Updated August 3rd, 2019.
Santa Cruz may be a commonly visited area among backpackers but this is rarely by choice. Home to Bolivia’s largest international airport, plenty of travellers visit but usually treat the city as a connecting point, rather than an area worthy of exploration in its own right.
What these backpackers don’t know, is that they’re actually missing out on discovering some of Bolivia’s most beautiful landscapes. Keen to make the most of our time in Santa Cruz, my boyfriend Tim and I reached out to responsible tour agency Nick’s Adventures to see just what this area has to offer.
Lomas de Arena
A few emails later and we had arranged a trip to Lomas de Arena with Nick. This protected savannah area is located just 25 km outside of Santa Cruz and boasts 3000 hectares of sand dunes. This makes the spot a great place for sand boarding!
As well as the sand dunes, forests surround the desert, providing not only spectacular views as two ecosystems collide but also fabulous wildlife spotting opportunities. In the surrounding areas, it is possible to see monkeys, sloths and even caiman!
Visiting Lomas de Arena Independently
It is possible to visit Lomas de Arena independently from Santa Cruz. You can arrange a taxi for around 200 bolivianos or take one of the communal minibuses from the centre. This will cost around 3 bolivianos per person. Ask your hostel for details of which one to get.
The trail into the protected area is pretty much impossible to traverse by car unless you have a 4×4. Therefore, travellers visiting independently will have to brave the 7 km walk from the entrance to the dunes. The entrance fee is 10 bolivianos for adults and 5 bolivianos for children.
Although tours to Lomas de Arena are a more expensive way in which to see the area, exploring with a guide comes with a huge amount of benefits. Firstly, travellers can avoid the long trek to the dunes which offers little in the way of views and gets very hot.
Sand board rental is included in the price of most tours and means your equipment is transported to the site for you. The area is massive so in order to find the best views, you will need to be prepared to search for hours or go with someone who knows the layout well.
Although plenty of wildlife calls this area home, they are good at hiding from people. The trained eye of a guide will help you to see far more than you would be able to spot on your own.
Our Adventure Begins…
We were picked up that morning by a driver and Nick who would be our guide. As we made our way towards Lomas de Arena, we stopped at the Palmasola Prison while Nick explained some of its histories. Bolivian prisons function very differently from their European counterparts and learning about the justice process in this country was fascinating yet sad.
After some sobering insight into the prison’s past, we continued on our way to Lomas de Arena. We paid our entrance fees into the protected area and continued the journey down the hilly trail towards the sand dunes. It was a bumpy ride so I was very grateful that we were travelling in a 4×4!
Nick announced that the first part of the tour would be spent looking for sloths in the nearby forests. We arrived at a small river and waded through the water to gain access to the edge. Nick pointed out the type of trees that the sloths are most likely to inhabit and we all kept our eyes peeled as we walked around. Although sloths are commonly spotted in these parts we didn’t see any here. As with all wildlife spotting outside of zoos, nothing is guaranteed so visitors are advised not to get their hopes up too much!
The walk was not a waste though. We saw a whole variety of birds which Nick was able to give us lots of information about. They were all brightly coloured, with very distinctive calls. After the short walk, we headed back to the car to continue on our way to the dunes.
Throughout the journey, Nick continued to point out interesting wildlife. We had just about given up on seeing a sloth when suddenly the driver stopped and Nick pointed out of the window excitedly. Right in front of us, at the top of a nearby tree, was a sloth. He was chilling out, completely uninterested in our presence. It was a beautiful moment and all of us stood staring up at one of nature’s laziest creatures.
We finally managed to pull ourselves away and piled back into the 4×4, all giddy from the excitement of having seen a sloth in the wild. After another ten minutes or so, we arrived at the sand dunes. It was amazing how quickly the landscape changed!
A Scenic Hike
Nick reminded us once more about applying sunscreen and we got ready to embark on our hike. The amount of water in the protected area varies year round, owing to the climate and weather. During our visit, there were small lagoons everywhere. The only way of crossing them was on foot. I had worn trousers but luckily I could pull these up to avoid getting too wet.
We left our driver in the car and then Nick, Tim and I began hiking. As soon as we passed up and over the first sand dune, they were all we could see, right up until the horizon line. It really was amazing that we were so close to Santa Cruz and yet, I couldn’t help but feel that we were a million miles away.
As we trekked through the sandy landscape, Nick told us that there are some snakes in the area which are dangerous. As a result, we stuck closely in his footprints as he pointed out other passing wildlife. Despite having been told that Lomas de Arena is off the beaten track, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. We were the only visitors!
The trek was easy enough but the heat and lack of shade made us very tired. We hiked for around two hours, discussing additional things to do in Santa Cruz and Bolivia as a whole. Finally, Nick announced that we were coming close to the best viewpoint in the whole area. There was a short but sandy climb up another dune and then the landscape revealed its true majesty.
Suddenly, the sand dunes stopped and they were met by dense jungle. It looked peculiar, seeing these two different types of terrain so close together but there was no denying the beauty of the scene. We looked out around us, trying to spot monkeys which regularly play in the trees there.
Unfortunately, this landscape is changing rapidly, with agriculture destroying more forest every day. It was a truly peaceful spot but one I fear may not be around in years to come. I was so glad I had the opportunity to visit this incredible place.
By now, the wind had got up and the blowing sand was stinging my bare legs and arms. Nick explained that this was why the trip didn’t run on very windy days. We braved the walk back, keeping our heads low and our sunglasses on.
Luckily, the power of the wind eased off and by the time we had made it back to the car, things had settled down a lot. We drove a short way, before jumping out of the 4×4 to grab our sand boards.
Carrying our sand boards, we shuffled to the top of the dune. Nick demonstrated the traditional sand boarding positions, the Superman, the Sitting and finally the Standing. We had a lot of fun attempting to sand board even though both Tim and I were pretty bad. After a few runs, we began to feel tired from the morning’s hike in the sun and packed up, ready to head back to Santa Cruz.
Reflections From A Step Off Of The Gringo Trail
Our trip to Lomas de Arena with Nick was great. The tour delivered far more than we expected and we were even lucky enough to spot a sloth in the wild! The whole morning, Nick was professional and really helped us to get the most out of our trip, pointing out wildlife and keeping us safe from the sneaky desert snakes!
All of the tours provided by Nick’s Adventures have a huge eco focus and the company does a lot of conservation work to preserve Bolivia’s incredible environment and its wildlife. Whilst many agencies claim to be responsible in this regard, we saw it first hand with Nick who collected litter during our hike.
Our driver was also very proficient and we felt very safe braving the chaos of Bolivia’s roads with him! Although both Tim and I were terrible at sand boarding, we had a good laugh playing about on the dunes. Santa Cruz really does have more to offer than people think and as far as I am concerned, this is a must-do trip, not just if you are in the city but also if you are in Bolivia.
A Highly Customisable Trip!
This tour is easily customisable to your own tastes and combines a mix of hiking, sand boarding and animal spotting. As Tim and I are keen hikers, we opted for a longer trek with less sand boarding time. This allowed us the opportunity to reach the most impressive viewpoint in Lomas de Arena.
These tours last around four hours and can be arranged for either the morning or afternoon (although the afternoon is recommended because the weather is more favourable). Transport, entrance fee, drinking water, English guide and sand board rental is included in the price.
Things To Wear
- Comfortable clothes (you may have to wade through water so quick-dry shorts are highly recommended)
- Flip flops
- Small day backpack
Things To Put In Your Backpack
- Insect repellant
Know Before You Go
- Although common, wildlife spotting is never guaranteed on any of the trips offered by Nick’s Adventures. None of the animals are in captivity, which means all sightings happen in the wild. Owing to the nature of this, the animals and their whereabouts can be difficult to predict.
- Tour prices are cheaper, the bigger the group. To save some money, try to gather a group of friends from your hostel and arrange a trip together.
- The Lomas de Arena tour will be postponed and rescheduled if it is too windy. This is because the wind makes for a very uncomfortable experience and travellers will struggle to enjoy the trip to its full potential.