My life in Santa Cruz went around in literal circles. After the initial language barrier problem, moving about the city became smooth and hassle free. The city traffic moved on anillos (circular avenues) and interconnecting spoke like radial roads called radiales. I used to walk a lot in Santa Cruz and even after a few days, always got harangued by dubious money changers, Latin lovers and coffee sellers at 24 September Plaza. The streets near the square were crammed with liveliness and sellers peddling juices, sandwiches, snacks, fruits, magazines and trinkets. I loved the street food out there and although it was more expensive than Mercado la Ramada, the grub was clean and the sellers were friendly.
TRAVEL TIP – In Bolivia don’t miss out on the awesome fresh juices and street food if you are a foodie or on a budget. While the hygiene factor of some vendors is unreliable, most of them are very clean and offer excellent introduction to the hearty Bolivian cuisine. Money changers roam in plenty around 24 September Plaza in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and offer great exchange rates, as opposed to the authorized stores. While I myself did not face any problem while dealing with them, fraudulent stories of these people are rampant and travelers need to check each and every Boliviano before handing out the foreign exchange.
The 24 September Plaza was undoubtedly my favourite place in the city and I had highest chances of bumping into English speakers out there. The beautiful amber coloured Cathedral de Santa Cruz stood at one end of the square with the statue of Colonel Ignacio Warnes at the center. Lovely white washed government buildings stood in a circle and toborochi trees carpeted the square with pink petals. The stone tables occupied engrossed chess players and fierce games attracted crowds of admirers every evening. Coffee vendors walked around selling sinfully sweet coffee from push carts and shoe shine men in blue shirts waited for customer atop their high chairs. The square buzzed in the evenings with canoodling lovers, singletons and fashionistas. On weekends it overflowed with performing artists, musicians and singers who gave free shows. Ice creams were sold from huge tubs and old ladies grilled cow hearts and sausages on wheeled barrows.
At Santa Cruz de la Sierra, twilights used to settle with pealing bells from the cathedral and the square would always drown in the chirping of the homecoming birds. On weekends after sunset a huge brass band used to start assembling at the square and I used to love watching the scene unfold from the cathedral steps. Sitting there alone was not easy because every now and then ignoring “friendly” approaches from the Bolivian young guns was quite a tedious task. But nothing could stop from watching the ripple of excitement go through the crowd as the band assembled. Bolivians love music and they are definitely great dancers.
The band always started with the stirring Bolivian national anthem (Bolivianos,el Hado Propicio) and slowly went from one groovy number to another. People joined in dancing and the tourists got invited into the celebration. The spontaneity of the happy spirit never failed to touch me and I used to give in to long nights of dancing. Apart from music and dancing, in Santa Cruz I used to eat like no tomorrow. My dinners were usually at the quaint Tia Lia, where I indulged in awesome Brazilian buffet. (Restaurant Tia Lia,Calle René Moreno 30 Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia Tel: (591-3) 336-8183). It used to be a huge fare, of mostly meat based dishes (although they had excellent veggies too) and as a first timer to Brazilian cuisine I always made the mistake of eating the initial dishes too much. Tia Lia was a bit of a walk but after all the meaty indulgence I used to totally need the exercise. With all the food, walking and dancing, exhaustion used to come easily and in Bolivia, I always slept like a baby.
TRAVEL TIPS – Bolivian immigration and customs are one of the smoothest in the whole world, at least from my experience. Airport taxis fares are fixed and range up to 60 Bolivianos to go to the city center. Santa Cruz de la Sierra is built in circles, the 1st two being most expensive and filled with expensive shops, hotels, boutiques, restaurants, bars, rich homes and offices while the third is residential area for the common man and the fourth being an industrial zone.
Accommodation options are aplenty and the ones near the plaza are most expensive. There are lots of volunteering options in the city and it makes sense to catch up with some Spanish, stay cheap and get into the groove of the country while volunteering for a week or so. There are cheaper options in Jodanga backpacker’s hostel, Ikandire Resindencial etc near the plaza and their dorms are nice with clean toilets free breakfast and internet. Choose a room farthest away from the main road or else loud party noise especially on weekends will keep you awake.
Santa Cruz being a touristy city has lots of restaurants, coffee shops and fast food joints all over the city. My favorite was the very artsy La Loca and I loved their fish in spinach sauce and extensive wine list, which came at an approx 70 Bolivianos. Noisy colorful and kid friendly Dumbo is a pretty awesome budget dining option and their Silpachos and Pique Machos for 20 Bolivianos are great meals. Although famous for their ice creams, their lemon flavored one is absolutely vile. I also loved Tia Lia for their massive and deliciously Brazilian buffet for 45 Bolivianos and Los Agachados (loosely and locally translated as the “elbow place”) near Avion Pirata y primer anillo for their amazing chuletas and peanut soups, which came at unbelievable 15 Bolivianos.
I made a lot of friends in the city and thanks to the gentle, happy going locals, it was not difficult. Although my days were spent wandering about leisurely, I had visited the Mercado la Ramada (a local market) and the Santa Cruz Zoo with them. While the trip to the Mercada was avoidable, the zoo was pretty good fun and my excited squeals at seeing pumas, jaguars, anteaters, brilliantly coloured parrots and the majestic condor (biggest bird in the vulture family) were quite embarrassing. I even learned to eat Saltenas like a local and thanks to a good friend Paula, became a pro at breaking it with a gentle tap and devouring the sweet pastries without any spillage.
My Santa Cruz days were a lot of friendly fun and soon it was time to leave. I packed halfheartedly for the next destination and it was the tiny global village of Samaipata. Known for its rolling hills,condors and glorious ruins, Samaipata promised to be very exciting, though I was terribly going to miss Santa Cruz and its vivacious joie de vivre spirit. There was something about the sprawling economic giant, which was very addictive despite its strict siesta routine nearly vexing me to tears. Every afternoon, the colonial city would simply shut down and every office, shop and plaza would bear the annoying “Cerrado”/ Closed sign. It was one of the strangest sights I had ever seen and Santa Cruz was a city of unexpected sights. A food loving city (they love their afternoon tea ritual), it was also a chicken lovers paradise and I had never seen so many chicken broasting shops at one place.
Every nook and corner of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was crowded with eateries selling some kind of pollo/chicken dish and strangely the Chinese style fried chicken drew maximum customers. Stores selling Chinese chicken advertised brashly and nearly made the street food sellers‘ business fade out after sunset. It was a bit of a painful sight since, street food sellers of Bolivia were an integral part of its charm and they added exciting dashes of colours, smells and flavours to every Bolivian trip. Colourfully shawled, hatted and smiling, the street food sellers were just about everywhere in Bolivia. Nearly every spot had them selling some kind of mouth watering goodies like barbecued cow heart on sticks, chichha (refreshing corn drink), mocochinchi (peach drink with whole dried peaches floating inside), candied apples, fruits, empanadas (pockets filled with savoury minced meat) and host of other cheap food options. I made the horrendous mistake of going about sampling street food across the city, before my trip to Samaipata and what followed was a stomach churning (literally) affair.
TRAVEL TIP – Biocentro Guembe Mariposario (sort of nature park), Parque Lomas de Arena (bird watching), Espejillos (rock pools), Kaa-Iya National Park (for incredible wildlife like armadilos, musk deer etc) and Jardin de la Delicias (natural pools and nature walks) make excellent day trips from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. La Loca has excellent world movie screenings on some nights and there is a great Irish pub at 24 September Plaza.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE