Updated May 1st, 2019.
Santa Cruz is the wealthiest and most populous city in Bolivia and a fascinating place to spend a few days getting to grips with the fascinating diversity of Bolivia. Compared with the thin air and chilly nights of La Paz and other high altitude Andean cities, the climate of Santa Cruz (at just 400 metres) is warm and tropical.
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The modern city is growing fast and there are new restaurants, bars, apartment blocks and shops everywhere, as well as a pumping local night scene, giving it the feel of a city on the cusp of change.
Amidst the city centre’s old narrow streets you’ll fight for a place to walk as taxis compete with horses and carts for space. Old men take siestas in plazas and sip chicha (an alcoholic corn drink), whilst young teenage hipsters play their music loud.
The Santa ‘Cruceños’ are a mixture from many different eras of the history of Bolivia – from Russian immigrants to the Japanese community.
Did you know? The city is also home to the largest population of sloths anywhere in the world. Take a walk to the outskirts of the busy city and you’ll see these carefree creatures climbing the trees.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is growing hugely and the main square is losing a lot of its draw. Instead, the hub of the city is moving to Barrio Equipetrol, where fancy restaurants and bars are popping up catering to wealthy tourists and locals. As a result, rooms can be expensive and there is a lot of change in the backpacker hostel scene. These are some of the best options which look likely to stick around for a while:
- 360 Grados – Probably the most happening backpacker hostel in town, 360 Grados boasts 26 rooms and is quite often full to capacity. The hostel is spacious and the rooms are hotel quality for a fraction of the price. Dorms start at just 62 bolivianos for a night in an eight-bed dorm room. They have a large communal kitchen and also a small tuck shop to purchase backpacker essentials.
- Backpacker Bar & Suites – This is a great budget option for backpackers, with a very friendly owner and a quieter vibe than the above. The place is immaculately kept, with clean dorms and privates. Expect a night in a dorm room to cost from 59 bolivianos with breakfast included. The location is great and the rooftop is a pleasant place to enjoy a beer from the bar downstairs.
- La Jara Backpackers Hostel – Located a little way out of the city centre, this is a great hub for backpackers looking for a quieter stay. As well as a communal kitchen, the hostel offers a whole other range of social areas for backpackers to get to know each other. They also have a massive pool which is definitely appreciated in Santa Cruz’ humid climate! Dorm beds start at 69 bolivianos per night.
- Hotel America – For a little more luxury and privacy, head to Hotel America. Situated close to the main square, this place offers comfortable private rooms, complete with air conditioning. A single room with a good breakfast included starts at 152 bolivianos per night.
Best Bars in Santa Cruz!
- San Bartolo Bar – Very fun cocktail bar with music and dancing.
- Pallet Bar – Fun bar with friendly atmosphere, popular with students.
- Duda Bar – Local favourite and busy on weekends.
Things to do in Santa Cruz
Taxis in Santa Cruz can be a little pricey. To save money, use local transport (trufis) when possible and substitute taxis with Uber. It is much cheaper and also the safest option.
The ‘city park’ is worth visiting to watch the local life, especially at weekends when it gets crowded. Many outdoor events take place within the 20 hectares, from fairs to concerts. There’s also a dancing musical fountain, (just in case you were still unsure about whether to go!) which ‘performs’ every night at 7.30pm.
The botanical gardens in Santa Cruz are great for sloth spotting! In this 460-acre tropical rainforest park, you can also spot many other types of wildlife, including ring-tailed coatis, monkeys, armadillos and many types of colourful birds.
Bio Centro Güembé Eco Park
Just 15 minutes from the centre of Santa Cruz lies this impressive tourist attraction that’s definitely worth a visit for backpackers wanting a day to relax in beautiful surroundings.
This place is 25 hectares of stunning nature including the world’s largest butterfly park, 15 swimming pools, nature walks, an orchid house, a huge aviary, tortoise house and free roaming monkeys!
The entrance is a little pricey for backpackers at 140 bolivianos per person but the price drops to 50 bolivianos after 16.30.
Parque Lomas de Arena
A natural desert just 17 kilometres southwest of Santa Cruz has sand dunes that rise over 12 metres into the sky! There are lagoons amidst the dunes, tropical plains and jungles, all of which are excellent for wildlife spotting! The park is also a great place for sand boarding! Although this place can be reached independently, a tour is recommended to get the most out of your visit.
Things to See and Places to go Just Outside the City
Amboro National Park (North Side)
One of the most incredible national parks in Bolivia is just a few hours’ drive from Santa Cruz. A jungle paradise famous for its rugged and unspoiled topography.
The park stretches 4,425 square kilometres from the foothills to the Andes to the northern Chaco, and the Amazon Basin, thus presenting three distinct ecosystems. The three diverse environments make this one of the most unique national parks in the world. To support community led projects, make sure you head to Villa Amboro for an overnight stay.
Jardin de las Delicias (Garden of Delights)
Two hours drive (65km) from Santa Cruz you’ll find these spectacular, and rarely visited waterfalls, deep in the jungle bordering Amboro National Park.
The waterfalls are set amidst towering sandstone cliffs and tropical forest. You can swim in the falls and cool down after a trek to get here. Relax and spot toucans, parrots and falcons in the skies above.
In the rainy season, the route becomes completely impassable so plan your visit accordingly. You will almost definitely need to travel by 4×4 so factor in the private rental of this versus the cost of an organised tour.
A tourist Mecca of colonial buildings and cobbled streets where there is plenty to do. You can see Incan Ruins, take treks to see the Andean condor or hike into Amboro National Park’s south side.
It has a much cooler climate than Santa Cruz (at an altitude of 1600m) and people from all over the world have chosen to settle here. It’s also on the famous ‘Che Guevara’ route.
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Take a day trip from the city to see these beautiful waterfalls, close to the city and unknown to many tourists. A series of gorgeous waterfalls and natural pools surrounded by forest offers a great reward after a bump off-road journey in a 4WD!
Kaa Iya National Park
This national park is the best large mammal viewing destination in Bolivia. The park is famous for being one of the most likely places to spot a jaguar roaming freely in the wild.
It’s also renowned for being the only park in the whole of the Americas that was founded and administered by indigenous people. The park is very remote and can serve up harsh conditions to trekkers – only for true hardcore nature fans.
The best nature tours can be organised with Nick’s Adventures who promote ethical wildlife trips.
Otuquis National Park
Also known as the Bolivian Pantanal, is the wetlands of Bolivia southwest of Santa Cruz, that borders Paraguay and Brazil. It is an excellent place for seeing anacondas and capybara!
Where to go next?
- Santiago de Chiquitos – A Jesuit mission town five hours from Santa Cruz. From this base, there are excellent treks, waterfalls, lookouts, thermal rivers and more in the surrounding countryside.
- Sucre – The constitutional capital of Bolivia with its colonial past, whitewashed churches and cobbled streets. This is a city where you may end up staying longer than you planned!
- Cochabamba – A university and party town with great food and a prehistoric dinosaur park on its doorstep!
Researched by Nicholas Mcphee and updated by Sheree Hooker.