● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Santa Cruz de la Sierra

12th – 15th May 2008

Our “short” hop over from Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz turned into an epic adventure involving three take offs and three landings. I guess this is what you get for buying cheap tickets! We certainly got to see something of Bolivia before setting foot on firm ground. We sailed through immigration with little more than a grunt from the officer, not needing any of the Spanish we’d carefully prepared beforehand about our reasons for, or length of stay.

We took a taxi into the centre of Santa Cruz; an affordable luxury in Bolivia, even if it was an old banger! We’d timed it just perfectly for the rush hour and sat in the most chaotic traffic jam imaginable – are these the words coming from two Londoners?! On first impressions though, it felt as if we were still in Brazil. There were plenty of fast food joints, furniture shops and car dealerships. This wasn’t painting a picture of a country crippled by inflation and poverty. We knew that Santa Cruz was the wealthiest city in Bolivia, but still…

On arrival at our new home, the cool Hostel Bolivar with its two resident toucans, we set out to explore the city. The central plaza “Plaza de 24 Septembre” was really stunning. With an impressive cathedral and a number of elegant colonial buildings, well tended gardens, polished marble seats and towering palm trees, we could have been forgiven for believing we were still in Madrid, or any other beautiful Spanish city. The surrounding streets were full of expensive boutiques with designer labels and cool European style cafes, complete with Wifi! This city appeared to be paved with gold! There were also numerous optical shops displaying top end designer glasses and sunglasses. Perfect, finally we could buy our prescription sunnies! Anyway, to cut a long story short, we are both now the proud owners of Bolivian made, prescription sunglasses (though not Prada or Gucci after all, we couldn’t justify nice frames with a -6 lens!). Wow, we can even see through them…no mean feat with our minimal grasp of the Spanish language…plus, try finding a phrase book with an “at the opticians” section!

Keen to see more of the city we sought out the tourist information office. After our success at the opticians we were full of confidence in our newly acquired Spanish tongue. But not for long!!! The young girl staffing the office soon blew away our attempts to converse in broken Spanish. The more we struggled, the faster she spoke! Amongst other things we asked for the whereabouts of the main shopping district (designer labels are out of our budget now!). She gesticulated wildly and pointed out some places on map… we left feeling more confused than when we’d arrived.

We decided to head to one of the streets she’d circled, not sure what we’d find, but sure there must be something of interest there. After walking for twenty minutes or so, the wealthy city of Santa Cruz was certainly less apparent. In fact, the further towards this point on the map we walked, the rich/poor divide became even more obvious. We suddenly wondered whether we heading to the one point of the city we should AVOID?!!

After all, it turned out to be just a street market. Not the main Mercado central that we planned to visit later that afternoon, but a small collection of stalls selling homewares, cleaning products, dodgy electrical goods and badly made, rip off clothing. Why she had thought to direct us here I don’t know, but it was fun for people watching and Ady took some pretty cool photos, Sam acting as bodyguard against camera poachers.

The real market was over the other side of town. After our detour to the “mini” market, we had a fairly good idea what to expect. It was lunchtime by now and I think the entire population of Santa Cruz had descended upon the food stalls. Our guidebook had recommended those inside the market; set lunches of Bolivian and Chinese cuisine prepared in “clean” kitchens. Ady decided he’d rather brave the food stalls on the street outside and opted for a huge plate of deep fried chicken and rice*. Sam lost her appetite altogether.

*For the record, Ady wasn’t poorly from the chicken…THIS TIME!!

There are loads of pictures to see from the market. Most seemed quite happy to pose for a photo, for the rest the long lense came in handy…!

There wasn’t a huge amount else to see in Santa Cruz itself, and we were reluctant to take up any of the expensive tours to the surrounding countryside, still needing to recover from our time in Rio. We did however find ourselves joining a yoga class at the Santa Cruz Sivanada Centre. I don’t think it occurred to us at the time how difficult a yoga class could be…IN SPANISH!! The class was a beginners, and Sivanada at that, which excusing ones ignorance (Sam is deffo a fan of Ashtanga) doesn’t involve a lot more than lying on a mat and lifting various limbs off the floor, one by one. So not too challenging then?! We realised yet again how poor our Spanish was! We didn’t know our left from our right, our legs from our arms, stand up from sit down. The class was very slow going but we still had to follow our fellow classmates every move – quite embarrassing really and a long 90 minutes.

On the morning of our departure we sat in one of the many cafes to make use of their wifi. From the window we could see that a crowd of people had begun to gather in the Plaza outside, as had the presence of the military police. A woman’s voice could be heard over a microphone, getting louder and louder and more passionate… or irate, we couldn’t tell. Then something like fireworks…or gun shots!!! A few people peered out of the window, but all seemed well and there were no riots breaking out. We had been concerned about visiting Santa Cruz as elections (illegal in the eyes of La Paz) had just been held locally (a few days prior to our arrival) for the state to gain autonomy from La Paz. For the duration of our visit the city had seemed very peaceful, but perhaps we’d stayed one day too long! As it turned out the commotion outside was simply a remembrance service for the war veterans. Phew!

All we had to do now was survive the flight with Aerosur, Bolivias favourite airline...

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