Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and the Amazon rainforest
Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are not typical tourist destinations. Located in the lesser-known parts of the country – Santa Cruz in the eastern tropical lowlands and Cochabamba in the central fertile highlands – Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s business and financial capital, and Cochabamba its agricultural center. Still, both cities are a gateway to a number of unique and pristine national parks that belong to some of the world’s most secluded and underrated areas.
Santa Cruz and Cochabamba can be reached by air and by road – from La Paz, it takes 45 minutes to fly to Cochabamba, and one hour to fly to Santa Cruz. Travelling by road is less convenient because the long distances make for tedious trips – from La Paz, it takes 8 hours by bus to get to Cochabamba, and 10 hours to get to Santa Cruz.
There are direct buses going between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba – the 300-mile trip takes about 11 hours. Most buses leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. Direct buses also connect Cochabamba with Sucre – the 200-mile trip takes 10 hours; it is not recommended to do due to bad road conditions.
Although Bolivia is seen by most as a mountainous country, only 1/3 of its territory is taken by the Andes – around half of the country is covered by the Amazon Rainforest. Trips to the mostly unexplored Bolivian Amazon are a must do for all nature lovers coming to the country.
Things to do in Santa Cruz
With a population of 3 million, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, commonly known as Santa Cruz, is Bolivia’s biggest city.
Accounting for a third of Bolivia’s GDP, the Santa Cruz region has South America’s second-largest natural gas deposits, and is the nation’s breadbasket (57% of Bolivia’s wheat and 70% of crops like cotton, soybeans and sugarcane are grown here).
In contrast to La Paz and other Bolivian cities located across the Andes, Santa Cruz lies at 1,300 feet and has a distinctly tropical climate – the average annual temperature is 77 °F.
The center of the city is flat, and can be walked around in half a day.
The heart of Santa Cruz is the Plaza 24 de Septiembre, that holds a 400-year old Cathedral. The cathedral’s clock tower offers nice views over the city; it can be climbed at a cost of 3 Bs.
Located about a 30-minute ride from downtown, the Botanical Garden is another highlight of Santa Cruz. Extending over 217 hectares, it offers both landscaped gardens and forested areas with nature trails and wildlife like turtles, lizards, monkeys, sloths, butterflies and a variety of Bolivian birds. The entrance fee is 10 Bs, a colectivo (minivan) from the center costs 3 Bs.
The national parks of Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is the gateway to national parks of Amboro, Noel Kempff and Kaa-Iya.
Located 25 miles from the city, Amboro is a paradise for bird-watchers. With nearly 1,000 species of birds, the local avian biodiversity is greater than that of Costa Rica.
The park is divided into 2 different sections – the highland jungle region in the north and the lowland region in the south. The typical package to explore the north part is a 2N/3D one. The all-inclusive price (approx. $200) includes transportation, accommodation, meals, hikes, entrance fees and a local guide.
Situated 400 miles from Santa Cruz on the border with Brazil, the giant Noel Kempff Mercado Park is one of the largest and most pristine parks in the Bolivian Amazon Basin. Largely unexplored by humans, the Mercado park extends over 1.5 million hectares covering a number of distinct habitats from the savannah and palm forests to swamps and the Amazon. It is inhabited by over 4,000 species. Getting here takes an effort due to poor transportation, but the reward is one of the few unspoiled jungle areas left in the world.
The usual base to explore the park is the El Refugio biological station that provides basic lodge services. Though the park can be explored on one’s own, due to its remoteness and undeveloped infrastructure it is recommended to book an all-inclusive tour through one of Santa Cruz adventure tour companies (for example Ruta Verde Bolivia, Nick’s Adventures Bolivia, Amboro Tours).
Located 200 miles from Santa Cruz, Kaa-Iya National Park is the biggest national park in Bolivia, a mammoth of 3.4 million hectares of dry tropical forest. It is one of the best places in South America to see jaguars and pumas roaming freely.
Access is difficult, there are no facilities in the park and visitors usually stay in the ranger camp. To visit, see options mentioned above for Noel Kempff Park.
The Bolivian Mennonites
The Santa Cruz department is home to roughly 70,000 Low German-speaking Mennonites, known as Los Menonos in Spanish.
The Mennonites emigrated to Bolivia in the early 20th century and founded 75 colonies here.
Due to their distinctive clothing – men wear a shirt, an overall and a cowboy hat, women wear long dresses and a hiver bonnet on braided heads – they’re not too hard to spot when they come to the Santa Cruz’s Los Pozos market to stock up on supplies.
The Mennonites are a religious-cultural group, established in the 16th century in Germany and Holland during the Protestant Reformation when some Christians separated from the Roman Catholic Church. Due to prolonged persecution, the Mennonites were forced to leave, settling first in Russia, and at the end of the 19th century in Canada and the USA. Early in the 20th century, the more conservative groups continued to Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Mennonites live in independent, self-governing farming communities, speak centuries-old German language, have no electricity and refuse modern technologies. They are pacifists, practice adult baptism, have their own schools, reject church organization and military service, and believe they must live a simple, frugal life of hard work to enter Heaven. Music, sports and television are prohibited.
Nowadays, there are about 1.7 million of Mennonites living in 83 different countries.
The Route of Che
Becoming more and more popular is a tourist route known as the Route of Che that follows the places Che passed through with his soldiers before his death.
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is the world’s most famous (and most handsome) revolutionary, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution. Because of his ideology and the way he died, he became a world-wide myth and a symbol for rebellion – his long-haired image in a beret looking determined is recognized all over the world.
Dedicating his whole life to spreading Marxist and socialist ideas of a more just society, Che came to Bolivia from Cuba in 1966 to begin the Bolivian revolution. He formed and trained a revolutionary army whose purpose was to topple the Bolivian military government. After being repeatedly betrayed by local peasants, who were supposed to join the revolutionary cause but instead informed the authorities of the guerrilla’s movements, he and his men were hunted down by Bolivian elite rangers trained by the CIA.
Che himself was wounded and captured in a deep ravine known as the Quebrada del Yuro, taken to a schoolhouse in the village of La Higuera a few miles away, and executed under orders from the Bolivian army’s high command the next day on October 9, 1967. His body was flown to Vallegrande, a small town 40 miles away, and moved to an open-air laundry in the grounds of a hospital.
It was here that the international press was summoned and the famous photograph of Che’s lifeless body on a stretcher taken. Fearing that the town might become a place of pilgrimage, the authorities decided not to bury the revolutionaries in the local cemetery, but to conceal them in an unmarked mass grave in the corner of a nearby airfield.
Thirty years later in 1997, the Bolivian authorities were persuaded to disinter the remains and return those of Guevara to Cuba, where it is housed in the Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara.
In 2017, at the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death, the Ruta del Che (the Route of Che) was inaugurated by the Bolivian President Evo Morales.
On that route, it is possible to visit the places where Che spent his last days – to cross the ravine where he was seized, to go up to the school of La Higuera where he was murdered and which is now a museum, to visit the Vallegrande hospital laundry where his corpse was shown, and to stop at the airfield where his remains were buried.
From Santa Cruz, the road trip takes over 6 hours (or more, depending on the time of year and road conditions), and can be done independently, or on a 6D/5N customized trip.
Things to do in Cochabamba
Due to its warm, spring-like temperatures, Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, is known as the ‘city of eternal spring.’ It is located in central Bolivia at 8,400 feet of altitude.
The Cochabamba Valley is commonly referred to as the granary of Bolivia. Under the Inca, the principal local crop was corn; nowadays, the main crops are grains, potatoes and coffee in the highlands, sugar cane, cocoa beans, tobacco and fruit in the Amazon lowlands which are also one of the country’s main coca-leaf-producing regions.
Cochabamba is nicknamed the ‘culinary capitol of Bolivia;’ it offers the best mix of international cuisine, Bolivian cuisine and street food. Typical main dishes available at food stands and restaurants are silpancho and pique macho, both prepared from rice, potatoes, eggs, vegetables and beef.
Cochabamba was the setting of the 2010 drama movie También la lluvia (Even the rain) which takes place during the Water Wars of 2000.
The Water Wars were a series of protests against the privatization of the city’s water supply company and drastically raised water rates, during which tens of thousands of people marched out into the streets.
In April 2000, the national government was forced to reach an agreement and reverse the privatization.
The city center spreads around the Plaza 14 de Septiembre, whose name commemorates the date on which local citizens took up arms during the War of Independence. The pleasant, colonial square is surrounded by arcades, several churches with a striking carved-stone façade like Santo Domingo, or the Andean-Baroque Metropolitan Cathedral.
Located along Av. San Martín is La Cancha, the largest open-air market in South America. It sells everything from clothing, food, souvenirs, electronics and books. The best day to visit is Saturday.
Cochabamba is home to the largest statue of Jesus Christ in South America.
Most people believe the title goes to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro after which the Cochabamba Christ was modelled, but the Rio’s art deco icon is only the fifth largest Christ statue in the world; the world’s tallest is actually found in Poland.
Called Cristo de la Concordia, the Bolivian Jesus Christ is 112 feet high, and towers 869 feet above the city. The statue has been reputedly shedding tears of blood every Good Friday since 1995, which attracts thousands of worshippers. On Sundays, the statue is open to enter.
The San Pedro Hill the statue stands on offers great panoramic views of Cochabamba city and the Valley. It can be accessed by climbing 1,250 stairs, or by taking a Teleférico cable car. The cable car costs 13 Bs round trip, and runs on all days except Mondays.
Dominating the landscape to the northwest of the city is the Cerro Tunari. Cerro Tunari is a mountain peak 16,600 feet high with stunning views of the Cochabamba Valley and the surrounding Cordillera Tunari mountain range. The mountain can be climbed – local tour companies offer full-day hikes to the top, that start at 15.000 feet of altitude and lead through a landscape of snow-capped mountains and crystal clear lakes.
Located in the upscale neighborhood of Queru Queru, the Palacio Portales (Portales Palace) was built as the residence of the Bolivian ‘tin baron’ Simon Patiño, a millionaire who owned most of the country’s tin industry. Nicknamed ‘the Andean Rockefeller,’ Patiño controlled over half of the country’s output in the 1930’s. During World War II, he was believed to be one of the five wealthiest men in the world, owning properties of more than $500 million and enjoying a personal annual income greater than the Bolivian national budget.
Though a man of very humble origins, Patiño cared little for the welfare of his workers who suffered from poor pay and terrible working conditions.
In 1942, he had the army massacre hundreds of unarmed miners, women and children, protesting at his Catavi mines.
This massacre, coupled with Patiño’s control of most of the Bolivian economy and politics, led to general resentment and, ultimately, to the expropriation of his mines in 1952.
Patiño died in Buenos Aires in 1947, never occupying his palace.
The Portales Palace was completed in 1927. It is a beautiful example of the early 20th century eclectic style (a style characterized by incorporating elements belonging to different architectural epochs and styles).
Drawing inspiration from famous sites around the world, the Palace is stocked with the finest materials available at the time – Carrara marble, French wood, Italian tapestries and Chinese silk. Set in 10 hectares of gardens inspired by the palace of Versailles, the Mansion’s games room is an imitation of Granada’s Alhambra, one of the bedrooms is in the Rococo style of Louis XVI, and the main hall was influenced by Vatican City.
Still owned by the family, the Palacio Portales has been converted into a Cultural Centre, including the gardens and an art museum. The palace is open Tuesday through Friday, the entrance fee is 20 Bs, and the English-speaking tours start at 4 pm and 5 pm.
The Torotoro National Park
Nicknamed Bolivia’s ‘Jurassic Park,’ the Torotoro National Park is a scenic karst area with spectacular canyons, rock formations, prehistoric fossils and underground caves.
Situated about 100 miles from Cochabamba, getting here takes some effort – colectivos (minibuses) leave for the town of Torotoro from Cochabamba from the corner of Av. Republica & Valle Grande whenever full. The bumpy-road trip costs 35 Bs ($5), and lasts about 5 hours.
The Park offers various half-day hikes that require moderate level of fitness.
Two nights should be enough to cover most of them.
Accommodation in the town is mostly basic.
The most popular tours are tours of Vergel, which is an area with thousands of perfectly-preserved dinosaur footprints, and of Cañon Torotoro, which is an 8-mile canyon with a waterfall, a lookout tower and an 800-stairs descent into it.
Ciudad de Itas is an area with animal-shaped rock formations, fossils and caves with ancient rock paintings, and Caverna de Umajalanta is a subterranean cavern with stalagmites, stalactites, an underground river and tunnels that can be climbed.
The park entry fee is 120 Bs ($17). It is valid for 4 days and must be paid to the tourist office on the main plaza. The tours have fixed prices and take a maximum of 7 people – going to Vergel costs 400 Bs ($58)/group, going to Ciudad de Itas costs 700 Bs ($101)/group, etc.
The park can only be visited with local guides. The guides office is located next to the tourist office, and opens at 7:30 am. It is recommendable to go early and join other people.
The Bolivian Amazon
Bolivia is one of the South American countries that have the Amazon Rainforest on their territory – it covers about half of the country.
Though not as famous as the Brazilian Amazon, the Bolivian Amazon is just as diverse and rich in wildlife (if not more), and much more affordable.
The starting point for trips into the largely unexplored Bolivian Amazon is the town of Rurrenabaque.
Rurrenabaque (Rurre in short) is located in the northern Bolivia on the Rio Beni 250 miles from La Paz, and it is the gateway for visits of the jungle forests of Madidi National Park and the pampas that surround it.
The easiest way to reach Rurre is by plane – flights from La Paz take less than an hour. The hardest way to reach Rurre is by bus – the 250-mile ride takes about 20 hours.
Once in Rurre, it is pretty straight-forward to book a tour – there are many local tour agencies. They mostly offer two kinds of tours – the Pampas tours and the Jungle tours (the tours of the Madidi NP).
The Pampas, or the pre-Amazonian wetlands, are a huge expanse of rivers and marshes that make for a great place to observe wildlife (armadillos, sloths, pink dolphins, howler and capuchin monkeys, capybaras, caimans and others).
The Jungle tour is about exploring the pristine jungles of the Amazon Rainforest. It includes boat rides, day and night treks, spotting wildlife and learning about Amazonian trees and medicinal plants.