This attractive large city is Bolivia's richest—you'll see expensive cars and luxury merchandise for sale (and plenty of affordable arts and crafts as well). The people of the city and the department (Santa Cruz), known as Cambas, are very proud of their success. By any measure, the Santa Cruz region is the country's wealthiest, and the city is considered the country's most progressive. It is also among the fastest growing, with a population roughly equal to La Paz. There are many Mennonites and Japanese immigrants to the east who have been credited with teaching the local farmers more productive techniques.
This rich agricultural area once benefited those engaged in illegal activities: Santa Cruz was a banking center for the Colombian-Bolivian cocaine trade in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although the region no longer produces cocaine.
See the Basilica Menor de San Lorenzo (visited by the late Pope John Paul in 1988) and its museum (rare ecclesiastical garments and colonial-era silver vessels), the zoo and the Casa de la Cultura Museum (native crafts and art). Relax in Arenal Park (which has an interesting Ethno-Folkloric Museum) or the central plaza (Plaza 24 de Septiembre). Until very recently, three-toed sloths could be seen in the eucalyptus trees that shade the plaza.
Day trips can be made to the pre-Incan ruins at Samaipata. A wonderful five-day excursion to the region east of Santa Cruz called the Chiquitania is also a highlight. There the gorgeous colonial lost-in-time towns of San Xavier, Concepcion, and San Jose de Chiquitos and others have restored churches that date from the Jesuit missions of the late 1600s. There is also the aquatic wonderland of the Pantanal to explore, and the border with Brazil is nearby.
For local entertainment, the Rio Pirai and its adjacent recreation area 10 minutes from the city center is the place to go on weekends. The atmosphere along this shallow river is that of a beach party. Buying food from kiosks, cruising the beach and racing dune buggies are all part of the fun. To really be included, however, you absolutely need to go with a native of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is 350 mi/550 km southeast of La Paz.
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