Set among the steamy, tropical lowlands just beyond the last Andean foothills, SANTA CRUZ is Bolivia’s economic powerhouse. An isolated frontier town until the middle of the twentieth century, the city has since become the biggest in the country, a sprawling metropolis with a booming oil, gas, timber, cattle and agro-industry economy. This rapid growth – and the availability of land – has attracted a diverse range of immigrants to Santa Cruz, including Japanese rice farmers, German-speaking Mennonites and, far poorer, indigenous migrants from the Andes.
Native Cruceños, however, still dominate the city. Known as cambas, they are culturally a world apart from the rest of Bolivia (they in turn refer with mild contempt to the highland immigrants as collas – the two terms being old Inca words for lowland and highland peoples respectively). Generally loud, brash and happy-go-lucky, their language, music and outlook are infused with a tropical ease and sensuality, which feels closer in spirit to Brazil or Colombia. Santa Cruz has few conventional tourist attractions, and some find its brash commercialism and pseudo-Americanism unappealing. However, others enjoy its dynamism and tropical insouciance.
The city continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, spreading inexorably in a mixture of ragged shantytowns, commercial developments and exclusive residential districts where oil executives, businessmen and made-good drug-traffickers relax in opulent mansions and drive around in imported 4WDs (known as “narcocruisers”). The old colonial city centre, however, is still dominated by whitewashed houses with tiled roofs that extend over the pavements, and when everything closes up in the middle of the day for an extended lunch break the city is suffused with a languid tropical indolence.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded in April 1561 by the conquistador Nuflo de Chavez, who had arrived in the region at the head of a large military expedition accompanied by thousands of indigenous Guaraní. The original city stood 260km east of its present location, close to San José de Chiquitos. The new settlement proved precarious, however, surrounded by a hostile indigenous population and far from any other outpost of Spanish power. In 1594 it was moved to its present location, a more easily defended site on the west of the Río Grande, close to the last foothills of the Andes. For the next three and a half centuries Santa Cruz remained an isolated frontier outpost. Things began to change in the 1950s with the construction of a railway link to Brazil and a road to Cochabamba. Subsequently Santa Cruz became the main supplier of cotton, rice, sugar, soy and other tropical agricultural produce to the rest of Bolivia (and, increasingly, foreign markets as well).
Santa Cruz’s economic boom really took off in the 1970s, when the city emerged as the centre of the Bolivian cocaine industry. Cocaine brought enormous wealth – as well as corruption – to the city, much of which was reinvested in land, agriculture, construction and other legitimate businesses. Growth was further fuelled by oil and gas revenues from the Chaco, and generous government subsidies to large landowners and agro-industrialists. The population of Santa Cruz leapt from around 42,000 in 1950 to well over one and a half million today. Since coming to power, however, President Evo Morales has come through with pledges to increase state control or even nationalize foreign-owned oil fields, refineries and utility companies to ensure that more revenue and jobs benefit Bolivia’s poor. As Latin America’s second-richest country in natural resources, this has caused shockwaves throughout the region – especially in Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is a flash point for tension between the country’s eastern and western halves. The Chaco area in the south of the Santa Cruz region is rich in natural gas and oil and, as a result, Santa Cruz’s economic output represents around 30–40% of the country’s GDP. However, much of the wealth is filtered off to La Paz, which has caused a great deal of resentment. Santa Cruz has become the central focus for rallying calls for greater autonomy and even independence. In 2006, President Evo Morales put the national gas industry under state control in an effort to share the proceeds with the impoverished, indigenous majority, rather than continue to line the pockets of a privileged few. The terms of nationalization, however, seriously jeopardized agreements with the area’s foreign investors. Morales’ dramatic land reform policy (a proposed redistribution of two hundred thousand square kilometres of land) was also bitterly opposed by Santa Cruz landowners. Huge swathes of state-owned land have already been redistributed to help the nation’s poor recover from historical injustice, and the government has also started to seize privately owned land that is unproductive, or was obtained illegally, and distribute that as well. In Santa Cruz, the autonomia movement is very evident, with T-shirts, graffiti and green-and-white regional flags all bearing witness to the anti-government feeling. Tensions seem unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
In the northeast corner of the city centre, the Mercado Los Pozos, is arguably the best food market in Bolivia, with row upon row of stalls serving inexpensive and delicious local dishes like locro de gallina (chicken stew) and sopa de maní (peanut soup), while others sell an astonishing variety of tropical fruit juices and excellent empanadas and salteñas. There’s also a whole subsection of Chinese foodstalls where you can get a tasty meal for less than Bs15. You might also like to spend a few hours at the Mercado La Ramada, Avenida Grigota and Calle Sutos, where pretty much everything you can think of is on sale across a sprawling mass of stalls. Mercado Nuevo is smaller but has the same hectic market bustle and is a conveniently short walk from the central plaza.