Santa Cruz – first taste of Bolivia

After a quick pit stop in Buenos Aires for a night and another three hour flight, we arrive in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Having spent two months in the cosmopolitan Brazil and Argentina, this suddenly feels a long way from home again. Sure, there’s plenty of cars, including an unusually large number of 4X4s (once you see the roads here you understand why), and the younger generation are still dressed in their jeans and hoodies, but there’s also a great swathe of people in traditional Bolivian dress who obviously live very simple lives the way they have done for centuries. The women wear pleated skirts to the knee with a knitted cardigan or cropped jacket, their hair in two braids hanging down their back. The men are in ponchos. All wear hats. It’s quite charming and it’s good to be somewhere that feels less familiar again.

Santa Cruz - Plaza de September 25

If you are looking for a typical Bolivian city though, Santa Cruz is probably the last place you would pick. Although there’s plenty of evidence of the Bolivian culture around, the people here would rather be Brazilian than Bolivian and campaign for independence from the rest of the country. To be completely honest, whilst it’s a pleasant enough town, there’s not a whole lot to do here, but since the flights were much cheaper than flying to La Paz we must make the most of it!

We are staying at the Residencial Bolivar, a few blocks from the main square. The rooms are small and the bathrooms a little damp smelling but there is a lovely communal courtyard with plenty of plants and some hammocks for a nice afternoon siesta. The biggest draw though is their pet toucan which is tame enough to jump up onto your arm but also bold enough to steal your breakfast!! Other than that, it’s a fairly standard hostel – the staff aren’t particularly attentive and the rules are pretty strict (no alcohol and lights out by 10pm) but it’s fine for a couple of nights and in a good location.

Simon the toucan

We have a fairly relaxed first day, wandering around the centre of town and grabbing a spot of lunch. That evening, we have a few beers in the Irish Pub – yes I know it’s pretty touristy and also one of the pricier places in town, but if you can get a window seat then you get a great view of the central plaza as it’s on the first floor. It’s awesome people watching – the square comes alive in the evening and the locals play chess, sit and chat, get their shoes shined, and buy coffees from the guys in suit jackets dragging hot flasks behind them on small trolleys.

The next day and we head north of the centre to check out the zoo. As we pull up in our taxi after a failed attempt at taking a micro (local bus, we got on the wrong one, even though it said it was going to the zoo) we see one of the keepers outside on the street, carrying a recently escaped sloth back into the zoo. Quite how a sloth manages to escape I don’t know – they’re not exactly quick on their feet! He places the sloth back in his tree and we watch in awe at this strange, weird creature as he slowly climbs up the branches.

Sloth making his slow escape from zoo

The rest of the zoo is not as bad as you might expect given that we are in Bolivia. Sure, it could do with a facelift but it’s evident that they are already doing a lot of repairs and building new, more modern enclosures. And the existing enclosures are a decent size with plenty to entertain the wildlife – we certainly weren’t concerned for any of the animals we saw there. There’s a decent range of animals too, including lots of birds, some impressive jaguars and pumas, monkeys, boars, capybara, tortoises…there’s also a reptile house, although I was a bit put off when Rich pointed out the sound of chirping from inside which was clearly the snakes’ dinner.

Sleeping armadillo

We manage to catch the bus back to town (the number 58 if you are wondering) and as we wander back to the hostel we stumble upon a bar showing the Barcelona/Real Madrid match so we pop in to join the locals for some empanadas and beer whilst we watch the game.

Later that evening as we head out for dinner, we spot a roadside stall selling all sorts of things made out of various animal skins. Whilst Richard is keen on the jaguar fur wallet (he seems to think it would be better if it had a claw for a clasp though and made a growling noise when you opened it) I manage to persuade him that, despite the ‘wow’ factor, it’s a little unethical and probably highly illegal too. So instead, a disappointed Richard and I leave empty handed, grab something to eat, then head back to the hostel, ready for an early morning taxi to Samaipata the next day.