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Visit Santa Cruz

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When I first moved to Santa Cruz de la Sierra I was admittedly skeptical of my new home in Bolivia. Where were the towering peaks of the Andes mountains? And the perilous landscapes I came to expect from the images of Lonely Planet and National Geographic?

And seriously, where are all of these cows coming from?

Access some of the country’s most spectacular wildlife and national parks

The department of Santa Cruz boasts some of the most pristine parks in all of Bolivia, and they are much more accessible than you may think! Within a day’s drive—or bumpy bus ride—from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, you can explore one of three national parks, soak in hot springs after hiking up waterfalls, and hike through some of the most bio-diverse forests in South America. The only place in Bolivia where you can observe condors in their natural habitat is a mere two hours from the city!

Get lost, with a guide of course, in the remote Noel Kempff Mercado National Park (Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado), a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses five ecosystems throughout its great expanse, ranging from dense, Amazonian rain forest to wet savanna and dry plateaus. For the animal lovers, check out Amboro National Park (Parque Nacional Amboro), a wildlife watching haven bordering both the Andes mountains and Amazon basin, and home to monkeys, tapirs, rare bear species, and over 800 bird species. Known for its Jaguar population, Kaa-Iya National Park (Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya) is a must for anyone interested in observing mammals of the Chaco (dry forest) such as giant armadillo, the endangered Chacoan peccary, puma, ocelots and much more.

Follow the footsteps of iconic historical figures

While museums may not be Santa Cruz’s forté, there is definitely no shortage of historical monuments and fascinating cultural landmarks to be explored in the region. Time travel with a visit to the pre-Colombian ruins of El Fuerte, a fortress built by the Chané people and later inhabited by the Inca. The religious site was even once thought to have been connected to aliens!

Before Santa Cruz de la Sierra grew to the metropolis as we know it today, the tropical capital was once part of the Gran Chiquitania, an area of remote Spanish settlements and Jesuit Missions in the steamy lowlands of the Orient. The 16th-century Spanish conquistador Ñuflo de Cháves introduced the name Chiquitos, meaning ‘little ones’ around the time he established the “original” capital (Santa Cruz la vieja) some 250 kilometers from where it has grown today. The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos have over time become a popular tourist destination, as six of the missions have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and have remarkably maintained the feel for what Santa Cruz really was like a mere fifty years ago.

Follow the footsteps of the famous revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his band of guerrilla fighters just outside the town of Vallegrande, a town which formerly served as headquarters to Che’s guerrilleros and ultimately, his resting place after his execution in La Higuera in 1967. While there is a small shrine and other relics in the classroom where Che was killed, the bulk of landmark’s commemorating the guerrillero are back in Vallegrande at the Museo Municipal Ruta del Che Guevara (more of a one-room photo gallery), Hospital Señor de Malta (where you can visit the laundry room where his death was put on public display and exhibit before later being buried), and Che’s Mausoleum (the site of Che’s grave at the edge of an airstrip before it was unearthed and sent to Cuba in 1997). Tour operators offer hikes to other notable sites in the area and every year in October a pilgrimage and festival are held in his honor.