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Santa Cruz: First Impressions of Bolivia

Some peace in the Plaza Principal of Santa Cruz

Unfortunately, Santa Cruz didn’t provide the best first impressions of Bolivia.  It was my first destination in South America and marked the beginning of my 10-month backpacking adventure.  But I hated it.  Is hate a strong word?  Perhaps.  But I certainly didn’t like it!  Perhaps it was the jet-lag, the culture shock, or simply that I was overwhelmed by Bolivia’s largest city.  Maybe if I went back now, after more than two years backpacking around Latin America it wouldn’t seem so bad.  However, first impressions are just those, impressions – so here is what I thought of Santa Cruz Bolivia.

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My flight from Madrid apparently landed around 20 minutes later than scheduled, but this short delay after a flight of 11 and a half hours was then followed by 2 hours of queueing; first in the huge queue for passport control, and then in the even bigger queue for customs. In fairness, they had a lot of windows open for immigration, and I suppose quite rightly most of those were dedicated to Bolivianos returning home. The process for non-Bolivians did take a while though, as we all had to fill in an immigration form on the plane which was checked by the officers on duty, and asked a couple of cursory questions – how long will you be in Bolivia? About 2 weeks. Are you married or single? None of your business! (Single).

an aerial view of Santa Cruz, Bolivia
an aerial view of Santa Cruz, Bolivia

The customs system was a complete joke, where everyone entering the country had to complete a customs form stating what, if anything, they had to declare, which was passed to the guard. He checked the form, then asked every single person in turn to press a doorbell type button on the scanner, which then lit green for go, or red for stop and search. Luckily mine hit on green and I was allowed to pass unheeded, but apparently they stop around 50 – 75% of people going through. Any unlucky person to get the red light was taken to one side and had their bags opened & searched. So imagine if you will, a full flight of 250 people, and around 180 of those are stopped and searched….. That’s why it took so flaming long to get everyone through! It dawned on me while I was waiting in this queue why my neighbour in the next seat had leapt up and barged past everyone else once the plane had landed – that guy was smart. I didn’t even see him in the queue ahead of me he was so fast. I, used to short haul, hand luggage only flights in Europe without real immigration or customs checks, was woefully unprepared for the nightmare that lay before me. However, I found some solace moaning to my fellow Spanish passengers, also caught unawares by the process.

my airbnb room in Santa Cruz Bolivia
my airbnb room. photo credit: airbnb

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Finally I escaped, and was met in the arrivals hall by Paul, my Airbnb host who had offered to collect me from the airport. After the ordeal having a friendly face waiting for me was priceless, and he assured me his 90 minute wait at the airport wasn’t a problem – although I didn’t quite believe him it did make me feel better! Around 20 minutes later we were home, and I was shown to my room. More styled like a small motel than a traditional AirBnb room in an apartment, the room was spacious and well equipped with a TV, fridge, air conditioning and a comfy bed. So comfortable in fact that I promptly lay down to “rest my eyes” after the trip and slept for 3 hours. I blame the jet lag, uncomfortable seats and snoring from the fat guy in front of me on the flight. Oh and the woeful selection of entertainment options on the flight. I ended up watching a dreadful Reece Witherspoon film called Hot Pursuit, which frankly she and everyone else involved should be ashamed of. I did try to sleep for most of the flight but Mr Snorey Pants in front of me had reclined his seat all the way, and Mr Handy Elbows in the seat next to me had hogged our shared armrest so I was crammed into the seat with no escape and a cold. At least my periodic coughing fits avenged my discomfort somewhat.

Anyway, I digress; back to Santa Cruz. When I finally awoke from my nap I decided to explore the city. Following the instructions left by my hosts I ventured outside the front door to get a bus into town. The transport system represents what I love and hate about Santa Cruz in equal measure. The buses, or Micros, as they are known, run very frequently and don’t have a set stop, so all you do is flag them down like a taxi, jump on, pay the driver 2 bolivianos and hang on for dear life as they weave in and out of lanes, stopping in seemingly unstoppable places to pick up or drop off passengers and whizzing us to our destinations. I love the bonkers efficiency of it, yet feared for my life whilst anywhere near the road. I was proud of myself to have even managed to cross the road without being flattened, and witnessed several near accidents on route to the Plaza Principal. The roads in Santa Cruz are full to bursting, with cars, trucks, buses, micros, motorbikes, all spewing the contents of their ageing exhausts all over the city.

Some peace in the Plaza Principal of Santa Cruz
Some peace in the Plaza Principal of Santa Cruz

I didn’t enjoy my walk into the city, I jumped off the micro at the statue of Christ on the 2nd Anillo (the 2nd ring road that surrounds the city) and walked to the Plaza Principal from there. Each street was busier than the next, all the vehicles battling for space and honking their horns with abandon.  Finally, I reached the main square, where the noisy streets gave way to a quiet tree-filled plaza, and the cathedral at the far side. I ventured up the clock tower for a better view, although I’ll be honest there wasn’t much to see as Santa Cruz is a very low city – with no distinguishable skyline and high rise buildings to pique my interest. I descended fairly quickly, and sat for a while just observing the locals chatting and selling sarteñas (meat-filled pastries), and the occasional tourist posing in front of the cathedral.

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That at least is a welcome change to Barcelona, there are no swarms of tourists surrounding every single photo opportunity. Tourists, in Santa Cruz at least, seem few and far between. That could be due to the lack of ‘tourist’ attractions in Santa Cruz. There is little to do in Santa Cruz proper, the new mall was apparently one of the top destinations to visit in the city, which to me is not a good sign.

That said, I enjoyed my walk home more, as I stumbled across a huge market, encompassing several blocks of streets selling everything you can imagine, from food and snacks to washing machines & barbecues. Finally, some life in Santa Cruz that doesn’t involve driving! I sampled some peach juice from a stall and wandered home.

I was also caught out by how early it gets dark here – I suppose it is winter but with the weather being warmer than Barcelona I didn’t expect it to get dark so soon, but by 7pm it was pitch black. Luckily I made it home in time, not wanting to walk the streets alone in the dark. I didn’t feel unsafe at any time during my wanderings, although I did always check there were plenty of people around before I chose the streets to stroll down. I bought some snacks from the local supermarket, including some doughnut-shaped chocolate biscuits which were dangerously addictive, and headed to bed to watch TV and was relieved to be out of the busy streets of Santa Cruz.

Thankfully this was just the beginning, and there was much more to enjoy in Bolivia!


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Last updated: February 16, 2020

6 thoughts on “Santa Cruz: First Impressions of Bolivia

  1. Betty Zaun says:

    I don’t know who guide you, Santa Cruz is a beautiful City, looks like you were in a really not good area, is like comparing with Down town Los Angeles California .where you find homeless people. All your description of Bolivia is completely wrong

    • Claire says:

      Hi Betty, thank you for reading, and for your comment! I later found out that Bolivia is a beautiful country – as I said these were my first impressions of Bolivia, not my lasting impression. I didn’t have a guide, and only spent a day exploring the city, so you could be right – I am sure I didn’t see everything in Santa Cruz that’s for sure! Santa Cruz was my first stop in Latin America, so coming from Europe it was quite a shock to the system. After spending a month in Bolivia it is now one of my favourite South American countries, so please don’t judge my judgements on this one post 🙂

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