The city's main attraction is the central plaza, where brass bands play beneath palm trees and there are frequent street events. As traffic is cut off at both ends, the square is a tranquil retreat from what is a chaotic city. The Museo Etnofolklórico Municipal, in Parque Arenal, has an interesting display of tools, baskets, and musical instruments used by indigenous groups of Bolivia. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to noon and 2:30 to 6:30pm; admission is Bs5. Next door, explore Parque Arenal, where you can rent paddleboats for Bs8 per half-hour. The cathedral on Plaza 24 de Septiembre houses a small religious museum that's open on Tuesday and Thursday from 10am to noon and 4 to 6pm, and on Sunday from 10am to noon and 6 to 8pm. The Museo de Historia y Archivo Regional de Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Junín 151, offers a host of exhibits ranging from ceramics to photography; it's open Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and 3 to 6:30pm. Admission is free. Casa de Cultura Franco Aleman, 24 de Septiembre 36 (tel. 0103/333-3392; www.ccfrancoaleman.org), is a beautifully restored colonial building facing the main plaza. It houses an exhibition room, small cinema, and theater. There's a small zoo on the third anillo and Avenida Redentor, but the animals are kept in rather poor conditions, so I don't recommend a visit.
Samaipata is a charming mountain town located about 2 hours southwest of Santa Cruz. The main attraction here is the Inca ruins known as El Fuerte. The ruins are a huge mysterious complex, much of it unexcavated. From what remains, it's hard to envision the site's former glory. The most impressive structure is the Chinkana, also known as the Labyrinth. It consists mainly of a hole that was originally 30m (9 ft.) deep. From the top of El Fuerte, you have great views of the surrounding mountains and perfect sightlines of other Inca sites. Most scientists believe that the Incas built these villages in a pattern. At this site, you will also see what are believed to be amphitheaters and temples for religious ceremonies. The site is open daily from 9am to 5pm, and admission is Bs20.
Getting There -- To understand Samaipata and the ruins of El Fuerte, you really need an experienced guide. Rosario Tours, Arenales 193 between Beni and Murillo (tel. 0103/369-977; www.rosariotours.com), organizes day trips here with English-speaking guides. Michael Blendinger Nature Tours (tel. 0103/9446-227; www.discoveringbolivia.com) also arranges trips to El Fuerte and nature hikes through the area. His office is in Samaipata, but he can arrange transportation from Santa Cruz. You can also arrange your own private taxi to Samaipata by contacting Expreso Samaipata (tel. 0102/2335-067). In Santa Cruz, the taxis leave from the Residencial Señor de Los Milagros on Avenida Omar Chávez Ortiz.
Amboro National Park
Amboró, one of the most pristine national parks in all of Bolivia, is only 3 hours west of Santa Cruz. The park covers more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) and encompasses four different biodiversity zones: the Amazon basin, subtropical forests, temperate woodlands, and the cool mountainous terrain of the Andes. More than 700 species of birds have been seen in the area. Some of the rarer species include the red-fronted macaw, Bolivian recurvebill, and rufous-faced antpitta. You'll also have the opportunity to see monkeys here. There are some fantastic hiking trails that will take you to caves and waterfalls. Accommodations are mostly rustic campgrounds, though tour operators offer alternatives with the renowned bird-watching hangout Refugio Los Volcanes or the eco-friendly Mataracú Tent Camp.
Getting There -- The roads to Amboró can be rough. I highly recommend taking a trip here with a guided tour. Rosario Tours , organizes overnight bird-watching trips. Michael Blendinger Nature Tours also arranges excursions into the park, as does Ruta Verde (tel. 0103/339-6470; www.rutaverdebolivia.com).
The Jesuit Missions
In the late 16th century, the Jesuits set out to the hinterlands of Bolivia and developed thriving cultural and religious centers for the local people. Victims of their own success, they were expelled from South America in 1773. Today, you can visit some of these missions, which have been amazingly preserved and restored. San Javier and Concepción are the two closest and most accessible missions from Santa Cruz. The 5-hour drive to San Javier is a sight itself: Along the way, you'll pass through Mennonite communities and see the landscape change from lush green farmland to tropical shrubbery. The road is paved, but it can be a bit rough.
San Javier was founded in 1691 and at its height included about 3,000 people. The remarkable church was constructed entirely of local wood. The ornate woodcarvings painted with local dyes are quite spectacular; the gold-colored interior is just as impressive. The road to Concepción from San Javier is mostly unpaved. You will find a similarly ornate wood church (with a silver altar), cloisters, and a historic main plaza. In the workshops adjacent to the church, you can observe local artisans restoring statues and creating new ones. These two missions are the most impressive of the six Jesuit missions in the Santa Cruz area and the most accessible.
Getting There -- It's difficult to arrange public transportation to the Jesuit missions. Your best bet is to arrange a trip through a travel agency. I recommend using Rosario Tours . The trip includes an English-speaking guide, transportation, and all meals. The price varies depending on how many people are on the trip. Ruta Verde also travels to the missions.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.