatively, more simply, you can hire a fisherman in Puerto Suárez to take you out across Lago Cáceres.
Forty kilometres west of Santa Cruz, PARQUE NACIONAL AMBORÓ spans 4300 square kilometres of a great forest-covered spur of the Andes. Situated at the confluence of the Andes, the Amazon rainforest and the Northern Chaco, and ranging in altitude from 3300m to just 300m above sea level, Amboró’s steep, densely forested slopes support an astonishing biodiversity. Over 830 different types of bird have been recorded here – the highest confirmed bird count for any protected area in the world – including rarities such as the cock-of-the-rock, red-fronted and military macaws and the blue-horned curassow or unicorn bird, which was once thought to have been extinct. There are also jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs and several species of monkey. Its enormous array of plant and insect species, meanwhile, is still largely unexplored. This biological wealth is all the more amazing given that Amboró is so close to Santa Cruz. You must be accompanied by a guide (roughly Bs150–200 per day) – best organized before setting out through a travel agency or hotel in Buena Vista or Samaipata – to enter the park.
The national park, established in 1984, was expanded in 1990 to encompass some 6300 square kilometres. However, by this time the park’s fringes were already under huge pressure from poor peasant farmers, who began clearing the forest for agriculture, as well as hunting and logging inside the park boundaries. In 1995, amid rising tension, the Bolivian government gave in to political pressure and reduced the park by two thousand square kilometres, creating a “Multiple-Use Zone” around its borders. This buffer zone is now largely deforested, and the peasant farmers are beginning to encroach on the remaining park area. The easiest parts of the park to reach are also the most likely to have been affected by this encroachment, though the pristine interior regions of the park are deliberately kept relatively inaccessible. Nonetheless, the park refuges are set amid splendid, largely intact rainforest, and the chances of spotting wildlife are fairly high. The park’s higher-altitude southern section, which includes beautiful cloudforests, can only be visited from Samaipata.
Occupying 16,000 square kilometres of the far northeast on the Brazil border, PARQUE NACIONAL NOEL KEMPFF MERCADO is the country’s most isolated, pristine and spectacular national park, and one of the most remote wilderness regions in South America. Encompassing several different ecosystems including Amazon rainforest, savannah, and scrubby Brazilian cerrado, the UNESCO World Heritage Site supports an astonishing range of wildlife, including over 630 species of birds, eleven species of monkey, all the major Amazonian mammals, pink freshwater dolphins and the highly endangered giant river otter. Moreover, your chances of seeing these animals are much higher here than elsewhere in Bolivia.
Established in 1979 as the Parque Nacional Huanchaca, the park was renamed (and expanded) in 1988 in honour of the pioneering Bolivian biologist and conservationist Noel Kempff Mercado, who was murdered by drug traffickers after stumbling across a secret cocaine laboratory on the Huanchaca plateau. The park was expanded again in 1997 under a pioneering “carbon credit” scheme, whereby two US energy corporations and the oil giant BP paid around $10 million to buy out loggers operating in an adjacent forest area of 6340 square kilometres, which was then added to the park.
The park’s remote location means it is expensive and difficult to visit: even the organized tours can be pretty tough going. The park’s southern border is over 200km from the nearest town, San Ignacio de Velasco, itself another 400km from Santa Cruz. It is also extremely difficult – and often impossible – to visit the park during the rainy season (Nov–May), when the mosquitoes and other insects are also particularly ferocious.
The park’s most remarkable natural feature is the Huanchaca plateau (or the Caparú Plateau), a vast sandstone meseta (plateau) rising 500m above the surrounding rainforest to an elevated plain of grasslands and dry cerrado woodlands, from where spectacular waterfalls plunge down the sheer escarpment into the park’s rivers. This isolated plateau covers over seven thousand square kilometres, just under half the park, and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World – at least according to Colonel Percy Harrison Faucett, the legendary British explorer who was the first European to see the plateau when he came here in 1910 while demarcating Bolivia’s borders, and who later described the landscape to Conan Doyle in London.
Some 120km west of Santa Cruz on the old mountain road to Cochabamba, the peaceful little town of SAMAIPATA is a popular destination for Bolivians and foreign travellers alike. Nestled in an idyllic valley surrounded by rugged, forest-covered mountains, the town enjoys a cool, fresh climate compared to the sweltering eastern plains. Innumerable good walking trails run through the surrounding countryside, the beautiful cloudforests of the Parque Nacional Amboró are close by, and just outside town stands one of Bolivia’s most intriguing archeological sites, El Fuerte. All this makes Samaipata the kind of place many travellers end up staying longer than they expected – indeed, many European residents have settled here permanently, setting up hotels, restaurants and tour agencies. The town’s heart is the Plaza Principal, which lies at the centre of a small grid of tranquil, unpaved streets, lined with pretty whitewashed houses. Although generally peaceful, things can get busy with visiting Cruceños at weekends.
South of the Santa Cruz–Quijarro railway line, the tropical dry forest gradually gives way to the Chaco, a vast and arid landscape of dense scrub and virtually impenetrable thornbrush stretching south to the Paraguayan border and far beyond. Inhabited only by isolated cattle ranchers and occasional communities of Guaraní and semi-nomadic Ayoreo, the Chaco is one of South America’s last great wildernesses and supports plenty of wildlife – much of it now protected by the Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, which covers over 34,000 square kilometres southeast of Santa Cruz adjacent to the Paraguayan border. However, there are few organized tourist facilities in the Chaco, and unless you hire your own 4WD, your view of the region will be limited to what you can see from the window of a bus or train. The region’s main towns are Villamontes, the Bolivian Chaco’s biggest settlement, and Yacuiba, on the Argentine border. Adventurous travellers can also take the strenuous trans-Chaco road, which heads east to the Paraguayan border at Fortin Villazón, and then onto the Paraguayan capital, Asunción.
The western Bolivian Chaco is home to the Guaraní people – known historically as the Chiriguanos – the largest indigenous group in the Bolivian lowlands, with a population of about 75, 000. The Guaraní originally migrated across the Chaco from east of the Río Paraguay in search of a mythical “Land Without Evil”, occupying the southwestern fringes of the Andes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries just as the Inca empire was expanding into the same region. Despite this, the Guaraní successfully resisted conquest by the Incas, and subsequently proved among the fiercest and most tenacious indigenous opponents of the Spanish. Not until well into the Republican era were they completely subjugated, when the last great Guaraní uprising was brutally crushed in 1892, after which their remaining lands were seized by the Bolivian state and divided into large private ranches defended by army forts. In recent decades, the Guaraní have been struggling to regain control of their ancestral territories using land reform and indigenous rights legislation, and in spite of obstructive bureaucracy have now recovered large areas, where they farm maize, cotton, peanuts and other crops. Despite this, hundreds if not thousands of Guaraní still work on large cattle ranches under conditions of debt servitude that are little different from slavery.
Some 68km southwest of Samaipata on the old road from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, a side road leads 53km south to VALLEGRANDE, a pleasant market town set in a broad valley at an altitude of just over 2000m. The town’s main attraction is the erstwhile grave of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, which attracts a steady trickle of pilgrims.
A peaceful backwater founded as a Spanish outpost in 1612, Vallegrande leapt briefly to the world’s attention in 1967, when the arid region of low mountains and broken hills to the south of the town became the scene of a doomed guerrilla campaign led by hero of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Vallegrande served as the headquarters of the Bolivian army’s successful counter-insurgency campaign; after Che was captured and executed on October 9 in the hamlet of La Higuera, about 50km to the south, his body was flown here strapped to the skids of a helicopter and put on display in the town hospital.
What happened next remained a closely guarded secret for the next 28 years, until the Bolivian general Mario Vargas Salinas revealed that Che’s body – minus his hands, which were amputated for identification purposes – had been buried by night in an unmarked pit near the airstrip on the edge of town, to prevent his grave from becoming a place of pilgrimage. After a year and a half of investigation, in 1997 his remains, along with those of several of his guerrilla comrades, were found by a team of Cuban and Argentine forensic scientists and flown to Cuba, where they were re-interred in a specially built mausoleum on the outskirts of the city of Santa Clara, the scene of his greatest victory in the Cuban revolutionary war.
Of all the romantics and adventurers to pass through Bolivia, none has matched the iconic status of Che Guevara, the Argentine-born hero of the Cuban revolution who was killed in the backwoods southwest of Santa Cruz while attempting to launch a continent-wide guerrilla war. Born in the Argentine town of Rosario to upper middle-class parents on May 14, 1928 (though his birth was registered a month later to conceal the fact that he was conceived before his parents were married), Ernesto Guevara de la Serna studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and qualified in 1953, but never practised as a doctor in his homeland: he preferred life on the road as a self-styled vagabond and adventurer, travelling virtually penniless throughout Latin America both during and after his studies, including a brief period in Bolivia during the revolutionary upheaval of the early 1950s.
By 1954 his travels brought him to Guatemala, where he witnessed the CIA-backed military overthrow of the progressive Arbenz regime, an event that confirmed both his growing commitment to revolutionary Marxism and his fervent opposition to US imperialism. It was also here that he was given the nickname Che, after his typically Argentine habit of peppering his speech with the Guaraní-derived word, used to mean “hey you” or “mate”. From Guatemala he headed to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro, an exiled Cuban rebel planning to return to his country to launch a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che was signed up as the expedition’s doctor, but over the next two years of fighting, he proved himself amongst the most ruthless, determined, fearless, politically radical and tactically astute of the guerrilla commanders. By the time Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, Che was one of his closest associates. For several years he served Cuba as president of the National Bank, roving ambassador and Minister of Industry. His mixture of good looks, incendiary rhetoric and self-sacrifice made him appear the living embodiment of the revolutionary “New Man”.
However, his radicalism and his continued insistence on promoting revolution in other countries proved a liability to Castro’s Soviet allies, who feared being drawn into a war with the US and were suspicious of Che’s Maoist leanings. Che saw the Cuban revolution as the first step in a continent-wide revolution against US imperial control, and believed the guerrilla strategy used in Cuba – whereby a small rural foco or nucleus of determined fighters could radicalize the peasantry and create the conditions for revolution, as detailed in his book Guerra de Guerrillas – was a scientific model that could be exported all over the world. In 1965 he formally resigned his Cuban citizenship, ministerial position and rank of commandante, left his family behind and set off to spread revolution. After an unsuccessful stint leading a Cuban guerrilla contingent supporting rebels in the Congo, he turned his attention to Bolivia, where he hoped to start a guerrilla conflagration that would spread into neighbouring countries (including his native Argentina) and draw the US into a “second Vietnam”, culminating in a continent-wide revolution. Bolivia’s rugged terrain, strategic position in the centre of the continent and proximity to Argentina made it an attractive location, though in fact the choice was to prove a fatal mistake – in all South America, Bolivia was the only country where radical land reform had already been carried out, and so the revolutionary potential of the peasantry was low.
In 1966, Che set off to Bolivia with a few chosen Cuban companions and set up his base at Ñancahuasu, a farm on the fringes of the Chaco in the Andean foothills, 260km southwest of Santa Cruz. In hindsight, Che’s Bolivian venture was doomed from the start. Opposed to Che’s guerrilla strategy and anxious to run things on its own territory, the Bolivian Communist Party quickly withdrew its support. The few Bolivian recruits he did manage to enlist proved unreliable and squabbled with the Cubans, and the guerrillas’ presence was betrayed by deserters even before initial preparations were complete. Unable to attract a single recruit from the local peasantry, Che’s small band (they never numbered more than fifty) quickly found itself on the run, divided into two groups blundering through harsh terrain with little food or water while the Bolivian army, backed by US military trainers and CIA advisers, closed in from all sides. Without sufficient medicine, Che himself was crippled by asthma, and reduced to travelling by donkey. On September 26, 1967, Che’s ragged fighters marched through the hamlet of La Higuera, straight into an army ambush in which three guerrillas were instantly killed. Che and the sixteen other survivors retreated into a canyon, the Quebrada del Churo, where they were quickly surrounded. On October 8 they were captured by a company of elite US-trained Bolivian Army Rangers. In the ensuing shoot-out, Che was hit in the calf; another bullet destroyed his carbine, and he was captured. Filthy and emaciated, he was taken to La Higuera and held in the schoolhouse for interrogation by Bolivian army officers and a Cuban-born CIA agent. The next day, the order to execute Che came through from the Bolivian high command. His dreams of a continent-wide revolution were ended by two bursts from a semi-automatic rifle fired by a sergeant who volunteered for the task. According to legend, Che’s last words were: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
His body was flown to Vallegrande and displayed to the press before being secretly buried, as if his enemies feared him more in death than in life. In many ways, they were right to do so, as Che’s example inspired thousands of young men and women across Latin America.